Theatre on Radio
in the Great Depression

In the Depression radio became the largest single producer -- and consumer -- of drama. It created serials of every sort from Superman to Stella Dallas, dramatic series like The Cavalcade of America, Orson Welles' Mercury Theatre, and the Dupont Corporation's Cavalcade of America, and docudramas like Time Magazines March of Time.

Over time, it's appetite increased, it adapted narratives of all sorts, popular films, classic and contemporary stage drama, magazine fiction, short stories and novels, musicals and light opera. In the end, radio became a kind of curio cabinet of stories. Its contents varied in terms of the incorporated objects' genres and kind of media as well as their country, language, and original historical context. In effect, each object was disembedded, then re-embedded in the context of the other disembeded objects circulating in the American ether.

The consequences of this process are complex and difficult to assess. At the very least, it created a world in which the boundaries between the various cultural markers for class that had emerged in the second half of the 19th C. begin to blur, even seemed to disappear. Radio presented a universe in which almost anyone could "know" Shakespeare or Conrad or Ibsen, could whistle something from The Barber of Seville, or Moonlight Sonata or recognize tag lines from Macbeth (Out, out damned spot!) or Frankenstein (It's alive, it's alive) or The Heart of Darkness (The horror! The horror!). Of course, not everyone did "know" these things, but they could and that was almost as good, for it seemed to provide universal access to "culture" in the Arnoldian sense of the word, the best that has been thought and said in the world.

And the traffic in culture went both ways, from lowbrow to highbrow as well as highbrow to low. Vaudeville mingled with "legitimate" theatre, Bach with Beale Street. Tarzan and Blondie, Louis Armstrong and Hoagy Carmichael, Young Widder Brown and Sam Spade, The Marx Brothers and Walter Damrosch, the Rinso White whistle and the Jello Jingle, all took their places in radio's curio cabinet. And that cabinet became the hub of the nation's emerging, broadly shared cultural universe.

Here are but a few examples of radio's massive incorporation, recycling and redistribution of what, before the Depression, was considered "culture:"


l of