Welles on the radio

An account of Orson Welles' brief but brilliant career in radio


"Everybody likes a good story and I'd say radio is just about the best storyteller there is."    Orson Welles


There is a moment in Citizen Kane (1941, right) where the action is situated in Kane's childhood boarding house, the snow is falling and Bernard Herrmann's lyrical music is playing over the action, when all of a sudden a snowball (thrown by the young Kane) hits the side of the house and the music stops, right in the middle of a phrase. Asked much later about this particular technique, Welles simply said it was a "classic radio device - we used to do it all the time on the radio".

The two things one should retain from Orson Welles' radio output are (i) without it, he would not have been anywhere near as accomplished a filmmaker and (ii) had he never made a film in his life, his influence on radio alone would have garnered him deserved notoriety - his championship and mastery of the radio play in particular, was immense.

the early years

In 1934, after a period in Europe acting and directing theatre (in particular at Dublin's Gate Theatre), Welles was denied a work permit in London and returned to the US. After putting together an acclaimed production of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet starring Basil Rathbone as Romeo, Welles as Mercutio and the legendary Tyrone Power as Tybalt, Welles stumbled into radio, purely as a means of making good money. The parts were anonymous and uncredited, but paid well and at times they allowed Welles to indulge his theatrical acumen. His early output included his own adaptation of Shakespeare's Hamlet, directed by Irving Reis and performed live. Welles, at this point, we should say, was 19 years old.

Between 1934 and 1937, he continued to hone his craft in the sound studios of CBS and NBC, working on numerous adaptations of classics such as Les Miserables, Macbeth, Twelfth Night, John Ford's 'Tis Pity She's A Whore and, perhaps most significantly, The March of Time for NBC. The latter was extremely popular with listeners at home and also played over simultaneous news footage in movie theatres, dramatising weekly news events. It's catchphrase: "Time.....marches on!" was famously parodied by Welles in the introductory sequence of Citizen Kane as "News...on the march!"

In this early period, Welles' most famous creation was ironically one of the few things he did on the radio that he did not create at all - merely read the script he was given: the character of Lamont Cranston in The Shadow (left), whose famous catchphrase "What evil lies deep in the hearts of men?" gave eager listeners a weekly frisson. Welles had a deal with the sponsor, Blue Coal, that he should not be obliged to attend rehearsals - the reason given was that he was too busy on his own projects, but more likely it was a case of the material not being deemed to be entirely worthy of his time.

Instead Welles would arrive at the studio 10 minutes before live recording and deliver the performance - as he was reading, he had no idea of what was to happen next, something that gave him quite a thrill. The Shadow ran for many years and was enormously popular, but, it has to be said, was perhaps the least interesting work Welles ever did on the radio and contained by some considerable distance some of his hammiest acting.

the mercury theater on the air

Welles, together with his protégé at the time, John Houseman (right) , took creative control of their radio output on July 11, 1938 with the creation of The Mercury Theater on the Air.

It is often believed that Welles simply co-opted the Mercury Players (Joseph Cotton, Agnes Moorhead, Erskine Sanford, George Coulouris, Everett Sloane etc) into doing their plays on the radio, but the reality was the other way around. The Mercury Theatre, which later became the cast list of Kane, really only came together through radio. Welles and Houseman had worked with the personnel before but radio is what brought them all together. Together with adaptor Howard Koch, over a short period of time, the group left a powerful legacy.

Mercury's first production was an adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula, which remains to this day one of the greatest pieces of radio theatre ever produced (and certainly one of the very few great adaptations of the novel). Further proof that when Welles put his mind to something new, he certainly had a knack for making a good start. The work of the Mercury Players, which in 1939 became the Campbell Playhouse (after signing a sponsorship deal with a certain soup manufacturer) included the following classics, almost all of which were adapted by and starred Welles in the years 1938-39:

Dracula (Bram Stoker)
   Treasure Island (Robert Louis Stevenson)
      A Tale of Two Cities (Charles Dickens)
          The 39 Steps (John Buchan)
             The Count of Monte Cristo (Alexandre Dumas)
               Julius Caesar (William Shakespeare)
                Jane Eyre (Charlotte Brontë)
                The Sherlock Holmes Casebook (Arthur Conan Doyle)
               Around the World in 80 Days (Jules Verne)
           Rebecca (Daphne du Maurier)
       A Christmas Carol (Charles Dickens)
    Moby Dick (Herman Melville)
 Farewell to Arms (Ernest Hemingway)
 Les Misérables (Victor Hugo)
  Private Lives (Noel Coward)

Each of these radio plays (or as Welles would have them, when trying not to put off listeners who didn't go to the theatre, 'stories') was precisely 50 minutes in length, leaving enough time for introductions, humorously contrived sponsors announcements and credits, not to mention Welles' limelight-stealing asides, to make up the full hour.

Particular highlights are A Tale of Two Cities, where Welles' storytelling genius conjures up a brilliant theatrical conceit, enabling him to present one of the longest novels in the English language in a one hour adaptation, still as moving as any 6-part TV adaptation could be. For Rebecca, Welles hooked up a short wave communication with Daphne du Maurier herself in London to enable her to listen, and proceeded to ask her what she thought of it afterwards.

In Private Lives, he was fortunate to have Gertrude Lawrence (left) reprise the enchanting performance she had delivered opposite Noel Coward on Broadway some years before. Other stars included Katherine Hepburn (A Farewell to Arms) and Lionel Barrymore (A Christmas Carol).

Happily for all fans of Welles and radio, the majority of the above broadcasts and many more, can be found on this superb dedicated web page in MP3 and RealAudio formats. The page also makes available a BitTorrent of all the files.

the war of the worlds

Still one of the most legendary pieces of radio and one of the most talked about episodes in Welles' career was the 1938 Halloween night Mercury broadcast of Welles' adaptation of H G Wells' War of the Worlds. It was the night when Orson Welles tapped into the subconscious fears of a nation and convinced nearly two million people that martians were invading the United States. Television was in its infancy and commercial radio was only a decade old, still a fresh exciting medium. In addition, the world was in the process of sliding inexorably towards war, and sales of radios had trebled in the month leading up to the broadcast.

On two occasions during the programme, which was presented as a series of increasingly tense and urgent newsflashes intruding into a banal programme of swing music, Welles made it clear to listeners that what they were listening to was a fictional adaptation of a novel, which had been delivered in this manner as a treat for Halloween…a 'little joke'.

But for those who had not switched on at the beginning and didn't get to the midway point, it was very difficult to tell the difference, so perfect was the concoction of sound effects, scripting and acting. The adaptation itself was by Howard Koch, but it was surely Welles' brilliant direction which produced the mass panic - the production remains both hilarious and truly terrifying even today.

The next day, Welles was forced by CBS to hold a press conference to apologise to the American people. For reasons quite different from what one would expect, it was the beginning of the end of his meaningful career in radio.

abandonment

For all Welles' skill and apparent devotion to 'radio storytelling', one cannot escape the feeling that radio was ultimately (if not intentionally) a stopgap for him. On July 20th 1939, buoyed by the notoriety he had gained from War of the Worlds and having been approached by RKO to produce, direct and star in a feature film, he signed the contract to make what would eventually become Citizen Kane (1941). Welles testified to Huw Wheldon in a BBC interview for Monitor in the 1960s that the secret as to why he was offered such magnificent terms (including final cut) to produce Kane was that he 'didn't want to make pictures. If you want to be in films, you do as you're told. I was the only one who didn't want to make films, so of course they had to persuade me.' But after Kane, he was well and truly bitten and save for the occasional foray (a Third Man spin-off, The Adventures of Harry Lime and The Black Museum) to pay the bills in the post-war years, he never looked back - never recaptured the vibrancy and energy of the Mercury Theatre days.

When Peter Bogdanovich asked him in 1982 what he thought of the current state of radio output, a resigned Welles could only reply:

"Radio is an abandoned mine, an anachronism like silent movies - a victim of technological restlessness."