I don’t want to leave you completely bereft of fresh reading matter, so I dipped into my electronic archive and pulled out a favorite essay that inadvertently got left out of the Teachout Reader. It’s one of my old “Front Row Center” columns from Civilization, a magazine for which I used to write long ago. Nobody I knew read Civilization, so the chances are better than even that you haven’t seen this particular piece, a profile of the radio playwright Norman Corwin. I’m a radio buff from way, way back, and meeting Corwin was one of the high points of my professional life.
I hope you enjoy this souvenir of the afternoon we spent together back in 1996.
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Once upon a time there was radio, and it was beloved. Nobody loves TV: we take it for granted, like air or water. Radio was different. America is a big country, so big that newspapers and express trains did little to shrink it, and for most of its long history it was intensely provincial, simply by virtue of its vastness. Unless you were rich enough to travel, you knew only your town and the places nearby; the rest you read about in books, or visited once in a blue moon. But then radio came along, and all at once Americans could hear each other, no matter where they lived. You twisted a knob on the Atwater Kent in the living room in Dubuque or Diehlstadt, and suddenly you could hear Fred Allen cracking bone-dry jokes in a studio in Manhattan–or Ed Murrow standing on a London rooftop, listening to the German bombers roar through the night sky. And all of it was live: it happened and you heard it, just like that.
The hold of radio on the imagination of America in the ’30s and ’40s was so strong that even now, people too young to have experienced it at first hand can somehow feel its seductive tug. Though I was born in 1956, I always loved the idea of radio, so much so that I read shelves of books about it, collected crackly cassettes of ancient Jack Benny broadcasts, and in time even became a part-time disc jockey on a college station, though the duties weren’t precisely what I’d had in mind. (Where were the glossy studio orchestras? Where were the sound-effects men, miraculously conjuring up galloping horses and collapsing buildings?) So when I heard Norman Corwin was writing and directing a brand-new series of plays for National Public Radio, I knew I had to meet him.
Don’t be embarrassed if you’ve never heard of Corwin: it just means you’re under the age of sixty. But in the long-gone days of network radio, he was one of the giants. “Anything I know about drama today comes more from Norman Corwin than anybody,” Robert Altman has said. His scripts were so fresh and vivid that starting in 1941, CBS gave him his own series and put his name in the title, an unprecedented honor for a mere writer. Even now, a half-century after the fact, the names of Corwin’s plays have a way of sticking in the minds of the people who heard them: The Plot to Overthrow Christmas. The Odyssey of Runyon Jones. Untitled. (That was the one about Hank Peters, the boy who died in combat.) There Will Be Time Later. The Undecided Molecule. (Groucho Marx and Robert Benchley starred in that one.)
This is how important Norman Corwin was: nine months before World War II ended, CBS commissioned him to write an original radio play to be broadcast on V-E Day. It was called On a Note of Triumph, and it made so powerful an impact that more than a few of its first listeners still remember parts of it word for word. “I’m going to interview Norman Corwin this morning,” I told an older friend of mine, who promptly rattled off its opening lines: Take a bow, G.I.,/Take a bow, little guy./The superman of tomorrow lies at the feet of you common men of this afternoon.
On a Note of Triumph is a compendium of Corwin: the loping half-verse whose long, striding cadences echoed the poetry of Walt Whitman and Carl Sandburg, the uncanny use of sound effects to suggest what no movie camera could have filmed–and, above all, the serenely confident belief, born of a dozen years of life under FDR, that the world and the people in it could be made better (not just better off, but better) by liberal democracy. Liberalism was America’s civic religion in 1945, and it colors every line of the prayer with which On a Note of Triumph concludes:
Lord God of test tube and blueprint,
Who joined molecules of dust and shook them till their name was Adam,
Who taught worms and stars how they could live together,
Appear now among the parliaments of conquerors and give instruction to their schemes:
Measure out new liberties so none shall suffer for his father’s color or the credo of his choice:
Post proofs that brotherhood is not so wild a dream as those who profit by postponing it pretend….
There was room on commercial radio for things like that, just as there was room for Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony, or Orson Welles directing Shakespeare. But it couldn’t last, and it didn’t. One day in 1948, Corwin ran into Bill Paley, the president of CBS, on a train from Pasadena to New York. “We’ve simply got to face up to the fact that we’re a commercial business,” Paley told his star playwright. “If we do not reach as many people as possible, then we’re not making the best use of our talent, our time, and our equipment.” At that moment, Corwin knew his own days at CBS were numbered. To make matters worse, 1948 was also the year network TV finally arrived, and it wasn’t long before radio itself was on the ropes, laid low by Milton Berle. To be sure, Corwin didn’t want for work after he left CBS–among other things, he wrote the script for Lust for Life, Vincente Minnelli’s 1956 film version of the life of Vincent Van Gogh–but the thing he loved best was a thing of the past.
Then, six years ago, Corwin met Mary Beth Kirchner, a young producer of public-radio documentaries who knew and admired his work. She talked NPR into rebroadcasting “On a Note of Triumph” fifty years after V-E Day; she put together 13 by Corwin, a broadcast anthology of Corwin’s radio plays which aired on NPR last spring. Her latest venture, More by Corwin, is a series of six holiday specials newly written and directed by Corwin. When the word went out that the old master was back in the studio again, stars lined up to do his bidding: “No Love Lost,” the first episode of More by Corwin, starred Jack Lemmon, Lloyd Bridges, William Shatner, and Martin Landau.
If you’ve been counting on your fingers, you can stop now: Norman Corwin is eighty-six. Mark Twain died the year he was born, and William Howard Taft was president. But he’s no museum piece, as I learned when I met him. He was in New York to promote More by Corwin and be feted by the Museum of Broadcasting, and had I not known better, I would have sworn he was in his early sixties.
Corwin’s memory is crystal-clear, and though he doesn’t live in the past, he’s perfectly happy to reminisce about the age of network radio. “There was something electric about live performance,” he says wistfully, “where the work was done in real time. Of course you faced the hazard of mistakes and flaws and miscues, but it was a hazard worth taking because the company was charged with the knowledge that this was it, there was no recall: a mistake made in New York would be heard by the listener in Kansas City sooner than you heard it in the control room. And the beauty of a live production that has to be accomplished, start to finish, in a few hours, is that there is no time for intrigues, for the artistic shenanigans that too often occur when you have a production that runs over weeks or months. We had five to eight hours of rehearsal time for a half-hour radio broadcast.” You can hear the pride in his voice as he remembers how it used to be.
Wondering what the passage of time had done to the fervent idealism of his youth, I asked Corwin: do you still think brotherhood is not so wild a dream? He paused for what on radio would have been a very long time indeed. “Oh, boy. It pains me to answer,” he finally said. “I think it’s still a dream. I’m not so sure of the degree of fantasy involved. But it’s still a hope. And now and then there are manifestations and outcroppings–local ones–which give you courage, and encouragement. My philosophy is not to be foolishly optimistic, but not to surrender, because when you surrender, you’re handing it over to the enemy. As long as there’s a spark left, and you keep it alive, there’s a chance that it can be fanned into flame.”
As I left Norman Corwin, I thought of the last words he ever wrote for his old employers, a poem Walter Cronkite read on TV to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Columbia Broadcasting System. There is no better summing-up of what radio was all about:
Years of the electric ear!
The heavens crackling with report: far-flung, nearby, idle, consequential…
Sofa-sitters taken by kilocycle to the ball park, the concert hall, the scene of the crime
Dramas that let us dress the sets themselves
Preachments and prizefights,
The time at the tone, the weather will be, and now for a word,
The coming of wars and freeways
Outcroppings of fragmented peace
Singing commercials and the Messiah.