Friday, July 17, 2020

EARTH ABIDES: An Escape Into the 1950 CBS Radio Drama

With general consensus among fans of old-time radio that the two-part adaptation of George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides is among the best presentations on Escape (CBS, sustaining, 1947-1954), motivation to read the post-apocalypse novel provided an opportunity for comparison. Stephen King confessed Earth Abides was the inspiration to write his own post-apocalypse novel (The Stand). Jimi Hendrix claimed that Earth Abides was his favorite book and his song. “Third Stone from the Sun,” was inspired by the novel.

Published in 1949, Earth Abides offers sober examination of not only human integrity, but also the questions of what makes civilization work. When a plague of unprecedented virulence sweeps the globe, the human race is all but wiped out. In the aftermath, as the great machine of civilization slowly and inexorably breaks down, only a few shattered survivors remain to struggle against the slide into barbarism . . . or extinction. The story follows one survivor, Isherwood “Ish” Williams, an intellectual loner who embraces the grim duty of bearing witness to what may be humanity’s final days. But then he finds Em (short for Emma), a wise and courageous woman who coaxes his stunned heart back to life and teaches him to hope again, he chose to start life anew. Together, they faced unimaginable challenges as they sowed the seeds for a new beginning.

The structure of the novel was different from contemporary novels. The first half of the book centered on Ish as he set out on a cross-country tour, from San Francisco, California, to New York City, and back again. During his travels, he found small pockets of survivors, but had doubts about humanity’s ability to survive the loss of civilization. One survivor who took to the bottle, provided little hope and only after Ish later realized that the drunk was human and deserved an attempt at sobriety and a future, returned the day after to find the drunk dead from alcohol poisoning.

Actor John Dehner as Ish Williams
Like the lead protagonist in H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds and John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, Ish wanders the remains of what was once a thriving human empire only to cynically observe the worst in human nature. From religion to military, peace camps to new-formed government, the problem of surviving in a post-apocalypse world is people – not the crisis. Through Ish’s travels, The Secondary Kill was at work. Once he saw a woman whose mind had failed. The clothes indicated she was scarcely able to care for herself and could certainly not last through a winter. Several survivors told him of others who had committed suicide. 

Wandering the streets of Manhattan, including the Wall Street that built the city, Ish observed Buffalo grazing, unfinished construction projects that would remain unfinished, and on Fifth Avenue the end of a verse: “Now all your victories are in vain.” There he met Milt Abrams, who escorted Ish to a pleasant apartment on the second floor. There, Milt introduced a blond-haired woman, of about forty. “Meet – the Mrs.,” said Milt Abrams, and from the way he hesitated, Ish knew that the Mrs. Merely covered up his embarrassment. (This scene was downplayed on the radio broadcast (referred to as Mr. Carson, not Milt Abrams) to avoid the suggestion and Ish’s cross-country travels to New York City was never dramatized, only referenced. His encounter with Milt Abrams was in San Francisco.)

And yet, though sometimes he wondered, Ish himself was conscious of no great strain either of shock or of loneliness. He attributed this to his maintenance of interest in the whole progress of events, and to his own peculiar temperament. He thought many times of his qualifications for the new life, as he had once listed them. It was then that Ish realized that our human control is often an illusion, and we are all merely a speck of dust in the blink of the universe. At the conclusion of the first half of the book, titled “World Without End,” Ish meets Emma and he experienced a newfound spark for continuing existence. (In the radio version, Ish observed the lights on in her house and investigated. In the book, Ish had a pet dog named Princess (never featured in the radio drama) who ran into the house and both Em and Ish laughed at the dog’s impetus. After an hour of conversation and introduction, they went to bed. (For radio, Ish and Em swore allegiance to each other with a Bible, to simulate a marriage between the two, no doubt to appease the censors at CBS.) Em was, at least partially, African-American in the novel. The radio drama made no reference to her race.

The second half of the book is titled “The Last American,” which took place 22 years later. A brief summary of the events in between was featured in the novel, bridging the two scenarios, which was incorporated into the radio drama with narration describing “Year One,” “Year Two,” and so on. For the most part, with the exclusion of the dog named Princess and the cross-country trip to New York City and back, the first half of the Escape presentation was fairly accurate. The second half, however, eliminated much needed material and fails to go in depth with Ish struggling to guide the nascent society that he believes is not effective. His insistence to grow crops and dig for water wells was founded only after scrounging for food and the water pipes ceasing flow created momentary confusion among the colony. 

Among the most notable contributions that was excised from the radio adaptation was Ish functioning as a school teacher to help guide the younger generation into a new world – including fixing an automobile and providing a map for the older boys to explore cross-country as Ish had done decades prior. After educating the boys on the engineering of fixing a car, he left them to their own devices and months later they returned with a summary of their findings. They were only able to reach as far east as Chicago, with roads and bridges crumbling from the force of nature. The boys brought back with them a derelict named Charlie, who brought with him pestilence in the form of lust: Charlie longed for the affections of Evie, a mentally challenged girl, who Ish and the others agreed should not have the right to reproduce. While the entire community lived without law and order, nor any form of established government, a vote on murdering Charlie for the betterment of the community was cast anonymously on paper.

On the radio version, adapted by David Ellis, reference to the boys as they were educated on mechanics was not extant. Ish worked on a far with Emma assisting him, for the purpose of local transportation into town, and Charlie was a derelict who found himself wandering on foot into the community. Charlie provided trouble by shooting someone dead with his gun, eliminating any reference to the mentally challenged girl, and with Ish referring to himself as elected to leadership in the town. The vote to murder Charlie was decided verbally, not on paper.

As the two-part broadcast aired over the CBS Network on the evenings of November 5 and 12, 1950, the suggestion of a community not belonging to or affiliated with any government (or elected officials) might have been scrutinized heavily in an era where Communist infiltration was suspected from all fronts. (The two-part drama was rebroadcast on a few radio stations across the country, including Elmira, New York, on the evening of November 25 and December 3, 1950, by popular request.)

At the end of the novel, as Ish continued to age, having seen everyone from the old world pass on – including his beloved Em – the new generation considered him “The Last American,” though it was apparent that few understood what an American was. Society had reverted to using the bow and arrow, relics of the past crumbled away due to lack of use, and Ish himself questioned whether the human race would manage to survive without the conveniences of the past – or the motivation to explore what could help advance society. Man reverted backwards two centuries and the world was, as Ish eventually rationalized, better. Radios would never broadcast Charlie McCarthy, ice boxes would never operate without electricity, cars would rust away underneath the thick overgrowth of weeds and vines. But the human race continued to thrive in due course, regardless of lack of skillset or trade. It was at the very end that Ish’s lasting impacts were subtly revealed.

Throughout the novel, Ish carried with him a hammer. Used to smash open doors, protect himself against wolves, repair and construct, and to annually carve the years into rock. The hammer was depicted in the radio drama as a symbol of the old world, which Ish hoped would return over time, but emphasized in depth amongst the 300+ pages of prose.

Summed up, the first half of the novel was adapted fairly well for Escape in 1950. The second half was abridged with numerous changes. For the sake of dramatic appeal, Escape accomplished the task of the events as they unfolded, utilizing Ish’s narrative observations for radio narrative (aptly handled by actor Larry Dobkin). Often above-average radio dramas inspire folks to seek out the original source material to read and enjoy. The question of whether the novel offers much more material than presented through the adaptation of David Ellis can be answered in one sentence: If you want to dig deeper into the story, with more detail and narrative, and gather further insight into the novelist’s intention, the novel is recommended. 

"Men go and come, but Earth abides."
Ecclesiastes 1:14