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The Musical Telephone: A One-Act Play Adapted from Looking Backward

Looking Backward: 2000-1887, published in 1887, is a utopian science fiction novel by Edward Bellamy, a lawyer and writer from western Massachusetts. According to Erich Fromm, Looking Backward is "one of the most remarkable books ever published in America".

It was the third-largest bestseller of its time, after Uncle Tom's Cabin and Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. It influenced a large number of intellectuals, and appears by title in many of the major Marxist writings of the day. "It is one of the few books ever published that created almost immediately on its appearance a political mass movement".

In the United States, for example, over 150 "Bellamy Clubs" were formed to discuss and proselytize the book's ideas. This political movement came to be known as Nationalism (not to be confused with the political concept of nationalism). The novel also inspired several utopian communities.

And a one-act play, written by Roger Hall.

Looking Backward tells the story of Julian West, a young American who, towards the end of the 19th century, falls into a deep, hypnosis-induced sleep and wakes up one hundred and thirteen years later. He finds himself in the same location (Boston, Massachusetts), but in a totally changed world: It is the year 2000 and, while he was sleeping, the U.S. has been transformed into a socialist utopia. The remainder of the book outlines Bellamy's thoughts about improving the future. The major themes are the dangers of the stock market, the use of credit cards, the benefits of a socialist legal system, music, and the use of an "industrial army" to make tasks run smoother.

The young man readily finds a guide, Doctor Leete, who shows him around and explains all the advances of this new age; including drastically reduced working hours for people performing menial jobs and almost instantaneous, internet-like delivery of goods. Everyone retires with full benefits at age 45, and may eat in any of the public kitchens. The productive capacity of America is nationally owned, and the goods of society are equally distributed to its citizens.

The Thunder Child talked to Roger Hall about his one act play (which is available on DVD from his American Music Preservation website at:

Hall said: The play was written for the Edward Bellamy Centennial Conference at Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts in 1988 to celebrate the anniversary of the publication of Bellamy's most popular novel, Looking Backward, 2000-1887.

The story focused on a wealthy man who falls asleep in 1887 and wakes up in the year 2000 and then "looks backward" to the social inequalities of his privileged life in Boston and how the poor were neglected. So this is still a topical story today. The play was originally titled, Bellamy's Musical Telephone, and performed as a staged reading and videotaped for future viewing. I later retitled the one-act play The Musical Telephone, to make it easier to remember.

I began writing the play using some of Bellamy's own writing and then added my own dialogue for the two main characters: Julian West and Edith Leete. Since I'm a composer as well as a writer, I added my own music (for the year 2000) and also music from Bellamy's time (19th century music). So the music was representing both then (1887) and now (2000) as told in Bellamy's utopian socialist novel.

The main concept for the play was the special telephone as described in Chapter 11 of Looking Backward. Alexander Graham Bell's telephone wasn't that old when Bellamy's novel was published. According to his description, the telephone could receive music from any of the live concerts being broadcast around Boston during a 24 hour period. This is sort of like our Internet or Satellite radio of today. But Bellamy was writing about it in 1887! There wasn't even radio at that time. So I thought this one prediction was worth focusing on, especially since it involved music.

The one act play, lasting about 30 minutes was unfortunately performed only in that one performance. But it was shown on a local cable TV channel and several professors have ordered copies of it to show to their college classes. I would welcome anyone who might wish to perform The Musical Telephone in the future, perhaps together with one or two other short plays. The complete dialogue and all the music are included on the DVD, which has the first performance of the staged reading of the play in 1988. Here is the link with the full description:
A considerable portion of the book is dialogue between Leete and West wherein West expresses his confusion about how the future society works and Leete explains the answers using various methods, such as metaphors or direct comparisons with 19th-century society.

Although Bellamy's novel did not discuss technology or the economy in detail, commentators frequently compare Looking Backward with actual economic and technological developments. For example, Julian West is taken to a store which (with its descriptions of cutting out the middleman to cut down on waste in a similar way to the consumers' cooperatives of his own day based on the Rochdale Principles of 1844) somewhat resembles a modern warehouse club like BJ's, Costco, or Sam's Club. He additionally introduces the concept of credit cards in chapters 9, 10, 11, 13, 25, and 26. All citizens receive an equal amount of "credit." Those with more difficult, specialized, dangerous or unpleasant jobs work fewer hours. Bellamy also predicts both sermons and music being available in the home through cable "telephone". Bellamy labeled the philosophy behind the vision "nationalism", and his work inspired the formation of more than 160 Nationalist Clubs to prognate his ideas.

Despite his Christian Socialism (though he was loath to use the term "socialism"), Bellamy's ideas somewhat reflect classical Marxism. In Chapter 19, for example, he has the new legal system explained. Most civil suits have ended in socialism, while crime has become a medical issue. The idea of atavism, then current, is extolled to explain crimes not related to inequality (which Bellamy thinks will vanish with socialism). Remaining criminals are medically treated. One professional judge presides, appointing two colleagues to state the prosecution and defense cases. If all do not agree on the verdict, then it must be tried over. Chapter 15 and 16 have an explanation of how free, independent public art and news outlets could be provided in a more libertarian socialist system. In one case Bellamy even writes "the nation is the sole employer and capitalist."

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