At five minutes to seven last Sunday evening a squad of actors and a battalion of New York University students, New Jersey high-school children and boys' club members were assembled in Manhattan's Seventh Regiment Armory. In five minutes they would begin to enact the most ambitious radio play ever attempted in the U. S., The Fall of the City. Pulitzer Prize Poet Archibald MacLeish (Conquistador, Frescoes for Mr. Rockefeller's City, Panic) had written it. Director Irving Reis of Columbia's Workshop of the Air had persuaded Orson Welles, one of the country's ablest classical actors, to take the leading role and that morning Burgess Meredith (High Tor, Winterset), the most promising juvenile on the U. S. stage, had walked in, asked for and been given a part. With notables waiting in the control room, with the 200 supers and actors standing by to go on the air, Bang! opened the Armory door and Whooash! entered two five-ton Army trucks. The trucks were soon quieted and the excitement they caused passed. But the excitement caused by the show that took place during the next 30 minutes will not soon be forgotten by persons who take a serious interest in U. S. drama. For Poet MacLeish seems to have solved at one crack two long-troublesome theatrical problems: what to do about verse plays and what to do with the radio.
An Announcer (Actor Welles) told the radio audience: that the world has watched with wonder for three days this city wherein a newly dead woman has thrice come from her tomb. Emerging for the fourth time the woman speaks, warns the assembled crowd that "the city of masterless men will take a master." Soon a runner comes through the crowd with word that the Conqueror has landed on the nearby shore. The priests tell the people that their gods will protect them. A liberal statesman (Actor Meredith) counsels nonresistance. Before the people can make up their minds what to do, the Conqueror is among them, "broad as a brass door: a hard hero: heavy of heel on the brick." Only the announcer sees that there is nothing inside the armor at all. The People are prostrate. Only the Announcer knows that the People invent their oppressors.
Aside from the beauty of its speech and the power of its story, The Fall of the City proved to most listeners that the radio, which conveys only sound, is science's gift to poetry and poetic drama, that 30 minutes is an ideal time for a verse play, that artistically radio is ready to come of age, for in the hands of a master a $10 receiving set can become a living theatre, its loudspeaker a national proscenium.