Friday, April 19, 2019


As part of the ongoing Recreational Shakespeare series, the Bard’s stage plays as presented in all forms of mass media from Amsterdam University Press, Michael P. Jensen’s study on radio (especially in 1937 when CBS and NBC both competed with a similar series) is as in-depth as you will find such treatment. While Shakespeare plays were adapted for Radio Guild, Suspense, The Family Theatre and The Chase and Sanborn Hour, to name a few, it was during the summer of 1937 that both CBS and NBC deployed their best resources to appropriate Shakespeare’s prestige and the print media quickly described the two networks attempts with the nomenclature of boxing. 

“These fourteen broadcasts are among the more remarkable recreations of Shakespeare of their time,” Jensen write. His lengthy essay, defending that statement, is clear and concise.

As is often the case, every book about old-time radio comes across my desk at one time or another and I manage to find time to read them – and such books as this become delights to read after I dig into a few pages. Much like sitting in on a slide show presentation at a convention where the subject matter was only casually interesting, the material provided to the masses is extremely fascinating and attention-grabbing. Michael P. Jensen's book accomplishes the same feat.

The first chapter of this book, following an introduction to the history of radio broadcasting, surveys Shakespeare broadcasts in the United States prior to the 1937 competition and why the networks presented heavily abridged adaptations in brief time slots. The second and third chapter introduces the battle and why the two rival networks were so angry that each wanted to lord Shakespeare’s prestige over the other, how they put the series together with top-notch talent, and both critical reception and analysis for each radio broadcast. 

NBC’s Streamlined Shakespeare starred John Barrymore and was later recycled for use on a summer 1950 run titled John Barrymore and Shakespeare, often creating confusion among collectors who sought the original network broadcasts. This series was also used for commercial release on records. (Many schools played these recordings for students in the classroom.) CBS’s Columbia Shakespeare Cycle attempted to combat the signing of John Barrymore with NBC by hiring stars from Hollywood – so many stars that newspapers of the time had more press releases than they could use. 

Chapters four and five provide closure to the 1937 battle and a fascinating story of how all the hoopla did not bring the prestige the combatants craved. Jensen also digs into other radio adaptations for comparison. As with many books about old-time radio, even if you are not into the 1937 Shakespeare adaptations, the history of the network battle is equally fascinating and kudos for Michael P. Jensen for digging into the story. 

My only complaint is the retail price. At a list price of $69 for a book totaling 89 pages (and that includes index), I fear this book will only make the rounds through college and university libraries. You can buy the book at $59 on Amazon through the link below: