Monday, July 10, 2017

Radio Greats: The Chinaman Button (CBS Radio Mystery Theater)

The Golden Age of Radio is generally held to have ended on September 30, 1962, the day that the two greatest titans of its last era -- Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar and Suspense -- both went off the air. But radio itself did not die, and there were always a few variety shows, comedy shows, and, here and there, a radio drama series. And in the 1970s there were a number of attempts by the various networks to revive radio drama as a niche market. From 1974 to 1982, CBS put out a radio series under Hiram Brown, one of the great radio producers of the Golden Age, designed to cater precisely to those who were nostalgic for the Golden Age. While most of the revival attempts petered out quite quickly, CBS Radio Mystery Theater did quite well for most of its run -- I would guess that it was the most successful such series until Adventures in Odyssey began in 1987. It is generally not thought to be as high in quality as the best series of the Golden Age, but its output was prodigious, because it broadcast every day for its entire run, and the majority of its episodes were original -- 1,399 original episodes total. And taking into account that sheer quantity, the quality, while uneven, is not bad. And with the talent and effort that was put into it, some of them rise to a level that could be considered Radio Greats.

"The Chinaman Button", from 1974, is widely regarded as one of the best candidates, perhaps the best, for an episode that rose to the quality of the old Golden Age dramas. And while I have not listened to all the episodes of CBSRMT, I would hazard that this probably is correct -- it stands so far above the average CBSRMT episode that at least it could have very few rivals. The episode is a loose adaptation of a short story by Richard Matheson (best known for his novel, I Am Legend), "Button, Button", which was originally published in Playboy in 1970. Matheson is said to have come up with the idea of his original story from a class his wife was taking; the professor used a scenario to stimulate class discussion that originally derived from Chateaubriand's Genius of Christianity, 1.6.2:

Conscience! is it possible that thou canst be but a phantom of the imagination, or the fear of the punishment of men? I ask my own heart, I put to myself this question: "If thou couldst by a mere wish kill a fellow-creature in China, and inherit his fortune in Europe, with the supernatural conviction that the fact would never be known, wouldst thou consent to form such a wish?" In vain do I exaggerate my indigence; in vain do I attempt to extenuate the murder, by supposing that through the effect of my wish the Chinese expires instantaneously and with out pain that, had he even died a natural death, his property, from the situation of his affairs, would have been lost to the state; in vain do I figure to myself this stranger overwhelmed with disease and affliction; in vain do I urge that to him death is a blessing, that he himself desires it, that he has but a moment longer to live: in spite of all my useless subterfuges, I hear a voice in the recesses of my soul, protesting so loudly against the mere idea of such a supposition, that I cannot for one moment doubt the reality of conscience.

"The Chinaman Button" differs considerably from Matheson's original story -- they use the same device, and the one inspired the other, but they are not really the same story at all -- but it goes back to this original inspiration, which is what gives the episode its title. And it is a very good story; one that works well with radio, and probably was easier to do well in the 1970s than in the Golden Age. It is a bit dark, vividly representing ordinary human evil and the terrible results of what happens when a man's morality breaks. Two corrupt businessmen are exasperated by the fact that their schemes have been foiled by the apparent honesty of a colleague, who works in the same firm, although they have never met personally, and take it on themselves to prove what they themselves believe, that people are only moral when they have nothing to gain by immorality: Everyone has a price, for anything....

Because of its popularity, there are lots of versions of it online. You can watch it on YouTube:

It is also available here, here, and here, among many other places.

Incidentally, the same theme to similar effect, although in a different story, is found in G. K. Chesterton's "When Doctors Agree", one of my favorite Chesterton stories.

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