14 March: A deadly lottery

When Shirley Jackson wrote “The Lottery,” her allegorical short story of conformism taken to arbitrarily deadly extremes, for the 26 June 1948 issue of The New Yorker, both the author and the magazine were staggered by the volume of negative and even hate mail the story was said to provoke. The volume included negative remarks from Jackson’s own parents, as the author herself disclosed in her eventual posthumous anthology Come Along With Me (1968), edited by her husband Stanley Edgar Hyman.

Shirley Jackson.

Shirley Jackson.

One of the most terrifying aspects of publishing stories and books is the realization that they are going to be read, and read by strangers. I had never fully realized this before, although I had of course in my imagination dwelt lovingly upon the thought of the millions and millions of people who were going to be uplifted and enriched and delighted by the stories I wrote. It had simply never occurred to me that these millions and millions of people might be so far from being uplifted that they would sit down and write me letters I was downright scared to open; of the three-hundred-odd letters that I received that summer I can count only thirteen that spoke kindly to me, and they were mostly from friends. Even my mother scolded me: “Dad and I did not care at all for your story in The New Yorker,” she wrote sternly; “it does seem, dear, that this gloomy kind of story is what all you young people think about these days. Why don’t you write something to cheer people up?”

Jackson herself probably needed a little cheering up in the summer of 1948; she eventually disclosed that the general tone of those early responses “was a kind of wide-eyed, shocked innocence. People at first were not so much concerned with what the story meant; what they wanted to know was where these lotteries were held, and whether they could go there and watch.”

Which said far more about the correspondents than about Jackson, who sought only to shine a light on dehumanisation by elevating an ancient ritual about which she had known in her native New England—the lottery-selected annual stoning-to-death of a designated victim on behalf, superstitiously, of ensuring a good harvest to come—to her own time.

Conformism is never very far from life. Neither are extremes in enforcing or enhancing it, in any generation, even (especially?) when one or another kind or aim of conformism dresses itself as the very essence of non-conformism. Which could have been one point of “The Lottery,” after all. Consider that Tessie Hutchinson, the unfortunately selected victim, shares a surname with the Antinomian Anne Hutchinson, whose beliefs earned her banishment from Puritan Massachussetts following a kind of show trial in 1638.

The story has long since been interpreted through live television, film, one-act play, and even ballet and opera, the latter two of which bemused Jackson. Perhaps its most chilling interpretation, however, was given tonight in 1951 on a short-lived but worthy to remember anthology series.


NBC Short Story: The Lottery (NBC, 1951)

John Dunning is hardly the only old-time radio historian who comes to believe radio was somewhere between ridiculous and insane to try boiling complete novels into half-hour or hourlong playlets. Nor is he the only one to believe this little-heard, little-reviewed exercise made the match radio drama should have made full-time from the outset: “the 5,000-word masterpieces that packed all their power into one emotional charge.”

That fits tonight’s NBC Short Story installment perfectly enough: Shirley Jackson’s allegorical rural chiller—the annual ritualistic human sacrifice by community stoning, on behalf of a good harvest, being the subject of some small joking by a woman (Margaret Brighton) until her family is drawn to provide the annual sacrifice—gets a sober and occasionally chilling treatment.

Even with a few changes from the original—additional scenes in characters’ homes; Tessie’s demurral when her husband suggests leaving town before the lottery; adding the schoolteacher who objects to the lottery publicly—the impact remains harrowing.

Additional cast: Louis Larimer, Charles Seale, Gail Bonney, Joni McGovern, Jeff Corey, Jeffrey Silver, Stephen Chase, Irene Tedrow, Jim Nusser. Announcer: Don Stanton. Music: Morris King. Director: Andrew C. Love. Adaptation: Ernest Kinoy.


Further Channel Surfing . . .

The Jell-O Program Starring Jack Benny: Jack Benny v. Fred Allen at the Hotel Pierre (comedy; NBC, 1937)
Fibber McGee & Company: The Gildersleeve Memory Course (comedy; NBC, 1939)
Information, Please: Guest Panelist—Claude Wickard (quiz; Blue Network, 1941)
The Great Gildersleeve: Income Tax (comedy; NBC, 1943)
Duffy’s Tavern: Archie Writes a Play (comedy; Blue Network, 1944)
Fibber McGee & Molly: The Dinner Party—Beulah is Hired (comedy; NBC, 1944)
Suspense: No More Alice (mystery/thriller; CBS, 1946)
Escape: The Log (adventure; CBS, 1948)
The Bob Hope Show: The Arthur Hopfrey Show with Fred Allen (comedy; NBC, 1950)
Fibber McGee & Molly: Fibber Builds a Guest House (comedy; NBC, 1950)
The Henry Morgan Show: The Quest Pests Strike Again (comedy; NBC, 1950)
The Harold Peary Show: Income Tax (comedy; CBS, 1951)
Broadway is My Beat: Laugh-a-Minute Tyler (crime drama; CBS, 1953)
Gunsmoke: Cyclone (western; CBS, 1953)
Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar: The Clinton Matter, Part Three (crime drama; CBS, 1956)

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