Lucille Fletcher's Sorry, Wrong Number: Summary & Analysis

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  • 0:01 Setting the Stage
  • 0:51 Summary
  • 2:55 Analysis
  • 4:23 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jason Lineberger

Jason has 20 years of education experience including 14 years of teaching college literature.

Lucille Fletcher's ''Sorry, Wrong Number'' is a 1940s radio drama, a play meant to be heard rather than seen. In this lesson you'll learn the plot and some of the major ideas from this landmark audio production.

Setting the Stage

Just a decade ago, if people wanted to watch a show on television they had to figure out when it would air and then tune in to the correct channel at the correct time. Fifty years before that, even though black and white television was relatively common, the big entertainment came from radio. Radio dramas, plays that were heard on the radio rather than seen, were the 1940s version of the modern TV show - a story that is either told in a half an hour or that continues with a new installment each week. One popular radio show, Suspense, regularly aired short, suspenseful radio plays.

In 1943 Sorry, Wrong Number first aired on the Suspense radio program. This story by Lucille Fletcher went on to be considered one of the greatest radio drama episodes. It was adapted to become a movie, and a later production of the radio drama won The Edgar Award for Best Radio Drama.

Summary

Sorry, Wrong Number tells the story of Mrs. Elbert Stevenson an invalid woman confined to her bed, who becomes increasingly frantic as the story progresses. The drama begins with Mrs. Stevenson attempting to call her husband, who is working late. Frustrated with the busy signal, she seeks the help of the operator who connects her through to what she assumes is her husband's office phone. Instead of hearing his familiar voice, she listens in on a conversation where two men are plotting a murder. The victim is a woman, home alone, who lives near a bridge. The men plan for the attack to take place just as the train crosses the bridge, so the sound will mask any screams from the victim.

Horrified by what she hears, Mrs. Stevenson calls the operator to demand that she trace the source of this call. The operator explains that only the police can push through a request like that, and so begins 20 minutes of calls to the police, telephone operators, and even to the phone company's Chief Operator as Mrs. Stevenson attempts to alert someone to the gravity of the situation. None of the people she talks to will acknowledge that she is in any danger. Meanwhile, the audience learns that Mrs. Stevenson has been confined to her bed for 12 years with anxiety issues. No one on the phone has the answers she's seeking and her anxiety mounts, building suspense that her health may be at risk.

The drama culminates in a scene were Mrs. Stevenson becomes certain that she's the target of the murder; after all, she lives near a train that crosses a bridge, and when she hears that her husband has left town on business, she knows that she will be at home alone at the designated time for the attack. In the final minutes she hears an intruder listening on the downstairs phone, and then she picks out footsteps coming up the stairs. She hastily calls the police for help, and just before they answer the phone, her terrified screams let the audience know that she has been caught by the killer.

The drama ends when the police ask about the nature of the caller's emergency. The killer picks up the phone, explains that he's fine, and says that he never meant to dial the police. He apologizes for dialing a wrong number and hangs up.

Analysis

Sorry, Wrong Number raises some interesting ideas for such a short, audio-only production. Mrs. Stevenson has been isolated due to her nervous condition, and the telephone promises a connection with the outside world; but instead of providing her with comfort and security, it only leads to frustration. When read in this light, the play is one about the limitations of technology.

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