Nonfiction Libretto

"IMPURE MANHATTAN the Blog" is just me thinking out loud ----- very much  'a work in progress'.

But it is intended, ultimately, be published as a web-based book, as well as a downloadable printable-at-home 'book'.

"IMPURE MANHATTAN the Book" will be a non-fiction libretto and prose 'melos drama' (in the originally meaning of that term) divided into about thirty factual 'scenes'.

Each of its scenes will be followed by extensive Shavian 'closet theatre staging notes' in the form of brief biographies of the key characters and descriptions of the important historical settings and events surrounding that particular scene.

Libretto ???!!!

Yes sir, by 'libretto', I do really mean a libretto, albeit in this case a non-fiction libretto, and a libretto for a melodrama --- 'melos drama' as defined in the 18th,19th and hopefully 21st century sense of the term.

You may think that you have never seen an example of this the original definition of a melos drama, but you have.

Probably seen zillions of them in fact, : today they are simply called 'movies' or 'TV'.

They seem - to the eye - to be a perfectly normal drama consisting of speech and physical actions (with more than usual near-silent pantomime) but the ear soon reveals that they are accompanied with near constant instrumental (and increasingly) vocal music.

The music is usually subtle or distant (music 'off' or 'under') during important speeches but is much more louder and more present (and much more likely to be vocal) during near-silent pantomime activity.

The overall effect can be incredibly subtle : for example, a main character struggles to articulate his deepest fears, coming out with brief intense vocal interjections separated with long pauses.

Meanwhile, during in those long pauses, we the audience see him silently struggle while hearing a table radio in the background playing a song chorus intoning over and over, "today we do  --- or we die ; win or lose, we must at least try".

The Golden Age of Radio

My non-fiction melodrama is set in WWII New York City, where literally half the residents still had close relatives in ever present danger of dying in the European combat zone.

Even during the 1920s-1950s Golden Age of Radio, it was not normal for businesses to pipe a local radio station through the company PA during work hours, as we do today in the non-golden age of radio.

But few business owners in wartime New York (already having their own personal radios in their private office) could survive the backlash from middle level management and factory floor employee over denying 'just one wee small table radio', 'we promise turned down low', somewhere in the main office and main shopfloor, so the grim or uplifting news from the latest war bulletins could quickly be conveyed through the entire workforce.

That generation was also the first in history to work and live in a virtual sea of near constant and ubiquitous electronically conveyed sounds.

The first to daily hear radio, telephones and record players at home and hear sound slide presentations or 16mm sound film movies at work, school or even in church settings.

The first ever to hear truck and taxi squawk radios and restaurant jukeboxes along with school, hospital, train station and work PA systems, together with yet more telephones and dictaphones and intercoms.

More and more personal cars had radios and the sheer mania for portable (battery-powered) record players and radios is a much neglected aspect of the histories of Golden Age of Radio, which still tend to focus near exclusively on the massive cathedrals of sound permanently set up in the living room of middle class homes.

(This constant commercial prewar push for more and more minaturization (pre-transistor) is the main reason why late war Allied radar was so superior to that of the Axis.)

Some during WWII could even hear TV sound - for TVs were set up in selected wards of many wartime NYC hospitals.

When I worked in the 1980s in AV rentals, sales and repairs I came across enough WWII era AV equipment and WWII era AV customers, to glean a fair insight into this era before my own.

Dictaphones - did I mention dictaphones ? - Honey I am gonna work their tranny off !

If you have never seen a typical wartime dictaphone machine, just watch
one of the most famous wartime era movies, DOUBLE INDEMNITY, where it practically becomes a lead character all on its own.
So no, there won't be any conventional microphones on mike stands up on the stage in my melos drama ( aka 'musical').

 But busy doctors, busy administrators and busy scientific researchers, then as now, paced their offices and labs working the microphone and microphone cords of their dictaphones while thinking aloud, crafting and re-crafting the words and the rhythms of their oral-print presentations into their microphones.

All for the typists to later convert to a printed article and the script for a slide presentation.

If you don't think crafting a scientific article aloud is inherently theatrical, you've been listening - and worse, much worse - believing the scientists

Scientists like to claim - and perhaps even believe - that their scientific reports are as devoid of emotional appeals and rhetoric as a human body can make them.

But historians and sociologists of science know better --- know that all of scientific reports and presentations are nothing but rhetoric and all the more effective for being denied and disguised.

Scientists in fact work very hard to craft their scientific articles and presentations -those reports are very far indeed from a mere massive 'data drop' : they work and rework their lines, move and shuffle paragraphs about.

Lay all that oral working and re working of key phrases over a strong music ostinato and you have all of a happening song that a modern audience could ever want.

The Dawson teams' articles and oral presentations weren't usually solo efforts - often two, three, four and more would all help craft the lines together, riffing off each other, just like a a trio in an opera. 

So in my melos drama, Dawson, Meyer and Hobby will theatrically 'work' the stage with a dictaphone mike at the end of a dictaphone cord, crafting aloud their frequent articles and oral presentations --- as will their opponents among their bosses and overlords.

Because I knew, for certain, that my main character in IMPURE MANHATTAN, Dr Henry Dawson frequently spoke of his scientific work in front of big crowds and usually used slides to help his (pre-PowerPoint) presentation.

Presentations he might have worked for months upon, crafting them into a rhetorical masterwork.

As did most other scientific researchers, if they really wanted to move their research results out beyond the walls of the lab and out beyond the unread pages of most journal issues - to inject it direct into the heart, soul and minds of their colleagues.

Dawson's personal scientific line of work, microbes, didn't lend itself to sound other than his own voice, but his worksite (a top research hospital complex) and his middle class home, were just filled with the latest in sound making technology.

Why not then make my proposed book about Dawson during the war years as realistic in terms of this sea of sound as it was in real life ?

I have two hopes then for my book.

For potential artistic adapters :

My first aim with the finished nonfiction libretto is to inspire artists to consider making my tale into a movie, radio play, stage play, album or concert, musical or opera ---- but always hoping they keep in mind the reality behind the nonfiction drama of Dawson and wartime penicillin.

Dawson, his colleagues, patients, their families and all their opponents did not sing for a living --- or burst into song at a moment of high tension.

But they did live surrounded by near constant electronically delivered music, singing, sound effects, dialogue and via newspapers, magazines and newsreels and lived with seeing a daily barrage of photographic images, again a first for humanity.

They did indeed occasionally burst into a ragged bit of song, just like the rest of us, they did give public (and relatively impassioned speeches) as scientists at scientific meetings, and being extraordinarily driven people living through long periods of extraordinarily high tension they definitely shouted and yelled out their hopes and fears, in the traditional stage-approved declaiming manner.

So if you choose to venture into in the area of these characters singing, think more of James Brown or Sam Cooke alternatively loudly or softly declaiming like a preacher at the front of the stage, while the band and the choir softly repeat a varied ostinato in music and voice, at the back of the stage.

Dawson, a mixture of Obama's most rhythmic prose speeches and the talk into singing of Sam Cooke, but given his terminal Myasthenia Gravis (MG disease) left him vocal weak after any vocal exertion, it  must be realistically include more stop and starts and long pauses.

Fortunately, the MG only makes Dawson dictaphone speech writing more - not less - musical.

Highly emotional - sure - how could it be otherwise ?

The war was killing tens of millions - including an entire 'race', babies and all.

Even inside the world of Dawson's little Manhattan Project, Dawson and all his patients were facing imminent death from the invariably fatal diseases of MG and SBE - literally life and death for themselves and for thousands of others.

And if only Dawson's broader vision could be embraced - now ! - by the Allied powerful, millions more might be saved from certain death. So yes, life and death was the constant tenor of their discussions.

Patients dying, family praying and crying, preachers and the last rites, even the medical staff wiping back tears - so yes, God yes ! - plenty of yelling and shouting and crying and quietly reflecting and sighing - prose, but prose always on the raw edge of turning imperceptively into poetry, rhetoric and song.

More Grand Opera than Musical Comedy. But of this century not of two hundred years ago.

So let "Sam Cooke at the 1955 Shrine Gospel Concert" or "James Brown at the Apollo, 1962" ever be your guide.

For Readers

If the overload of seemingly unneeded sound and visual images that I will have added to my telling of Dawson's wartime drama are in any way successful, readers will feel like a patron in a small theatre while a 21st century stage melodrama (in the original sense) unfolds before you.

So let us try to imagine what a 21st century stage melodrama might look like in the real world.

A truly 21st century stage melodrama will be very willing to include a broad mix of the very old and the very new in terms of staging.

An example of embracing the very oldest of theatre traditions : other than a very few main actors, the actors take on a wide variety of different roles by simply entering wearing one of four color coded tops over their own personal ordinary street clothes.

One color and one type of top each, to indicate all patients or all family visitors or all hospital staffers or all local hospital administrators or distant bureaucratic bosses.

And again the stage is very sparse, with no conventional 'set', just a few chairs scattered about, along with some multipurpose tables to serve as lab tops, patients' beds or doctors' office desks as required.

A very few realistic props --- flasks and microscopes for the lab scenes, bed sheets for the ward scenes, in-out tray for the doctor's office scenes.

Lights go up and sound fades up quickly in one corner of the stage dressed to indicate the lab, then both quickly down as lights and sound go quickly up in another corner, dressed to indicate different hospital physical setting within the same time period, perhaps the bosses' office.

(Each of the thirty or so 'scenes' being a relatively short period of time in the course of the war - usually only one long work day in length).

There are no curtain drops at the ends of each scene, only a twenty second fade to total black and total silence.

All the 30 scenes, spread over 5 years of the war, are (quite deliberately) set the same floor in the same hospital - wartime's Floor G of the Columbia Presbyterian Medical Centre in upper Manhattan.

To accurately replicate 'the feel' of hospital work during the very labour-short war years, the actors must never be seen to stop doing physical work when they talk amongst themselves or to patients, family or bosses.

Dictating a medical report into a dictaphone held in one hand while signing off on junior doctors assessments with the other hand would be routine - in real life and in my staging of that reality.

verbally gathering a medical history while physically examining a patient, routine even today, would be done much much faster back then.

Clipped question and answer turning into almost a rap poetry set to a beat.

So all of the amped-up physical motions of the characters/actors must be exaggeratedly visible and hyper-active, balletic, theatrical, melodramatic.

But since the story is also about a war that consumed 60 million lives in six continents over six horribly long years, that part of the drama must mostly come into the three little hospital rooms via a mix of 1940s electronic technology.

So yes, news of war comes poring in constantly, along with all the entertainment and education that NYC's huge number of radio stations and national networks could provide in the Golden Age of Radio.

Came in via the little 1940s style table radio in the lab and office, ditto another, along with a portable record-player and a acoustic guitar or two, in the public wards.

A 1940s era hospital PA, together with office and lab telephones, intercoms and dictaphones adds yet more news from the bigger than life drama going on outside three little rooms that Dawson and his patients seemed locked in for the years of the war.

Meanwhile the actors sometimes turn to 1940s era slide projectors and16mm projectors, projecting on tiny screens set up on the tables, along with poster boards and whiteboards, all to make their points to the others with them on the stage, perhaps in rehearsing a speech to be given later in public somewhere else.

Telegrams, letters, reports lie about, together with more image filled wartime bulletin board posters and regulations, magazines, newspapers and books flood in from the greater outside world -- all frequently picked up and referenced by the characters.

I hope the melodrama's irony comes through, that in the end the cumulative actions of the mostly un-noticed tiny Dawson team and their 'three little patients in three little rooms', have had a greater and more uplifting impact on day-today life in our postwar world than all of actions of larger-than-life WWII.

Consider Impure Manhattan my rebuttal to the wartime classic Casablanca : the problems of three little people can mount to much more than 'a mere hill of beans'. 

The 21st century aspects of the staging

Also present are the more purely 21st century aspects of the staging - because while all these 1940s electronic props may give off an unearthly light, they don't actually need to work.

Because instead all the diegetric and nondigetic visuals and sounds are controlled from a light, sight and sound mixing booth off stage.

(By non-digetic images, I mean that the large video screens set very high at the back of the stage are constantly playing WWII era silent stills and silent motion picture images that support or counterpoint the actions and speech going on at ground level on stage.

These images, being silent and set high above the stage action, make it easier for them to be clearly visible to the audience sitting back in their theatre seats while the characters down on the stage remain unaware of their existence.)

The people mixing light intensity and color temperature, just like those mixing sounds and sound quality in and out, up and down, bright or muted, are as much main characters as the onstage actors. The people bringing stills and motion film fragments up and out have it a bit easier.

But let us never forget other people have to first create (or at least find and edit) those sounds and images.

Your Theatre of the Mind

Okay, that's the real world -- how do I intend to replicate this effect -purely in the theatre of your mind - while you silently read ?

I believe the visual effect will be easy to recreate, via literally thousands of postage stamp images scattered through my text.

I have my concerns with the general tendency to still pretend that the visual world of WWII reality was strictly stark B&W.

Not only was reality in full color, even in terms of photography there was much more colour stills and 16mm color movies shot during WWII than most people realized at the time.

It was their inexpensive, easy and accurate reproduction in magazines, books and in 35mm movie theatres that was so very difficult back then and hence they were rarely seen by many.

What was easy to put out in mass produced color in the early 1940s was the slightly exaggerated and lightly photorealistic hand painted and drawn illustrations and ads found in the glossy magazines and in all sorts of posters and billboards of the period.

I will create my own versions of these sort of popular wartime images.

(Hey I said my libretto's prose was entirely non-fiction and it is. But no one has ever seriously claimed that a painted illustration, as opposed to a photograph, was pure non-fiction. Based on visual reality yes, but non-fiction ? Nope.)

I say my job is easy here because even young people have an acutely accurate sense of the major WWII visual cliches.

Sounds are harder --- fewer and fewer of us really recall the songs and movies of the era , let alone the vast radio world of dramas, variety shows, soap operas and educational documentaries and panel discussions of that era.

We are more used to locally oriented radio from the 1950s to the 1990s with its frequent local news and weather updates and local ads.

Network radio in the Golden Age is a different universe to most.

But I will tie my electronic sounds closely to what was actually heard on the radio the week and day my nonfiction scene is culled from in real life.

So my first scene, set on October 16th 1940, will include accurate quotes from the radio, papers, books and magazines, and news stories, even the lyrics and music of popular tunes ,from that day and week .

Quoted accurately but highly selectively.

So yes you will have a right as a reader critic to ask why I choose to quote the inane remarks of the racist senator Bilbo of Mississippi, amidst my book's discussion of the fate of black SBE patient Aaron Leroy Alston, rather than those of fifty much less racist senators.

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