Norman Corwin is widely referred to as “the poet laureate of radio.” That won’t have much meaning to people who didn’t grow up in the 1940s or haven’t sought out his brilliant audio dramas. But if you love great writing…if you have a curiosity about the world around you… if you wonder why Americans were so galvanized by World War Two…or if you’d like to learn why performers from Charles Laughton to Groucho Marx were eager to work with one brilliant writer-director above all others, you really ought to check out Corwin’s work.
For an overview, you might start with Mary Beth Kirschner’s loving and informative tribute that aired this past Monday, on NPR’s All Things Considered. The occasion: Corwin’s 100th birthday. When you hear such devotees as Ray Bradbury,—
—Philip Roth, the late Studs Terkel, Charles Kuralt, and Robert Altman speak their piece, you begin to appreciate what a wide net this man cast on an entire generation.
While most of America was tuning in to Jack Benny and Fibber McGee and Molly, and mainstream drama often consisted of adaptations of popular Hollywood movies (as on Lux Radio Theater), Corwin conceived a series of original radio plays. You never knew what you were going to hear, from week to week: his work could be whimsical, somber, poetic, pointed, or provocative. He had no commercial sponsors to please; CBS was required to fill air time, and gave him carte blanche, knowing he would always deliver something interesting—and just possibly, something great.
He composed many patriotic programs during the 1940s, none more famous than the hour-long show he was commissioned to write for VE Day in 1945—the moment of victory in Europe after four long years. That night, some sixty million listeners tuned in, on all four radio networks, to hear a unique and thrilling program that not only rejoiced in our victory but asked Americans to stop for a moment and ponder what we had fought for, what we sacrificed, and what we learned that might help rebuild a world of peace. There has never been anything like it since. It is called On a Note of Triumph, and it was issued as a record album and a book. Martin Gabel’s sonorous voice narrates the text, set to music by Bernard Herrmann. Five years ago, Eric Simonson directed a documentary about Corwin and called it, with good reason, A Note of Triumph: The Golden Age of Norman Corwin. It won the Academy Award as Best documentary Short Subject.
Although radio gave him his greatest platform, he has never stopped writing, teaching, or thinking. He is incapable of uttering an inelegant phrase, and at least one volume of his letters have been collected in book form. (Most recently, Continuum published One World Flight: The Lost Journal of Radio’s Greatest Writer.)
Getting to know this astonishing man has been one of the joys of my life, and last Saturday I was honored to host a tribute to Norman, organized by the indomitable Peggy Webber, founder of CART (California Artists Radio Theatre) and one of Norman’s most devoted followers. The Writers Guild of America theater was nearly full for the matinee program, which consisted of two full-length Corwin pieces—one lighthearted, one serious—and a series of tributes spoken by such friends and admirers as Carl Reiner, who remembers performing Corwin scripts under the auspices of the WPA; Hal Kanter, the unfailingly funny comedy writer-director-producer who’s been mistaken for Norman over the past sixty years; Phil Proctor, who as a cofounder of Firesign Theater continued the tradition of creating entertainment for “the theater of the mind,” and his wife Melinda Peterson; and Norman Lloyd, who in his 90s continues to deliver forceful performances in CART productions—including those by Corwin.
For someone who’s best remembered for his “serious” work, Norman wrote some very funny pieces as well, including the one Peggy decided to highlight, Mary and the Fairy, which originally aired in 1941 with Elsa Lanchester in the leading role. An amusing jibe at the lofty promises of advertising to free ordinary people of their everyday problems, it’s just as relevant as ever. Joanne Worley and Marvin Kaplan did a beautiful job as the naïve heroine and her wish-granting fairy. This was followed by an excerpt from the first play of Norman’s to be broadcast by CBS, in 1938, The Plot to Overthrow Christmas, and a slice of Soliloquy to Balance the Budget, a puckish, blatantly bare-bones entry in his “26 by Corwin” series performed by Shelley Berman.
But the piece de resistance was Our Lady of the Freedoms and Some of Her Friends, a latter-day radio drama commissioned by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in 1997 and not nearly as well known as it ought to be. Norman has always been an independent thinker, but he is patriotic in the fullest sense of that word, and his paeans to all things American are among his finest works. Ed Asner took the role of narrator in this eye-opening (and well-researched) saga of how the Statue of Liberty came to be. The ensemble included Samantha Eggar, Ian Abercrombie, Shelley Long, Phil Proctor, Tom Williams, Richard Herd, Paul Keith, Shelley Berman, Marvin Kaplan, Simon Templeman, and John Harlan. (As always, Tony Palermo provided live sound effects and Kenneth Stange composed and arranged the music cues.) But it was Asner—who started out in New York radio as a young man, back in the 1950s—who grabbed hold of Corwin’s soaring prose and brought it to an emotional crescendo at the end of the performance. The audience cheered its approval along with its praise for the playwright, who beamed in appreciation. (In the course of time, audio recordings of this event will be available through CART. In the meantime, you can check out their other offerings HERE.
Norman wrote for theater, film and television, and received an Oscar nomination for the screenplay of the acclaimed 1956 movie Lust for Life, the biography of Van Gogh starring Kirk Douglas and directed by Vincente Minnelli (which was screened by the American Cinematheque Sunday night at the Aero Theater, with Corwin in attendance), but it’s his work in radio that continues to inspire and enthrall after so many years.
Radio Spirits has just released a new boxed set of CDs that includes many Corwin classics, including his Bill of Rights special We Hold These Truths, which aired just days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, with a cast headed by Orson Welles, James Stewart, and Lionel Barrymore, and his masterpiece, On a Note of Triumph. Corwin’s use of heightened language and blank verse may not be fashionable today, but it still retains its enormous power. You can learn more about it or make a purchase HERE.
A private birthday party—and a special citation from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which he served for many years—wrapped up three days of celebration. Norman’s reaction was simple: if he’d known how pleasurable these events would be, he would have reached 100 even sooner!
To learn more about Norman Corwin, click HERE.