One of my happiest experiences of silence took place in a rural area of Kenya, 180 miles north of Nairobi. It was not the kind of silence that that location would lead you to expect, quiet bush at night, or an open farm field when all human and animal residents have settled down for the night. The occasion was the outdoor screening of an episode from the American TV series 77 Sunset Strip.
We were all gathered on the lawn between the two wings of the secondary school where I taught from 1966 to 1968. Mostly young African men, but also a number of Italian priests, nuns, and lay missionaries, along with a smattering of Americans and Brits. There were also some locals there, workers in the compound and neighboring farmers. A screen and projector were sometimes set up on weekends for these showings. There was no internet then, no broadcast TV up there. Teachers and nearby residents may have had access to shortwave radio to listen to the stories and dramas broadcast on Voice of Kenya or BBC, but the students did not. So we had occasional movie shows on weekends.
As soon as the credits ran and the story started I recognized the episode, having seen it in when it was first broadcast in 1960. We watched 77 Sunset Strip most Friday evenings while I was in high school. I could catch up on the summer re-runs when I went off to college.
I had the sense that this episode would work for this audience. The students and teachers all spoke English, but for the Africans and the Italians it was not their first language. The rapidly spoken American dialect in many of the movies we saw were difficult for most of the audience, and impossible for those who had no English, even though they enjoyed the spectacle and the occasion. This time, however, we were seeing The Silent Caper.
In this episode, not a word is spoken throughout the 45 minutes of action. Lots happens as one of the private eyes central to the series rescues a woman who has been kidnapped by mobsters, but it happens without anyone actually having to speak. As the show went on, I could feel the audience becoming more and more involved in the story because they could understand completely what was going on. Even though the episode and the series embody 1950s American culture: all white, macho, big convertible autos, betting on the horses at a track, TV, urban apartments. Didn’t matter, because there were no undecipherable utterances that in other shows foretell, cause, or explain the action. Just action. It was a very happy audience that went back to bed that night.
Some critics have questioned calling this episode “The Silent Caper” because there is a constant musical soundtrack throughout and there are sounds that accompany the action: cars revving, guns shooting, even a dog barking. I don’t agree. I think this episode illustrates very well how we use the words “silent” and “silence” relative to what we expect to hear. In this case, we expect that the characters in a drama will speak to each other.