The Cat Wife by Arch Oboler

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Download the Fitzrovia Radio Hour podcasts of the play

Listen to the original 1936 broadcast with Boris Karloff

Fitzrovia Radio Hour, 2008
Arch Oboler's spine-chiller first aired on America's National Broadcasting Company (NBC) series Lights Out on June 17, 1936 with Boris Karloff in the title role of John. Oboler's tale depicts him trying to cope with a wife Queenie, who invites her friends to their house for parties, preventing John from working. Eventually John sends the friends away and has a terrific fight with Queenie which ends with him wishing that she could be transformed into a cat. His dreams come true, as Queenie becomes a cat wife with an insatiable appetite for milk. John spends much of the rest of the play trying to cope with his changed domestic circumstances ...
The Cat Wife is the kind of science fiction tale that proved exceptionally popular both on sound and in the cinema during Hollywood's Golden Age. While its subject-matter seems outrageous, author Oboler uses it to comment on the sexual mores of the era; in a society where the husband was customarily accepted as the head of the family, how could he manage if his wife challenged his authority?
Seven decades later Oboler's play was revived by the Fitzrovia Radio Hour, a group of British comedy performers founded in 2008 and comprising Jon Edgley Bond, Alix Dunmore, Phil Mulryne, Tom Mallaburn and Martin Pengelly. It was recorded in a small bar in North Soho, London, in front of a live audience. Four years later the troupe re-released a podcast of that show, the first in a promised series of podcasts which will appear every Tuesday.
The troupe's treatment of the material is very reminiscent of Patrick Barlow's version of Buchan's The Thirty-Nine Steps, which has run for several years at London's Criterion Theatre. They understand that the material is archaic, and ripe for pastiche; they speak in cut-glass English accents, adopting the kind of verbal inflexions reminiscent of those low-budget melodramas that formed a staple part of cinematic fare in the 1930s and 1940s. Sound-effects have been kept to a minimum - the opening and shutting of a door, the firing of a pistol-shot - the focus is on the interplay between characters, especially John and Queenie.
The performance of The Cat Wife is interspersed with commercials (just like the NBC broadcast in 1936); but in 2008 they advertise products such as as imaginary brand of cigarette called Soho. This not only provides opportunities for innuendo - arising from the "pleasure" of inhaling tobacco - but enables the company to explore how attitudes have changed over the past seven decades. No one in the 1930s would have believed that cigarettes were injurious to one's health.
The Cat Wife proved a thoroughly enjoyable experience; the cast were obviously inspired by an appreciative audience. While understanding that Oboler's play had dated somewhat, they had an underlying respect for his achievement; this was an affectionate pastiche, a tribute to one of America's great radio dramatists. I will certainly look out for other podcasts in the series.