I’ve gotten many questions about the name of my blog, “Dispatches from the Midnight Radio,” so instead of making my first post about a play I saw recently (it’s coming!!), I’ll take a moment first to explain the name.
“The Midnight Radio” is a reference to Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which I was able to see five times during its run on Broadway: three times with Andrew Rannells, once with John Cameron Mitchell, and once with Taye Diggs, on the last performance of its run.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the play, it’s a phenomenal musical about Hedwig, a German washed-up rock star who underwent a sex change surgery as a young man to escape Soviet-era Germany, but whose life was derailed when the doctor made a mistake and left her with the eponymous “angry inch.” Hedwig’s partner, Yitzhak, is a famous Soviet drag queen whom Hedwig agrees to marry for American citizenship, so long as Yitzhak agrees never again to wear a wig or dress in drag. This rule is consistent with how the man who convinced Hedwig to undergo her sex change operation told her that “to walk away, you’ve got to leave something behind,” an opinion which Hedwig’s mother seconded. She exacts this same revenge on Yitzhak, preluding her from manifesting her gender identity, just as Hedwig feels that her own gender has been stripped from her violently.
The name of my blog ties together two of my favorite scenes from the musical, and maybe even in theatre in general. The performance of “Midnight Radio” comes at the very end of the show, and in this scene Hedwig is stripped completely naked except for black spandex shorts, and is facing the audience as vulnerable as we have seen her all night, with her wig off and her makeup smudged across her face. During this song, she places her own wig on Yitzhak’s head, granting Yitzhak permission to dress in drag and to reclaim her identity once more.
It’s during this moment that Hedwig realizes that she has been recreating the violence on Yitzhak that has been perpetrated on her, and she finds that to overcome her own pain, she doesn’t have to pass it on to somebody else. Hedwig derives strength from all the strong women who came before her and on whom she has modeled herself: “Here’s to Patti/ And Tina/ And Yoko/ Aretha/ And Nona/ And Nico/ And me,” and then finally, triumphantly, counts herself among them. She urges the audience to “hold on to each other” and take solace in each other’s company.
The most compelling part of the song, though, is when she makes a reference to the midnight radio, singing “And you’re shining/ Like the brightest star/ A transmission/ On the midnight radio.” Earlier in the performance she tells of how she would listen to American radio late at night as a child in East Berlin, finding refuge from her daily life in the music she would hear on that “midnight radio.” She sang along (until her mom threw a tomato at her) and she would imagine herself as one of the stars she heard on that radio.
These programs she heard on the midnight radio let her craft a future for herself that, although filled with heartbreak, also provided her an avenue to escape from the stifling East Berlin of her youth and inspired her to hope for a better future, and isn’t that the effect that art has had on millions of people throughout history? In all its different forms, it has uplifted young people, showing them that there is an alternative to a future that often seems inevitable. It’s a message that feels intensely personal as soon as it reaches any individual by reassuring them that they are not alone in wanting a different future for themselves, and that they are certainly not selfish for choosing a different life than the one that has been laid out for them.
Good art has so often provide an avenue of expression and commiseration for people who feel isolated in their communities, and, although as an English major at a liberal arts university in New York City I certainly don’t feel isolated in my love for various forms of art, the sense of community and like-mindedness that I feel when I attend a performance or similar artistic event—or even just participate in compelling class discussion—is incomparable. I hope to use this blog to expound on these experiences of communion with strangers through art, whether it’s through reading the works of a long-dead writer, or seeing a performance of a play, or viewing an exhibit of an artist’s work at a museum, and to amplify those moments which for many come as just whispers on a midnight radio.
NB: Throughout my writing about Hedwig, the pronoun that I use to describe her changes. Many people view her as a transgender character, and as such, of course, the pronoun which matches her gender should always be used. However, I view the character differently, since before the sex change operation Hedwig never expressed any interest in becoming a woman, and in fact reluctantly agreed to undergo the surgery merely to escape from East Berlin as a man’s wife. Since her anatomy should not be assumed to correlate with her gender, I think that Hedwig could be regarded as a man who underwent surgery for reasons other than being transgender, and thus who is still a man, regardless of his physicality. However, after this surgery Hedwig embraces her role as a woman, somewhat reluctantly at times, but very clearly aligns herself with a sort of feminine prototype, and refers to herself as “she.” Had this play been written in 2015, rather than in the 90s, perhaps the pronoun used to describe Hedwig would not have had to be either “he” or “she” and instead it could have been a pronoun of her own choosing, or perhaps the writer would ultimately still have chosen “she.” I refer to Hedwig with “she/her” pronouns throughout because that is the convention, both within the play and within the critical community about Hedwig, but I think that the pronoun is potentially reductive in the face of her experiences, and I think it important to note that an involuntary change in anatomy should never be automatically assumed to cause a change in gender.