Brain Pickings

Tallulah Bankhead Reads “A Telephone Call,” Dorothy Parker’s Brilliant Satire of How Infatuation Drives Us Mad

“It’s silly to go wishing people were dead just because they don’t call you up the very minute they said they would.”

Tallulah Bankhead Reads “A Telephone Call,” Dorothy Parker’s Brilliant Satire of How Infatuation Drives Us Mad

“All love stories are frustration stories,” psychoanalyst Adam Phillips wrote in his fantastic exploration of why frustration is essential to satisfaction in romance. More than half a century earlier, Dorothy Parker (August 22, 1893–June 7, 1967) turned her formidable wit to one of love’s most perennial frustrations — the longing to hear from the person with whom your mind is consumed as meager assurance that some part of them is consumed with you, too.

On February 11, 1951, the celebrated American actress Tallulah Bankhead appeared on NBC’s radio variety program The Big Show and delivered a terrific performance of Parker’s short story “A Telephone Call,” found in her Complete Stories (public library) — a satirical take on infatuation, how it reduces your entire world to the drawn out anticipation of any sign from the object of your infatuation, and how, when that sign fails to arrive, it sends you on a roller coaster of rationalization and magical thinking, bitter resentment and blind optimism, as you struggle to make sense of why you aren’t hearing from your crush.

Back then, that sign came primarily via the telephone, precipitating the cultural trope of the hopeful lover sitting by the phone and waiting for it to ring. But the psychological truth of Parker’s satire comes alive in a more dimensional and even more tragicomic way when considered through the lens of our contemporary infatuation-enablers — the compulsive refreshing of the inbox, the hyper-vigilant listening for a text message (assigned, of course, a special text ringtone for immediate auditory recognition of the crush), the unabashed Facebook and Instagram stalking.

This original recording of Bankhead’s performance is both a priceless fossil of a bygone cultural era, complete with its dated markers of medium and vocal style, and a packet of timeless truth about the human heart. Please enjoy:

Complement with David Whyte on the deeper meanings of love and heartbreak and Adam Phillips on the paradoxical psychology of romance, then revisit Parker’s own marvelous reading of her poem “Inscription for the Ceiling of a Bedroom.”

Published November 13, 2015




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