The play that was broadcast on CBC Radio on May 30, 1954, was not terribly good, but politics made it a spectacular success -- maybe the biggest success in CBC Radio's history. It was The Investigator, a burlesque of U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy's crusade against communist subversion. John Drainie, the best of radio actors and an expert mimic, precisely caught McCarthy's obnoxious whine. The script imagined McCarthy's appearance in heaven, where he joins Torquemada and other inquisitors in prosecuting subversives such as Socrates, Thomas Jefferson and Voltaire, sentencing each of them to "deportation from Up Here to Down There."
The Investigator came at precisely the right moment. McCarthy, having claimed to have found communists in the U.S. Army, was starring that very week in the televised Army-McCarthy hearings, which put his breathtaking arrogance on public display hour after hour. (He appeared especially evil because he always seemed unshaven; it would be decades before that look became fashionable.) Though nobody knew it, his moment was almost over. Six months later, his Senate colleagues censured him for various abuses, pretty well ending his career. In 1957, his alcoholism, having escalated from chronic to acute, finally finished him off.
The spirit of the times made The Investigator seem funnier than it was; today it sounds like one joke endlessly repeated, but in the 1950s that one joke went a long way. Now the original production has appeared on cassette, along with other ancient CBC plays, from Scenario Productions (831 Glencairn Ave., Suite 276, Toronto, Ont. M6B 2A4).
The Investigator was written for Andrew Allan's Stage series, which functioned from 1944 to 1956 as English-speaking Canada's national theatre. This was, everyone agrees, the golden age of radio drama. The Stage series gave many of us our first Shakespeare and our first Sophocles -- and our first inkling that there were Canadian playwrights with something to tell us.
The writer of The Investigator, Reuben Ship (1915-1975), was himself a victim of the McCarthy era -- and, like most of the show-business victims, a hack. His story was expertly told by Gerry Gross of Concordia University in a 1989 article for the scholarly journal Theatre Research in Canada. A tailor's son from Montreal, Ship started out writing sketch comedy for Catskills revues and reached Hollywood in 1943 as a writer on the radio series The Life of Riley.
Along the way he joined various communist fronts and was later identified in sworn testimony as a Communist Party member. When called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), he recited a passage from Jefferson, to which Rep. Francis Walter responded: "Who do you think you're kidding?" (Ship inserted both Jefferson's remarks and Walter's in The Investigator.) After a two-year legal struggle, the government deported this bothersome foreigner. In 1953, he was handcuffed, taken to Detroit and driven across the bridge to Windsor. Ten months later, The Investigator went on the air.
The results of that show were, for Ship, quite wonderful. The BBC broadcast it in England to great praise. A Tory MP in Ottawa demanded that people like Ship be cleaned out of the CBC, The New York Times ran a friendly notice, and the show's reputation kept growing. An obscure New York record company put out a bootleg LP that eventually sold (Ship later said) 100,000 copies. The New Republic reported that President Dwight Eisenhower had played the program for his cabinet. Stations across the United States were broadcasting it, and Counterattack, a pro-McCarthy weekly, predicted that this "Party-line LP" was becoming a hit.
Ship wrote other material for the CBC but soon left for England. There he married Elaine Grand, a celebrated Canadian broadcaster; he wrote TV scripts and became part of the left-wing émigré community that Mordecai Richler satirized in an early novel, A Choice of Enemies. In 1956, Ship rewrote The Investigator as a sort of novel, with Ronald Searle's caricatures of McCarthy. It appeared in the United States in 1969, this time illustrated by William Gropper, an American social realist and favourite of communist publications.
Among the other shows issued by Scenario Productions are the Stage version of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (with Lorne Greene and John Colicos) and a play by Andrew Allan, A Sense of Sin, with Christopher Plummer. The Allan play is no better than a soap opera, and Heart of Darkness is marred by the heavy-handed Lucio Agostini music that always burdened the Stage series. But the only truly appalling material in Scenario's collection is something called Nazi Eyes on Canada -- five plays by Alan King, broadcast in 1942 as wartime propaganda.
They were inspired by the National War Finance Committee and designed to sell Victory Bonds. J. Frank Willis, who produced them, brought Helen Hayes, Vincent Price and some other Hollywood actors to Toronto to play Canadians. Remarkably, the narrator on one show is Orson Welles.
Four years earlier, Welles had created panic in the streets with his realistic depiction of an interplanetary invasion, The War of the Worlds.
Now he was involved in another futuristic drama, this one about the conquest of Canada. The plays depict the Germans and the Japanese winning the war around 1946 and imposing a murderous tyranny on Canada. In successive one-hour dramas, we hear the enemy destroying Canadian families in five different regions, from New Brunswick to British Columbia (predictable anti-Japanese racism here). Each script has several commercials shamelessly embedded in the dialogue, calculated to produce intense guilt in those who haven't bought enough Victory Bonds.
One poor Toronto woman, now living under the Germans, accepts personal responsibility: "I failed ... I could have worked harder. I could have given up pleasures, given up luxuries, given to the last ounce of my strength."
Welles, narrating the story of a courageous Saskatchewan newspaper editor, tells Canadians to invest as much as possible: "Have you planned on personal self-denial to the point where your conscience is clear?" And Lorne Greene, nicknamed the Voice of Doom for his ability to make even good war news sound bad, says: "What about it, Canada?"
The tapes produced by Scenario deliver the direct and unmediated sound of history, and for that I'm grateful. On the other hand, some golden ages are better to read about than revisit.