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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 Welles.

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 diseases.

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 an "exploration."

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." Such as:

"This is Bayonne, New Jersey calling Langham Field....This is Bayonne, New Jersey calling Langham Field. Come in please."

"This is Langham field, go ahead."

"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 silence.

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 fifty feet...(collapses)."

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 Halloween."

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!

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