Friday, November 24, 2017

"Rappaccini's Daughter" on the Radio

Unlike Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne was not a particularly common source of stories in the Golden Age of Radio. The Golden Age series that made the most use of Hawthorne was The Weird Circle, which adapted four of his short stories; Favorite Story adapted two; The Witch's Tale did one. NBC University Theater apparently did an adaptation of The Marble Faun which, as far as I have been able to determine, is the only Golden Age adaptation of a Hawthorne novel to radio. After the Golden Age, Hawthorne fares much better, proportionally, although radio drama shrinks enough that examples are still sparse. In the several revival attempts in the late sixties and seventies, CBC Radio Mystery Theater and CBS Radio Mystery Theater both did several Hawthorne adaptations. Nightfall and Vanishing Point, put out by CBC Radio in the mid-eighties, did a few, as well. And, while it's much harder to gauge how many there are, as the Internet has slowly brought back some interest in radio-like drama, there seem to be a few newer ones floating around.

Of all of Hawthorne's works, there is no question which has been the radio favorite, because it is easily the most adapted one: "Rappaccini's Daughter", originally published in 1844 and then anthologized in Mosses from an Old Manse in 1846.

(1) The Witch's Tale (Australia, 1943).

The Witch's Tale was the first major horror series on radio; it ran from 1931 to 1938 on the Mutual Radio Network, with considerable success. It was transcribed on disks, and in this period it was common for American radio networks to sell the recorded shows to places like Australia. It was a very good deal for the American companies; since their primary profit was from the very large American market, they could always sell to Australian radio stations at a cost much lower than any Australian networks could make a series, thus eliminating any local competition before it could even get started, and still make money off the deal. In 1939, this practice was blocked by the Australian government in order to reduce how much Australian money was going in wartime to the United States; but the Australians had apparently already heard enough of The Witch's Tale to be interested more; when the American series ended, they started an Australian run of the same show, which lasted from 1938-1943 (and provides us most of the few dozen episodes that have survived from the once extremely popular series). In the middle of this run, they did "Rappaccini's Daughter". Unfortunately, it seems to be very difficult to find, so, alas, I did not hear how Old Nancy and her black cat Satan handle the story.

(2) The Weird Circle (1944).

The success of The Witch's Tale led to horror becoming one of the staple genres of the Golden Age of Radio. Among the shows that arose was The Weird Circle, produced by RCA and simultaneously leased to NBC-Red and to Mutual, and then later to others. It was broadcast from 1943 to 1945. It was a minor, although widely heard, program at the time, and it had a shoestring budget that meant it did not pay for the expense of music and used local actors from around New York, but the technical quality of the original recordings and the fact that multiple copies were made for syndication has resulted in its being one of the Golden Age series that is in the best shape. If I am not mistaken, every episode is extant, much of it in good quality audio. The Weird Circle did its version of "Rappaccini's Daughter" in 1944, one hundred years after its original publication. It mostly treats the tale as a love story with science-fantasy elements, and so breaks the ending, to the point of turning parts of it upside-down.

(3) Favorite Story (1947).

Up to about 1945 or so, radio transcription (recording onto disks for distribution) was a relatively minor contributor to the radio world -- it was used, mostly for cheap supplementary filler. The quality was not good enough to compete with live programming in the American market, which had quite a bit of money to spend on live programming. But recording developed to such a degree of technical quality that it became impossible to tell, simply from the sound, whether something was live or recorded. And when the always-savvy Bing Crosby realized in 1946 that he could do massively better in transcription, things began to shift hard. One of the big-name stars who moved from live radio to transcribed radio was Ronald Colman, who started a series, Favorite Story, which ran from 1946 to 1949. It was a big-budget investment by a relatively new and completely independent syndication business; it was a very expensive radio series to produce, but it paid off in spades, as high-quality transcription combined with big-name actors (Colman won an Academy Award in 1947) and a very active sales department sold the series throughout the United States and Canada on a massive scale. Each episode dramatized a 'favorite story' by a notable name, and in 1947, the actor Sydney Greenstreet was responsible for Favorite Story giving us "Rappaccini's Daughter". I think the casting is a little odd; Howard Duff was an unexpected selection for Giovanni. It makes the interesting choice of focusing on the aspect of the story concerned with beauty, and unsurprisingly it focuses as much, or perhaps even more on the romance than the other versions; thus, also unsurprisingly, it also breaks the ending.

(4) CBS Radio Mystery Theater (1975), as "The Kiss of Death".

The Golden Age of Radio ended on September 30, 1962, as even the most popular radio series were shuttered in the face of the television juggernaut. There were attempts to rethink how radio was done in order to salvage something, but most of them, even the best, failed. People still listened to the radio, including radio dramas, but it had become extremely difficult to develop and maintain a stable audience for it of any significant size. But in the 1970s, CBS Radio Mystery Theater and a few other shows managed to catch a wave of nostalgia that gave them time, and enough interested listeners, to build up precisely such an audience, composed of both older people who missed Golden Age Radio and younger people attracted to radio drama as a retro art. It ran from 1974 to 1982, with a total of 1,399 original episodes, all of which, of course, have survived. It was a shoestring-budget affair, and thus very uneven in quality, but it was more than successful enough to keep running. The CBSRMT version of the tale is retitled as "The Kiss of Death". It promises a story that shocks to the root of the soul, and a dark and menacing story, but like the previous versions deliberately breaks the ending. Interestingly, it chooses to give a partially first-person version of the tale. It also breaks the original ending to give the lovers "a better fate", but does so in a far more complicated way than previous versions, probably because it still has to deliver on a promise that it will give something shocking, dark, menacing.

(5) Vanishing Point (1986).

The CBC returned to old-style radio horror with Nightfall, which ran from 1980 to 1983. As this was not the Golden Age, they could go full-blast on it, and in fact one problem the series had was that it would occasionally be dropped by radio stations because it was too scary. After it ended, the CBC looked around for something to replace it and came up with the somewhat more science-fiction-oriented Vanishing Point, which ran from 1984 to 1986 and then sporadically afterward into the 90s. The Vanishing Point version of "Rappaccini's Daughter" moves the time of the story to the 1980s, which leads to some complicated, and occasionally odd, intertwining of the story with concerns about nuclear fallout. It does, however, put more emphasis than the other versions on the aspect of the story concerned with the morality of scientific inquiry. It also, unlike the others, retains something of the bitterness of the original ending.

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