Sorry, Wrong Number
Sorry, Wrong Number
Lucille Fletcher's drama Sorry, Wrong Number was first performed as a radio play in 1943. In the preface to the published version, Fletcher writes, "This play was originally designed as an experiment in sound and not just as a murder story." The voices on the telephone were to be the play's main focus. However, when her play was performed, the playwright realized that the drama had even more potential. The drama, in the hands of her actress, took on the quality of a character study—a look into the mind of a desperate and helpless woman. As it was performed, the drama became a thriller, which, the dramatist writes, was much more than she "had originally intended."
According to Lawrence Van Gelder, writing Fletcher's obituary for the New York Times, the playwright "transfixed a national audience with her radio drama." The drama was so popular, according to Van Gelder, that it was "broadcast nationally seven times from 1943 to 1948 and was ultimately translated into 15 languages." Later Fletcher adapted the radio play to a film script. Barbara Stanwyck, who portrayed the protagonist, earned an Academy Award nomination for her performance. The play also won the 1960 Edgar Allan Poe Award from the Mystery Writers of America for best radio play, was remade for cable television in 1989, and inspired an opera by Jack Beeson in 1996. Sorry, Wrong Number is considered by many critics to be, if not her best, at least the most popular of Fletcher's works.
Fletcher was born in Brooklyn, New York, on March 28, 1912. She later attended Vassar College and graduated with a bachelor's degree in 1933. Shortly afterward, she worked at the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), typing up radio plays, managing the music library, and writing publicity. She became convinced during this time that she could write radio dramas at least as good as the plays she was typing.
Fletcher is best known for the thrillers she would go on to write for radio. Her most notable play is Sorry, Wrong Number, which first aired in 1943. She later adapted the radio play into a screenplay, which was produced in 1948. Her 1946 drama Hitch-Hiker is often considered her second most popular play. Hitch-Hiker was adapted as a television drama. Her radio-, screen-, and teleplays attracted some of the most outstanding actors of her generation, including Orson Wells, Vincent Price, Agnes Moorehead, Ida Lupino, and Elizabeth Taylor.
Fletcher also wrote novels, beginning with The Daughter of Jasper Clay, published in 1958. Other novels include Blindfold (1960), adapted to film in 1965, starring Rock Hudson; Presumed Dead (1963); The Girl in Cabin B54 (1968); Eighty Dollars to Stamford (1975), which was adapted to film in 1982 as Hit and Run; and her last novel Mirror Image (1988), about a young woman who follows false leads in her search for her kidnapped sister.
In 1939, Fletcher married Bernard Hermann, who composed music scores for movies, most notably Psycho, Citizen Kane, Cape Fear, and Taxi Driver. Fletcher wrote the libretto for Hermann's 1951 opera, which was based on the novel Wuthering Heights. The couple had two daughters before they were divorced in 1948.
Fletcher was married a second time, in 1949, to John Douglass Wallop, an author. Wallop was made famous by his 1954 novel The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant, upon which the 1955 Broadway musical Damn Yankees was based. Fletcher was still married to Wallop when he died in 1985.
Fletcher lived much of her younger years in New York. After marrying Wollop, she moved with her husband to the Washington, D.C. area. Later, they settled in Oxford, Maryland, where she lived for thirty years. She was living in Pennsylvania when she died of a stroke on August 31, 2000.
Fletcher's Sorry, Wrong Number begins with directions for the one and only act and scene of the play. The stage is to be divided into three sections. In the center is a large bed. This is where the main character, Mrs. Stevenson, will remain throughout the play. The other characters, who appear only briefly and play minor roles, will be seen on either side of the bed in the separated sections. Mrs. Stevenson interacts with these characters (except for the murderer) indirectly, while she is talking on the phone.
Mrs. Stevenson (whom the playwright refers to as "a querulous, self-centered neurotic,") is attempting to make a phone call. She slams the receiver down in frustration. She is trying to call her husband, who is supposed to be working late. But every time she dials the number, she receives a busy signal. After calling her husband for almost an hour, Mrs. Stevenson dials the operator. She requests that the operator try the number, hoping the operator will be able to get through. When the operator is successful, Mrs. Stevenson does not recognize the man who answers. She repeatedly asks who the man is then asks for her husband, but the man does not hear her. Instead, the man begins a conversation with a second male, who is also not Mrs. Stevenson's husband. In the course of the conversation, Mrs. Stevenson learns that the second man's name is George.
As the dialogue between the two men continues, Mrs. Stevenson learns much more. The first man tells George that their client has told him that "the coast is clear for tonight." The first man then gives George instructions about what he needs to do. The pertinent details are the time that the guard who patrols the neighborhood leaves his post to get a drink, which is at eleven in the evening. Exactly fifteen minutes later, a subway train crosses a bridge nearby, which the first man states will cover any noises the woman might make should she scream. The murder, the man says, should be done quickly and with as little blood as possible. Their client does not want the woman to "suffer long." The man then tells George to steal the woman's jewelry. He tells George exactly where the jewelry is located, then explains that this will make the act look like a robbery.
Mrs. Stevenson, who listens to the entire phone conversation, is completely distraught. She is convinced that she must save this anonymous woman who is about to be killed. She calls the operator again and becomes frustrated when the operator tells her that it is impossible to trace the phone call Mrs. Stevenson had been mistakenly connected to. Mrs. Stevenson replies by calling the operator "stupid." The operator redials the same number that Mrs. Stevenson had previously requested, but the line is once again busy. Mrs. Stevenson tells the operator that of course the line is busy. It has been busy for over an hour. The operator must have mistakenly dialed a different number when Mrs. Stevenson overheard the conversation about the murder. She wants the operator to try to call the wrong number again. The operator does not know how to do this and Mrs. Stevenson is turned over to the chief operator.
When the chief operator comes to the phone, Mrs. Stevenson repeats her story of how she has overheard a murder plot, but she can provide no names nor can she tell the operator the number where these men can be called. Despite this, Mrs. Stevenson demands that the chief operator trace the phone call. When the chief operator discovers that Mrs. Stevenson has no official police or government title, that she is just an ordinary private citizen, she tells Mrs. Stevenson that she should call the police first. Mrs. Stevenson finally hangs up and then calls the local police station.
- A television version of Sorry, Wrong Number, starring Mildred Natwick and G. Swayne Gordon and directed by Frances Buss and John Houseman, aired on a local station in New York City in 1946.
- A film version of Sorry, Wrong Number, with a screenplay by Fletcher, was released in 1948 by Hal Wallis Productions. Barbara Stanwyck played Mrs. Stevenson and was nominated for an Academy Award (Oscar) for her performance. Burt Lancaster played in an extended role as Mr. Stevenson. Hal Wallis produced the film. It is available on DVD from Paramount.
- In 1954, Fletcher's television adaptation of the radio play was broadcast live on the Columbia Broadcasting Service (CBS) as part of the Climax! series. It starred Lillian Bronson.
- In 1989, Ann Louise Bardach adapted Fletcher's play for television. Loni Anderson played the role of Mrs. Stevenson. This adaptation was directed by Tony Wharmby.
- In 1996, Jack Beeson adapted Sorry, Wrong Number to a forty-minute conversational chamber opera performed in one act. It is available on CD from Albany Records.
Sgt. Duffy is on duty when Mrs. Stevenson calls. Just before Duffy answers the phone, he has ordered a snack. He is disappointed when a delivery boy gives him the wrong type of pastry. He is about to eat the snack when Mrs. Stevenson calls. At the mention of a murder, Duffy forgets about the food and gives Mrs. Stevenson his full attention. Mrs. Stevenson provides all the details she has overheard. She knows that two men are involved and what time the murder is planned. But she only has vague hints about the location. The more Duffy questions Mrs. Stevenson, the less interested he is in her story. He starts eating his pastry while Mrs. Stevenson continues. She does not know the telephone number that the men called from. All she knows about the address of the proposed murder is that it is close to Second Avenue. Duffy reminds her how long Second Avenue is and, since she does not know what city these men were talking about, it could be taking place anywhere. Duffy also tells her that there are many murders committed in the city every day. If the police could do something to prevent them, they would. But with the scant information that Mrs. Stevenson has provided, there is nothing else that Duffy can do. He then adds: "Unless, of course, you have some reason for thinking this call is phony—and that someone may be planning to murder you?" Mrs. Stevenson finds this statement preposterous. Who would want to kill her? She tells Duffy that her husband is "crazy" about her. She continues by telling Duffy that her husband has hardly ever left her alone since she "took sick twelve years ago." Duffy says that since her husband is so devoted, Mrs. Stevenson has nothing to worry about, and she should just relax and let the police handle the situation. He promises to take care of things. After hanging up, Duffy returns his full attention to the food in front of him.
Mrs. Stevenson becomes even more frustrated. Her husband's business line continues to be busy, so she cannot get through to him. Then her phone starts ringing. But no one answers at the other end of the line. She calls the operator to complain again. After hanging up, the phone rings again. This time it is a Western Union operator with a telegram for her. It is from her husband. Mr. Stevenson explains in the telegram that he is sorry, but he is not coming home that night. He writes that he has been trying to call her, but her line was constantly busy. He is on his way to Boston on urgent business and will not be back until tomorrow afternoon. Mrs. Stevenson cannot believe her husband would leave her alone. He has been so attentive to her all these years. She is unable to take care of herself. She laments that this particular night she really needs him. She feels he has abandoned her.
Mrs. Stevenson is more unsettled than ever. She wants someone to be with her. She is concerned that she will go crazy if she is left alone any longer. Then she remembers an experience she had two years ago. She was in the hospital for an operation. She stayed at the Henchley Hospital. She dials the hospital's number and asks for a nurse, no one in particular. She just wants a professional to come to her house. However, the receptionist who answers the phone tells Mrs. Stevenson that their nursing staff is short of people and she has been told to send out nurses only in cases of emergency. In order to have a nurse come to Mrs. Stevenson's house, she would have to have a doctor's permission.
Mrs. Stevenson is in a deep panic. She yells at the woman on the phone and tells her about the murder plan she has overheard. She also tells the woman that she is an invalid. She is afraid she will go out of her mind if someone does not come. The woman on the phone says that it is possible that a nurse by the name of Miss Phillips might be able to come, but Miss Phillips went out for dinner at eleven o'clock. Mrs. Stevenson is caught off guard. She had no idea it was so late. She also remembers that the patrolman that the murderers had discussed goes to a local bar at eleven. When Mrs. Stevenson asks what time it is, the person at the hospital tells her it is fourteen minutes after eleven. At that moment, Mrs. Stevenson hears a click on her telephone line, as if someone downstairs has picked up the receiver. Mrs. Stevenson tells the receptionist that she fears that someone is in her kitchen. Mrs. Stevenson hangs up the phone. She is torn between calling for help and keeping quiet, hoping that whoever it is will not come upstairs. She cannot stand it another minute, though, and calls the operator. She whispers into the receiver. When she hears another click on her line, she screams, "He's coming."
The operator calls the police, but it is too late. A shadowy figure has entered Mrs. Stevenson's bedroom. There is a struggle and a scream as the subway train goes by outside the bedroom window. Then there is a shot of Mrs. Stevenson's lifeless hand hanging over the side of the bed. The man, dressed in black, picks up the receiver and tells Duffy, whom the operator has called and is now on the other end of the line, "Sorry. Wrong number." The murderer replaces the receiver, and Duffy hangs up with a shrug.
The chief operator is the manager at the phone service. She is described as being cool and professional. This operator is also efficient. She asks for details from Mrs. Stevenson. When she discovers that Mrs. Stevenson has not yet contacted the police about the telephone conversation Mrs. Stevenson overheard, she informs her that without the official sanction of the police, the telephone company cannot trace a phone call.
The delivery boy appears when Mrs. Stevenson telephones Sgt. Duffy. The delivery boy is in the background, bringing Duffy a pastry. As Mrs. Stevenson is talking to Duffy, the boy and the police officer discuss the pastry, which isn't the kind that Duffy had ordered. Later, as the phone conversation between Duffy and Mrs. Stevenson is ending, the boy reappears with the correct pastry, which makes Duffy forget all about the phone call with Mrs. Stevenson.
Sgt. Duffy is the police officer on duty when Mrs. Stevenson calls the local precinct to get help in preventing the murder plan she has overheard on the telephone. He is uninterested for most of the call, eating his pastry and talking to the delivery boy, and does not appear to take Mrs. Stevenson seriously. However, it is Duffy who first plants the idea in Mrs. Stevenson's head that the murder plot she overheard might be focused on her. Even as Duffy makes this statement, Mrs. Stevenson can hardly ponder such a conclusion, but with time, Duffy's insinuation takes root. Duffy is also present at the end of the story, when the operator calls the police department and puts the call through to Mrs. Stevenson's line, but it is too late. Mrs. Stevenson is dead.
George is the second man in the telephone conversation that Mrs. Stevenson has overheard. George is the murderer. He takes his orders from the first man, who remains anonymous. The first man gives George directions on how the murder will be acted out, giving him the best time to act and telling George how to kill his victim. George makes an appearance at the end of the play as a shadowy figure who enters Mrs. Stevenson's bedroom and wrestles with her before killing her. He delivers the last line in the play when he picks up Mrs. Stevenson's phone after he has killed her and tells Sgt.Duffy, "Sorry. Wrong number."
The fifth and last operator is described as being lethargic. Mrs. Stevenson calls this operator near the end of the play. Mrs. Stevenson is desperate. She whispers on the phone because she suspects someone is downstairs and she does not want that person to hear her. Mrs. Stevenson cries out for the operator to call the police, which she does.
First Man on the Phone
The first man on the phone remains anonymous in the conversation that Mrs. Stevenson overhears. This man states that he has been in contact with the client and that the murder should go ahead as planned. This man also tells the second man (George) the details of how the murder is to take place, including the fact that the murderer should steal the woman's jewels to make the motive of the crime look like a robbery.
The first operator that Mrs. Stevenson talks to attempts to help Mrs. Stevenson get through to Mr. Stevenson's office. Instead, this operator incorrectly dials the wrong number or else somehow the telephone lines are crossed, and Mrs. Stevenson overhears a conversation between two men who are plotting a murder.
The fourth operator takes Mrs. Stevenson's call and responds by honoring her request to call Mr. Stevenson's business number. This time the call goes through. There is no busy signal, but no one answers. Mrs. Stevenson now knows that her husband is gone.
The receptionist at the hospital that Mrs. Stevenson telephones explains to Mrs. Stevenson that she is under orders not to send out any nurses to private homes unless that request has been made by a doctor. When Mrs. Stevenson more fully explains her situation, the receptionist attempts to help her, telling Mrs. Stevenson that there is one possibility. She could ask Miss Phillips, who is a nurse but has stepped out for dinner. When Miss Phillips comes back, the receptionist plans to ask her to go to Mrs. Stevenson's house; however, the receptionist's plan does not go forward. When she tells Mrs. Stevenson it is almost a quarter after eleven, Mrs. Stevenson hears someone downstairs. Mrs. Stevenson slams down the receiver on the receptionist shortly afterward to call the telephone operator to get help.
Miss Phillips is the nurse who the hospital receptionist suggests to Mrs. Stevenson as a possible candidate for coming to her house. Miss Phillips never makes an appearance in the play. She is supposedly out eating dinner. The fact that Miss Phillips left the hospital at eleven makes Mrs. Stevenson realize that the appointed hour of the planned murder is upon her.
After Mrs. Stevenson overhears the conversation about the murder plot, she calls the phone service and talks to a second operator. This second operator attempts to call Mr. Stevenson's office, but the line is busy. Mrs. Stevenson then requests that this operator call the misdialed previous phone number, which, of course, this operator has no knowledge of. When Mrs. Stevenson continues to insist that this operator call the wrong number that the previous operator had dialed, the operator decides to turn Mrs. Stevenson over to her manager, referred to as the Chief Operator.
Mrs. Stevenson is the main character in Fletcher's play. She is a sickly woman who tends to blame those around her for her frustrations. When she speaks to other people on the phone, she uses an arrogant tone. Though the requests that she makes do not always make much sense, when others cannot, or do not, comply with her wishes, she calls them stupid. In truth, Mrs. Stevenson does not live in a practical world. It is implied that she is deficient in worldly experience. This could be caused by her dependence on her husband as well as the sheltered life she has lived, confined for several years to her bed. These aspects of her personality are displayed when she wants the police to find the men for whom she has no names and no addresses. She also wants the telephone operators to first re-dial a number she does not know and then to trace a phone call that has already ended. She also demands that a nurse come to her home, not because she is sick but because she is nervous.
Because of the selfish and arrogant tones of Mrs. Stevenson's conversations, she is not a very likeable character. She makes unreasonable demands and is very ungrateful for any attempts that are made to appease her. Though sympathy for her may arise at the end of the play when she is murdered, up until that point, audiences may have trouble empathizing with her. The one redeeming aspect of this character is that in the beginning Mrs. Stevenson believes that she is taking all these efforts to save some other anonymous woman who is about to be killed. It is not until the end of the play that she realizes that she is the victim of the murder plot she has overheard.
Mr. Elbert Stevenson
Mr. Elbert Stevenson is Mrs. Stevenson's husband. Though he never makes an appearance in this play, he is a pivotal character. It is Mr. Stevenson that Mrs. Stevenson desperately attempts to call on the phone. Mrs. Stevenson believes that her husband is devoted to her. He has taken care of her and never left her alone until this one night. Mr. Stevenson is talked about in the phone conversation that Mrs. Stevenson overhears. He is the client that the two men discuss, the person who has asked that his wife be mercifully killed. Later, Mr. Stevenson is heard in a telegram that he sends to his wife. In it, he tells her that he will not be coming home that night. His so-called urgent business in Boston will ultimately provide him with an alibi when his wife is murdered.
The third operator is described as young and sweet. Mrs. Stevenson calls this operator to complain about her phone ringing. When Mrs. Stevenson answers it, there is no one on the other end of the line. The operator tells Mrs. Stevenson to hang up so she can test the line. This is not what Mrs. Stevenson wants. She asks this operator to put through the call that keeps ringing her phone. The operator explains that is impossible.
Western Union Operator
The Western Union operator calls Mrs. Stevenson and reads the telegram that her husband has sent. Through the telegram, Mrs. Stevenson learns that her husband will not be coming home that night.
Helplessness and Arrogance
The main ingredient in Mrs. Stevenson's terror in Fletcher's play is that of helplessness. Whether the protagonist's dependence is caused by real or imagined illness, Mrs. Stevenson believes she is at the mercy of those around her. She cannot get out of bed. She cannot get through to her husband. She cannot make the telephone operators, the police officer, or the hospital receptionist understand just how helpless she is. She cannot do anything. She wants someone to come over to soothe her nerves and, later, to protect her from the man who is coming to her bedroom. Instead, everyone brushes her off in one way or the other, including Mrs. Stevenson's husband. Because of her helplessness, Mrs. Stevenson makes the perfect victim. Her only defense is her voice. Her screams are easily muffled and her only connection to the outside world is through the telephone, which can easily be disconnected.
It is interesting to note that Mrs. Stevenson's helplessness does not humble her in any way, however. To the contrary, it is coupled with an unbecoming arrogance and sense of self-righteousness. The combination of these character flaws might have been what drove Mr. Stevenson to have his wife killed. When a person is dependent on others as Mrs. Stevenson appears to be, gratitude and humility often follow. Instead Mrs. Stevenson is rude and impatient. She is quick to find fault with the answers people give her. She carelessly insults and degrades others, often implying that she knows more about other people's jobs than they do. This arrogance leads her to initially misinterpret the clues. She does not consider her own mortality; someone else must be the intended victim.
An undercurrent of abandonment flows through Fletcher's drama. The first hint of this occurs in the beginning of the scene when Mrs. Stevenson cannot get through to her husband's office. From her remarks and the resultant frustration, the audience can tell that this situation is new for Mrs. Stevenson. She cannot believe that her husband's phone line could be busy for almost an hour. Surely there must be something wrong with the phone. That is why she dials the operator and asks for help.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Reread Sorry, Wrong Number, paying special attention to the lack of modern devices, such as cell phones. Research how telephone, telegraph, and emergency services worked in the early 1940s, and present your findings to the class in an oral report. Conclude your report by discussing how using a modern setting would affect the drama.
- When reviewers discuss Fletcher's play, they often refer to the fear of the unknown. Rent the 1948 movie adaptation of this play along with a contemporary thriller. Watch the two films and compare the effects that the written play, the movie adaptation, and the contemporary film have on you. Which is scarier? Why? Write an analytical essay about your findings.
- Take a survey of students at your school. Ask them to write their age and their greatest fear on a piece of paper and submit it to you anonymously. Then ask members of your family, people in your neighborhood, and your friends to do the same. Tally your findings and place them in a graph tracking both type of fear and age of the respondent. Before presenting this information to your class, ask them to guess the most frequently occurring fear that people stated in your research. Then share the information you have gathered. Is there a pattern based on age? Can you distinguish between fears of things known versus fears of the unknown? Ask your classmates to help you make these distinctions from the data.
- Imagine a trial in which Mr. Stevenson is accused of orchestrating the murder of his wife. Pretend you are the prosecuting attorney making your final appeal to the jury. Write and deliver your closing remarks to your class. What clues might you have discovered to prove Mr. Stevenson's guilt? How might you persuade the jury? You do not have to confine yourself to the details of the play, but make your arguments believable.
As the play continues, on more subtle levels, everyone Mrs. Stevenson talks to eventually abandons her in some way. No one takes her seriously. Her story about overhearing a murder plot sounds too fantastic to be true. As seen through Sgt. Duffy's eyes, Mrs. Stevenson's story lacks concrete details, therefore, there is nothing he can do to help. He cannot send out policemen to investigate based merely on Mrs. Stevenson's hunch that a murder might take place. Besides, Duffy is too hungry to dig any deeper into her story and he, too, abandons her.
Also, the phone operators cannot trace the phone call without the policeman's authority. The hospital receptionist cannot send out a nurse without a doctor's orders. Mrs. Stevenson is left alone. Either no one believes her or no one cares enough to investigate further. Thus she rightfully feels abandoned.
The most significant example of abandonment, though, lies squarely on Mr. Stevenson's shoulders. Toward the end of the play, it becomes evident that not only is he leaving her, but he is planning to permanently get rid of her. His phone line is probably purposefully kept busy so he will not have to talk to her. Then he plans his alibi by sending a telegram, which would leave a paper trail, unlike a simple call home. He is leaving her for the night, he tells her through the telegram. The audience knows by then that Mr. Stevenson has no plans of seeing her again.
Technology and Isolation
For the duration of Sorry, Wrong Number, Mrs. Stevenson is confined to her room. Her only method of communicating with the outside world is through technology, specifically the telephone. Mrs. Stevenson's reliance on this technology, which is meant to enable communication, ironically becomes an obstacle to her ability to communicate meaningfully. She is unable to reach her husband and spends most of her time talking to various operators. The telephone also makes Mrs. Stevenson privy to a conversation she was not meant to hear—that of the very men planning her murder. When she depends on the same technology to help her address the situation, it fails. Instead, it reinforces her isolation, as she is unable to make meaningful connections to the outside world. Ultimately, her isolation is broken by the intruder who brings her life to an end. He reinforces technology's failure with his final statement: "Sorry. Wrong number."
Many of the published scripts for Fletcher's play provide stage directions, but the original production of Sorry, Wrong Number was written for the radio. The directions for a radio play focus on sound. Footsteps, the closing of a door, the ringing of a telephone, the roar of a subway train, and, naturally, the sound of different voices are the ingredients necessary to make the radio play come alive. In a radio play, one person might play different roles by altering the pitch of their voice or creating a new accent. Sound effects professionals are employed to provide a more realistic setting and to deepen the tension in the drama. Some radio plays use background music to support the psychological states of mind of the characters. Radio plays, as opposed to stage plays performed in front of an audience, have no need for sets. Many of the visual effects of a radio play are left to the imaginations of the listeners.
Most literature, whether novel, short story, or play, includes some element of suspense. Suspense keeps the reader, or the audience, involved in the work; however, in some pieces of literature, such as Fletcher's play, suspense is the defining characteristic of the work. As a genre, suspense has been particularly popular in drama that is designed to be broadcast—in the early twenty-first century via television and film and, before their advent, via radio—most likely because it strongly involves the audience and therefore has a wide appeal.
In Sorry, Wrong Number, suspense is created through a variety of techniques. First, the audience, as well as the main character, becomes aware of a murder that is about to take place. The thought of murder is frightening and therefore adds tension to the play. The author also employs a time frame for when this murder is to take place. As the hour of the proposed murder draws near, the suspense increases. In the final moments, when the intruder is heard inside Mrs. Stevenson's home and she finally realizes that she is the victim, the suspense reaches a climax. Whereas throughout most of the play, the audience and Mrs. Stevenson experience suspense by trying to figure out who is about to be murdered, even as the victim is named, the suspense does not ease. As the end approaches, the audience knows that it is Mrs. Stevenson who is being threatened. They also know who has arranged the murder, but the suspense continues until Mrs. Stevenson is actually dead. Up until that very last moment, the audience might still be wondering if she will be saved. The suspense builds from beginning to end, keeping the audience guessing.
The United States in the 1940s
The decade of the 1940s was a turbulent time for citizens of the United States. The people and the country were still struggling to get out of the Great Depression as the decade began and then fell right into World War II. This made the first half of the decade very trying. There was the rationing of food and fuel and the constant despair for those killed in the war. There was also a fear that the United States would be attacked. Japanese Americans were forced from their homes and interred in war relocation camps because they were considered a threat. But with the second half of the decade came the end of a victorious but bloody war and a time of prosperity.
It was during the 1940s, because of World War II, that the major powers of the world rushed to create more potent weapons. Many Jewish scientists, escaping from Nazi Germany, immigrated to the United States and helped to boost U.S. efforts to develop the most powerful of weapons, the atomic bomb. This massive weapon, eventually dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, forced the end of the war. Though other countries, such as the Soviet Union, would duplicate these efforts, once the power of the atomic bomb was demonstrated, people feared an atomic war would destroy the world. The weapon, therefore, became more of a threat than something of practical use in warfare.
Both the United Nations and the North American Treaty Organization (NATO) were established in the 1940s, with the hope that through these organizations the world would be able to maintain peace. The discovery of penicillin, which revolutionized medicine in fighting common disease and infections, came about in this decade. With the return of soldiers at the end of this decade, families were reunited and babies born, giving rise to what later became known as the baby boom.
Women and the Workplace in the 1940s
Not unlike Mrs. Stevenson in Fletcher's play, most middle- and upper-class women in the United States before the 1940s stayed home and took care of the house and children while their husbands went to work. Although Mrs. Stevenson was confined to bed, thus disallowing her the freedom to leave the house, had she not been infirm, chances are that in the very early 1940s she would not have held a job. Women were not encouraged to take on roles outside of the house.
This all changed as the United States became involved in World War II. With thousands of men sent overseas to fight in the war, jobs in the United States were left unfilled. In an attempt to keep factories fully functioning, the U.S. government created a publicity campaign that enticed women to join the workforce. One of the ads featured Rosie the Riveter, a strong, attractive woman who conveyed the idea that women working outside the home were symbols of patriotism. The campaign was successful as over six million women signed up for and maintained jobs such as in the manufacturing of weapons and military equipment. They held other manufacturing jobs as well. When the soldiers returned and reclaimed most of the job market, women had learned new skills. They also had discovered the pleasure of working outside of the home and making their own money. This was a relatively new idea for women in the United States, one that sparked big changes for women in the business world in the coming decades.
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1940s: Telephone operators play a major role in communication technology. They handle everything from connecting long distance phone calls to reporting the need for phone repairs. In the case of an emergency, they connect callers to the police.
Today: Telephone operators no longer play a critical role in communication technology. Direct dialing, sophisticated touch-tone voice menus, and the Internet have made telephone operators almost obsolete. In the case of an emergency, individuals can reach the police department quickly and directly by dialing 911 in most parts of the United States.
- 1940s: Suspense dramas often rely on psychological tensions such as the fear of murder.
Today: Thriller movies frequently include not only psychological tensions typical of suspense drama but also very realistic and brutal depictions of violence.
- 1940s: Radios are a major source of entertainment in the home. The 1940s are considered the golden age for radio.
Today: Radio stations focus on music and news to attract audiences. Dramas are rarely presented on radio. The major source of home entertainment comes from video and computer games, television, and movies on DVD.
The Golden Age of Radio
The history of radio plays begins in the 1920s. As time passed, this source of entertainment grew, spreading across the globe. This growth continued and reached its peak in the 1940s, which is often called the Golden Age of Radio. One of the greater attractions on radio was the production of plays. Some of these plays were broadcast from New York radio stations and transmitted to other radio stations all over the country. In some cases, the entire cast of a play that was being produced on Broadway took part in the radio production. In other versions, a single actor might deliver a popular monologue from a play in which he or she was staring at the time. One of the most popular dramas on radio was Orson Welles's The War of the Worlds, which
was produced in 1938 and unknowingly frightened some of the audience so greatly they thought the world had actually been invaded by aliens. Other well-known dramatic playwrights were Rod Serling and Tom Stoppard.
The war changed the listening habits of radio audiences as they tuned in to hear the news, wanting to know how the war was progressing. But war-weary listeners also turned to the radio to be distracted from the war. They needed a worthwhile and entertaining escape. This is when comedies grew in popularity, as with comedians like Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, who made people laugh throughout the entire decade with their routines. Thrillers, such as Fletcher's plays, also enjoyed enthusiastic responses. Programs such as Bell Telephone Hour, Author's Playhouse, Inner Sanctum Mysteries, Mystery Theater, and Murder at Midnight provided many of the dramas and thrillers during this decade. By the 1950s, television virtually replaced the radio as the main instrument of communication in the homes of many Americans, and the radio was slowly relegated to the sidelines.
In a 1947 New York Times article, Howard Taubman refers to Fletcher's play Sorry, Wrong Number as a "a melodramatic tour de force in radio terms." Taubman was writing about the play because Decca, a record producing company, had just announced that they were selling a recorded version of Sorry, Wrong Number, due to its immense popularity. The radio play was later adapted into a novel and a film. Taubman states that Fletcher's play "has everything a good thriller should have, all of it managed with compression and tension."
Several obituaries written when the playwright died in 2000 mention the popularity of Sorry, Wrong Number. An anonymous writer for London's Economist states that Sorry, Wrong Number was first produced on radio in 1943 "and, in one form or another, in some part of the world, has been running almost continuously ever since."
In an obituary for the Washington Post, Adam Bernstein refers to Fletcher's play as the "venerable 1940s radio suspense drama." In an anonymous obituary for the Los Angeles Times, the writer describes Fletcher as a "versatile writer" and stated that "her forte" was the radio thrillers that made her famous. In mentioning Fletcher's most popular work, this reporter writes that Sorry, Wrong Number has become "a perennial [production] of high school and community stages."
Hart is an author and freelance writer. In this essay, she explores the emotional progression that Fletcher's protagonist and the audience undergo throughout Sorry, Wrong Number.
In Fletcher's radio thriller, Sorry, Wrong Number, the protagonist, Mrs. Stevenson, experiences an increasingly agitated state of mind. The play begins with Mrs. Stevenson mildly annoyed at a constant busy signal as she attempts to place a phone call, and ends with her in a state of complete panic. Fletcher has Mrs. Stevenson's emotions evolve subtly at first, but as the play builds toward the climax, Mrs. Stevenson's mental state quickly and dramatically deteriorates. Examining the progression of Fletcher's dramatic tension reveals the critical role of the audience in giving the events meaning.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Fletcher's radio play The Hitch-Hiker (1946) was inspired by the author's true-life experience on a road trip with her husband. In this radio play, a man encounters a hitch-hiker who constantly reappears during the man's long trip across the country. Fletcher wrote this play for the famed actor Orson Welles. The play was later adapted to screen for an episode on the television series, The Twilight Zone.
- Alfred Hitchcock, the master of terror in films, also collected short stories. Portraits of Murder: 47 Short Stories Chosen by the Master of Suspense (2006) is an anthology of mysteries with all the plot twists and turns that Hitchcock was famous for. These short stories were collected from Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.
- Stephen King is considered one of the modern masters of the thriller. His novel Cell (2006) has been called one of his best, or at least one of his goriest. The novel is about terrorists attacking millions of people through their cell phones, depriving them of all sense of humanity as they innocently talk to their friends.
- One of the great contemporary American playwrights is Tom Stoppard. In the book The Plays of Tom Stoppard for Stage, Radio, TV and Film (2002), editor Terry Hodgson provides a reader's guide to Stoppard's life works. Hodgson focuses on Stoppard's themes, a background into how Stoppard's works have been received by critics, as well as interviews with the playwright.
With Mrs. Stevenson's slamming down the telephone receiver in the opening moments of this play, the audience immediately detects the protagonist's unrest. "Oh—dear!" Mrs. Stevenson says as an exclamation of her inability to connect with her husband's office. Then immediately afterward, she dials the operator and communicates her slight concern and frustration at not being able to reach her husband. Her concern is not for her husband or for herself at this point. Rather she just thinks that something is wrong with the phone. She is put off by this inconvenience, which is just that—a slight setback in her desire to talk to her husband. She is slightly annoyed but not much else. At this point, the audience likewise has little feeling of tension. The woman's attempts to communicate with someone have been blocked, but that happens to everyone. There is very little to worry about. After all, it is just a busy signal.
The tension picks up in the next conversation. First, Mrs. Stevenson tells the operator she has been nervous all day. Since the author has described her protagonist as a neurotic woman, the audience's emotions still are not very aroused. They could dismiss Mrs. Stevenson's nervousness as a product of the woman's neurotic imagination. The tension increases shortly afterward when Mrs. Stevenson overhears the conversation about the murder plot. The emotional mood in both Mrs. Stevenson and the audience is heightened. Murder is, of course, a serious threat. Although the tension is heightened, it is still at a relatively low level. The details of this overheard conversation are vague. Neither Mrs. Stevenson nor the audience knows the men who are plotting this crime and they do not have much concrete knowledge of who the victim is. Without a name, a face, or a shared history, the woman who is the focus of this murder remains an abstraction. The audience experiences compassion, but no real or immediate fear. Mrs. Stevenson would like to help this woman by preventing the murder, but at this point there is no danger for her. Mrs. Stevenson's response to this news of a murder plot is: "Oh…! How awful!" She is taken aback. The author suggests that Mrs. Stevenson is "overcome for a few seconds."
When Mrs. Stevenson calls the operator to report what she has overheard, the first thing she says is, "I—I've just been cut off." This is a strange reaction. Mrs. Stevenson's first reaction is about herself and what has happened to her. If she were concerned about the unknown woman, the logical first response would be that someone's life is threatened, not that she was inconvenienced by being cut off from a phone conversation. It is only in her next comment that Mrs. Stevenson tells the operator about the planned murder. Mrs. Stevenson's emotions then take a new turn. She becomes haughty. She commands "imperiously" that the operator trace the previous call. Someone, she insists, must do something about this.
This new attitude of Mrs. Stevenson's grows. It is as if her fears have been quelled by an inner anger. She begins to look down on everyone she talks to. She concludes that the operator is stupid and does not know how to do her job. During this sequence of conversations, the tension that was building in the audience has been dissipated. While the audience once thought Mrs. Stevenson was attempting to save another woman's life, and so were invested in her cause, she now seems to be a fool. Mrs. Stevenson's responses to the operator's questions do not improve the situation. She does not know the number that was dialed, though she insists that the operator redial it. She does not know the names of the men she has overheard. She does not know who the woman is nor where she lives. Her story has many holes in it, but she demands that the operators solve the problem. When someone acts arrogantly, it is easy to dismiss that person's concern. The audience at this point of the play is more annoyed than fearful.
The conversation between Mrs. Stevenson and Sgt. Duffy changes the course of emotions again. The audience sees how uninvolved the police officer is in dealing with Mrs. Stevenson. Only for a few moments does he take her call seriously. Once Mrs. Stevenson tells him the few vague details, Duffy turns his full attention back to his stomach. He writes Mrs. Stevenson off completely. He has no intention of following through on her story of murder because, in his mind, it would lead nowhere. How do you find a murderer without practical clues?
When Sgt. Duffy suggests that he might send a patrol car around if Mrs. Stevenson has "some reason for thinking this call is phony—and that someone may be planning to murder you," Mrs. Stevenson's confidence is shaken and the dramatic tension is heightened. Her first response is one of disbelief. "Me? Oh—no—I hardly think so. I—I mean—why should anybody?" This question hangs in the air. It affects both Mrs. Stevenson and the audience. A shadow has been cast. Fear has been stirred again. Is this a possibility? Could the client that the men spoke about be Mr. Stevenson? The details fit. Mrs. Stevenson is all alone and extremely vulnerable. Even though Mrs. Stevenson appears to refuse the possibility, the audience might not. Or maybe Mrs. Stevenson does put the clues together, at least on a subconscious level, because she becomes much more nervous.
The telegram from Mr. Stevenson stating that he is unexpectedly going out of town and will not be home that evening, forces the audience closer to the edge of their seats. Mrs. Stevenson cannot believe that her husband would leave her alone. However, there is a rising suspicion in the audience that he would. Mrs. Stevenson seems to realize this possibility when she exclaims, "No—no—it isn't true! He couldn't do it!" With the train roaring by outside her bedroom window, the tension is closer to a full pitch. The audience, as well as Mrs. Stevenson, has been set up by the author. The subway train signals the time has come for the meeting of the murderer and his victim. There is still a slight doubt that the victim is Mrs. Stevenson, but this doubt is removed when Mrs. Stevenson hears someone downstairs. Everyone knows it is not her husband. Who else could it be?
In complete terror by the end of the play, Mrs. Stevenson makes one last call to an operator. The author suggests that Mrs. Stevenson is desperate. The protagonist is weak. All her arrogance is gone. The audience is pulled deeply into her plight. They know her and all her faults. She is completely at the mercy of the man coming up the stairs. The audience knows what is coming next, but they cannot save her. Her plight reveals their own vulnerability. The play ends and the anticipation of both the fear and the hope of saving her is extinguished as Mrs. Stevenson's still body lies across the bed.
When the fear has been fully realized and, like Mrs. Stevenson, the audience can hardly breathe, the playwright ends the story. The audience is left without satisfaction. Why did Mrs. Stevenson have to die? How could Mr. Stevenson be so cruel? American audiences, in particular, are accustomed to a resolution or explanation of events. This play catches them off-guard. What is the lesson to be learned? Where is justice? Worst of all, audiences may ask the ultimate question: could this ever happen to me?
Source: Joyce Hart, Critical Essay on Sorry, Wrong Number, in Drama for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2009.
Balk, Alfred, The Rise of Radio, from Marconi through the Golden Age, McFarland, 2005.
Bernstein, Adam, "Lucille Fletcher Dies; Radio Suspense Writer," in the Washington Post, September 4, 2000, p. B06.
Fletcher, Lucille, Preface to Sorry, Wrong Number, in Sorry, Wrong Number and The Hitch-Hiker, Dramatists Play Service, 1980, p. 3.
———, Sorry, Wrong Number and The Hitch-Hiker, Dramatists Play Service, 1980.
"Lucille Fletcher," in St. James Guide to Crime and Mystery Writers, 4th ed., St. James Press, 1996.
"Obituaries; Lucille Fletcher; Wrote ‘Sorry,Wrong Number,’" in the Los Angeles Times, September 5, 2000, p. 4.
"Obituary: Lucille Fletcher," in the Economist (London), September 16, 2000, Vol. 356, No. 8188, p. 96.
Taubman, Howard, "Records: Thriller," in the New York Times, December 14, 1947, p. X7.
Van Gelder, Lawrence, "Lucille Fletcher, 88, Author of ‘Sorry, Wrong Number,’" in the New York Times, September 6, 2000, p. C24.
Watson, Wilbur, "Death by Wire," in the New York Times, March 21, 1948, p. BR25.
Wills, Charles A., America in the 1940s, Facts on File, 2005.
Craig, Carolyn Casey, Women Pulitzer Playwrights: Biographical Profiles and Analyses of the Plays, McFarland, 2004.
Women playwrights not only were scarce until the late twentieth century, they were seldom awarded for their efforts. Since the beginning of the Pulitzer Prize, only eleven women have won this prize for drama. In this collection, Craig brings the reader into the world of such female dramatists as Susan Glaspell, Zoe Akins, Beth Henley, and the other women who were honored by this prize.
Crook, Tim, Radio Drama, Routledge, 1999.
Crook offers practical skills needed for producing radio plays. He includes tips on how to write, to direct, and to provide sound. Included in this book is a history of radio from the early broadcasts of 1914 through the influence of Orson Welles, specifically Welles's famous radio drama War of the Worlds of 1938.
Hicks, Neill D., Writing the Thriller Film: The Terror Within, Michael Wiese Productions, 2002.
Hicks gives fellow writers tips on how to keep the audience on the edge of their seats when writing a script for movies. This book can also be used to understand the psychology behind thriller movies and why they make movie-goers feel tense.
Kaledin, Eugenia, Daily Life in the United States, 1940-1959: Shifting Worlds, Greenwood Press, 2000.
What was life for ordinary U.S. citizens in the 1940s and 1950s? Kaledin presents interesting facts about this historical time during World War II and after. People were going through critical changes, pulling away from the Great Depression, going into the war, and then landing in one of the greatest economic booms in the country. Some of the questions answered are: How did the role of women change? What were the popular pastimes? What was the impact of politics? How did teenagers help the war effort? From the war age to the atomic age, great changes were taking place. Kaledin provides a deep exploration into two very important decades.
Shafer, Yvonne, American Women Playwrights, 1900-1950, Peter Lang Publishing, 1995.
Thirty-five female playwrights and their works are explored in Shafer's book. Some who are included in this work are Edna Ferber, Lillian Hellman, Gertrude Stein, and Dorothy Parker. The author connects the playwrights' works to their lives and the time in which they lived.