Saturday, August 6, 2011

lucky #slevin : Orson Welles / The Mercury Theatre on Air

 the q continuum #seven – Radio Art: The Mercury Theatre on Air

because my initial attempt to ‘sum up’ an array of Orson Welles’s artistic endeavours in this mere blog-post grew to seem like more of a disservice to Welles’s genius, I decided to focus specifically on his involvement in Old Time Radio due to his own pulsing interest in the medium… and to satisfy my own selfish interest, as well, hahaha.
there are a serious amount of ‘myths’ surrounding Welles’s childhood—one famous story being that his first words were actually, “I am a genius.”—and the stories were only made more confusing by the fact that Welles never tried to debunk any of them. it is known for sure, though, that Welles actually began directing, acting, rewriting and adapting whole theatrical performances as early as ten years old, beginning with a rendition of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde for the boys camp he attended in 1925 (Masters of Cinema, 2011).

to speak of Welles’s love for radio without first introducing his passion for theatre would make this a pretty lacking edition of the qc as his innovations in the dramatic arts would come to effect his involvement in The Mercury Theatre on Air (and, later, his cinematic work).
Welles's interest in theatre even led him to Dublin, Ireland when he was still just a teenager to learn acting and directing under some of the best dramatic minds of the time at the great Gate Theatre and Abbey Theatre.

the hunger to be more than a mere theatre player inspired Welles to return to the United States and begin working for CBS’ radio station by “adapting historical and literary works into serial form” for broadcast (Masters of Cinema, 2011).
 Welles as “The Shadow”

in 1936, actor and producer John Houseman offered Welles the chance to join the Federal Theatre Project (FTP)-- "a scheme set up by the Roosevelt administration in order to provide work for unemployed actors during the depression.” (Masters of Cinema, 2011)
Welles’s work for the FTP was abundant, but it came to a controversial end with an attempted staging of The Cradle Will Rock-- a musical written by the Marxist composer Marc Blitzstein (who lived quite an interesting life, if you'd like click his name and read his biography). Because of Blitzstein’s very public political views, the police put a stop to The Cradle's performance in multiple theatres, but this didn’t come close to stopping Welles: The Cradle Will Rock was ‘performed’ (read aloud by Welles, Houseman, Blitzstein, and a few main actors) at a nearby theatre for audiences for weeks to come—gaining Welles his first major public notoriety.
Houseman and Welles went on to form their own troupe: The Mercury Theatre (1937)-- of which Welles championed fifty plays in two years-- and The Mercury Theatre on Air. 

of course, I would be a fool not to mention On Air’s best known radio performance—HG Wells’s The War of the Worlds—but I don’t want take too much away from the entirely brilliant collection of The Mercury Theatre.
if you're not familiar with the War of the Worlds broadcast: Welles adapted the novel into a first-person narrative performance with a news anchor-- mocking a traditional radio news show. as the 'typical' show continued, Welles weaved in 'updates' about an unknown object crashing down from the sky. because of the realism of the acting news anchor's fear / description of the unknown object, listeners who tuned in late actually believed they were listening to the report of an alien landing (causing one of the greatest national panics of all time). after the initial outrage at Welles for having 'tricked' the audience, The Mercury's War of the Worlds would be known as the most clever radio performance in broadcast history.
to learn more -  this source offers a good overview of the performance's execution and aftershock: Transparency Now. and you can actually listen to the War of the Worlds broadcast here (about a quarter way down the page)! <- here you can also check out The Mercury's other shows!

after the success of War of the Worlds, Campbell Soup Co. decided to sponsor The Mercury Theatre on Air, providing the producers with enough funds to include major acting stars in their performances (though, Welles only allowed for one star per show, as he did not want to take away from The Mercury's core acting group-- many of whom would later appear in his films). The Mercury then saw such actors as, "Katherine Hepburn, Burgess Meredith, Helen Hayes, Madeleine Carroll, Laurence Olivier, Gertrude Lawrence, Joan Bennett, Lionel Barrymore, and other[s]." (Source.)

producers in Hollywood could not ignore the genius of direction and adaptation Welles had executed for The Mercury Theatre, and would soon call for him to begin his legendary career in film-making; but Welles would always miss his beginnings in radio-- bringing the techniques he perfected for The Mercury along with him to Hollywood. 

all during his work in radio, Welles had much respect for both the so-called ‘high’ and ‘low’ art cultures-- not seeming to 'recognize' a difference between the so-divided hierarchy. Welles mixed the likes of Shakespeare, Brontë, and Dickens with "thrillers such as The Phantom Voice, The Bride of Death, The League of Terror and Dracula. In 1937, Welles became the uncredited voice behind the popular radio series, The Shadow, based on an a series of American comic-book stories by Walter Gibson." (Source.)
the same respect would go in the making of his cinematic work-- the film plots often involving men and women of high authority / well-respected positions being mixed up in more 'honest' / 'nitty-gritty' affairs.

besides content, Welles's films and radio shows both incorporated the use of the first-person narrative. Welles often had over-voices in his movies, and his radio shows were nearly always performed from the perspective of an individual or small group. Orson felt first-person narrative was more attention grabbing for radio as it made the listener feel directly involved in the non-visual story; though, even with the visuals of cinema, Welles's narratives offered an extra touch of investment from the audience.

another sound innovation Welles first executed for radio, and would later bring to film, was his use of overlapping dialogue. Welles felt that a good radio show offered a lot of verbal action/aural stimulation.
"[Welles] abandoned the traditional conception of the ‘soundtrack’ (a musical background to fill moments of silence or accompany selected developments in the story) and instead created a soundscape—a combination of music, noises and dialogue that invested the narrative with new depths.” (Masters of Cinema, 2011)
Orson wanted desperately to mimic the way people 'actually' spoke and 'actually' thought in order to better connect with audiences.
though he was known as the ‘boy genius’ or ‘boy wonder’ of performance and direction innovation, it would be Welles's passion and constant drive for a connection with his audience that would centre him out as a great artist :)

a note of hilarity/interest: in his early radio career with The Mercury, Welles discovered that (at the time) one didn’t necessarily need to ‘have an emergency’ to be able to call an ambulance, so-- in order to keep up with his hectic schedule between theatre and radio-- Welles would actually phone an ambulance to take him immediately from one performance to the next!

v live long, prosper, and remember your audience v

I used a few key sources for this edition of the qc, but I'd say the one to definitely check out is the biography, "Masters of Cinema: Orson Welles" by Paolo Mereghetti / published by Phaidon Press on June 1st, 2011 :)
and to listen to The Mercury Theatre on Air's shows, click here!

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