Old-time network radio in 1956 may be rounding third and heading for home, in the phrase of baseball player-turned-evangelist Billy Sunday. But it hardly lacks for grand ideas even entering its terminal period—including resurrecting one of its finest hours of the past, launching tonight, and picking up for the most part where that distinguished predecessor program (Columbia Workshop) left off, even raising it a few by way of one of the most challenging adaptations in the history of the art.
If star power is becoming a more recalcitrant broadcasting mandate by the time old-time radio continues yielding to television, you’d be hard pressed to top Aldous Huxley himself, narrating a two-part adaptation of his futuristic tale of benign tyranny, in which the world becomes dominated by chemical pacification, psychic collectivism, indoctrination trance, and artificial, dehumanised reproduction in hand with forced sterilisation—all of which culminate in a state future social/cultural critic Neil Postman (in Amusing Ourselves to Death) will describe as not being denied human rights but not much caring.
What [George] Orwell feared [in 1984] were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumble puppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us.
The journalist Christopher Hitchens would note, in due course, introducing a new publication of Brave New World in 2003, “Aldous Huxley absolutely detested mass culture and popular entertainment, and many of his toughest critical essays, as well as several intense passages in his fiction, consist of sneers and jeers at the cheapness of the cinematic ethic and the vulgarity of commercial music . . . But if he were able to return to us, and cast his scornful and lofty gaze on our hedonistic society, he would probably be relatively unsurprised at the way things are going . . .
“The search for Nirvana, like the search for Utopia or the end of history or the classless society, is ultimately a futile and dangerous one,” Hitchens would continue. “It involves, if it does not necessitate, the sleep of reason. There is no escape from anxiety and struggle, and Huxley assists us in attaining this valuable glimpse of the obvious, precisely because it was a conclusion that was in many ways unwelcome to him.”
There is a certain tone of the unwelcomeness Christopher Hitchens describes in Aldous Huxley’s becalmed narration throughout tonight’s program.
Brave New World is a fantastic parable about the dehumanisation of human beings. In the negative utopia described in my story, man has been subordinated to his own inventions. Science, technology, social organisation, these things have ceased to serve man. They have become his masters. A quarter of a century has passed since the book was published. In that time, our world has taken so many steps in the wrong direction, that if I were writing today, I would date my story not six hundred years in the future but at the most two hundred. The price of liberty, and even of common humanity, is eternal vigilance.
Two years before he will amplify that thought, in the remarkable Brave New World Revisited, Huxley deploys it on behalf of an understated—and quietly chilling—mind translation of his famous negative utopia.
Such a program calls for, and receives, unforced and unadorned performances from a cast that includes some of old-time radio’s most memorable performers—including Sam Edwards (Meet Corliss Archer; Father Knows Best; Gunsmoke; Dragnet; Fort Laramie;Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar; others), Gloria Henry (numerous programs), Bill Idelson (Vic & Sade), Byron Kane (Famous Jury Trials), Joseph Kearns (Suspense; The Burns & Allen Show; The Adventures of Sam Spade; The Jack Benny Program; others; he would later work as a castmate of Gloria Henry on television’s Dennis the Menace), Jack Kruschen (One Man’s Family), Charlotte Lawrence (Just Plain Bill; Our Gal Sunday), Vic Perrin (Gunsmoke; Fort Laramie; others), and the First Lady of Radio herself, Lurene Tuttle (The Great Gildersleeve; The Adventures of Sam Spade; Suspense; The Whistler; Hollywood Hotel; Dr. Christian; One Man’s Family; Those We Love; numerous others).
The CBS Radio Workshop will go forward to a distinguished if too-brief series life. While there will be numerous installments approaching its debut for compelling and unquestionable quality drama, with just enough seasoning of wit to balance things out, it may have a difficult to impossible time topping that debut.
Announcer/host: William Conrad. Music: Bernard Herrmann. Writer: William Froug, adapted from the novel by Aldous Huxley.
Further Channel Surfing . . .
The Burns & Allen Show: The Five Thousand Dollar Mink Coat (comedy; NBC, 1941)
Fibber McGee & Molly: The Blizzard (comedy; NBC, 1942)
The Green Hornet: Hit and Run (crime drama; ABC, 1948)
The Abbott & Costello Show: Sam Shovel; General Custer’s Last Hamburger (comedy; ABC, 1949)
Maxwell House Coffee Time with Burns & Allen: Gracie Plans a Unique Birthday Present for George (comedy; NBC, 1949)
The Halls of Ivy: Wellman’s Nose and the Charter Day Ceremonies (comedy; NBC, 1950)
The Life of Riley: Junior is In Love (comedy; NBC, 1950)