Paul Heyer. The Medium and the Magician: The Radio Legacy of Orson Welles, 1934-1952. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2005. 256 pp. $101.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7425-3796-5.
Reviewed by Anne Leighton
Published on Jhistory (January, 2009)
Commissioned by Donna Harrington-Lueker (Salve Regina University)
Orson Welles: The Medium and the Magician
As a young man, Orson Welles avoided college and decided to travel in Europe. He acted in the British Isles, then came to New York City, and wrote and produced a play, called Marching Song, about the abolitionist John Brown. The play didn’t make it to Broadway, but Welles's perseverance found him a radio job in Irving Reis's Columbia Broadcasting Systems workshop in 1936. There he worked on a production of Hamlet with composer Bernard Herrmann and producer/writer John Houseman. A year later, Welles ran the workshop, and produced his famous production of Macbeth. Radio was a lucrative profession for Welles, and in The Medium and the Magician, author Paul Heyer shows how Welles combined leadership and artistry in the radio work that preceded his involvement in the film world.
In 1938, Welles was hired to create weekly radio dramas for CBS radio. First known as The Mercury Theatre in the summer of 1938, it became The Campbell Playhouse by the end of the year. Herrmann and Houseman were part of his team, and an array of actors appeared as guest stars, including the already established Helen Hayes and Jack Benny, plus then-newcomer Agnes Moorehead.
Heyer’s brilliance in developing this book is based on formidable research into Welles’s creative output, interviews, books, papers, studies, and transcripts of every aspect or person that entered Welles’s career. He also surfaces Welles’s sophisticated standards for producing plays and how he went about his craft.
Heyer discusses, for example, Welles’s approach to adapting Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. Welles was attracted first to the book’s compelling subject and Heyer notes that the subject--poverty--was a theme in a number of Welles’s choices of plays. Welles’s standards were that a script not be a word-for-word copy of a stage play or book, but its own entity. In scripting Welles used the narrator (generally himself) to perform the important role of bridging book segments that were impossible or difficult to dramatize because of time restrictions. John Houseman and later Howard Koch had less than a week to write a first draft. Welles gave input, and then the team’s first rehearsal focused on how the show would sound with basic sound effects but no music. Over the next day or two, Welles revised the script, and then held another rehearsal. There would be more revisions and then Sunday rehearsal. The following day was show day, in which the ensemble “dress rehearsed” with music and sound effects. Welles then revised the script until the 9 p.m. show time, paying attention to integrating audio elements. It was at that point and through deadline, Heyer says, that Welles showed his famous signs of stress, throwing tantrums and hurling insults.
Welles never allowed a studio audience on the premises; radio held a mystique as a “conjuring act” or “a magic act.” His approach also allowed his actors to be expressive in moving and dressing as comfortably as possible so they could be effective in their parts.
I found The Medium and the Magician impressive because of the way Heyer shows the enterprising ways Welles used to grow his career. Within three years of high-school graduation, The Todd Press published a book of plays for which Welles wrote new stage directions. Five years later, after his success in radio, he compiled The Mercury Shakespeare of radio dramas that he had produced for CBS.
Professionalism came into play in Welles's handling of controversy, as shown in his response to the hullabaloo surrounding the broadcast of The War of the Worlds in 1939. Media historians, of course, are familiar with the story: Many listeners tuned in to the radio play after it had already begun, and because of its dramatized newscasts and remotes, believed earth was under attack. After the authorities showed up at CBS studios and the show ended, Welles took responsibility and answered their questions until their investigation was satisfied. Welles then avoided the press, and left the station via the back door. The following day he held a press conference, thus prolonging media attention to his work.
Professionally, Welles was dependant on a team, though author Heyer notes that the writer/director/actor did not give enough credit to his colleagues. When his career segued into films, he hired an executive liaison to act as his go-between with the radio sponsor and network, so Welles could focus on both his radio and film productions.
Welles’s deal with WRKO was unprecedented, as most 1930s radio stars signing with the motion picture houses focused solely on acting. Despite his lack of filmmaking experience, he demanded the whole enchilada--directing, writing, and production--and got it.
Heyer also emphasizes the sonic beauty of the 1941 film Citizen Kane. In addition to making music a part of the story, Heyer says Welles continued to rely on Bernard Herrmann for film scoring and also worked with sound technician James G. Stewart, who had a radio background. Welles gave Stewart the idea and effect he wanted for a segment, and Stewart worked on the idea, which he shared with Welles, who then offered suggestions for improvement. The two talked back and forth, sometimes experimenting, until it was time to produce a scene.
At times, Heyer places Welles on a pedestal. Overall, though, he traces Welles’s innovations in audio, both in radio and in film. That contribution deserves recovering.
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Anne Leighton. Review of Heyer, Paul, The Medium and the Magician: The Radio Legacy of Orson Welles, 1934-1952.
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