the New York manufacturer of fine dance apparel
for women and girls. Click here to
see a sample of our products and a list of web sites for purchasing.
With Body Wrappers it's always performance
at its best.
Go back to Flash Reviews
Flash Review 1, 10-5:
War on Welles
Dead Man Mocking at BAM
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000 The Dance Insider
The program notes for
the SITI Company's "War of the Worlds" foreshadows the shallow and
more than a little snide lampoon of Orson Welles that is to come.
Writes Anne Bogart, credited with conceiving and directing the piece
(Naomi Iizuka wrote the script) which opened the Brooklyn Academy
of Music's Next Wave season last night: "'When I was living in France
during the 1980s, I was amazed to discover that Orson Welles was
known and respected by most Europeans as a great American artist.
In America he is mostly remembered as a fat man on talk shows who
also appeared in advertisements for wine." Huh? By ignoramuses,
maybe. But not by anyone who has the least interest in classic movies,
and has ever stepped inside a revival house, tuned in late night
television looking for old movies, or gone to the video store to
rent "Citizen Kane," "The Third Man," "The Magnificent Ambersons,"
"Touch of Evil," or other films which Welles directed and/or starred
in. I have seen some of these movies and, to paraphrase Lloyd Bentson
from the 1988 vice presidential debates, I know these films, Anne,
as well as the astoundingly ahead-of-their time literary adaptations
presented by the Welles's Mercury Theater of the Air in the 1930s
-- and, based on what I saw last night, you, Anne, are no Orson
Orson Welles defined
hubris. Born in 1915, he was a radio star by 1937 from the Mercury
broadcasts and his role as The Shadow in the mystery-detective series
of the same name. He catapulted to fame and (to some minds) infamy
with the October 30, 1938, broadcast of the Mercury's telling of
Howard Koch's radio verite adaptation of H.G. Wells's "The War of
the Worlds." Koch, and Welles and his actors, told the story for
the most part as a series of radio news bulletins. After the introduction,
in other words, we hear a music broadcast from a hotel, then succeedingly
urgent interruptions for news bulletins. First, they tell of mysterious
gas eruptions spotted near the planet of Mars. Then an object has
landed near Princeton, N.J. (Which area, Koch told me in 1983, was
selected randomly after Welles threw a dart at a map and that's
where it landed.) And it gets worse, and worse, and worse, with
first state police and then U.S. army battalions being either heat-rayed
or gassed to death by the Martian machines. Professor Richard Pearson
(played by Welles) of the "Princeton Observatory" survives throughout
the whole, until the end, when the Martians expire of ordinary human
Now, there's some context
here: At the time of the broadcast, there was a war panic -- read
invasion fear -- abroad in the country. Which makes it less than
a total surprise that, as the New York Times reported the next day,
"A wave of mass hysteria seized thousands of radio listeners throughout
the nation between 8:15 and 9:30 o'clock last night when a broadcast
of a dramatiziation of H.G. Wells's fantasy, 'The War of the Worlds,'
led thousands to believe that an interplanetary conflict had started
with invading Martians spreading wide death and destruction in New
Jersey and New York. The broadcast, which disrupted households,
interrupted religious services, created traffic jams and clogged
communications systems, was made by Orson Welles...(A)t least a
score of adults required medical treatment for shock and hysteria....
In Newark, in a single block..., more than twenty families rushed
out of their houses with wet handkerchiefs and towels over their
faces to flee from what they believed was to be a gas raid.... Throughout
New York families left their homes, some to flee to near-by parks.
Thousands of persons called the police, newspapers and radio stations
here and in other cities of the United States and Canada seeking
advice on protective measures against the raids."
The switchboard at CBS,
which broadcast the program, was flooded with calls -- just one
reason why, forty minutes into the program, an announcer reminded
listeners that this was a dramatic presentation. (One theory for
the panic was that many listeners had missed the introduction of
the program as being a dramatization by the Mercury, having switched
to CBS after first listening to the beginning of the popular Edgar
Bergen and Charlie McCarthy show on another network to see who would
be the guest.)
Bogart gets a couple
of important facts wrong. First, an actor states that this broadcast,
pivotal in launching Welles to Hollywood, took place on Halloween.
It didn't -- it happened on October 30. Second, in recreating a
portion of the broadcast, Bogart has it that within 15 minutes there
was a reminder that this was just a fiction -- which reminder didn't,
in fact, occur until 40 minutes into the program (at least in the
recording I have), by which time the panic had already set in.
These omissions are important
to note, I think, because they set the tone for what is in general
a superficial riff on the life one of the towering film and radio
geniuses of the twentieth century. After positing that what she
will be giving us is not just an exploration of Welles, but of,
as she writes in the program, "The American confusion between news
and entertainment," Bogart herself doesn't go much deeper than regurgitating
the standard dismissals of Welles towards the end of his life: That
he was a man of, perhaps, great ideas, but one who never was able
to see through to the completion of those ideas after the 1941 "Citizen
Kane." And, in a further bogglingly superficial distortion, that
he was the vainglorious equivalent of his film character, Citizen
Kane. Indeed, the script Bogart and Iizuka develop to explore this
isn't even terribly original -- it borrows its framework, structure,
and even some characters from "Citizen Kane." A clever device, perhaps
-- but one of such obviousness and so expected, I was surprised
to see it from the SITI company and Bogart, about whom I have heard
such great things....and further surprised that Joe Melillo, the
executive producer of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, should choose
such a facile, obvious, and frankly replete with cheap shots at
a dead man piece to open a festival which presumes to represent
the "Next Wave."
It is hardly Next Wave
to set up a dead man as a straw man and knock him down by regurgitating
the uninformed jibes of the paparazzi and presenting these as being
Instead of really probing
beyond the myth to tell us, or at least give us an educated theory,
as to who the real man was behind the Welles legend, Bogart and
her actors merely visualize the popular conception of his public
personality. Instead of giving us a new understanding of this twentieth
century giant -- beyond the wine commercials -- Bogart actually
leaves him worse than she (in the wine commercials) found him: dramatizing
this misconception, painting him as, at best, a noble failure. (Of
course it's possible that the put-downs regurgitated by the other
actors, often as a chorus in rapid-fire, maybe intended as IRONY.
But Bogart and Iizuka present no countervailing reality to cast
it as such.) The real failure here is not Welles's, but Bogart and
scriptwriter Iizuka's, who have failed to create a drama as deep
and accomplished as their subject. Based on the evidence, one doubts
whether they bothered to seriously research Welles, beyond the archives
of the National Enquirer. The failure, I'm afraid, is also BAM's,
in selecting such a, frankly, light-weight excuse for a piece of
theater. Far from pushing our brains and our aesthetic understanding
as Next Wave at its best can do, BAM has merely catered to the lowest
common denominator -- more boggling because I'm not even sure this
denominator patronizes BAM! Far from giving us the Next Wave, BAM
has opened its first Next Wave festival of the new millenium by
perpetrating a gross, facile misrepresentation of the Old Wave.
Not a good beginning, folks. (Note: "War of the Worlds" actually
opened the season at BAM's Harvey Theater, while a Philip Glass
symphony, performed by the Brooklyn Philharmonic, opened the season
at the Howard Gilman Opera House.)
Now then: How about a
real taste of Welles?
Here are some excerpts
from that October 30 broadcast, as penned by Howard Koch, enacted
by the Mercury Theater, and directed by Welles. The second third
of the broadcast is almost entirely given over to -- well, the effect
is as if we are listening directly to transmissions by commanders
and pilots in the military, without the intercession of "announcers."
"This is Bayonne, New
Jersey calling Langham Field....This is Bayonne, New Jersey calling
Langham Field. Come in please."
"This is Langham field,
"Eight army bombers
in engagement with enemy tripod machines over Jersey flats. Engines
incapacitated by heat ray. All crashed. One enemy machine destroyed.
Enemy now discharging black smoke in direction of ---" and then
Later, we hear:
"This is Newark, New
Jersey. This is Newark, New Jersey.... Warning.... Poisonous black
smoke pouring in from Jersey marshes.... Gas masks useless.... Earth's
population moving to open spaces.... Automobiles use routes 7, 23,
24.... Avoid congested areas....Smoke now spreading over Raymond
Boulevard --" Again, silence.
And this gem:
"I'm speaking from the
roof of Broadcasting Building in New York City.... The bells you
hear are ringing to warn the people to evacuate the city as Martians
approach. Estimated in last two hours three million people have
moved out along the roads to the north.... All communication with
Jersey Shore closed ten minutes ago.... No more defenses.... Our
armies wiped out.... Artillery, air force, everything wiped out....
This may be the last broadcast. We'll stay here 'til the end. People
are holding services here below us in the cathedral.... Now I look
down the harbor, all manner of boats, overloaded with fleeing population
pulling out from the docks.... Streets are all jammed.... Noise
in crowds like New Year's Eve in the city.... Wait a minute....
Enemies now in site in Palisades.... Five great machines.... First
man is crossing... The first one is crossing the river, I can see
it from here, wading, wading the Hudson like a man wading through
a brook. A bulletin is handed me: Martian cylinders are falling
all over the country.... They seem to be timed in space. Now the
first machine reaches the shore. He stands watching, looking over
the city. Steel head...is even with the skyscrapers. He waits for
the others. They rise like a line of new towers on the city's west
side. Now they're lifting their metal hands. This is the end now.
Smoke comes out....Black smoke drifting over the city....People
in the streets see it now....They're running toward the East River....
Thousands of them...dropping in like rats. Now the smoke's spreading
faster, it's reached Times Square. People are trying to run away
from it but it's no use, they're falling like flies. Now the smoke's
crossing Sixth Avenue, Fifth Avenue, a hundred yards away...It....It's
After the program has
ended, when the news of the panic it set off has obviously been
conveyed to Welles, he returns, as himself, to chide the audience:
"This is Orson Welles
ladies and gentlemen, out of character to assure you that 'The War
of the Worlds' has no further significance than as the holiday offering
it was intended to be: The Mercury Theater's own radio version of
dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and saying 'Boo!'
Starting now we couldn't soap all your windows and steal all your
garden gates by tomorrow night, so we did the best next thing. We
annihilated the world before your very ears and utterly destroyed
the CBS. You will be relieved, I hope, to learn that we didn't mean
it, and that both institutions are still open for business. So goodbye
everybody and remember, please, for the next day or so, the terrible
lesson you learned tonight: That grinning, glowing globula invader
of your living room is an inhabitant of the pumpkin patch, and if
your doorbell rings and nobody's there -- that was no Martian, it's
As far as Orson Welles,
if you want the real thing and you live in NYC, you're in luck!
Starting Sunday, the Anthology Film Archives screens "Citizen Kane,"
with showings at 2, 4:30, 7 and 9:30 that day, and showings at 7
and 9:30 Monday and Tuesday. The theater is located at 2nd Avenue
and 2nd Streets. Tix are just $5. Go 'dere!
back to Flash Reviews