During his interview sessions with Peter Bogdanovich between 1969 and 1972, director-writer-actor Orson Welles looked back on his work in radio and described the medium as ‘an abandoned mine’, akin to silent cinema as ‘a victim of technological restlessness’. He added: ‘For me, radio's a personal loss, I miss it very much … ’ (1) In large part, Welles' own voluminous mine left in this medium – although much of the material is still available in various forms – has also been abandoned by critics and scholars. The following notes examine six of the radio plays Welles worked on in varying capacities, trying both to link these works to the artistic and narrative explorations of his wider career, and to value them in their own right as remarkable examples of a lost, radiophonic aesthetic.
In 1938, Welles was at the height of his radio career. In artistic terms, his radio work can be seen as the necessary and crucial hinge between his time in the theatre and his debut in cinema with Citizen Kane (1941). Professionally, of course, as Welles lived through this period, radio must have seemed simply one of many media that he could engage with and find employment in. His acclaimed troupe, the Mercury Theatre, provided him with a large store of important actors, technicians and artistic collaborators that he would use on the stage, on the air, and eventually on film (especially in his first two features). In the radio play Hell on Ice, a Mercury Theatre on the Air production first broadcast on CBS on 9 October 1938, we hear the familiar voices of Joseph Cotten and Ray Collins, as well as the stirring, sombre music of Bernard Herrmann, later Hitchcock's favoured composer.
Welles had been in radio for four years by 1938. He appeared on a wide assortment of weekly programs, including variety shows and educational spots. In 1937 he took on the popular role of Lamont Cranston, The Shadow, in a serial that ran for two years. Much of the work Welles did in radio was bread-and-butter stuff, and some of it was completely anonymous, thanks to Welles' mastery of voice tricks and mimicry. He revelled in the speed and spontaneity of live radio work, and did as much of it as he possibly could. In the indispensable interview book This is Orson Welles, he evoked this period for Peter Bogdanovich:
Soon I was doing so many [programs] that I didn't even rehearse. I'd come to a bad end in some tearjerker on the seventh floor of CBS and rush up to the ninth (they'd hold an elevator for me), where, just as the red light was going on, somebody'd hand me a script and whisper, ‘Chinese mandarin, seventy-five years old’, and off I'd go again (...) Not rehearsing (...) made it so much more interesting. When I was thrown down the well or into some fiendish snake pit, I never knew how I'd get out. (2)
Welles took his own Mercury Theatre on the Air projects more seriously but they, too, were conceived and processed at a lightning pace, on a weekly basis for a year and half. Welles and his collaborators (Mercury colleague John Houseman, writer Howard Koch and radio producer Davidson Taylor) were probably getting scripts from many and varied sources, and then putting their own spin or 'signature' on them. The show chewed up classics like The Count of Monte Cristo and Julius Caesar, biopics about figures like Abraham Lincoln, tall tales like Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday (in modern times, a long-cherished project of Welles admirer Raul Ruiz). Hell on Ice is something different – a dramatisation of a chronicle by Commander Edward Ellsberg, detailing disastrous journey into an icy region undertaken by a group of stolid, professional men.
Welles was a great artist and a grand showman in equal measure. This, in my view, is one of the essential keys to understanding and appreciating his legacy. As much as he revered the canon of classical literature (from Shakespeare to Kafka), he also adored popular cultural forms like the magic show and genres like thrillers, horror tales and melodramas. Crucially, Welles never kept art and showbiz separate; he played everything both for sensational thrills and for poetic resonance. Although Welles can often seem like a prophet of postmodern culture – in its baroque insistence on surfaces, masques and games – few today are able to work on these dual levels in the way he did.
Hell on Ice reflects Welles' special love for certain forms of 19th century fiction. This true-life tale is itself a 19th century story, and Welles works hard to bring out its gothic and baroque possibilities. For instance, it uses not merely one narrator – the first voice we hear is Welles himself – but, rather, a series of narrators. Each narration is reconstituted from the notes or diaries of the members on this fatal expedition. Another of Welles' celebrated radio productions from this period, an adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula, used a similar, polyphonic structure of diverse narrating voices derived from the novel (rather than the simplified play version often used for as the basis for its screen adaptations) – an experiment revived when another Welles admirer, Francis Ford Coppola, constructed his cinematic version of the same book (Bram Stoker's Dracula, 1992) on the basis of an audio recording made 'blind' with the cast.
Even more intensely, Hell on Ice is a seafaring story of sorts, a tale of exploration and drifting. Welles had a
particularly high regard for the writings of Joseph Conrad – Heart of Darkness (which he also
produced for radio only weeks after this broadcast) was originally slated to be
More specifically, such adventure and navigation stories offer a very particular kind of poetry. As the heroes of these tales get deeper into dark terrain, or float further down stream, they start to lose the trappings of their precious civilisation. They confront raw nature in all its blinding sublimity – like the visions of ice cathedrals in this story – but they are then defeated by it. What's worse, they are almost seduced by it. Hell on Ice traces, with careful precision, the breakdown of the rational and moral codes of these explorers. They desperately try to contain the madness, bitterness and growing animality that are overtaking them by faithfully noting their physical co-ordinates and recording their days in journals and logs. But all this rational activity begins to seem more and pathetic as the ice blocks their movement and vision and cuts off all lifelines.
As a work for radio, this is a superb, highly economical piece of storytelling. Just as his later film work would often have an unmistakable radiophonic quality, so too his radio programs have a pronounced cinematic edge. Welles's leaps in narrative time are bold, skipping days and months in a single phrase. The intimate narrating voices and the more spacious dramatic dialogues are constantly intercut with each other, sometimes fighting for our attention. The use of Herrmann's music is sparing and precise; Welles once said that he worked closely, note for note, with the composer. Equally sparing is Welles' use of sound effects, such as the stretching, squeezing, groaning, shrieking sounds of ice pressing in on the characters.
In one of the finest, most memorable and chilling moments of this
broadcast, Welles takes what must have already been, in
‘There aren't any old times. When times are gone, they're not old, they're dead! They're aren't any times but new times’. These words appear in the novel, in the radio play, and in the film of The Magnificent Ambersons. They are the key lines of this story of change at the turn of the century for a privileged family in an American town. The Magnificent Ambersons may not be the title that most people first think of in relation to Welles, but it is for many of devotees his finest and richest work – and certainly his most moving.
The Magnificent Ambersons came second in Welles' film career, in 1942. Due to a tragic combination of factors, the film – which tested very badly with a preview audience – was taken out of Welles' hands during editing, and drastically shortened and altered. Today we can only imagine, from photographs, script documents, working notes and the memories of those who were there, what Welles' fullest, darkest version of this story was. Miraculously, even its butchered state, the film still has the power to stir and amaze. Many years after its making, Welles still found the memory of his loss of control over the project painful and regretful. But all he would allow himself to say about it echoed those words I quoted from the film itself about the dead old times: ‘It's the past’, he would say. ‘It's over’. (3)
The radio version of The Magnificent Ambersons hails from October 1939. It is a fascinating document, and a very affecting work in its own right. Described by Bogdanovich as ‘a fine simplified sketch for what was to become a great painting’, (4) it is a skilful and quite faithful condensation of the original novel written in 1918 by a rather forgotten Pulitzer prize winning author, Booth Tarkington (Welles remarked: ‘What doesn't come from the book is a careful imitation of his style’). (5) Apart from Shakespeare, Tarkington's novel was the richest source material that Welles used in his long career. Welles rightly calls it, in his radio introduction, the ‘truest and cruellest picture of the growth of the American Mid-West’.
The narrative – epic and yet intimate – focuses on a family whose
reputation and fortune are eclipsed by the changing tides of history. In
particular, the insular, pampered Amberson family is changed by the arrival of
a lower-class stranger, Eugene Morgan, who brings with him a strong sign of the
industrial and urban revolution of the twentieth century – the steam engine
driven motor car. A number of important characters in the novel are simply
streamlined out of existence in this radio version – Welles was to reinstate
them in the film version. But the central four-way conflict still remains,
touchingly and tearingly, at its dramatic centre. There is the unrequited, lost
love between the mother of the Amberson clan, Isabel, and this cocky inventor
Eugene; and then there's the attraction between Isabel's son, the spoilt-rotten
One of the most fascinating aspects of The Magnificent Ambersons for anyone interested in Welles as a person and an artist, is the autobiographical resonance of the project. Welles said that he based his memory of the Ambersons' world on his own memory of such a society. The character of Eugene Morgan, he admitted, was somewhat modelled on his own father, who was an inventor, and an acquaintance of Tarkington. What is most explicit in this radio version is the high degree of Welles' personal identification with the quite unlikeable character of George Amberson. This is less obvious or at least less marked in the film version, where he chose not to play the part. But on radio, he not only played it, but also commented upon it in his second role as the all-important narrator. George is a prig, a holy terror, a self-absorbed, insensitive pain. Welles quips, ‘It pains me more than any man to admit it’. Later he adds: ‘His arrogance – I'm sorry to say – grew with the years’.
What's all this in-joking about, really? We need to grasp that in 1939,
before Citizen Kane, Welles was
already a media celebrity. He had been on the cover of Time magazine the previous year, The War of the Worlds radio spectacular had already occurred, and
In this radio adaptation, Welles experiments deftly with a whole
bag-load of new techniques. He creates a chorus from a gaggle of townsfolk, and
interweaves their curt comments with his own, more sombre and eloquent
narration. He plays with sharp alternations of mood, from the high-spirited to
the melancholic in a single sentence or musical cue. He cleverly uses the
writing and reading of letters as a way of both propelling the story and
revealing character. Above all, he evokes the vision of a fond, lost world,
with its manners and customs and values. Was Welles, who so often dealt with
the theme of what he called ‘that
Orson Welles loved performing, acting, speaking on radio. He felt that it was in radio and theatre – rather than film – that he innovated, to the point of crediting himself with the invention of narration on radio. Plus, the actor part of him felt more comfortable in the radio medium than any other that he worked in – stage, film, records or television. ‘I was happy in it ... the happiest I've ever been as an actor. It's so ... what do I want to say, impersonal? No, private. It's as close as you can get, and still get paid for it, to the great, private joy of singing in the bathtub. The microphone's a friend, you know. The camera's a critic’. (8)
In particular, we can speculate that he loved being a pure, disembodied voice. In one sense, radio was indeed an impersonal medium for him – he prided himself on his skills of mimicry and his way with accents. He slipped himself anonymously, without credit, into many small radio parts during the late 1930s – just as, in subsequent years, he would dub many characters, including female characters, in his films. It is hardly surprising, given these factors, that Welles had a special penchant for the monologue form.
The two short plays The Hitch-Hiker and The Moat Farm Murder highlight Welles' mastery of the art of performing for radio. These two pieces represent a certain, highly popular branch of the work he did in this period – his genre pieces or his pulp fiction, all the suspense thrillers, supernatural tales, swashbucklers, adventure yarns, and so on. Welles was acclaimed for his vivid adaptations of highbrow literature, but his reputation came just as much from his embrace of these more populist forms. It is curious now to hear Welles introducing himself before one of these plays, as the 'master of suspense' – the same label that we more readily associate these days with Hitchcock. But this was, after all, the period when Welles (like Lang) was attempting to compete with Hitchcock on the terrain of the political and/or exotic thriller, in The Stranger (1946) and The Lady from Shanghai (1948).
And Welles indeed was, in his own way, a master of suspense. He would never miss an opportunity, in the prologues or epilogues to these programs, to discourse upon the importance of being frightened, of having your spine tingled. He revered the immediate, sensational aspects of popular art, and refused to put them on a lower rung than the more elevated, noble or moral appeals of high art. In particular, Welles grasped the potential of radio as the ideal carrier of spooky and suspenseful tales. That close, private, whispered voice, floating in the abstract space of a radio play, was able to conjure states and sensations beyond the powers of seeing. Welles' voice became an urgent message from some vague zone between worlds, between life and death, between waking reality and some dreamy hallucination. Welles was unafraid of using the form of the monologue, if the words and the delivery were compelling enough – but he was also able to make judicious use of musical punctuation, sound atmospheres, and sudden changes in the tone or depth of a voice. He commented: ‘With the microphone, as with the camera, you've got a choice of placement (...) You move around – you change angles’. (9)
The Hitch-Hiker and The Moat Farm Murder are showcases for Welles as actor rather than writer or director. One important aspect of these thriller plays is what they reveal about Welles' life-long attachment to the short story form. Welles treasured vignettes, anecdotes, jokes and short pithy tales, often with a bitter, surprising or nightmarish twist at the very end. He was of course a raconteur, in his youth as in his older age, making numerous appearances on TV talk shows and comedy 'roasts'. But there's more to this attachment than a simple fondness for gossip or a good yarn. Some of Welles' most cherished projects centred around the work of particular short story writers he revered. His remarkable experiment in television drama, The Fountain of Youth (1958), came from a John Collier story. One of his unfinished film projects, The Dreamers, was to be an anthology comprising several tales by Isak Dinesen (aka Karen Blixen) – and he had already filmed her The Immortal Storyin 1968. His film of Kafka's The Trial (1962) begins with a short story told in a radio-style voice-over.
Welles liked the brevity and compactness, the swiftness and shock of a good short story. What's more, I suspect he liked the sudden vertigo of this narrative form, how it quickly spins us from the humdrum everyday into a realm of the mysterious, the mind-boggling or the awe-inspiring. Welles found moral lessons and dilemmas, cautionary parables, philosophical paradoxes and intimations of the cosmic in his favourite short stories, right alongside the immediate thrills and giggles.
Lucille Fletcher's story The Hitch-Hiker is a familiar, even cornball tale of the uncanny, as a brash young man finds himself haunted by a mysterious, ghostly figure wherever he drives. Welles was never afraid of corny story material: he tried to make it work, to make it live again. The Hitch-Hiker is a tale of the uncanny, of everyday objects and rituals made strange. Welles uses his own intimate vocal delivery, and an atmospheric soundscape, to prepare us for a final zinger that is both eerie and contemplative. The Moat-Farm Murder is in a quite different style – it presents itself as a 'radio documentary', which only goes to prove that the word 'documentary' was used as loosely in 1946 as it still is today. What this means, in this case, is that Welles' monologue is based on the real-life transcript of a murderer's confession. It's an unsettling case from the UK of an ordinary man driven slowly to distraction by his wife, and then driven to murder. Decades before In Cold Blood (1967) or Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1990), Welles was zeroing in on what we call the 'banality of evil', the roots of psychosis in everyday behaviour – or the all-too-frequent breakdown of our fragile codes of civilised order.
This image of Welles as an active, engaged political artist is the key to understanding The Fall of the City, dated April 1937. This program marks, on many levels, the most obviously serious and highbrow end of Welles' work in radio in the '30s. It was not a program produced for a commercial sponsor, but the project of a special CBS 'workshop'. It was designed more for education, for propaganda even, than for entertainment. And its liberal political message is loud and clear.
The Fall of the City is a verse drama written by Archibald MacLeish, a Pulitzer Prize winner of his time. It is a frankly didactic piece, cast in the form of a symbolic spectacular. The 'city' of the title is no particular city, in no particular historical era. Its spatial layout – a huge communal square – and its cast of characters, priests, ministers, orators and a woman arisen from the dead, evoke a ripe mixture of the Biblical Jerusalem, ancient Greece, and the fall of the Roman empire. But in the middle of it all is a very modern reporter-journalist figure, an enlightened spokesman of the media who surveys the whole scene from above and documents it all breathlessly into his microphone – and that voice, of course, belongs to Welles.
The Fall of the City was designed as an urgent cautionary warning, couched in the ringing, stirring tones of high-art drama. It evokes a society on the verge of being invaded by an all-powerful and charismatic conqueror. That woman who rises from the dead like Lazarus warns the people that their ‘city of masterless men will take a master’ and that there will be ‘blood after’ – but the people don't listen, or they merely laugh. Then, somewhat as in a Brechtian play, we are served up a clash of voices, of discourses and positions, representing various social views of this coming takeover. Some brave individuals call for resistance; and are howled down; a minister (Burgess Meredith) asks the people to welcome their conqueror, to 'show him no hindrance'; priests chant and take refuge in their everlasting God, obviously ready to acquiesce like everyone else. Only the narrator, Welles, sees the awful truth of what finally marches into this city … So, it does not take a genius to interpret this radio play as an allegory about the approach and the allure of fascism and Nazism, about the rise of a Mussolini or a Hitler. Welles, ever the feisty liberal, accepted a fraction of his usual fee, as did the rest of the cast and crew, to be a part of this progressive propaganda for the cause of skepticism, free speech and collective awareness.
The Fall of the City was directed by Irving Reis. Technically, the show is a tour de force. Reece set up all his players in a dynamic configuration. He had a crowd of 200 extras, with key actors up front, set up in a large auditorium with specific microphone placements and sound delays that assured the effect of a vast, overwhelming, reverberant mass. Reece placed Welles in an isolated sound booth so that his narration would always clearly emerge in striking relief against this wall of crowd sound, and the other individual speaking voices emerging from and fading back into the general din. Welles' own voice – it is one of his finest radio performances – carries much of the emotional effect of this drama, with its shorthand evocations of all that the narrator sees, and the directions to listen, to attend closely to the small sounds that announce historic cataclysm.
Before the famous War of the Worlds broadcast two years later, this was one of the most celebrated radio productions of the '30s. It inspired many writers, poets and dramatists of the time, such as W. H. Auden, to immediately begin composing works specifically for radio. If it sounds a little old-fashioned today, especially in comparison to Welles' more dynamic radio pieces, that, too, has something to do with its political stance. Even though this was a play intended for, and received by, the listening masses in their millions, it is really none too kind in its frank opinion of those masses. Like in some classic art films of the period, such as Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1926), the mob is a dangerous, unruly, violent force, easily swayed and manipulated. Only the intellectual or the artist, away on a hilltop, can stay detached and aware. It's maybe not the way we like to think of progressive politics or public intellectuals today, but it still makes for stirring, action-packed propaganda with a very literary lilt.
Here's what happened. Welles and his collaborators adapted H. G. Welles' novel The War of the Worlds. It was a radical adaptation – they wanted to make it sound not like a novelistic story, but like a live news broadcast, a report on gory events happening in the here and now, as buildings fall and citizens are exterminated. Welles, on the advice of his associates, considered scrapping the idea not long before the live broadcast time – firstly because everyone was afraid this mockumentary experiment would be a big bore, and secondly because a story of 'men from mars' attacking was, already in 1938, considered trite, cornball, ho-hum, comic-book stuff.
But they went ahead – and out of the nine million people who listened in, an estimated one and three quarter million panicked. They jammed telephone switchboards or left town, many just huddled on their front lawns in a state of fear, resignation or hysteria. These people obviously didn't hear, or didn't notice, the standard introduction to the show, the mid-way commercial break, or the whole second half, which is just Welles speaking a novelistic monologue in character. But soon enough, it became publicly clear that Mars had not attacked. In the following days, there was hell to pay, with the medium of radio under renewed scrutiny, and new broadcast laws mooted. So was it originally intended as a hoax? It seems, only a little – it was certainly a Halloween-style prank, but no one involved had any real idea what the effect of the broadcast was going to be.
For Welles personally, the significance of this public extravaganza was self-evident: ‘It put me in the movies’, he said. But what is there still to say about this over-mythologised media event, to appreciate in it today? For starters, we can admire Welles' skill; as his colleague John Houseman observed, he was ‘first and foremost, a magician whose particular talent lay in his ability to stretch the familiar elements of theatrical effect far beyond their normal point of tension’. (10) Welles' master stroke here was to mimic perfectly the sound of live, news radio – complete with awkward pauses, dead silences, boring bits that run on too long, and muzak-style interludes (‘that lone piano’ whose function Houseman describes so well) which paradoxically intensify the blank terror of the story. The War of the Worlds has a primary place in any history of the ever-changing 'reality effects' that arise like epiphenomena from audiovisual media – those textual tics (which Welles himself was adept at simulating, as he proved in the ‘News on the March’ newsreel of Kane) that, in their material malfunctioning in relation to some presumed, pristine norm of image and sound, offer flashes of an extra-filmic reality that is either boring or catastrophic.
We can also appreciate Welles' anarchic streak, his glee in conjuring a tale of the destruction of society's most cherished institutions. Although in the play itself we hear lofty words about ‘radio's responsibility to serve society’, in a press conference after the broadcast he admitted his artistic credo: ‘You don't play murder in soft words’. And the War of the Worlds scandal stuck to Welles – again, to his delight – for many years. One fine radio day, while he read glowingly from Walt Whitman on air, a real-life news flash came through: it was the bombing of Pearl Harbour. And, in that moment, some listeners – President Roosevelt included – were just not willing to believe their ears.
This material has been revised from introductions prepared for a series of Orson Welles broadcasts on Radio National (Australia), September 1998. Thanks to RN Producer Matthew Leonard.
See also: Citizen Welles: A Biography of Orson Welles (book review)
1. Orson Welles and Peter Bogdanovich, This is Orson Welles, ed. Jonathan
Rosenbaum (London: HarperCollins, 1993), p.
2. Ibid. back
3. Ibid, p. 132. back
4. Ibid, p. 103. back
5. Ibid, p. 96. back
6. Ibid, p. 101. back
7. Ibid, p. 96. back
8. Ibid, p 18. back
9. Ibid. back
10. John Houseman, Unfinished Business: A Memoir (London: Columbus, 1986), p. 197. back
© Adrian Martin December 2001