A Library on the Air: Literary Dramatization and Orson Welles’s Mercury Theatre: James Jesson
Speaking on British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) radio about writing’s future, Cecil Day Lewis offered one vision of literature unbound from the book by electronic media. Two years after Day Lewis published these thoughts in Revolution in Writing (1935), English actor Eustace Wyatt’s radio play Public Domain dramatized a similar scenario of the literary work freed from its material form.1 In the play, broadcast on the American CBS network, characters from The Pickwick Papers, Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, and other literary classics have “escaped through copyright lane into the limitless expanse of the public domain,” according to a narrator’s introduction.2 Having been confi ned for years to the “well-worn covers of books,” these characters, the narrator says, “yearn for release from monotony.”3 The play’s action involves Dickens’s Sam Weller, Carroll’s Alice, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and other characters meeting in the formless space of the public domain and declaring their rights to live “free and unhampered by the sickly sentiments and sloppy phrases assigned to us by the selfi sh interests of the unsolicited authors of our lives.”4 In both Day Lewis’s talk and Wyatt’s play, new media technologies free the book’s characters from the material objects containing them, but the results are variously humorous or unsettling. The characters’ unmoored state entertains in Wyatt’s play, but Day Lewis struggles to conceptualize the artifact that emerges from the book’s encounter with audiovisual media. Read together, Day Lewis’s and Wyatt’s broadcasts suggest that writers and performers in the 1930s were attempting to reenvision the literary work in the absence of the printed book. If today we can speak easily of “audiobooks” as literary entities roughly comparable to textual ones (so that “reading a book” is interchangeable with “listening to a[n] [audio]book”), these connections
between print and sound reproduction still needed to be formed during this early age of electronic mass media.