If This Is A Man
If This Is A Man is introduced with an essay written by John Reeves, the CBC producer with whom Whalley worked. The script is available here.
John Reeves: “Concerning George Whalley and Radio”
George Whalley made a vast and valuable contribution to our national life in many fields. He had many many special gifts. One extraordinary gift of his was a capacity for true friendship; and I am well aware of that, for over the years we became good friends, he and I. But in addition, we were also colleagues, working together on many demanding programs broadcast on CBC Radio. George was a very fine radio artist, both as a performer himself, and as a superb adaptor of other writers’ work. I’d like to talk for a few minutes about that, with passing mention of some small-scale projects, but rather more extensively about two large projects of his that show what Radio, sometimes called the Tenth Muse, can achieve as an art in its own right. I refer, of course, to the radio version of Primo Levi’s book, Se questo è un uomo (If This Is A Man), which is a profound account of his time in Auschwitz; and to the radio version of the book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, by James Agee and Walker Evans, which is an equally profound account of hardship endured by cotton-picking sharecroppers in Alabama during the Depression.
First, Primo Levi.
Some of you may have read Se questo è un uomo in translation, or even in the original Italian. If the latter, you will not be surprised to hear that Primo (forgive the use of his first name: he became one of my most treasured friends), Primo is esteemed as one of the great modern masters of Italian prose, and his work is compulsory reading in Italian high-schools. Its importance is such as to shine through in translation; and it is widely regarded as the supreme spiritual document to have emerged from the Holocaust.
I use the word “spiritual” advisedly. Primo pulled no punches in depicting the nightmare that was Auschwitz. The horror and the cruelty are all there in detail. But he writes of it with extraordinary objectivity like a scientist – he was, indeed, an outstanding chemist – and he lets the dreadful facts speak for themselves, without ornament. But he was also an outstanding humanist, and the portraits of his fellow-prisoners are rich in personal identity, rich with the humane quality that the Nazis tried to extinguish: for them, a prisoner was a thing, nameless, tattooed with a number. And running through Primo’s account of that Hell was his reflective voice: the voice not only of a man determined to survive in order to bear witness, but also of a man paying tribute to those he knew there in whom the spirit of their essential humanity was indestructible, even though they ended up, almost all of them, in the gas-chambers.
At a distance of fifty years, I cannot now remember whether I suggested Primo’s book to George or he to me. But we at once agreed on how to go about making it work on radio. And here let me pause for a moment to say something about the unique property of radio as a medium. All the other performing arts address a public audience, as in a theatre or a cinema or a concert-hall. A radio drama or docudrama does not: it addresses just one person, intimately and privately, listening at home or sometimes in a car; it may be received in thousands of homes, and that makes it a mass medium. But in each individual case it is a one-on-one relationship. Furthermore, that relationship is creative, not passive. Other forms of drama are passive: that is, the audience passively accepts the look of the actors playing the roles and the look of the scenery as provided by the set-designer and the lighting director. By contrast, the individual listeners to a radio drama create in their mind’s eye an imagined picture of what the characters look like and what the setting looks like; it is their contribution to the experience – in effect, they are working in creative partnership with what’s put in at the other end by the writer, the cast, and the producer. This actually justifies the paradoxical dictum of the critic who said that of all the dramatic media radio drama was the most visual.
George knew this, intuitively and empirically. And it governed his approach to Primo’s text. He wanted to make the listener feel the impact of Auschwitz on Primo as though he were there, for a couple of hours, undergoing that impact himself. And George found a way to make that happen with a sort of “you-are-there” authentic reconstruction of the camp. He did this with a simple linguistic device, which was explained to the listener in an introductory announcement. You are going to hear English used, the announcer says, as the equivalent of Primo Levi’s Italian. That is, Levi’s narration will be spoken in English, and any dialogue between Levi and fellow-prisoners from Italy will also be spoken in English. Everything else in the script, yes everything else, will be spoken in the original languages used in the camp: the Germans will speak German, the prisoners will speak either Yiddish or (depending on background) French, Spanish, Greek, and so on. What this does is it forces the listener to experience what Primo experienced, the immersion in a babel of tongues, where you don’t understand much of what is being said, but where failure to understand an order could cost you your life. This gave the reconstruction a chilling authenticity.
George was perfectly well aware, of course, that listeners needed help coming to grips with that polyglot array of voices. That help was provided by Primo’s narration. Thanks to his explanatory presence, a listener would never lose track of what was actually going on. But then again, the listener would also be exposed, sometimes in the background and sometimes in the foreground, to what was actually going on.
Technically this could best be achieved by a unique format of script layout, which some of you may have seen electronically reproduced on the Whalley website. Throughout, there is a left-hand page, containing the narration, and opposite it there is a right-hand page, to be played simultaneously, containing the dialogue and the sound-effects. To put it another way, the right-hand page is Auschwitz itself, and the left-hand page is Primo’s account of it.
On the right-hand page, by the way, are no less than thirteen languages and dialects, if I remember correctly. George, as you know, was a master of several languages; but he himself would be the first to pay tribute to the linguistic advisers who helped him retranslate the dialogue in the book back into the languages or dialects in which it had originally been uttered. (And I, for one, must pay tribute, too, to my secretary, Elizabeth Savage, who typed the multilingual script with painstaking accuracy.)
Casting was an interesting challenge. I needed to find performers who could speak the lines with unerring accuracy, too. ACTRA is a union of professional actors and singers in radio and television, and I sent out a call for performers willing to audition for roles in which they would speak foreign languages. Some of the requirements were highly specific. For example, I needed someone who could speak Yiddish with a Galician accent, and another someone who could speak French with an Italian accent, and in one rare case another someone who could speak the Spanish brought to Salonika when the Jews were exiled thither from fifteenth-century Spain.
It is proof of Canada’s multicultural diversity that all these requirements could be met. Some of the actors were European immigrants who had been actors back home, and they were glad to participate. Others were second-generation Canadians who had grown up fluent in an ancestral tongue. There were even a few who had actually been in Nazi concentration camps; and for them, of course, the experience of reliving that life, in a studio, was profoundly moving.
Where the German-speaking roles were concerned I had to be tactful. I began each audition by telling the candidate what the script was about; and I knew that the subject was one that many a German might find upsetting. So I said that if the candidate would now prefer not to proceed with an audition, he could leave right now with no hard feelings. Only one candidate did choose to leave – rather tempestuously, I might add. The others went through with it. Some of them were Gentile, and they put their feelings aside in a thoroughly professional way. Others were German-speaking Jews and, as professionals, they also put their feelings aside: it really must have been quite painful for them to represent Nazi brutes; but they did so out of conscience, as a duty to the memory of the six million victims.
Thus, then, it came about that Auschwitz was recreated linguistically with near-total realism. Primo was most favourably impressed with this approach. He followed in George’s footsteps later, doing the same thing linguistically on Italian radio. In that case, of course, there was total authenticity, since Italian could be used in his presentation, where we had had to substitute English in our production.
Two other details I would like to mention, in connection with the search for authenticity: music, and sound-effects.
In our broadcast, the only music was music that was an actual part of the scene: the music of the camp band that marched the prisoners to work or to parade. That is to say, there was no incidental music. Neither George not I would have tolerated the idea of having a composer presume to underscore the drama with the kind of instrumental marginalia that were such a plague in Hollywood movies and have become an equally unwarranted plague in television documentaries. Trust the script, we believed, trust the cast, trust the director: flinging a symphony orchestra into the mix would be at once a grievous act of mistrust and a vile impertinence.
In that connection, I should mention how effective it was not to have music in the radio version of Michal Ondaatje’s Coming through Slaughter, his extraordinary portrayal of Buddy Boulden, the great trumpet virtuoso of early jazz. There are, sadly, no recordings of his playing. Michael made it sound in the listener’s inner ear by evoking it (and Boulden’s life) in inspired and inspiring words. Here again there was a creative partnership at work between author and listener – not a case, so much, of radio being visual, as of radio being doubly auditory, speaking a language that utters music within.
By the way, the actor who played Buddy Boulden, superbly, in that production, was Douglas Rain. And it was Rain who played Primo Levi, also superbly, in Se questo è un uomo. It is a measure of his versatility, and of his responsiveness to George’s work, that he went on to play both Robert Southwell in George’s script about that Elizabethan poet and martyr, and James Agee in George’s radio version of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men – of which more later. Few actors have that kind of range. But of all his roles, Rain most remembers that of Primo: it had a deep and lasting effect on him.
The other ingredient of realism in Se questo è un uomo was sound-effects. Radio technicians are adept at contriving the incidental sounds of real life. For some of what they do, they can draw on a vast library of recorded effects, which can be quite convincing if carefully chosen and discreetly used; and many of them are versatile and inventive in creating “live” effects. But there were two sounds in Auschwitz that needed extra effort. One was the slamming open of the cattle-truck doors when the prisoners first arrived. There was only one way to get that sound. I went one day with the late Alex Sheridan, a sound-effects genius, to the Toronto stockyards, when no one was at work there, and tape-recorded the sound of cattle-truck doors being slammed open; and a carefully edited copy of the tape mixed in perfectly, in the studio, with the “live” sound of the arriving prisoners and of the orders being shouted by the Nazis who herded them, variously, to forced labour or to death.
The other hard-to-get sound was that of the cold January wind in Auschwitz during Primo’s last week there, lying in sick bay with the few ill prisoners who had not been marched away, on the death-march, when the Germans evacuated the place. It was a scene of desolation, and the chilly wind had an eerie quality of loneliness, mortality, and ineffable sadness. No recorded wind in the library came close to achieving that. Alex Sheridan, bless his heart, created it “live”: standing close to a microphone, breathing in and out through pursed lips, he became the Auschwitz wind, like a virtuoso. It was a quite long sequence, and the wonder is he didn’t faint from hyper-ventilation. It was, if you will, a small detail: but in such small details great art is made – on a technician’s imaginative skill, on a writer’s choice of the exact word, on an actor’s grasp of nuance in punctuation.
One last detail now, for those of you who have actually seen the script in its facing-page form. On the right-hand page, where Primo has lines, he is in dialogue with other members of the cast and he shares a microphone with them as they re-enact events. But on the left-hand page, all his lines are, so to speak, outside the action. And you will have noticed that his lines are tagged variously with the letters N and D and R. These are the three aspects of what he has to say, and they refer to him as Narrating the events, or Describing the scene or the people, or Reflecting on the meaning of what takes place. Douglas Rain was fully sensitive to the slight difference between the three aspects of his text, and the subtlety of his tripartite delivery was enhanced, if almost imperceptibly, by his speaking into three microphones that differed slightly from each other in their sound quality.
In the opinion of many, Primo Levi’s book is a masterpiece; and because of its subject, it is of historic importance. In my opinion, George Whalley’s radio version of it is equally a masterpiece. It ran on air for two hours and twenty minutes (about the same length as many an important film), and the fact that the CBC aired it at that length fifty years ago is clear proof that CBC Radio back then was loyal to the ideals of public broadcasting. Whether the same could be said of it nowadays is something I would prefer not to go into.
But before I leave Se questo è un uomo, let me add, briefly, a capsule biographical note. Primo emerged from Auschwitz in January 1945 emaciated and seriously ill. Slowly, over several months, he recovered his health and strength, in a Ukrainian convalescent camp, and then made his way home to Turin, where miraculously his mother and his sister had survived the genocide. In his book, he asks if this is a man, this ex-prisoner who has perhaps lost all trace of his essence as a human being, because of the systematic attempt by the Nazis to erase it. At one point in his journey home, something strikes him as uproariously funny, and he bursts into laughter. In that moment he knows, instantly, that not all is lost: if he can laugh, he is indeed a man. Rideo ergo sum. From that moment on, he recovers his soul – fully. The Primo I knew was a man of geniality, of sober wit, highly intelligent, and wonderfully empathetic with other people. He had a successful career as an industrial chemist, and eventually resigned from it to write full time. It’s probably true to say that for many years he transcended the suffering that had been inflicted on him. But sadly, towards the end, old wounds reopened: under the scars old anguishes re-awoke. My last visit with him, only a few months before his death, left me troubled for his sake. He was discernibly depressed. He felt he was written out, that he had nothing more to say. His health was poor, and worrisome. And he was under great strain: he and his wife were looking after both his mother and hers in their own home; one old lady was blind and deaf, the other had a stroke; and there was no Jewish nursing-home for them – the community, now tiny, had never recovered from the Holocaust. Altogether, the stress was more than he could handle; and to everyone’s grief, he took his own life. He was only sixty-seven.
His work lives on. And in him I salute a very great writer and a very great human being. And that, I believe, is appropriate in these reflections on George Whalley, another great man endowed with the same indestructible humanity. I am enormously privileged to have known them both.
As I was saying, I want to address the other major radio opus of George’s, his version of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, by James Agee and Walker Evans. But before I do, let me touch on some of the other radio programs of George’s on which I collaborated with him. They were smaller in scope, but none the less valuable for that.
Two of them harked back to the Middle Ages. The distinguished mediaevalist, Helen Waddell, wrote a fine novel called Peter Abelard, which retold the story of Abelard’s famous affair with Heloise. In lesser hands, it could have been a soppy piece of work, the kind of thing we nowadays call a Romance Novel. But Waddell dealt in depth with the thorny issues of theology and justice and moral integrity that were central to the tale. It is a superb book. George adapted it into the form of a straightforward radio play, and my function was simply to produce and direct it. Looking back on it, I don’t think I did a very good job. But I guess George was reasonably satisfied; for he seemed happy, years later, to accept my commission to script a series of five half-hour dramas based on Malory’s Morte Darthur.
That original book, the first great novel in the English language, had often been the source of later texts in English literature: notably Tennyson’s “Idylls of the King” in the nineteenth century, and in the twentieth T.H. White’s “The Once and Future King”. The latter, essentially, is just a rewrite of Malory in modern idiomatic English, but is rich in modern insights into the characters’ minds and hearts. The most striking of these insights, perhaps, was into the character of Lancelot. White portrayed him as someone torn in three directions by conflicting passions: he loved Guinevere, as a man loves a woman; he loved King Arthur, as men bond together who share ideals and camaraderie; but in the deepest places of himself, he was in love with God. This was a love-triangle of extraordinary dimensions, and White gave it due importance as a governing factor in the story’s plot. So it’s odd that he didn’t pursue the story to its true conclusion, as recounted by Malory. “The Once and Future King” ends with the ruin befalling the kingdom: with Lancelot, in exile, unable to save the realm from treasonous civil war; and with Arthur, sorely wounded, departing mysteriously to some mythic haven. Fair enough, if the whole point, to White, was concern with what is called the Matter of Britain. But Malory knew better: he tied up a loose end of string, with the death and burial of Guenevere. Then he went on to bring Lancelot’s long journey to the ultimate resting-place his pilgrimage of love had always spurred him towards: abjuring arms, the knight enters a monastery; there, as a humble monk, devout and simple, he spends his last days in holy quiet, and dies serene.
Malory knew what he was doing. In those final pages, he carries his noble and tragic tale to the only true fulfilment of all that has gone before. This was not lost on George. His Malory series gives the final say to Lancelot’s brother, who speaks over the corpse what must be, in its brevity, one of the most eloquent eulogies ever set down in English prose. George, of course, could recognize genius in the written word. That passage is very moving on the printed page. On radio it takes on a living and breathing life which summons up a higher reality still, summoned up in that world of the creative imagination which is mutually born of author’s text, actor’s delivery, and listener’s inner ear.
If Malory’s Lancelot was just a fictional holy man, Robert Southwell was a saint in real life. George’s documentary about him, with Rain again in the lead, tackled again the subject of atrocity. For a great blot on the record of Queen Elizabeth I was the campaign of terror she waged against Jesuit priests who entered England, clandestinely, to serve the proscribed Roman Catholic community. They were hunted down like vermin, underwent prolonged and ferocious torture, and were then executed in a manner unspeakably barbaric. Southwell was one of them. He was canonized as a martyr, but his sainthood lay not so much in the fidelity of his death as in the unshakeable strength of his spirit: even Elizabeth’s most ingenious and relentless torturer, the vile Topcliffe, could not break him; he transcended the worst they could do to him, and George’s scrupulously researched script captured at once the pure coin of that transcendence and the base coin of what he had to endure.
There was no incidental music in the program, no intrusion of sixteenth-century pastiche. The text alone sufficed, needed no bolstering. But it gave me much pleasure to follow George’s documentary with an adjoining program of music that seemed fitting: music of the same period by William Byrd for a cappella choir. Byrd, as you know, was a great pioneer of Anglican church music; but he must have felt grief over Southwell, for he was in secret a faithful Roman Catholic, and he wrote Latin church music for private use by the co-religionists whom Southwell had tried to serve.
The tendency of some producers to muck about with music in the background of words is a bad habit I indulged in as a young man, but did manage to grow out of. Nothing so pernicious would ever have crossed George’s mind. For example, when he wrote a broadcast introduction to “The Wreck of the Deutschland” by Hopkins, it would never have occurred to him that a reading of that long and intricate poem should be accompanied by what, by Debussy’s “La Mer” or the storm movement from Britten’s “Sea Interlufes”? For him, that would be an irreverent vulgarity. It’s not an easy text for the listener to come to grips with, even after absorbing George’s lucid commentary on it: incidental music would be nothing but a distraction.
There’s an important point here. One of George’s strengths as a scholar was his sheer reverence for text. Exactly that reverence informed his work as a broadcaster. In every program he approached text as its sole ground of being. He was, in the most committed way, a servant of the word. And that made him a radio artist of rare purity.
I would not have you think, though, that George, always a serious broadcaster, was ever a solemn one. He had a wonderful, droll sense of humour. And one program of his I enormously enjoyed working on was devoted to Nonsense Humour. It would be futile for me to try and describe it to you: jokes don’t work if you have to explain them. But if you’re ever in Toronto and feel in need of a good laugh, go to the CBC Archives and have someone play you the tape: it’s filed under the series title, which was The Fourth Estate.
That series, which ran for some three or four years, was devoted to various achievements of the Press, humorous columns being one of them. Most journalism, of course, is ephemeral: it dies when its topicality expires. However, historically, newspapers and magazines have occasionally commissioned writing of lasting importance. In the nineteen-thirties, James Agee and Walker Evans were commissioned to write about and to photograph the wretched lives of exploited sharecroppers in the cotton belt of Alabama. What they wrote and photographed was too controversial, at the time, to get much print. But it was later reworked and published in book form; and by any objective measure, it ranks as one of the great achievements of modern American literary and visual art. I asked George to adapt it for radio, in a two-hour version, and he leapt at the chance to do so.
It was no easy task. The photographs capture, in the most striking way, the world of the families Evans portrayed – very concisely. But Agee’s text is a great sprawl of a work; it goes all over the place in a way that is equally striking but not readily put in order for broadcast purposes. A reader can take his time with it, letting it gradually sink in. A listener, as it passes by in non-stop abridgement, needs it to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. George knew this, and went to work with this in mind. But that was only a first step, recognizing a necessary principle of form. There were two other problems, one technical, one fundamental.
The technical problem was the photographs. How to present them on radio? For Agee always insisted they must be regarded as not less important than the text: they were no mere illustrations of the words; they were a vital entity in their own right. What George decided (it was the best anyone could do, given the medium) was craft the program for two equal speakers: one of them, acting as Evans, would speak all the lines that were descriptive, of the people and the places; the other, acting as Agee, would speak all the lines that were narrative, of events or customs, and reflective. In between, a cast of actors, familiar with the necessary dialect, would represent the real-life characters.
The other problem, the fundamental one, was one of content: how to grasp the essence of the book in its deepest meaning. Here George’s genius in radio struck gold. For he realised that what the book was all about was Grace: he saw it as a religious masterpiece. And once he knew that, he hit upon a structural approach that would be true to both the content and the spirit of the original. He called it a Book of Hours.
In the Middle Ages a Book of Hours was a devotional book for Christian readers, based on the several hours of the day when believers would practise the spiritual disciplines of their faith. In a monastery, these hours were quite strictly set: before dawn, at first light, mid-morning, at noon, mid-afternoon, evening, and before returning for the night. George saw that horarium as parallel to the lives of his sharecroppers. Nor was that just a fanciful correlation. For Agee had perceived in those lives, especially in the life of one particular family, not only the predicament of a suffering humanity hungry for some kind of redemption, but also the indomitable stamina of men and women and children enduring dreadful hardship with a kind of mute and stoic goodness.
So George, through Agee’s words, portrayed the family’s grievous, uncomplaining day of toil and need, hour by hour, from first stirring before sunup, through back-breaking non-stop labour till sundown, and then exhausted sleep.
But this was only one of three simultaneous chronologies. There was also, in George’s script, the chronology of the seasons: the re-awakening of the land at winter’s end; the spring ploughing; the care of the ripening crop; the harvest under a blinding sun; in fall, putting the land to bed; winter, cold at the heart for want of fuel or wages.
Then, in addition, there was the coincidental chronology of the Christian year, with all its permutations of life and death, of hope and dread, all the way from privation in the dark days of Lent, through an Easter sense of renewal and the long months of perseverance, to November’s remembrance of mortality and Advent’s focus on Last Things.
All these were concepts familiar and meaningful to George. They gave him a handle on Let Us Now Praise Famous Men which enabled him to do it such justice, in its radio reworking, as perhaps only he, of all adaptors, could ever have done.
His two narrators, who should be duly credited here, were Budd Knapp as Walker Evans and Douglas Rain as James Agee. Both of them were among the finest radio actors in the English-speaking world. I loved working with them, and often did. But even the most gifted and experienced actor can suffer from a momentary lapse of confidence. Prior to the taping, there was a coffee-break. Most of the cast went downstairs to the cafeteria, but Knapp and Rain stayed in the studio. They happened to be standing near a microphone which the audio technician hadn’t switched off; so I in the control-room, without intending to eavesdrop, heard what passed between them. Rain was worried about one passage in the text: at a crucial point he would have to speak the words of the Lord’s Prayer. They would be utterly familiar to almost every listener. How could he deliver them effectively? Was there some way he could avoid sounding trite, some way to give them real impact?
Knapp looked at him, shrewdly, and gave him the help he needed, the one piece of simple advice he knew would work
“Just say the words, Doug,” he said. “Just say the words.”
In that moment he did more than merely help a fellow actor. Unwittingly he touched on the secret of what made George Whalley tick: trust the words, and everything else takes care of itself. We are the beneficiaries.