Satire III: Wodehouse, WWII Radio Broadcasts, and When Is Satire Okay?
Now we are back to satire and our mentor: P.G. Wodehouse.
During WWII many British citizens were in direct danger — in the bombings of London like our recent mentor Virginia Woolf, and those abroad in Europe when Germany came a-knockin’. Like our current mentor P.G. Wodehouse, who was in France when the Nazis rolled through. Wodehouse and his wife were rounded up, separated, and put through various prisons (camps).
Right after his release, Wodehouse accepted an invitation to broadcast to his fans that he was okay. He proceeded to make a few broadcasts, on Berlin’s airwaves — and was immediately villified.
Why? Because Wodehouse didn’t sit down at the microphone and condemn the Nazis, at least not in a direct way–he was on German broadcasts, after all. In his typical fashion, Wodehouse broadcasted satirically. As we’ve already seen with our New Yorker example, satire walks a fine line. While an election year may seem a pretty powder-keg moment to today’s audience, imagine a time of war. And not only war: World War II. The biggest war the world has ever seen. The most dangerous time for millions.
And here’s Wodehouse (you can read the full transcripts here at http://www.pgwodehousebooks.com/):
“It has been in many ways quite an agreeable experience. There is a good deal to be said for internment. It keeps you out of the saloons and gives you time to catch up with your reading. You also get a lot of sleep. The chief drawback is that it means your being away from home a good deal. It is not pleasant to think that by the time I see my Pekinese again, she will have completely forgotten me and will bite me to the bone – her invariable practice with strangers. And I feel that when I rejoin my wife, I had better take along a letter of introduction, just to be on the safe side
.” ~P.G. Wodehouse, first Berlin broadcast
Now, part of satire is paying attention to your audience. Well, it’s not like Wodehouse had much of a chance in that regard. These broadcasts were made almost immediately after his release. So he had no way of knowing the ‘feel’ of the audience. When the British public heard the broadcasts the word “traitor” was mentioned more than once. There was even an investigation into Wodehouse’s motives. He was trying to make light, to make sure that people didn’t worry about him on top of everything else. After all, the assumption underlying Wodehouse’s presentation is that Nazis were NOT GOOD, therefore any mention of their hospitality was immediately suspect (ridiculous even…) — but the public didn’t see that. It was only after the broadcasts were finished that he heard about the outcry.
If you read between the lines, and you don’t have to read hard either, you can easily see how unpleasant the whole experience was. In the above quoted section it’s obvious that the separation from his family wasn’t easy. If you read the rest of the broadcasts you see the hints of mistreatment and outright danger he was in. No charges were actually brought to bear, and he was eventually forgiven and even knighted.
Timing was one issue. Subject matter another.
Subject matter is a big consideration. In essay, in fiction, and in satires. Yep, even radio broadcasts.
Wodehouse got knocked even before people really understood the full impact of what a camp was. (From what I’ve read, his situation was
much better than that of other prisoners, though still NOT GOOD.) Nowadays, so many years later, knowing how many suffered and died in these places, the concentration camps and the Holocaust are still very taboo subjects as far as satire goes.
I’m speaking pretty generally here. Anything that might remotely be construed to make fun of such tragedy is questionable, at the very least. Off the top of my head I can think of maybe one other topic that’s still super off limits–the exploitation of children. (Earlier this year I thought that rape was off the table too–but the Daily Show went to town on the re-definition of rape and apparently some sensitive subjects can be made funny with the right touch….)
This is not to say that these subjects, as serious and painful as they are, can’t be satirized. Satire always has a serious point behind it. It presents the argument in a different way. Wodehouse presented the Nazi regime as it was–with its control and domination and imprisonment–just through a different lens.
Now, the question of the day: When is satire okay? When is it the best way to present an argument, if ever?