Orson Welles's Radio Books (1989)

All the recent reminiscence of Orson Welles’s 1938 production of War of the Worlds neglects the fact that he was more than a radio one-shot. Indeed, he had a rich radio career, especially in his twenties, initially as an actor, then as a director and producer, all of it informed by a brilliance that was uniquely his; and the first virtue of this fulsome package is reminding us of this oeuvre, to use that university word. Produced by Frank Beacham and Richard Wilson, the latter a Welles associate since the 1930s, The Theatre of the Imagination draws from over one hundred hours of Welles’s own acetate “air-checks” that were long stored in Wilson’s California garage. As portions of these recordings were digitally restored, they are technically superior to other old-time radio programs currently available.

Packed in a box the size of a hardbound book, The Theatre of the Imagination contains a curious potpourri: a single cassette apiece of two hour-long 1938 programs based respectively upon Daphne de Maurier’s Rebecca and Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, an hour-long cassette with a half hour adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness backed by John Galsworthy’s The Apple Tree, and another combining My Little Boy with Lucille Fletcher’s The Hitch Hiker. A fifth cassette has several short pieces, including Orson Welles’s single recorded conversation with H. G. Wells, an example of Welles’s performance as The Shadow (1938), and his recitals of the Biblical Song of Solomon and a soliloquy from Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” The earliest of these programs dates from 1938, the latest from 1946, when Welles was 31; he lived until 1985.

Its publisher, having already specialized in laser-discs of major movies, has also issued the entire package on a single audio-only 12’ disc. The hour-long programs run on the digital tracks and everything else is on the two analogue tracks. The sound here is technically superior to the cassettes to the same degree that compact discs of anything are superior to long-playing records. (Since Voyager has a taste for the latest technological capabilities, it could have issued six hours of sound in the more popular format of a single audio-only hifi noise-reduced VHS tape. The producer’s reply to this hypothesis is that a laser disc offers two technical advantages—greater stability in long-term storage and instant access to any segment of the collection.)

Though Welles was a theater man, he thought that radio should draw its material not from plays but from prose narrative, which he could introduce in the guise of an uncle in your home living room, beginning a story that would then be dramatized. Whereas American radio drama before Welles consisted largely of dialogue, often performed before a live audience (all to preserve the convention of theater), Welles customarily performed in an otherwise silent studio. This bias accounts for why all his major radio programs were based upon fictions—not only an H. G. Wells novel for his War of the Worlds but a Booth Tarkington novel for The Magnificent Ambersons and, in this box, novels by Charles Dickens and Joseph Conrad.

One radio program that might belong here is the 1939 broadcast of Ambersons. Produced three years before the film, with many of his loyal Mercury associates, this 60-minute adaptation remains one of Welles’s very best radio works—in my judgment, better than anything here. Fortunately, Voyager issued it last year as part of a well-received laser disc package that contains not only the 1942 film but, on a second sound track, a running commentary by Professor Robert Carringer, already known for his book about The Making of Citizen Kane” It is not for nothing that this Ambersons was recently selected # 1 in Video Review’s choice of “The 10 Greatest Laser Discs.”

By limiting this new package to Mercury Theatre productions (except for The Shadow), Beacham and Wilson necessarily omit several items that would have contributed to a fuller picture of Welles’s radio genius: his April 1937 performance as the narrator in Archibald MacLeish’s Fall of the City, perhaps the single greatest radio play ever written in America; his virtuoso 1937 portrayal of General von Hindenberg aging over forty years in a single episode of “The March of Time,” his playing of two different characters in live time (before the days of audiotape), not only in a 1938 production of Dracula but in a 1942 adaptation of Donovan’s Brain. Beacham and Wilson also chose to include the 1945 production of Heart of Darkness, rather than the original of November 6, 1938 (and thus a week after War of the Worlds) that I find not only superior but more reflective of the Mercury players’ competence. All this is to say that a sequel of similar dimensions and roughly equal quality could be put together, so rich a radio artist was Welles.

One side of the sixth cassette is Frank Beacham’s own radio feature, “Theater of the Imagination: The Mercury Company Remembers.” A labor of love, based upon charming interviews with such Mercury Theatre collaborators as John Houseman, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Richard Barr, and Arlene Francis, it is short on artistic insight (especially in comparison to a comparable audiotape produced last spring by Karen Latham for a Welles retrospective at New York University). The strongest critical idea comes from Richard Wilson, who holds that Welles’s under-disciplined genius functioned best before the deadline of needing the start a new show on time.

My own sense is that, dazed by the success of Citizen Kane, Welles got lost in film, which had not only flexible deadlines but the further disadvantage of requiring a greater production budget than radio or even theater; and instead of retreating from the disadvantageous business, he drowned in it, to the loss of other possibilities for his talent. Behind The Theatre of the Imagination is a tragic theme—that the greatest American radio artist of his generation made no radio art during the last forty years of his life.