Just as Amos ’n’ Andy fueled the growth of popular radio, the MacLeish broadcast made serious radio drama exciting and more popular. Soon writers of note such as W. H. Auden and Stephen Vincent Benét were crafting scripts directly for the radio; later, other literary figures such as Sherwood Anderson, Maxwell Anderson, Edna St. Vincent Millay, William Saroyan, and Dorothy Parker would work in the medium. Welles’s next radio assignment continued the innovations. His seven-part version of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables (1862; English translation, 1862) for the Mutual Network was called by Welles a “projection” rather than an adaptation or dramatization. To prepare what may have been the first broadcast miniseries, Welles chose important selections from the novel to be read by himself as narrator or by actors performing the characters. He used sound effects and music to accompany Hugo’s prose and also played the part of Jean Valjean. The result, according to Welles’s biographer Frank Brady, was that “Welles developed the character of Jean Valjean more fully than it had been in the novel.”
With his growing experiences in radio, Welles, unlike many radio actors, by now knew the difference between reading lines in front of a microphone and sounding on the air like a real person. In such a context in which sound is the only medium for communication, to refer to the actor’s voice as an instrument risks understatement. Brady wrote that Welles would position himself before a microphone as if it were a kind of sonic mirror, and “he would seemingly be able to gesture with sound and move himself in space, creating illusions of intimacy or distance by employing only certain voice changes.”
In 1938, CBS offered Welles total artistic control of a new sustaining series to begin on July 11. The network hoped that the program would receive enough favorable attention to bring in advertisers as continuing sponsors for the hour-long show. First Person Singular, the name that was eventually chosen, would also provide another vehicle for Welles’s Mercury players, a repertory company performing in theater works that Welles and John Houseman were directing and producing. The limited budget and the weekly demands of radio (and also perhaps the satisfactions of total artistic control) kept Welles from commissioning original scripts, so he settled on the popular classics to adapt himself with the help of Houseman, Howard Koch, Richard Brooks, Abraham Polonsky, and Herman J. Mankiewicz. Their first offering was Dracula (1897), restructured from the letters-and-diary approach in which Bram Stoker had written it into a style more suited to radio. His other shows in his first season included adaptations of Treasure Island (1883; on July 18), A Tale of Two Cities (1859; July 25), The Thirty-nine Steps (1915; August 5), three short stories (August 8), Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (pr. c. 1600-1601; August 15), and Welles’s favorite novel, G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare (1908; September 5). CBS renewed the series for the fall and renamed it Mercury Theatre on the Air .
The most famous Mercury performance came later in 1938 on Halloween Eve, when CBS broadcast an adaptation by Koch of H. G. Wells ’s novel The War of the Worlds (1898). Welles decided to tell the story of the Martian invasion in the format of a special-report newcast. His inspiration may have partly been the popular show The March of Time (1931), which dramatized actual news events in a radio studio with sound effects and a live orchestra. Such a format smudged the line between the real and the fictional and testified to the power of drama on radio. In an age before the ubiquitous camcorder gave television newscasts their immediacy, radio simply manufactured its reality, re-creating baseball games and news events as needed. The March of Time was the most popular news program on the air. In interviews years later, Welles said he also intended in the broadcast to lampoon the seriousness of radio and the way listeners passively accepted everything they heard over the airwaves.
For the man-from-Mars...
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