That Old Feeling: Mercury, God of Radio

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Radio was the ideal showcase for Orson Welles' protean talents

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The website for "The Mercury Theatre on the Air" has not the live performance but the dress rehearsal of the September 11, 1938 show, "Caesar," a shortened version of the company’s Broadway hit, now with radio commentator H.V. Kaltenborn barking out Suetonius’ chronicle of the death of a dictator. CBS had renewed the Mercury’s contract for 13 more weeks; it would now be opposite Charlie McCarthy on Sundays at 8. Welles had an over-lapping commitment: "The Shadow" was on from 5:30 to 6:00. So he had less than two hours to get to the CBS studio, run through the dress rehearsal and make changes before the show aired. We can hear Welles calling out directions. "Louder." Then (in the middle of one of his intimate speeches) "Quiet in the studio!" And an annoyed aside, perhaps to Houseman: "Will you cue people? I’M not running this show!"

Throughout his career, whether his plate was heaping or bare, Welles was notoriously late. (In his closing comments for the Mer-cury’s radio version of "Around the World in Eighty Days," Welles sheepishly or puckishly describes himself as "one of the least punctual of mortals ... who can’t read time tables, wind watches or get out of bed.") In "Theatre of the Imagination," an engrossing radio tribute on the 50th anniversary of the Mercury ra-dio program, Richard Wilson says he can’t remember a Mercury play that opened on schedule. "Radio was the only medium that imposed a discipline that Orson would recognize," Wilson says. "And that was the clock. When it came time for ‘The Mercury’ to go on the air, there was no denying it... That red light would come on and say, ‘On the Air.’ And good or bad, right or wrong, that was it."

Somehow — after the desperate agitation of the dress rehearsal — the live show was always good, always right. Now it was 8 p.m. Bulova Watch time, and, says Houseman, "At that instant, quite regularly week after week, with not one second to spare, the buffoonery stopped. Suddenly out of chaos, the show emerged — delicately poised, meticulously executed, precise as clockwork, smooth as satin." No one doubts that the show’s success was due to the commanding, seductive man standing on a platform above all the rest. "At the start of every broadcast," Herrmann recalled, "Orson was an unknown quantity. As he went along his mood would assert itself and the temperature would start to increase till the point of incandescence... He inspired us all — the musicians, the actors, the sound-effects men and the engineers. They’d all tell you they never worked on shows like Welles’."

Yes, putting on this radio show was fun. Otherwise, why do it? And the enjoyment the Mercury team had in doing a tough job superbly is everywhere audible to today’s listeners. The narrative tone varied from show to show, as in a well- chosen theater repertory. A stentorian "Abraham Lincoln" was followed by Schnitzler’s sad-gay "The Affairs of Anatol"; a jaunty Holmes-Moriarty saga gave way to "Hell on Ice," a docudrama of a disastrous North Pole expedition, and one of the most adroitly harrowing hours you could shiver through. Houseman, Welles and Howard Koch, who was hired as the main writer with "Hell on Ice," took full advantage of the mind-theater medium. Houseman: "We invented all sorts of ingenious and dramatic devices: diaries, letters, streams of consciousness, confessions and playbacks of recorded conversations." The result was not clutter but a narrative density that almost forced the listener to listen harder.

They created suspense through sound effects; aurally, this was radio’s most sophisticated show. In "Treasure Island," the second show in the series, a blind pirate approaches Jim Hawkins’ inn, and for more than a minute we hear nothing but menacing footfalls, a fierce knock on the door, a rat-tling of the locked latch and a slow retreat. For the dungeon scenes in a magnificent version of "The Count of Monte Cristo," Welles (Edmond Dantes) and Collins (the Abbé) lay on the CBS men’s room floor and spoke into a micro-phone at the base of the toilet seat, while the toilet’s flushing suggested waves breaking against the prison walls. Welles had used the same trick in "Les Misérables."

Fun, or at least high spirits, informed the choice and telling of the tales. Typically, the books selected for adaptation were melo-dramas and adventure stories: "Treasure Island," "The Count of Monte Cristo," "Sherlock Holmes," "A Tale of Two Cities," "The Thirty-nine Steps," "The Man Who Was Thursday" — Great Lit Lite. It was very much a boy’s game (Moorhead and Arlene Francis got the rare women’s roles) and the Mercury actors would play it for all its worth, with a thrill in the voice and, one imagines, a smile in the eyes. The tone was nothing so easy or derisive as Camp; its Victorian-era salesmanship made it simultaneously real and fake.

Kids today may not know that there was a time when young people wanted to be grown-up, not the other way ‘round, as today; and when the route to success in popular media went through mid-high culture, not low. In his early 20s, Welles wouldn’t have considered for one moment seeming less mature or intelligent than he was. He didn’t play to the groundlings; he figured they would climb up to meet him. He and Houseman would fool them into think-ing enlightenment was entertainment. This tendency to edify enchantingly was clearest in the author sketches with which Welles often introduced the evening’s story. Note the confident scholarship — the mixture of history and an-ecdote, the oral eyebrow raised at "establishments," the almost sexual acceleration of subsidiary phrases, the assumption that listeners will know who Reubens was, the "’tis" and the "Pittsburgh" — in this honey of an intro, written by Houseman for "The Count of Monte Cristo":

"Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. There’s no reason-able explanation of Alexandre Dumas. He was a rich man. We note with inter-est that he went bankrupt in the theater. He was a revolutionary. His grandfather was a marquis, his grandmother was a negress. [He was] the wildest romance of a man, who could and did openly maintain at 70 numerous "establishments," and a literary factory as well, whose quantitative output in the arts is equaled only by Reubens’ studio. ... ‘Tis no secret and no shame either than the Chateau Monte Cristo was haunted by many ghostwriters, and that its author signed his name to more books than anyone could ever write. ‘Tis not expected of Pharaoh that he build with his own hands his own pyramids. But the mere blueprint of one Dumas plot is an airtight alibi for a whole career. Of all these, out of question the most gloriously complex, possibly the most impossible, a mathematical miracle, as perfect as watchworks and as big as Pittsburgh, among hundreds one Dumas plot persists as the most ingenious tall story ever perpetrated by the mind of man, God's vengeance on radio scriptwriters, and your indestructible delight in spite of us. Here then is a humble 57 mins.' worth of 'The Count of Monte Cristo.'"

As an actor, too, Welles aimed higher and older. He is most persuasive playing powerful men — like Brutus, become sere and weary trying to rationalize ambition as idealism — or ancient ones. His centuries-old Count Dracula has the sepulchral poignancy of a majestic senior citizen doomed to play the vampire yet determined to play it to the hilt. And Welles sounds hokiest, and farthest from his own prodigious, wandering youth, when imitating the thin, whiny timbre of small-town America's young men in such period pieces as "I'm a Fool," "Seventeen," "Ah, Wilderness!" and "The Magnificent Ambersons." To hear him grow, and grow old, in a single hour, listen to his Edmond Dantes. The immature, innocent tones are tortured out of him; as he withers in prison, and is schooled in bitterness, his voice trudges down an octave, until by the time he has escaped and become the vengeful Count of Monte Cristo, he sounds as gruff as a great troll. It's an epic vocal performance.

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