The Enormous Radio by John Cheever

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BBC Radio 4, 16 July 2008

Set in post-1945 New York, The Enormous Radio focuses on Irene (Lorelei King), a frustrated middle-class housewife with little to occupy her mind except clean the house and enjoy lunch once a week at the Waldorf Hotel. Her husband Jim (John Guerrasio) decides to alleviate her boredom by buying her a radio, which rapidly assumes a dominant position within her life – so dominant, in fact, that she imagines hearing the voices of her close friends and neighbors, all of whom appear to be involved in marital break-ups or family disorders. She tries to tell her husband, who quite logically does not believe her. Her illusions only come to an end when Jim finally manages to convince her that the radio is broadcasting as normal; anything else she heard was simply the product of her fevered imagination.


Cheever’s story is a familiar one, of a housewife living during a period of unmatched prosperity, who finds herself frustrated in spite of being given everything she wants by her affluent husband. For his part, Jim is a typically self-centered person, who believes that all problems can be resolved by throwing money at them; if his wife feels lonely, it is clear that she wants nothing else except a radio. The story dramatizes the kind of emotions experienced by many women interviewed in Betty Friedan’s seminal work The Feminine Mystique (1963). The book’s opening sentence sums up Irene’s state of mind perfectly: “As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material […] [and] lay beside her husband at night--she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question—‘Is this all?’” Irene initially conceives of the radio as a form of escape; a means of involving herself imaginatively in the worlds of music, drama and current affairs. But Cheever suggests that this is not sufficient, as she imagines the lives of those around her as a radio drama. The story leaves us feeling frustrated, that a woman of such imaginative potential appears to be wasting away.


Cheever’s story makes this point clear: Irene, on the other hand, can't stay away from the radio, but she hides her new interest from the maid.  Like the alcoholic hiding his drink, she is "furtive" (796). She becomes astonished and uneasy over the revelations about her neighbors in the high-rise apartment building, neighbors whose lives are far more "melancholy" and filled with "despair" than she'd imagined (795).


Susan Roberts’ production made imaginative use of radio’s resources to show the confusion of the worlds of reality and fiction. Like Irene, we had no way of knowing whether what we heard was actually happening; it was left to Jim to explain that all the shouting and screaming had been conjured up by her fevered brain. This sense of confusion was further increased by ingenious doubling, and trebling of roles: John Guerrasio not only played Jim, but also Mr. Fuller (one of Irene’s neighbors) who – in her mind at least – was about to beat his wife.

The original story shows Irene emerging from her obsession and acquiring new knowledge about evil in the world – a place that will never be the same for her. In Roberts’ production, however, it seemed that Irene would never emerge from her obsession: although Lorelei King resolved to face her own problems, and those of the world (for example “the fire in the Catholic hospital for the care of blind children”) her tone suggested that she was just saying these things to placate her husband, rather than actually believing in them. Again she was being “furtive” in refusing to disclose her real feelings, either to her husband or the listeners.

This production of The Enormous Radio was a study in obsession, that left us feeling that Irene would never emerge from it. Although written over half a century ago, its message is still important today, especially in a world where technology – in the form of the Internet, the laptop, the BlackBerry and other devices – seems to dominate our lives.