Theater of the Mind: Imagination, Aesthetics, and American Radio Drama

Theater of the Mind: Imagination, Aesthetics, and American Radio Drama

by Neil Verma

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For generations, fans and critics have characterized classic American radio drama as a “theater of the mind.” This book unpacks that characterization by recasting the radio play as an aesthetic object within its unique historical context. In Theater of the Mind, Neil Verma applies an array of critical methods to more than six thousand


For generations, fans and critics have characterized classic American radio drama as a “theater of the mind.” This book unpacks that characterization by recasting the radio play as an aesthetic object within its unique historical context. In Theater of the Mind, Neil Verma applies an array of critical methods to more than six thousand recordings to produce a vivid new account of radio drama from the Depression to the Cold War.

In this sweeping exploration of dramatic conventions, Verma investigates legendary dramas by the likes of Norman Corwin, Lucille Fletcher, and Wyllis Cooper on key programs ranging from The Columbia Workshop, The Mercury Theater on the Air, and Cavalcade of America to Lights Out!, Suspense, and Dragnet to reveal how these programs promoted and evolved a series of models of the imagination.

With close readings of individual sound effects and charts of broad trends among formats, Verma not only gives us a new account of the most flourishing form of genre fiction in the mid-twentieth century but also presents a powerful case for the central place of the aesthetics of sound in the history of modern experience.

Editorial Reviews

author of The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction - Jonathan Sterne
“Neil Verma’s Theater of the Mind is a gift in an age when so many have forgotten the depth of radio’s contribution to sonic culture. Verma rethinks sound as a creative medium in the past and in the present, offering a definitive account of radio drama in the 20th century. His spatial readings of these dramas and their listeners—supported by fresh concepts like audioposition and kaleidasonic space—promise to transform the ways in which we analyze creative audio. Theater of the Mind is a major work of radio history.”
University of Wisconsin-Madison - Michele Hilmes
“Theater of the Mind does more to reanimate the study of radio forms and structures—indeed, of sound art in general—than any work published in recent memory. Neil Verma's exploration of audio narratives and sonic techniques during radio drama's heyday opens up a vast body of creative work that has been shut off from serious contemplation for decades. It is an important intervention in the growing field of sound studies, not to be missed.”
University of Chicago - Tom Gunning
“While most scholars have explored radio in terms of broadcasting music or journalism, Neil Verma explores the medium’s neglected but very popular dramas. In this detailed analysis, he reveals how radio, from the thirties through the fifties dramatized the conflicts of the Depression and New Deal and the paranoia of the fifties. By constructing a “theater of the mind,” radio used sound and narrative structure to tell the nation’s stories, encompassing social transformation and psychological perspective.”
Journal of American Studies
“Any scholar or critic invested in the soundscapes and cultures of postwar media within or without the US—cinema, radio, television, print, and even such post-postwar audiovisual media as the home computer and the smartphone—must hereafter contend with the concepts so richly developed in Theater of the Mind.”
Journal of American History
“Verma begins his ambitious and impres­sive book on classic radio drama with ‘one of the most venerable clichés’ about the medium of radio: it is ‘the theater of the mind.’ Over the course of several close listen­ings, he transforms the phrase from ‘an idiom into a heuristic’ of remarkable depth and breadth. In doing so, Verma provides a fresh vocabulary for thinking about classic ra­dio drama, with remarkable insights into the ways radio dramatists employed new strate­gies of sound design.  . . . Verma’s contribution to the growing shelf on U.S. radio history is significant for its un­precedented insight into the centrality of the aesthetics of sound in radio drama, its insight­ful close listening to exemplary broadcasts, and its sheer scope in encompassing thousands of broadcasts.”
American Quarterly
“Verma returns to recordings of golden age radio dramatic programs and listens anew. His refreshing, thoughtful Theater of the Mind establishes a theory of radio aesthetics through close readings of programs and genres, a method of ‘excavational listening’ that he calls ‘media archaeology . . . the paleontology of experience.’ Recognizing that we can never hear with historical ears, Verma nonetheless takes radio programs seriously as art—art about the self, especially—and as evidence of ambient ideas about interiority, identity, and consciousness.”
Journal of Adaptation in Film & Performance
“Verma’s study is a valuable text that informs popular literature studies as much as sound, radio and communication. His exhaustive study of the post Second World War crime and spy genres on US Radio offers an important adjunct to any school of English. . . . This is a work of exceptional scholarship and will be a seminal contribution to the history and aesthetics of radio drama in the USA for many years to come.”
Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism
“Verma deftly alternates between close readings of single moments in plays and large-scale interpretations across entire series to convincingly contend that radio drama was fundamentally imbricated in shaping (in addition to reflecting) the ways in which Americans apprehended space, time, self, and mind in relation to domestic and international politics, intimately and publicly, across three decades. . . . Theatre of the Mind will be of interest to performance, theatre, culture, and media scholars working in the first half of the twentieth century in the United States. Yet it will also be of interest to scholars and students working far beyond this geographical and temporal focus for its innovative methodology and elegant, consistent argumentation.”

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University of Chicago Press
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Theater of the Mind

By Neil Verma

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2012 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-85350-5

Chapter One

Dramas of Space and Time

On Sunday, April 11, 1937, the Columbia Broadcasting System produced one of the most openly polemical radio plays aired in the United States during the Great Depression, The Columbia Workshop's "The Fall of the City. " Broadcast from CBS flagship WABC New York to affiliates coast to coast, the program required four directors to choreograph several principal actors and scores of volunteer extras around an array of microphones transmitting live from the drill hall at the Seventh Regiment Armory at Park Avenue and Sixty-Sixth Street in Manhattan. One of the largest unobstructed interior spaces in New York City, the hall offered more than fifty-five thousand square feet of floor space with eleven elliptical wrought-iron arches under a barrel-vaulted roof supported by exposed arch ribs. The acoustic of the space could magnify piercing bursts of choral speech or convey unusually subtle effects such as the shifting of sandals on stone—audio so subdued that engineers called it "down in the mud" sound. Both of these sounds were signature components in "The Fall of the City, " a blank verse roman à clef about civic leaders and a restive mob in a huge square debating the prophesied arrival of a "Conqueror. " CBS was openly venturing into public debates over isolationism, while aping the conventions of classical tragedy to court an urbane audience not ordinarily disposed to network fare. Such ambitions merited a sensation. The New York Times considered "Fall" a highlight of the broadcast year; Newsweek called it the first evidence that radio theater was "radically different" from other media; according to Variety, the show beguiled even the "hunky-dunky" lay auditor. Celebrating at the Stork Club after the show, CBS staff reportedly toasted a new era in radio literature. "Fall" has remained iconic ever since. In 1939, CBS published it as "the first poetic work of permanent value" written for the air, and today a recording of it is one of just three anthology radio plays listed in the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress.

"Fall" was indeed a kind of "Armory Show" for radio, signaling the start of a period in which many programmers sought to modernize and invigorate broadcasting aesthetics and extend highbrow culture to the masses. Scholars have long considered the play to be a cerebral anomaly amid hours of schlock, and several writers have pointed out the Popular Front politics of the men who mounted it and argued that the manifest story of "Fall" reflected geopolitical anxieties. Yet little attention has been paid to its technical exigencies and the complexity that made the result estimable within the industry. Much remains unfathomed about why "Fall" required the acoustic that the Armory provided—what one review called the "outdoor effect" created when the sound of the mob was captured live and fed to speakers far at the back of the hall where the actors stood, making a hundred voices sound like thousands in layers that conveyed the depth needed to evoke "the City" in the mind of the listener. But this grandiose setup was the whole point. Radio dramatists of the 1930s went out of their way to create dramatic situations in which time and space are featured as the most prominent design elements, depicting distended spaces, Byzantine sets, rapid segues, protean action, and distances that transform abruptly.

In part 1, I situate these "dramas of space and time" in Depression-era culture and I characterize them as a harbinger of the psychological radio that would emerge in wartime. In this chapter, I detail the context in which such dramaturgy developed on the major networks in the late 1930s, as dramatists became preoccupied with suggesting plastic settings in the listener's mind, encouraging listeners to explore imaginary space just for the sake of doing so. At the very same historical moment that radio culture itself seemed to be "homogenizing" the nation, broadcasters grappled with how to make the airwaves into a space that might be shaped. By building scenes in the mind, radio plays served as a way to come to grips with what proximal relationships were becoming in the media age. In chapter 2, I move into the studio, explaining how dramatists used amplitude, effects, and acoustics to create listener's perspectives that structure explorations of space. I also perform a close reading of "Fall," showing tensions in its artistic aims and political proposals, both of which hinge on "positioning" the listener. Chapter 3 takes a broader view, considering normative use of perspective in such programs as The Shadow and The Mercury Theater on the Air, highlighting two strategies that together account for the overall sound of the period, what I will call the "intimate" and the "kaleidosonic" styles. In the final chapter of part 1, I focus on the plays of writer Norman Corwin, who attempted to meld intimate and kaleidosonic designs into a rhetoric befitting the New Deal era's rituals of unity, drawing stirring pictures of America itself in the mind of the listener. Ironically, it is through Corwin's People's Radio aesthetic that the Depression-era's exploratory celebrations of exteriority transformed into tales of interiority, and dramas of space and time taking place in the mind truly became a theater about the mind.


It took a series of developments to bring "The Fall of the City" to the air, beginning with a premium that network programmers began to place on artistic brio in the late 1930s, along with a willingness on the part of broadcasters to push boundaries. The script for "Fall" came from Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Archibald MacLeish, who was soon at the forefront of an emerging group of high-profile writers at CBS, a place cemented by his 1938 "Air Raid," which inspired an admired set of plays on the titular theme. A lecturer at Princeton and an editor of Fortune, MacLeish used his modest prominence to campaign for The Workshop in the press and canvassed friends like Ernest Hemingway for scripts. In this period, it was common for intellectuals to endorse the medium as an artistic venue alongside reform groups lobbying for pedagogical mandates and public programming; MacLeish was willing to work within the corporate framework of the networks. Plugging "Fall" in the New York Times, MacLeish decried not the low commercialism of network radio, but mulish literary disregard of it: "Every poet with dramatic learning," he emphasized, "should have been storming the studios for years." For MacLeish, verse literature was uniquely disposed to radio: "The word dresses the stage. The word brings on the actors. The word supplies their look, their clothes, their gestures." The comment alludes to a question at the heart of modern dramaturgy. As Eric Bentley once argued, by following Edward Gordon Craig to elevate stage management, lights and scenography, many modernists of the early twentieth century pursued "theatricalism" at the expense of "theater," diverting performance from the verbalization that anchors its realism. Unfettered by the histrionics of that overvisual theater, MacLeish's "stage for the word" promised to return theater to its writers and provide a virtually boundless public forum to boot.

Such rhetoric reflected a new trend. As an expressive activity, radio drama is as old as commercial licensing. The first American radio plays were pioneered in local stations like WGY Schenectady in the early 1920s, and the format slowly spread across the country. In the subsequent decade, dramatic practice consolidated as part of a large-scale concerted campaign for quality content on the national networks. In 1930 NBC produced a dramatic adaptation show called Great Plays that soon fizzled, but seven years later the network revived the show to become part of a suite of content that included middlebrow programs such as Arturo Toscanini's Symphony Orchestra and Clifton Fadiman's Information Please! Meanwhile, rival network CBS hired reviewers such as Alexander Woollcott while luring young dramatists such as Irwin Shaw and Arthur Miller, who launched their careers on Dick Tracy and Cavalcade of America. Programmers invited work from New York's Theater Guild and Actor's Repertory Theater—one historian calls the 1930s American stage a veritable "feeder program" for radio—and in the summer of 1937, CBS and NBC aired rival Shakespeare festivals with the likes of John Barrymore and Tallulah Bankhead. That year also saw plays on air by such authors as Molière, Tolstoy, Eugene O'Neill, and George Bernard Shaw; by 1938 adaptations of such authors as Henrik Ibsen ran even on the commercial Lux Radio Theater. Federal Theater writers from the Works Progress Administration also produced up to three thousand broadcasts a year, as networks promoted their work. On December 8, 1938, Zora Neale Hurston read prose about African American folktales on CBS's The American School of the Air and was interviewed for NBC's Meet the Author the next day. Around this time, major newspapers established radio beats, trade publications began to run reviews of broadcasts, and more than 350 high schools and colleges across the nation began to teach radio drama, including Harvard and Brown. When poets Norman Rosten and Edna St. Vincent Millay followed MacLeish to CBS, prestige trickled down to the hacks. In 1938, the largest radio advertising firm required its writers to relinquish authorship claims, but four years later Variety ran columns listing the scribes of popular dramas. The storming of the airwaves had begun, if not quite according to MacLeish's plan. But the poet's voice in broadcasting would amplify as Pearl Harbor approached and he recruited dramatists into the war effort during his subsequent career as Librarian of Congress and as an adviser to Franklin Roosevelt's Office of Facts and Figures and the State Department.

With "Fall," MacLeish cast himself as an outsider raiding the airwaves, but the majority of The Workshop's staff came from the industry. Irving Reis, the head of the program, had begun his career as a sound engineer, and he first pitched the idea for an experimental weekly anthology with bandleader Artie Shaw in 1936. Their timing was fortuitous. That year was an unusually aggressive period of competition between NBC and CBS, as each network wooed the stations of the other into its fold, often employing as bait network-funded "sustaining" content to fill programming gaps between sponsored programs. This was just one of several factors driving the push for "culture" at the networks. Around this time, some advertising firms took production away from actual stations—in 1936, Blackett-Sample-Hummert centralized their radio portfolio of some thirty accounts at what Variety called a "radio factory" on Long Island—so CBS and NBC began to expand staff contracts, maintaining a pool of performers who hung around cafés near flagship stations waiting for a gig. That drew the attention of unions such as Actor's Equity and the Chicago Federation of Musicians, both of which began a series of attempts to unionize various staff as professional artists. Fear of radical reform of the industry also encouraged highbrow content as a way to curry favor for the network oligopoly that had been only recently solidified in the FCC Act of 1934. As Robert McChesney has shown, commercial broadcasters publicized all efforts at "high-grade cultural programming" as part of educational offerings intended to fulfill a "public interest" requirement enshrined in communications law. Perhaps Columbia bestowed greater largesse on upmarket fare because it was publicly traded, unlike NBC or the regional networks; so CBS chief Bill Paley had to quell the anxieties of investors worried that the FCC might withhold licenses and undermine the basis of commercial radio. With this in mind, programmer Paul Kesten strategized to brand Columbia the "Tiffany Network" by hiring a shop censor, curbing "bodily function" ads, and limiting ads to just 10 percent of evening airtime. Programs such as The Workshop also emerged along with similar shows that did not hawk the soap, yeast, and Jell-o on which commercial broadcasting had grown fat, publicizing instead something more valuable—the idea that the public interest was nourished by letting radio continue to gorge itself.

The policy had impact. In a 1938 special issue on radio, Fortune likened the CBS strategy to graceful fencing. Reis's Workshop certainly exhibited agility, promising in its inaugural broadcast both experimental drama and reports on the use of radio in shipping and "electrical surgery." The Washington Post published a feature that depicted Reis's musicians "performing the unconscious" on cellos and sound men roaming New York "holding up a microphone with a rapt expression and a vacant smile." Reis explained his initiative: "We don't know what a microphone can do—nobody knows yet. We're going to put them in queer places, submit them to unusual vibrations.... We want to break every rule of broadcasting, jump the track routine and explore the mysterious maze of electrical phenomena." For a broadcaster who cut his teeth at a mixing board, the naïveté was a little affected, but the swagger proved genuine. Over the years, programs included interviews of some of the last Civil War veterans, lectures on tremolo vocal work, compositions by Igor Stravinsky and John Cage, plays by Dorothy Parker and William Saroyan, and adaptations ranging from Keats and Shakespeare to Dickens and T. S. Eliot. The Workshop received some seven thousand unsolicited scripts a year in its heyday, and Reis earned stature among his peers. One reporter described a moment in the midst of a Workshop show when staff noticed that the production was lagging by twenty-five seconds and was unlikely to conclude on schedule. Rather than slashing lines according to custom, Reis called master control asking to borrow time from the subsequent program, a brazen request, even for accident-prone live radio.

Although Reis is the person most fêted for what historian Michael Denning considers to be a "Renaissance in aesthetic innovation" at CBS, his tenure proved short. By 1940 he was on contract to Paramount Pictures, directing such films as The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer (1947) before his death in 1953. But Reis's achievements relied heavily on a circle of talented staff. One writer has credited the showy swordplay of CBS not to Reis at all, but to talent recruiter William Bennett Lewis. The Workshop also became important because of the centralized architecture of the industry, which enabled a small group of dramatists to develop conventions that would in time influence so much of American broadcasting. The shape of that system can be traced at least as far back as the 1927 Radio Act, after whose passage local stations with low to medium power linked up to national networks in order to capitalize on national audiences but avoid antitrust law. "Wired networks' many local units, rationally joined together, not only gave the appearance of competition and diversity, but fit well with familiar business practices," writes historian Susan Smulyan, "The network system resembled other national distribution systems set up in the 1920's, such as dealerships, franchises, and chains." It represented a massive centralization of content. Networks owned a few dozen stations outright as their affiliates dotted the landscape, so one way or another most of the shows that reached listeners by the late 1930s had the fingerprints of NBC, CBS, or Mutual. Regional networks persisted—the Yankee network in New England, webs owned by tycoons like William Randolph Hearst and General Electric's Sam Insull—but the expense of renting lines to achieve national delivery hindered the startup of true competitors. In 1935, NBC alone paid $2.4 million to rent lines from AT&T, and the next year, stations affiliated with the big networks out-grossed independents five to one—Variety's radio editor cracked, "Business is so good the tablecloths aren't big enough."

Centralization and oligopoly serendipitously drew drama innovators together in a way that transformed the craft of broadcasting. When The Workshop debuted, CBS and NBC had a combined payroll nearing $80 million, but they employed only some fourteen hundred full-time staff in New York and Los Angeles together. In fact, four more CBS directors helped to bring "The Fall of the City" to the air. Brewster Morgan, who supervised MacLeish's script, also produced Fred MacMurray's Hollywood Hotel, the blood-and-thunder show Lights Out!, and various Shakespeare specials. Earle McGill, who mixed sound for "Fall," wrote a textbook on radio directing while serving as president of the Radio Director's Guild and producing educational programs. Director William N. Robson, who handled "Fall's" mob scenes, first achieved fame for a 1935 script about a prison break at San Quentin. The play aired just hours after the actual break. When news broke that the fugitives had been apprehended, Robson rewrote the final scene and rushed it to the actors in the studio in mid-broadcast. A flashy figure who commanded great respect from his peers, Robson helmed The Workshop after Reis left, directed war programs such as The Man behind the Gun, and earned one of several Peabody Awards for An Open Letter on Race Hatred following the 1943 Detroit race riots. "I remember one spoke in awe to Bill Robson," recalled actress Rosemary Rice, "like you would to Orson Welles." Welles himself was the lead actor in "Fall of the City." The twenty-one-year-old had just embarked on his radio career as an actor for The March of Time and The Shadow, while preparing his directorial debut in a seven-part adaptation of Victor Hugo's Les Misérables to air in the summer of 1937. Welles's Mercury Theater troupe came to CBS airwaves one year later.


Excerpted from Theater of the Mind by Neil Verma Copyright © 2012 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Neil Verma is a Harper Fellow in the Society of Fellows in the Liberal Arts and a Collegiate Assistant Professor in the Humanities at the University of Chicago.

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