This article is an analysis of the script of an Argentine radio serial, Corazón sediento (Thirsty Heart), that aired on Buenos Aires' Radio Splendid and its network of stations on weekday evenings in June 1954. The drama's author, Nené Cascallar (1914–82), a favorite radio librettist during the first Peronist era (1946–55), was best known for penning erotically charged melodramas aimed at mostly female audiences. In this drama, Cascallar makes particular use of sound and voice as dramatic devices and as a means to produce dramas that articulate women's desires—sexual desire, desire for freedom from patriarchal control, et cetera—while avoiding direct confrontation with these same structures. The main character's piano serves as a proxy through which she “screams” her unspoken frustrations and desires into the patriarchal soundscape of a fictitious and traditional Italian town. Thirsty Heart exemplifies golden-age radio's capacity to disrupt the gendered soundscape by allowing female voices—in their discursive, metaphorical, and sonic dimensions—to make themselves heard in new ways in the public arena. Among other things, this article asks us to consider the female voice in all its contradictory dimensions as a sonic metaphor for modernity itself. Finally, the script provides an opportunity to discuss how scholars might read this kind of historical document for issues of gender and sound.
From a train originating in Rome, a piano is unloaded onto a platform in the (fictitious) small town of Fiámole, Italy. Local residents gossip that the instrument belongs to Gabriella Donatti, a famous (and famously beautiful) musician who has recently married Claudio Palmieri, head of a powerful but financially strained Fiámole family. Yet this is no fairy-tale marriage: Gabriella is fleeing a broken relationship that derailed her artistic career, and Claudio sees in Gabriella's wealth a means to recuperate some of his family's status, as well as land owned by his hated and long-absent half-brother, Leonardo. Shortly after the arrival of Gabriella and her piano, Leonardo returns to Fiámole after an eight-year absence. We soon learn that Leonardo was the cause of Gabriella's heartbreak and that passions still run deep between the bride and her new brother-in-law.
With this, Nené Cascallar (1914–82; fig. 1) sets up the main conflicts in her radio serial, Corazón sediento (Thirsty Heart), which aired on Buenos Aires' Radio Splendid and its network of stations in Argentina in June 1954. Set in a simultaneously exotic and traditional locale and overflowing with sexual tension, Thirsty Heart is signature Cascallar, a prolific librettist whom Argentine radio historian Carlos Ulanovsky describes as a “pioneer of erotic situations in radio.”1 Cascallar's radio (and later television) dramas frequently engaged themes of female agency and desire and pushed the boundaries of what was permissible on Argentine airwaves.2 This poet and former singer was also quite attuned to sound and its effective (and affective) deployment in her dramas.
This essay explores Thirsty Heart as an example of the ways that Cascallar used sound to communicate with what Michele Hilmes refers to as a “subaltern feminine counterpublic” while also, perhaps, avoiding direct confrontation with the gender politics of the day.3 Cascallar's dramas consistently sought to connect with women's emotional lives, enabling her listeners to hear her characters' voices as proxies for their own. The Thirsty Heart script also exemplifies how we might listen for both sound and gender in these otherwise mute documents as a means to better understand the multiple and complex messages contained in this and other, similar radio programs. In the Sound Studies Reader, Jonathan Sterne calls on scholars to “think sonically” about and within their respective disciplines and to cultivate what he calls our “sonic imaginations.”4 Thirsty Heart is a clear example of what bringing sonic imagination to our historical sources and our gender analyses can yield.
LOCATING AND LISTENING TO RADIO HISTORY SOURCES
Scholars of Latin American radio history often must make do with scant surviving sources, audio and otherwise. Print materials—radio fan magazines, programming guides, reprints of popular dramas, and, if we are really lucky, scripts and libretti of radio shows—are inconsistently available. Audio materials are quite rare. I obtained access to this and a handful of other Cascallar scripts via a group of her nieces and nephews, who graciously agreed to speak with me about their beloved aunt and shared some of her archive.
Thirsty Heart consists of twenty-two episodes, each twenty-five minutes in length, which aired on Radio Splendid in Buenos Aires (and doubtless its affiliated network) from 10:05 to 10:30 pm on weeknights in June 1954. By the time this drama aired, Cascallar was an experienced and successful radio librettist who knew how to make the most of radio's ability to communicate multiple, sometimes subtle, messages through sound. Yet I initially set Thirsty Heart aside while I worked on Radio and the Gendered Soundscape, my book-length study of women and broadcasting in Argentina and Uruguay, which ends around 1950. Upon returning to the script, I was pleased to find a drama exemplary of Cascallar's deployment of sound and voice as a (melo)dramatic device and, as such, an ideal vehicle for a discussion of women and soundwork.
Radio and sound studies challenge the visualist tendencies of gender scholarship by, among other things, asking us to consider sound and the human voice as dimensions of what Butler has called the performative aspects of gender.5 Here and elsewhere, I utilize the concept of the gendered soundscape as a means to consider ways in which gender structures are reflected in the aural, and how that gendering of sound (and the sound of gender) has changed over time. By considering the way that sound and gender mutually echo and constitute each other, we gain a richer appreciation of the way social hierarchies are structured, reproduced, and challenged. The most obvious way that sound is gendered and gender sounded is via the human voice, a key yet sometimes overlooked way that gender is performed and perceived. And here it is important to understand voice in its two overlapping dimensions: “voice” as language and discourse, and voice as vocality, or acoustic performance.6 Linguists have amply demonstrated that we immediately classify adult voices as male or female and that the sound (especially the pitch) of the human voice is the result of a complex interaction of cultural and physiological factors.7
The paradigm of the gendered soundscape encourages us to consider the sonic dimensions of larger historical themes, such as patriarchy and modernity. In the most generic sense, patriarchy sounds like the hegemonic prerogative of the male voice and the barely audible female voice. Indeed, the female voice—its relative presence or absence, its audibility, and its reception within the soundscape—was a key dimension of twentieth-century modernity, marked by soundscapes of mass politics and mass media, and all the democracy and demagoguery that that entails. Radio was an important keynote of twentieth-century modernity, blurring the boundaries between public and private sound, carrying new sounds and voices into the private (domestic, feminine) sphere, and giving women's voices a new platform from which to speak. Radio's rise in some parts of the world also corresponded with increasingly vocal feminist and other movements calling for women's expanded citizenship. As Kate Lacey points out in her history of women and German broadcasting, radio's rise was contemporary with the rise of vocal movements for women's equality and new challenges to patriarchal structures.8 In this way, the nexus of radio and women's voices emerges as a key place from which to listen to and for the changes and contradictions of the twentieth century. How much of this struggle over women's place in modernity is echoed in the gendered soundscape of radio drama? A female voice on the airwaves was like the arrival of Gabriella's piano: new and exhilarating but potentially disruptive of the status quo. Amy Lawrence reminds us that the advent of technologies such as the phonograph and radio raised important questions about audience distaste or discomfort with the female speaking voice, leading her to conclude that “the speaking woman disrupts the dominant order.”9 The “problem of the speaking woman” resonated in many ways across the twentieth century, and it is precisely the idea of the speaking woman as disruption—to patriarchy and the patriarchal soundscape—that Cascallar probes in Thirsty Heart. In the case of Thirsty Heart, the female voice emerges as a symbol for women's agency, and women's silence as a metaphor for patriarchal privilege. While it would be an overreach to label this a feminist drama, here and elsewhere Cascallar engages with themes of oppression and empowerment in ways that would have spoken to Hilmes's subaltern feminine counterpublic.
NENÉ CASCALLAR AND THE SERIAL RADIO DRAMA
Nené Cascallar was born Alicia Inés Botto in Buenos Aires in 1914. At the age of five, she contracted polio, which left her unable to walk without crutches or physical assistance. While she had early success as a poet, Cascallar began her radio career as a singer.10 She was a radio soprano of moderate acclaim in the mid-1930s, but her celebrity began to fade within a few years, in part due to the complications of her disability and her efforts to conceal it (namely, making limited public appearances). But by the early 1940s, she had refashioned herself as a librettist for the newly ascendant genre of serial radio dramas, or radioteatro. Cascallar was well-positioned to ride the wave of radioteatro's ascent in Argentine broadcasting over the course of the 1940s, and especially after the 1946 elections brought Juan Perón to the presidency. The Peronist regime asserted unprecedented state control over the airwaves, and many writers and performers went into exile after finding themselves blacklisted for real or perceived hostility to the government.11 But others, including Cascallar, apparently met with regime approval and saw their careers flourish. Much of her radio work in the late 1940s echoed general populist themes of class reconciliation and the moral authority of the poor and disenfranchised.
Thirsty Heart aired towards the end of the first Peronist period (1946–55), about two years after the death of First Lady “Evita” Perón, and a year before the beginning of the so-called Revolución Libertadora (Liberating Revolution), which culminated in Juan Perón's overthrow in September 1955.12 By the time Thirsty Heart aired, Peronism was in crisis. The years 1953–54 saw violent clashes between Peronists and anti-Peronists and violent government suppression of the opposition, along with some small but significant openings in the almost total control the state had maintained over the media in prior years. Whether coincidental or not, the frustration and sense of foreboding that permeate this drama may have especially resonated with Argentine audiences in this moment.
While Latin American serial melodramas resemble the U.S. soap operas, there were and are crucial differences. First, while serial radio dramas in the United States started out as evening fare, they soon migrated to daytime, where they largely remained, and they were aimed primarily at an audience of housewives.13 In Latin America, radioteatro or radionovelas often aired during prime-time evening hours and thus were made with a more diverse audience in mind (although women were the core of their intended listenership). The first Cascallar radio dramas aired in the afternoons in the early 1940s, but from about 1947 onward, they were almost always prime-time fare. Second, soap operas in the United States were often long-running, open-ended stories that went on for years, whereas radioteatro dramas were of finite duration, generally airing every weekday for a month before coming to an end. As a result, the dramatic arc of Latin American serials was much different, with plots that were less intricate and came to a more rapid denouement than did their northern counterparts. These differences also meant that Latin American audience loyalty and fandom revolved around particular librettists—as writers of these radio serials were often known—and performers, rather than the devotion to particular stories and characters found in the United States.14
In Argentina, serial melodrama on radio dates back to the early 1930s, beginning with gaucho-themed nationalistic dramas such as Chispazos de tradición (Sparks of Tradition). These dramas were in essence radio versions of the gauchesco literary tradition that had dominated the region's popular literature since the late nineteenth century.15 By the early 1940s, a new variant of the radio drama was gaining popularity in Argentina, however, one centered more on domestic conflict and romance, populated by women's voices and aimed directly at female audiences. These dramas also tended to favor female librettists, although initially they did not always identify themselves as women.16 Many of the early 1940s airings of Cascallar's radio dramas, for example, first aired with the author listed as “Julián Jiménez Sastre,” a male name she seemed to use for some of her racier dramas. By the latter years of the decade, many of these same “Jiménez Sastre” productions were remade with the librettist now listed under the female pseudonym Nené Cascallar. By this point, in fact, Cascallar's name and face were the most prominent features of advertisements for her dramas, an indication that—in contrast to U.S. radio soaps—it was her name rather than the title of a long-running serial that constituted the primary brand.
As in the United States, Latin American radio serials were generally conservative fare interwoven with subtly subversive messages. In his study of Argentine melodrama in radio and cinema, Matthew Karush asserts that although the genre certainly transmitted conservatism, “Argentine melodrama disseminated subversive messages as well.” He emphasizes the class dimension of this subversion, citing the “visceral anti-elitism of Argentine melodrama.”17 Cascallar dramas, including Thirsty Heart, reflect this characteristic, but they also contain elements of gender subversion, albeit contained within a largely traditional framework. Her dramas often feature dangerous flirtations, all of which remain unconsummated within the narratives. She also regularly employed what are best described as rape fantasy scenes, which allow (in ways problematic to contemporary sensibilities) sexual explorations while maintaining the virginity and passivity of the female leads. Her dramas, in other words, fit very well with what Hilmes has observed about radio soap operas in the United States (and what others have observed about film): namely, that a focus on the resolution of the drama is not the entire story. “Even though plots might resolve in morally ‘uplifting’ ways,” she notes, “ideas and perspectives alternative and sometimes oppositional to the endorsed resolution usually had ample time to assert themselves.”18 Here I want to add a consideration of the way that sound in a drama such as Thirsty Heart functions to communicate and/or underscore alternative or subversive perspectives on women's oppression and empowerment. Through music, sounds, and silences, audiences are able to hear what remains unspoken.
At this point, it is useful to consider the sonic and gendered dimensions of melodrama as a genre of gendered sound and vocal performance. In its earliest form, melodramas were plays in which music figured prominently, and the genre has retained a reliance on sound to enhance dramatic impact.19 In radio melodrama especially, voice and sound are crucial to underscoring (and perhaps overstating) the narrative's peaks and valleys. This is in keeping with Jacob Smith's citation of “the primacy of gesture [over language] in melodramatic performance,” reminding us that in melodrama, as in opera, voice and sound can convey emotions that cannot or should not be expressed in words.20 We may associate melodrama, for example, with the evil laughter of the (male) villain and the sobs or screams of his (female) victim, or the romantic sighs of star-crossed lovers. Yet, in Thirsty Heart, rather than being background or accompaniment to the story, the music is part of the narrative: it enhances the audience's emotional engagement with the story and helps us to feel the heroine's emotional turmoil.
SILENCES AND SCREAMS: THE SOUNDSCAPES OF PATRIARCHY AND WOMEN'S AGENCY
Unlike many radio dramas that limited the number of speaking characters to make it easier for audiences to keep track via voices alone, Thirsty Heart is an especially populated radio drama. The narrator introduces the main six characters one by one, and each says a little something about the tale listeners are about to hear. Although we do not know if audiences had difficulties following such a large cast of characters in this particular story, Thirsty Heart suggests an audience with sufficiently developed “audile technique,” and one that thus perhaps was better able to identify and distinguish characters by voice alone as compared to more contemporary audiences.21 The introduction also announces voice and sound as key themes in the drama. Among the inhabitants of Fiámole, the narrator explains, “there are only two languages: the scream … or silence … an overwhelming and terrible silence that is also like a scream, one that everyone can hear.”22 These are, in essence, the languages of the oppressed, who either quietly swallow their subordination or loudly denounce it.
Silence is an important part of the sonic dimension of this drama.23 When Gabriella arrives in Fiámole, one thing she notices is the silence. Claudio enjoys it, finding the silence peaceful and tranquil. But silence, as we learn, also signals his domination over subordinate others. It is the sound of “aural order” and of patriarchal tradition.24 The arrival of Gabriella and her piano in episode 1 breaks the silence. Gabriella is described as “she who disturbed the peace of the town,” and the piano, we soon learn, is not just an exotic Roman import: it is metaphor and proxy for Gabriella's voice, otherwise silenced by the pressures of tradition (her domineering husband and Fiámole itself).25 Villagers are distressed and exhilarated at the arrival of both the piano and the captivating “outsider” who owns it; some worry it is a bad omen for the town. It does prove to be a bad omen, but not so much for the town as for the silence that reigns in Fiámole, and the patriarchal traditions voiced in that silence. Gabriella disturbs that peace with her piano and with her verbalized unwillingness to cede all power and authority to Claudio.
Gabriella is not your typical blushing bride: she is twenty-eight years old, an accomplished professional, and, it is strongly suggested, was not a virgin when she married Claudio. Claudio seeks to dominate Gabriella by fashioning her into a compliant and silent wife, but his repeated assertions of patriarchal prerogative are met with resistance. “You are my wife,” Claudio says to Gabriella. “But not your slave,” she replies.26 When Claudio makes another such assertion, Gabriella responds, “I am as important, as dignified, as respectable as you.”27 Here it is important to remember that Gabriella's piano also signifies her economic independence and her status as a wealthy and well-regarded professional who is unlikely to submit to becoming a quiescent wife. When Gabriella reencounters Leonardo at the Palmieri estate—she did not know he was Claudio's half-brother until this moment—their scenes are thick with sexual tension, conveyed not only via the words in the script, but also undoubtedly by the voices that delivered those lines in live performance. At the end of episode 3, when the two first reencounter each other, Gabriella faints from shock, and as episode 4 opens, the narrator describes the scene when Gabriella comes around:
She opened her huge foreign eyes and saw him. She saw him there, tall, strong … like always. Always that fever in his eyes, this fever of extreme health, which is also like a sickness. … This fever that she remembered seeing in the eyes of soldiers returning from hot lands. The fever of those who are thirsty. … It was the look of a thirsty heart!28
The somewhat overblown language used here is typical of Cascallar's presentation of steamy and dangerous/forbidden encounters. Throughout the story, Leonardo is depicted as a man no woman can resist. Reflecting the sexual double standard, the fact that Leonardo carries on various dalliances and flirtations with a number of Fiámole women in addition to Gabriella does not detract from his appeal.
Even more important in this play of voices and silences is Claudio's sister Silvana, whose emotional disturbance transforms her into a visionary who sees and speaks the truth. The voice of the madwoman—who does not and cannot remain silent, whom Claudio keeps locked away so that she will not shame the family—allows Cascallar to introduce ideas and sentiments that might otherwise be off limits. Silvana's condition is the result of a breakdown that occurred after she, as a newlywed, had witnessed her husband's murder at the hands of a former lover (who was also killed in the altercation).
Claudio is ashamed of Silvana, in part because she reminds him of their mother's mental illness and subsequent death. Silvana's illness is conveyed sonically via delusional ranting that would seem to suggest disconnect from reality, yet she and Gabriella develop a bond and eventually a shared resentment of Claudio's domineering ways. Most importantly, Silvana functions as something of an oracle in this drama: her seemingly incoherent outbursts in fact speak the truth about Gabriella's unhappiness with Claudio and undying love for Leonardo. Like the oracle, she inhabits an altered consciousness that tunes her in to alternative dimensions and ways to perceive the truth. Silvana is also an exaggeration of women's traditional state: closed up in a gilded cage, her words dismissed as the hysterics of a madwoman, she is nevertheless prescient in ways those mocking and oppressing her can never hope to understand. Silvana repeatedly states that Gabriella's silence is not so silent: “With your lips shut, but you are screaming. I hear you.”29 Later she says that Gabriella's playing “sounds like music, but the house is full of screams, stunned with screams, with outcries, with shrieks, with protests. Some do not hear the screams, but others do.”30 This even applies to her half-brother Leonardo, whom she does not initially recognize when he first returns to the family estate. Silvana describes Leonardo (for the benefit of the audience as well) as someone with “beautiful eyes and a mouth wet with thirst.”31
It is also Silvana who first speaks the lines of verse that serve, in a way, as the drama's theme song, referencing the title and underscoring the drama's eroticism and main thematic motif. Earlier in the story, the earth has been defined and equated with Woman, and before reciting the poem, Silvana says to Gabriella, “I see you as the land: thirsty, rich, and waiting”:
Because Latin American radioteatro was of a finite (and short) durations, some of Thirsty Heart's suspense lies in wondering how, exactly, Cascallar is going to get her heroine out of this fix within confines of the acceptable. Gabriella cannot commit adultery or murder, nor can she divorce or otherwise leave her husband. By the middle of the series run, tensions reach a boiling point: Leonardo has barely survived an assault on the road—likely ordered by Claudio—as he came home from a dance, and Gabriella has realized that her husband will never love her more than he loves land and power. In episode 12, with Leonardo still recovering from his wounds, a woman named Marta arrives at the Palmieri estate from Switzerland, introducing herself as Leonardo's wife. We learn that Leonardo had married Marta after she became pregnant with his child and that the need to preserve Marta's honor had prompted Leonardo to suddenly walk away from his romance with Gabriella, precipitating the crisis that culminated in her marriage to Claudio. Marta's pregnancy ended in a miscarriage, however, leaving Leonardo (for the purposes of the narrative) conveniently unencumbered by fatherhood. Marta then fell seriously ill, and we learn that it was Leonardo's need for money to pay for an operation she desperately needed that brought him back to Fiámole and is driving him to consider selling his share of the family estate to Claudio.
The appropriately melodramatic resolution unspools in this way: first, Silvana dies in a final fit of delusion and conversation with her dead husband. Then two of Claudio's most loyal employees, disgusted by what their employer has become, announce they are leaving the house. Leonardo and Marta, too, prepare to leave so that Marta can get her operation in Switzerland. Meanwhile, Leonardo makes Gabriella promise that she will ask Claudio for a separation and return to Rome rather than remain alone with him in Fiámole. Before that can happen, however, Claudio follows in his sister's footsteps, losing his wits and, soon afterward, his life. Gabriella then returns to Rome and to her career as a concert pianist, leaving the loyal servants (who have returned to the estate after hearing all the cataclysmic news) in charge of Villa Palmieri. This latter resolution is important, because leaving a poorly administered noble estate in the hands of competent commoners is in keeping with the populist politics that course throughout Cascallar's Peronist-era dramas. The story concludes a few years later, when Marta finally dies, freeing Leonardo and Gabriella to fulfill their destiny, just as the river and land of Silvana's poem do. It is important to note that, in contrast to the standard formula for romantic radioteatro, Gabriella's fulfillment includes recovering her career in addition to finding true love. The deaths of Marta and Claudio thus leave both Leonardo and Gabriella honorably widowed, paving the way for an acceptable “happily ever after.” Yet this whole resolution is so rushed that it seems almost beside the point, underscoring that it was the sexual tension at the center of the narrative that mattered most, not the story's traditional resolution.
CONCLUSION: LISTENING BETWEEN THE LINES
When considering the subject of women and soundwork, we should not neglect the female writers of radio serials. Thirsty Heart is a shining example of how radio librettists such as Nené Cascallar made the most of radio as a sound medium, and of how historians can and should read these types of textual documents for sound. The fact that writers such as Cascallar were often referred to as librettists underscores that these were artists working within and attentive to the sonic medium of radio. In Thirsty Heart, music is a dramatic device, but it also serves as a proxy for the female voice and for female desire, “screaming” things that could not be spoken within the patriarchal soundscape of Fiámole, and by extension within the dynamic but stubbornly patriarchal soundscape of 1950s Argentina. The idea of the gendered soundscape asks us to consider the sonic dimensions of gender and the gendered dimensions of sound in both past and present. By applying “sonic thinking” to our gender analysis, we are able to listen to and for gender (and gender our listening) in ways that enrich our understanding of the reproduction and transformation of power inequalities and relations over time.
As Ana María Ochoa reminds us, when considering sound, we must also pay attention to silences.35 Silence is an important theme in Thirsty Heart, representing the sound of subordination, domination, and patriarchal order. For the historian, the script itself represents a silent, disembodied remnant of a sounded radio performance. As Reynaldo González notes, radio dramas were “spectacles to be seen with the ear,” yet our inability to hear the voices or the music as it was performed in 1954 means that a certain part of the work we do with a document such as this one remains speculative.36 Yet historians rarely encounter anything approaching a complete archive, and we often have to fill in gaps and read between the lines. Moreover, simply having access to the audio does not necessarily tell us how these performances were actually heard by audiences at the time, a reminder that all historical analysis involves a degree of speculation.37 Even without hearing it performed, this script suggests to us that Cascallar made the most of vocal performances and of the way that women's voices (from silent to screaming) could communicate an inventory of their oppression and emancipation, and thus tap deeply into her audience's emotional worlds. Listening between the lines, so to speak, of a script such as this one, we also gain insight into the enduring popularity of radioteatro and other, similar dramas, which, while they may not have offered women any explicit solutions to the problem of their continued subordination, nonetheless acknowledged their reality and allowed them to hear women's voices speaking, whispering, and “screaming” in new ways.