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Immaterial Culture

Literature, Drama and the American Radio Play, 1929–1954


Harry Heuser

Immaterial Culture engages with texts that are now largely unread and dismissed as trivial or dubious: the vast body of plays – thrillers, narrative poetry, comedy sketches, documentaries and adaptations of literature and drama – that aired on American network radio during the medium’s so-called golden age.
For a quarter century, from the stock market crash of 1929 to the introduction of the TV dinner in 1954, radio plays enjoyed an exposure unrivalled by stage, film, television and print media. As well as entertaining audiences numbering in the tens of millions for a single broadcast, these scripted performances – many of which were penned by noted novelists, poets and dramatists – played important and often conflicting roles in advertising, government propaganda and education.
Reading these fugitive and often self-conscious texts in the context in which they were created and presented, the author considers what their neglect might tell us about ourselves, our visual bias and our attitudes toward commercial art and propaganda. The study’s ample scope, its interdisciplinary approach and its insistence on the primacy of the texts under discussion serve to regenerate the discourse about cultural products that challenge the way we classify art and marginalise the unclassifiable.


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Chapter 7 “If I’m alone one more second, I’ll go mad”: Dialogue and Interiority


Chapter 7 “If I’m alone one more second, I’ll go mad”: Dialogue and Interiority In the mysterious nocturnal separation from all outward signs of life, she felt herself more strangely confronted with her fate. The sensation made her brain reel, and she tried to shut out consciousness by pressing her hands against her eyes. But the terrible silence and emptiness seemed to symbolize her future – she felt as though the house, the street, the world were all empty, and she alone left sentient in a lifeless universe. — edith Wharton, The House of Mirth (1905) The radio play, as Martin Esslin has pointed out, originated at a “particularly appropriate moment in the development of modern literature,” namely at a time when a reaction against realism and naturalism led to an “increasing subjectivization and internalization of subject-matter.” Tuning in is a turn- ing inward, an ingress into the “world of the dream” in which writers can “project” their “solitary vision more immediately, more directly and more completely” than in any other medium.1 Yet even though “radio inclines us,” as Elissa S. Guralnick puts it, “to favor the action of the mind above the actuality of matter,”2 broadcasters who took charge of the medium in the United States during the 1920s were not inclined to favor the listening public with mental soundings. Modernist mentality was no match for the business that mattered. Intent on calling certain products to mind, the radio industry was invested in promoting the announcer-narrator, the mediat- ing sales...

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