Monday, September 13, 2010
I remember the first time I listened to the entire sixty minutes of The Mercury Theater radio production of The War of the Worlds. First broadcast in October of 1938 as the world edged hopelessly toward world war,within a year or two, Hollywood would produce some of its most outrageous spectacles to date (Wizard of Oz, Snow White and Gone With The Wind). As the American people emerged from a devastating depression and embraced the terms of the New Deal, the dramatic account of a hostile Martian invasion from outer space captured the nation’s imagination as families gathered around their radios for the evening’s news and entertainment. For many, the two were indistinguishable. Entertainment became the news.
The following day, The New York Times declared in an italicized headline above the fold, page one, “Radio Listeners in Panic, Taking War Drama as Fact.” Reports nationwide told of people fleeing their homes, that some caught the scent of poison gas fouling the air and on the horizon during the night, confirmed the flashes of distant explosions. Orson Welles, the brash Wisconsin twenty-three year old who wrote, produced and starred in the radio drama, was quickly called to the dock for this brazen post-adolescent prank beamed to the entire nation on the newly connected electronic world stage. While he feigned a public apology in his compelling baritone voice, the young theatrical entrepreneur quickly grasped the Hollywood adage: “there is no such thing as bad publicity.”
The radio drama remains a classic. More than seven decades later, we sophisticated listeners get the joke. But would we then? The prankster fascinated me. So I did my homework. I learned that Orson Welles was born to a wealthy family in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The table talk from childhood included the classics; his mother a fine musician, a concert pianist, with strong connections to the Chicago Art Institute. Orson’s father managed to garner a fortune as an inventor – he created a bicycle light that caught on. But tragedy struck early. Four days after Orson’s ninth birthday, his mother succumbed to the jaundice. His father died six years later. Young Orson lived with different relatives, but mostly a Chicago physician who cared for him while he attended a prestigious school for boys in that city.
He was a voracious reader. His mother, Beatrice, introduced him to the classics. He excelled in language arts. He grew tall and stout. His voice deepened. He became an avid conversationalist. He preferred adults, especially those who could match his wit and bring to the dialogue an acquaintance with the masters. He studied and mimicked proper, crisp diction. He mastered the art of the complete sentence. He performed in plays. His capacity for recall was nearly photographic. The scripts lived in his memory; he breathed life into his lines. He was impatient with the timid, the mediocre. His temper, quick. His expectations, impossible. His energy, boundless. His focus, laser sharp.
And he was still in high school.
In the spring of 1933, he traveled to Europe aboard a massive steamer. It occurred to him that America remained pitifully unaware of the power of the English language. He set out to make The Bard accessible. He was barely eighteen. He began work on a series of books called Everybody’s Shakespeare. His original introductions to the oceanic works caught the attention of a publisher. Those books remain popular to this day.
The year before War of the Worlds stunned the nation, the twenty-two year old aspiring playwright wrote and produced an edgy interpretation of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Welles managed to secure an old, neglected theater – The Mercury. His plan was to revive it and make it a serious Broadway venue. He needed a success. He needed reviews. He recruited some of the finest actors in New York. He prodded. He borrowed. He missed meetings. He spared no expense. He created an atmosphere of focused chaos. He didn’t sleep. He expected his cast and crew to live up to a standard they did not even know existed.
And on opening night, when the lights faded and the final scene concluded, Orson Welles’ Caesar brought down the house. The young actor, director, writer, producer became overnight, the toast of Broadway. They called him a genius.
Robert Kaplow teaches English at Summit High School in New York. In many respects, he shared Orson Welles’ convictions about language and literature and what Samuel Coleridge called Shakespeare’s “oceanic mind.” For years, he introduced his students to the wonders of The Bard. Then he wrote a novel; an attempt to engage students, inviting them to personally encounter the greatness that made The Mercury Theater shine.
Director Richard Linklater found the novel in a New York bookstore. Immediately, he purchased the movie rights. He captured the spirit of the novel in his movie (2008). Me and Orson Welles will be ranked as one of my personal favorite films. It is great entertainment. Smart. Contentious. Brilliant. Intelligent story telling.
Orson Welles became one of the hottest young post-war talents to be recruited to Hollywood. His classic, Citizen Kane, to this day, is considered by many to be the greatest film ever made. (The battle between Welles and William Randolph Hearst is legendary.) But shortly afterwards, Welles, the genius, stumbled. The boy from Wisconsin never quite lived up to his inflated billing. He could not finish what he started. The focus blurred. He burned through marriages (including five years with Rita Hayworth). He ballooned to over four hundred pounds. Finally, late in his career, he pitched cabernet (“we will sell no wine before its time”).
Orson Welles’ ending saddens me. But Richard, the young actor (played in Linklater’s film by Zac Efron) who has a fictional brush with Welles in the 1938 production of Caesar as the lute-playing character, Lucius, has a life-changing encounter with greatness. He shares in that luminous moment of glory.
And he will never be the same.
Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2010