Monday, November 19, 2012

You Are There- The Surrender of Sitting Bull

You Are There is a wonderful CBS radio drama that ran between 1947 and 1950 and therefore within the last decade or so of radio drama’s ascendancy in the US.  The premise itself is hardly revolutionary now, and even at the time I think it’s fair to say it was pre-empted by the work of Georges Colin in France, who in 1928 recreated crowd scenes on radio to give the listener the illusion that he or she was “there” at Charlotte Corday’s and Danton’s trials during Revolutionary France.  (Tribute to History on France Inter in the 1950s followed You Are There’s journalistic format a bit more closely.)  The format is also not dissimilar from The March of Time, another CBS program running variously between 1931 and 1945.  

However, in a prevailing attitude (even postwar) in which the voices of radio journalists such as Edward R. Murrow stood for truth and had a certain cachet of standing for something, You Are There’s foundation and production really take the genre to the absolute peak of its form.  Even on TV I don’t think you could achieve something along the lines of what You Are There did in the 1948 episode I heard, The Surrender of Sitting Bull.  Now, in case it isn’t evident, You Are There supposes that a CBS radio journalism team has gone back in time to key events in history (American “canonical” history is favored, but other times and places are occasionally highlighted).  In John Dunning’s words, “Real-life newsmen with established reputations handled ‘remote’ broadcasts while anchorman Don Hollenbeck organized field reports and summarized the unfolding drama.”  There, is of course, a mindset into which you have to put yourself, but as I love a) radio that blurs the lines between fiction and fact; b) stories of observing history, it’s not difficult for me to achieve this.  

Anyone who has seen Horrible Histories in the UK will be somewhat familiar with the kind of “historical journalism” involved here, though imagining it through radio makes it much more immediate than I think could ever be achieved on TV.  As well, even though following battles on radio drama is sometimes confusing and problematic, this actually enhances the journalistic flavor of You Are There and results in something so exciting—at least the in the episode I heard—that I was literally on the edge of my seat.   Think Blair Witch Project but for radio, and in a more mediated environment.  

There were some superb choices in The Surrender of Sitting Bull, which saw the You Are There team in 1881 Dakota Territory.  Anyone with only the most basic understanding of the “Indian Wars” of the 19th century would be able to follow the summarized situation as described by John Daly.  Some five years after Gen. Custer’s ignominious (to him, anyway) defeat at Little Big Horn, the Lakota Sioux Chief known as Sitting Bull (Tȟatȟaŋka Iyotȟaŋka) and his people have returned from a Canadian sojourn, perhaps amassing Lakota Sioux for another stand against the white settlers/US governmental troops.  The atmosphere is tense.  I was very much struck by the people “chosen” to be interviewed on location.  The US army representatives, such as Major Brotherton, caught as they are presumably milling about camp, are fully committed to the cause of manifest destiny:  they want the Indians to become farmers, Christians, be educated in white schools, all for their own good.  

Sitting Bull himself is not interviewed, which at first I thought was a bit strange—however, in some senses it actually is quite shrewd—after all, as is pointed out, he did not speak English, whereas one of the CBS correspondents, translates the Lakota (whether this is a complete fabrication for the purposes of the narrative doesn’t really bother me; it’s impressive that the American public listening to this in 1948 would have presumably no problem believing that a white radio correspondent could translate Lakota with such rapidity as demonstrated here).  Even if Sitting Bull isn’t interviewed directly, Ken Roberts does speak to Jean-Louis LeGars, a French-Canadian who has transported Sitting Bull and his family from Canada, and whose views are decidedly at odds with those of the U.S. government.  Even if it takes a Frenchman (with a terrible accent, it’s true) to speak for the native Sioux, it’s significant that LeGars is incredibly articulate and ties Major Brotherton’s army rhetoric into knots.  

You Are There’s “team” must, I’m sure, hold itself to their own standards of journalistic impartiality and fairness, and as such they interview, as well, Major McLaughlin, the Indian agent, though his obvious recalcitrance and xenophobia are highlighted in an extremely sarcastic manner by Hollenbeck.  This also gives the opportunity for Chief Gall, a “brave” to “speak” his own story—in the form of a song “translated” by Hollenbeck.  (I was impressed at the end to hear that this song is a documentary recording by Sitting Bull’s grandson Chief Crazy Bull who was historical adviser to the production.)  

Although not interviewed, Sitting Bull does “speak” in You Are There, translated and filtered through the CBS correspondents.  At the beginning of the story, Daly did say it was “one of the most shameful episodes in American history,” and the play goes a long way in expressing an observer’s shock when Brotherton basically deceives, betrays, and lies in order to disband, humiliate, and round up Sitting Bull and his people, who have acted honorably and transparently.  Hollenbeck gives us a glimpse of Sitting Bull’s “ironic smile” before You Are There crashes to a halt.  The abrupt ending probably says as much about how shameful this event really was perceived than any amount of opinion or moralizing.  It’s often said that fiction is a good way of presenting facts and trying to change events by doing so; You Are There nicely bridges this gap and achieves this goal.   

At half an hour long, without commercial interruption, You Are There is just about the right length.  Robert Louis Shayon is the writer and producer of You Are There, and I very much look forward to hearing more of his unique and entertaining series, surely a radio landmark of form.

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