Norman Corwin, the “poet laureate of radio,” died Tuesday at the age of 101. And though he’ll be known best for his inspirational wartime broadcasts, such as “We Hold These Truths” and “On a Note of Triumph,” a look further back in his archive reveals a play that puts the Grinch to shame.
“The Plot to Overthrow Christmas,” which aired in 1938, pits Santa Claus against demons from hell (including reviled Roman emperors, Mephistopheles and the master from “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”), who conspire to poison Christmas revelers with toxic cakes and blow them to bits with presents rigged with dynamite.
Let our subtlest worker be
Bichloride of mercury.
Let us wrap in tinsel bright
Little gifts of dynamite.
Other tactics for overthrowing the holiday include: Godless jazz music, and lobbying Congress to abolish the holiday. They decide against the latter because they realize that if they can buy political influence, Christmas lobbyists could sway them, too:
To me it seems a bit impractical
Because you’d have to be so tactical.
For instance, now, a Senator who would sell
His vote to our lobbyists
Might very well go out and become a tool
Of agencies representing the Yule.
They all finally agree to ruin Christmas by murdering Santa Claus.
I think we should all give pause
to think about this Santa Claus.
He is the man behind the scenes,
The symbol of what Christmas means.
If we could rub him out, my friend,
Our troubles would be at an end.
Just think how it would tickle us
To liquidate St. Nicholas.
It’s tongue-in-cheek, of course, but Nero shows up at Santa’s house brandishing a gun — making the whole present-and-roast-beast thievery of the Grinch, who came 20 years later, look pretty amateur. Spoiler alert! Santa negotiates his way out of his own hostage situation by reminding Nero of the magic of Christmas on a young child’s face, feeding him a dinner of steak and mushrooms, and giving him a violin for a present. Then Nero plays “Noel” for him, and Christmas is saved.
Have you ever known how exceedingly pleasant
It is to unwrap a Christmas present?
Did you ever know how much cheer it lends
To be wished a Merry Christmas by all your friends?
Did you ever experience the fun of giving,
Do you know at all of the joys of living?
It was Corwin’s first radio play, an early example of the playfulness that imbued his poetry. It has been performed by radio actors and theatrical companies many times since its original broadcast.
“Although his style was literary in nature — sophisticated and eloquent — it nonetheless always spoke directly to the common man,”said Michael C. Keith, a communications professor at Boston College and author of “The Broadcast Century,” in a 2002 interview with the LA Times.
Corwin’s notes on the script demonstrate his writerly humility. When first performed, the show ran short, and he had three extra minutes to fill. He spent them thanking his cast and wishing listeners a Merry Christmas.
“That kind of acknowledgment by an author is something I think should never be done. The extent of its bad taste can be appreciated only when you imagine a playwright coming on stage for a bow at the end of each performance of his play, or a closeup of the writer of the screenplay at the end of a motion picture,” he wrote. “The same applies to actors who, like authors, return to the mike breathless with exhaustion and say with a studied simplicity, ‘Ladies and gentlemen..I hope you liked our little offering,’ and so on. I believe that an actor should act and writer should write and never the twain should compete with Major Bowes.”