- Theatre of the Mind: Imagination, Aesthetics and American Radio Drama by Neil Verma
Foundational works on radio history, including Erik Barnouw’s The Golden Web: A History of Broadcasting in the United States 1933–1953 and Susan J. Douglas’s Listening In: Radio and the American Imagination, have historicized radio drama through frameworks of audience communities, governmental intervention, or emergent technologies. Neil Verma’s Theatre of the Mind: Imagination, Aesthetics and American Radio Drama offers exciting contributions to the study of radio drama in terms of both content and methodology.
In Theatre of the Mind, Verma argues that radio drama can be interpreted as both reflective and constitutive of the American mind. That is, “as American broadcasters built a theatre in the mind,”—i.e. the radio drama itself—“radio [End Page 103] drama necessarily became a theatre about the mind” (emphasis original, 3). 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. Though he draws on expansive archives of historical material, Verma prioritizes the broadcasts in and of themselves as evidence. In so doing, Theatre of the Mind reconfigures the very idea of dramatic conventions by foregrounding sound, distinguishing Verma’s work as uniquely innovative. Spanning the years 1937–1955 and an archive of 6,000 “unique broadcasts,” Verma divides the book into three sections of overlapping time periods that focus on experimental playhouses, crime shows, and thrillers.
In part one, “Radio Aesthetics in the Late Depression, 1937–1945,” Verma examines radio drama’s preoccupation with representing the plasticities of space in the mind of the auditor. Chapter two, a pointed analysis of amplitude, effects, and acoustics in radio drama, lays the foundation for the overarching argument of the book. Verma works through a multilayered idea of positioning the audience first through dramaturgies of material space, offering the concept of “audioposition” as both adjective and verb for an audience’s “point of audition,” as opposed to vantage point (a term that privileges the visual). Verma includes diagrams of microphone technology, studio floor plans, and volume charts. The central case study, Archibald MacLeish’s “Fall of the City,” extends Verma’s audio-position frame beyond the aesthetic conventions of radio drama towards a large-scale analysis of the politics of cultural production in the New Deal Era, pointing out how “positioning” enacts alignment, a major ideological concern of the decade. By the late 1930s, argues Verma in chapter three, two styles can be apprehended in radio drama’s use of audioposition: the intimate and the kaleidosonic. The intimate style, centered on a place, sonorously positions the listener with a single character, via one mic, with whom the listener travels through space and time, individually implicated in the action (and politics) of the content. The kaleidosonic style, in contrast, centers on an event and leaps from one mic to another in order to position the listener as “of” or “with” a vast community, a nation, or a globe. Radio drama used both styles to shape New Deal publics.
Whereas the 1930s explored exteriority, Verma reads 1940s and 1950s radio drama as taking a prolonged turn toward “communication and consciousness” (83), a theme of interiority that Verma develops across parts two and three of his study. Part two, “Communication and Interiority in 1940s Radio, 1941–1950,” begins with an image of an advertisement published in Variety on June 6, 1943. The image depicts a human head. In the center of its forehead is a microphone from which five lightning [End Page 104] bolts expand. The main caption reads, “Radio . . . nerve center of victory!” (93). The image is an effective encapsulation of Verma’s argument in part two. While he acknowledges the well-established narrative that radio drama reflected...