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Companies to Keep: Air-Raid Dramas and International Ethical Responsibility in America, 1936-1939

From: Theatre History Studies
Volume 32, 2012
pp. 33-52 | 10.1353/ths.2012.0003

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On October 27, 1938, Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) aired Archibald MacLeish's Air Raid, a thirty-minute radio drama and mock newscast in which the announcer "transported" listeners to a small, unnamed village in southeastern Europe. Only women, the elderly, and children populate the village. It is the morning, and the men have left for a battlefield, located far outside the town. When a breathless soldier arrives in the town square and urges the women to seek cover from sighted airplanes, the women scold him. War does not want women, they declare, nor their sleepy town. The women are wrong; the planes come and pitilessly strafe the villagers in the square. MacLeish composed the piece in response to Picasso's 1937 mural Guernica, the black-and-white, eleven-by twenty-five-foot representation of the bombing of the defenseless Basque town of the same name. On his first viewing of the painting, MacLeish wrote that he heard it more than saw it.

Air Raid was named one of the best radio plays of 1938. Three days after its broadcast, Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre on Air presented The War of the Worlds, Welles's radio-drama adaptation of H. G. Wells's 1898 novel. Americans were harangued into believing the United States was under aerial attack by hostile alien forces. Welles's broadcast terrified listeners for a number of reasons. Welles used recognizable place-names, such as Jersey City and Hoboken Hall, and mimicked the conventions of radio emergency broadcasting. Welles's project exploited general fears about the rise of fascism as well as specific anxiety about what many people felt had been a narrowly averted world war during September's Munich Crisis, when live reports repeatedly interrupted regularly scheduled radio programming. I contend that Welles's broadcast also capitalized on a particular conceptualization of aerial warfare engendered by the documentation and representation of the Spanish Civil War, including the bombing of Guernica, a process in which Air Raid and its creative team figured.

During the Spanish Civil War, two technologies combined to affect how the public imagined warfare and themselves in relation to it: radio and the airplane. Beginning during World War I, through Italy's invasion of Ethiopia, and into the Spanish Civil War, the development of aerial warfare strategies changed ideas about the legitimacy of warfare, those who waged it, and how it was waged, including what and who counted as acceptable targets. The number of radios in American homes increased rapidly in the 1920s and 1930s. Through sound— through the air—hundreds of thousands of disparate listeners, ensconced in the privacy of their own homes, could be included in and joined to a national, even a global, listening public. The interplay of the two technologies reached a synergistic culmination during the Spanish Civil War. The composition, broadcast, and reception of Air Raid is an example of that synergy.

In response to the Mid-America Theatre Conference's 2010 theme of "Company," I have taken the term company as a collective, not an intentionally formed or officially regulated group, but a coalescence of individuals related through shared concerns, ideas, experiences. In this essay I explore the synergy between two such companies (one, radio broadcasters and play authors; two, their auditors) in relation to the formation of a third company: U.S. citizens transformed into global citizens through the effect and affect of aerial warfare and air-raid radio dramas on corporeal identity and ethical awareness.

Aerial Technology, Radio, and Global Violence

"The sun rose today on a city whose tallest tower lay scattered in crumbled bits of stone," read the first line of the New York Herald report. "Hordes of people on foot, working their way slowly and painfully up the island . . . always they looked fearfully upward at the sky." The date of the article was July 30, 1921. The Herald was not reporting events that had actually happened. The newspaper was completing a scenario of what could have happened. The day before, Brigadier General William Mitchell had carried out a mock air raid on New York City. At noon on July 29, Mitchell's U.S. bombers, playing the role of enemy planes, flew twice...



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