What is writing? What is literature? There’s a lot of people asking that question lately, especially after that little prize for Bob Dylan last week. I won’t delve into whether Dylan’s songs are great literature (I’ll save that for another time.) But one thing’s for sure: good writing has never been just about words on a page. It comes in many forms. Great writing can be found in a song or a movie script or a video game. So far, in this blog, I’ve talked about obscure pieces of literature, Rare B Sides, that have moved me. They’ve all had one thing in common: they were pieces meant to be written down on a page. Now, it’s time to take the lens out a bit more. To start throwing in some great writing that wasn’t printed in a book. Today, we start with a radio play.
Now, the radio play—like silent movies—is a literary form whose glory days have (likely) come and gone. And like old films, they need a bit of patience and understanding to go through because the pacing of storytelling is different from what it was in the past. But as they say “time is the best editor” so many of the radio plays that are still listened to and shared are pretty decent. And just like it’s important to preserve and celebrate old books, it’s important to preserve and celebrate old films, music and radio.
I’ve have had no interest in radio plays up to this point. But I was caught in a big traffic jam back into the DMV on a Sunday night, when I flipped the radio dial to WAMU. Airing that evening was a classic: “The Search for Henri Le Fevre.”
Just like a movie, a radio play requires a small army to work well. But it all begins with a script. And the writer of this script was Lucille Fletcher, who wrote several radio plays including a script that eventually became a Twilight Zone episode. Then, there was the music, written by Bernard Herrmann. Herrmann wrote the scores for several Hitchcock movies. And then there’s the acting talent: starting with Orson Welles and his cognac- and cigar-lacquered voice. It’s hard to think of a richer, more ambient voice than that. It’s as if he was born to do radio. So there you go: a little Twilight Zone, a little Hitchcock and a little Welles all wrapped together. Bring those three talents together (writing, music, acting) and you’ve got an entertaining 30 minutes of radio.
But what is it about? We’ll here’s the short setup:
A man [Henri Le Fevre as voiced by Welles] who has just finished writing a symphony hears the exact same symphony on the radio…He had just set down the last note on paper, he was happy and weary and full of peace. There was a radio near the couch, he sat down and turned it on and felt great horror as he heard the music playing on the radio, the music that he had just set down on paper.
That sets up the story: we’ve got a plot, character and setting. And something that will keep it all going: How is it that this piece of music which he just wrote down is already being broadcast? Well, Henri has to begin a long, painful journey to try to find out. And when he does it’s not clear if the revelation will bring him peace or destroy him. You’ll have to listen in to find out.
Now, the specific version I heard was the Orson Welles 1946 broadcast for the legendary Mercury Summer Theatre. (There’s an earlier version from 1944). You should be able to access it at the link above. If not, Amazon seems to offer it for sale, if you can’t find it anywhere else. But in my experience you should be able to track it down on YouTube or via Google pretty easily. You’ll be glad you tracked it down, it’s a fun little piece of literature to listen to.
See you next time,
If you like radio plays and want to dive deeper, check out WAMU’s Big Broadcast. They play old-time radio plays starting at Sunday at 7:00 p.m. Eastern. They even archive the broadcast for a whole week so you can come back to it later. It’s a great way to unwind on a Sunday evening. As the website says:
Host Murray Horwitz brings listeners shows like Gunsmoke, The Jack Benny Show, The Lone Ranger, Suspense, Fibber McGee and Molly, and Dragnet, placing them in the context of the time and linking the shows to current entertainment and events.
It’s well worth a listen.
Wouldn’t be a Rare B Side post without a Rare B Side: Here’s Jack White running through the old blues classic by Son House, Death Letter Blues. Dig this version.