It’s a signature time for robots. In real life we’ve got Curiosity taking a years-long constitutional on the red planet, Rosetta dropping in on Comet67P, drones over the White House and Iraq, and a Korean Man Machine doing some nifty stuff at DARPA.
In the movies, in this year alone we’ve already been seduced and terrorized by the babe-bots of the brilliant Ex Machina —
— and now the granddaddy of all metal men, the Governator himself, is about to blast across the eons (again) in Terminator: Genisys.
It’s easy for a human to feel a little overwhelmed and, frankly, a little redundant, with all this talk of self-driving cars, AI, and the imminently self-aware iPhone (okay I made that last one up but, hey, we all know Apple is working on it).
So, in this age of Terminators and drones, whizz-bang exterminators and pseudo-human love machines, might I suggest it’s time to remember a gentler breed of “Your Plastic Pal Who’s Fun To Be With.” A robot who doesn’t have all the answers, even though, as he constantly reminds us, he does have “a brain the size of a planet”.
I speak, of course, of Marvin.
Marvin the Paranoid Android.
Marvin, a prototype of the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation, equipped with the ground-breaking GPP factor, as in “Genuine People Personality”.
Marvin, who upon entering the room, is inclined to talk not of the weather or the traffic, or what passes for news on Alpha Centauri, but rather will announce with breathtaking candor:
“I think you ought to know I’m feeling very depressed”.
Yup, that’s a Genuine People Personality all right. And yes, I know what you mean Marvin. It’s just so nice to hear someone else say out loud what many of us are thinking. Much of the time.
Marvin was the creation of Douglas Adams, a former script editor and writer on Monty Python’s Flying Circus and Doctor Who.
Marvin is everyone’s favourite side-kick in Adams’s magnum opus, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
This was originally a radio show for the BBC, but it was so popular it evolved into a series of books, a TV show, and, finally, a movie. But it is in its original radio incarnation that Hitchhiker’s shines most brightly. For most fans, Marvin as personified by the lugubrious, jaded tones of Stephen Moore, is the bright star bringing just the right amount of cynical illumination to the Galaxy.
Stephen Moore and friend
That is the genius of Marvin and the assorted droids and computers in the Hitchhiker’s universe: his too-human side. In trying to make machines more empathetic and relatable by giving them Genuine People Personalities, their creators (us) have made them uber-human to the point of ridiculousness. Thus we have elevators having existential crises: terrified of heights and cowering in basements. Or Eddie, the shipboard computer, who either declares life to be fantastic, all the time — or who mothers you like that over-protective aunt who smelled of slightly rotten elderberries.
It’s a delicious take on the old fear that the technology we create will somehow inherit way too much emotion for its, or our, own good. (Hi there HAL).
Marvin, reduced for most of the time to menial labour (like parking cars), prefaces much of his complaining with “Brain the size of a planet…..”
Ah, I know how you feel, Marvin. No-one really understands the full extent of my unique skills either.
Like, for example, I know I could have been a pop star. I just needed that one big break…..
Yup, Marvin’s been there, done that.
Is there nothing in this world a paranoid android cannot achieve, if only he dreams big enough?
And long enough?
(from l. to r.) Douglas Adams, Geoffrey Perkins (producer), David Tate (Eddie etc.), Geoffrey McGivern (Ford Prefect), Mark Wing-Davey (Zaphod), Simon Jones (Arthur Dent), Alan Ford (Roosta)
“Einstein’s Monsters” is a collection of short stories and essays by the distinguished British author, Martin Amis (“Money”, “The Rachel Papers”). The book formed the basis for a radio drama project I developed in the early 90s for NPR, titled “Radio Einstein”. On this day, marking another year removed from the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, this essay is a reflection on his book, and how the nuclear issue hovers, ever-present, in our individual and collective consciousness (or maybe that should be un-consciousness, given how comparatively blasé people have become on the subject). You can listen to the audio sampler from the radio series here, or click on the embedded link at the end of this post.
Urakami Cathedral, Nagasaki
“I was born on August 25, 1949: four days later, the Russians successfully tested their first atom bomb, and deterrence was in place. So I had those four carefree days, which is more than my juniors ever had. I didn’t really make the most of them. I spent half the time under a bubble. Even as things stood, I was born in an acute state of shock. My mother says I looked like Orson Welles in a black rage. By the fourth day I had recovered, but the world had taken a turn for the worse. It was a nuclear world. To tell you the truth, I didn’t feel very well at all. I was terribly sleepy and feverish. I kept throwing up. I was given to fits of uncontrollable weeping….. When I was eleven or twelve the television started showing target maps of South East England: the outer bands of the home counties, the bull’s eye of London. I used to leave the room as quickly as I could. I didn’t know why nuclear weapons were in my life or who had put them there. I didn’t know what to do about them. I didn’t want to think about them. They made me feel sick.”
This is how the great British novelist Martin Amis begins his essay, “Thinkability”, which leads off his book, Einstein’s Monsters.
The short stories which follow are his attempt to find ways to write about nuclear weapons: what they embody, and what they do to us – physically, psychologically, sociologically, and all the other “-ally’s”. The stories are metaphors, allegories, psychodramas, fantasies embedded in a paradox. The paradox at the heart of the nuclear equation. Nuclear fusion and fission are derived from the primal energy of creation, yet they also give rise to such monumental destructive energy that they can end all creation. The life force is also the death force. As Amis acknowledges:
“Although we don’t know what to do about nuclear weapons, or how to live with nuclear weapons, we are slowly learning how to write about them. Questions of decorum present themselves with a force not found elsewhere. It is the highest subject and it is the lowest subject. It is disgraceful, and exalted. Everywhere you look there is great irony: tragic irony, even the irony of black comedy or farce; and there is irony that is simply violent, unprecedentedly violent. The mushroom cloud above Hiroshima was a beautiful spectacle, even though it owed its color to a kiloton of human blood.”
The “irony of black comedy or farce”, as Amis describes it, is what drives the most famous exploration of the nuclear nightmare in popular culture, Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Originally, Kubrick had intended a more-or-less straight dramatization of the series of events in his film that lead to nuclear Armageddon. But, as he worked on the project, he came to realize that the darkness of his subject could only be adequately captured with the heightened irony and absurdist tone that characterize the finished movie. One of the film’s most famous lines perfectly captures the surrealistic absurdities that lie at the heart of any contemplation of nuclear issues, whether in fact or fiction. President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers) admonishes General “Buck” Turgidson (George C. Scott) as he wrestles with the Soviet Ambassador on the floor of the U.S. Operations Control Room: “Gentleman! You can’t fight in here! This is the War Room.”
The film originally ended with a massive custard pie fight, a lovely allusion to the movies’ silent era, and an apt reductio ad absurdum of the nuclear stand-off.
Kubrick directing George C. Scott in the pie fight
But Kubrick felt this farcical conclusion was perhaps a little too much, diluting the point he was trying to make — and he was right.
It would have trivialized a scenario that, for all its absurdity, was deadly serious, because underneath all the antic posturing, the possibility of an accidental first strike by America’s nuclear bombers was entirely possible. So Kubrick opted for a more sobering, albeit still surreal, conclusion. The maniacal, crippled Dr. Strangelove (Peter Sellers), knowing that a Doomsday Device of planet-wide annihilation has been triggered by America’s single wayward bomber, is so transported by his visions of mass copulation amongst the survivors (with multiple female partners allocated to each man) that he rises, prophet-like, out of his wheelchair, declaring “Mein Fuhrer! I can walk!” Cut to epic, beautiful shots of nuclear orgasm derived from documentary footage of H-bomb tests, with Vera Lynn crooning on the soundtrack the old wartime standard: “We’ll meet again / Don’t know where, don’t know when / But I know we’ll meet again, some sunny day…..”
Mankind (and let me emphasize the man part of that word – I suspect womankind, left in charge, would not pursue self-annihilation with such single-minded fervor) has always seemed to find something compulsively beautiful in the rictus of death. Why else would we have continued to celebrate obliteration so fervently in our literature and art? From the earliest myths which correlate love and passion with death (Tristan and Isolde anyone?) we have now moved, inexorably it seems, to the ubiquitous fetishizing of erupting death wounds, dismemberment, and other baroque, slow-motion tours de force to be found even in your average Summer PG-13 blockbuster. And this is not to mention the lingering shots of mutilation and the casual sadism we welcome into our homes without a blink on assorted TV procedurals and Game of Thrones. As a species we are as much in love with the look of violence and death as we are with the idea of it, let alone the practice of it.
Nowhere is this dichotomy between the beauty and horror of death presented more vividly, on a more epic scale, than in the biblical splendor of the atomic detonation, and the smoldering, shimmering afterglow of the rising mushroom cloud. Take a look at the carefully restored footage of America’s nuclear testing program of 30-plus years, gathered together in the documentary Trinity and Beyond: The Atomic Bomb Movie, and you’ll want to pop your corn and settle in for an evening of nuclear ‘shrooms. Viewing real footage of assorted atom and hydrogen bombs is beautiful, compelling, exotic and terrifying in ways that the slow-motion carnage and mayhem of the Matrix movies can only dream of being. Because this stuff is real, man! During the height of America’s above-ground testing program, families would traipse out into the desert with their picnics to watch the spectacle: a nuclear al fresco, if you will. Little did they know they were also investing in a future of mutant tumors, rebellious immune systems, and sometimes a slow-motion, radiation-soaked death incurred from drifting fallout (see the extraordinary book and website American Ground Zero).
When the scientists of the Manhattan Project witnessed the first atomic test in the Nevada desert, named in suitably Biblical fashion as Trinity, the beatific horror of what they had created, God-like, out of the building-blocks of creation rendered them, first, mute, and second, inclined towards prose tinged with a strain of scriptural poesy.
Trinity: .016 secs after detonation
Trinity: 15 seconds after detonation
J. Robert Oppenheimer, chief architect of the Bomb, himself quoted Hindu scripture: “Now I am become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds”.
Oppenheimer, hunched over the Trinity bomb, engaged in final preparations for the test
But, beneath all the hand-wringing and subsequent calls to disarm from some of the nuclear scientists, you can still sense the little boys within the fathers of Armageddon jumping for joy: “We did it!” they cry. As the cloud from Trinity arose from the desert sands, one of the scientists pronounced, more ominously, “Now we’re all sons of bitches”
In the months and years that followed the test, and the two subsequent atomic conflagrations in Japan, some of the Manhattan Project scientists, like Oppenheimer, began to more fully realize the ramifications of what they had wrought. They tried to jump off the nuclear band wagon as it picked up speed, to move the government towards disarmament. Miscalculating his political influence, Oppenheimer lived to see his security clearance revoked after a series of humiliating hearings in which he was accused of passing secrets to the Soviets. He never recovered, neither from the betrayals, nor the sense of his own culpability in bringing mankind one large step closer to its own doom, and died a broken man. Others in the scientific community, like Edward Teller (who testified against his old friend and colleague at those hearings), invested themselves heart and soul in the Faustian nuclear bargain.
Teller, more than anyone, set the US on the road to creating and stockpiling ever increasing megatons of mass-destruction. Motivated by his early experiences as a refugee from Nazi oppression before the war, he was more inclined to view the Soviets as the new Reich. For Teller and his political allies, the threat of force had to be contained by the threat of greater force, and thus the policy of Mutually Assured Destruction, or MAD, was born. Besides, the boys were hardly going to throw their shiny new toys out of the sandpit. They wanted to play, and play they did. Thus was also born this country’s epic program of nuclear tests that effectively irradiated the entire US with fallout over the course of decades. There were some in the medical community who raised alarms about the long-term effects this exposure would have on the population; their warnings (and careers) were duly curtailed by officialdom.
Photos taken from “American Ground Zero” by Carole Gallagher:
Teller himself remains a compelling, maddeningly enigmatic figure at the centre of the nuclear narrative. He was brilliant, zealous, paranoid, neurotic, messianic in his zeal for nuclear superiority, and, thereafter, for the so-called Star Wars missile defense shield; after giving birth to his babies, he then proceeded, Zeus-like, to find the most outré manner in which to eat them. If ever someone in real life embodied the flaws of a tragic figure like Lear or Oedipusit was Teller: tragic for himself, and for us.
In his essay “Thinkability” from Einstein’s Monsters, Martin Amis cannily zeros in on the strain of infantilism at play on the stage of the nuclear arms race:
“Trinity, the first bomb (nicknamed the Gadget)was winched up into position on a contraption known as “the cradle”; during the countdown the Los Alamos radio station broadcast a lullaby, Tchaikovsky’s “Serenade for Strings”; scientists speculated whether the gadget was going to be a “girl” (i.e., a dud) or a “boy” (i.e., a device that might obliterate New Mexico). The Hiroshima bomb was called Little Boy.
Rare photo of Hiroshima bomb from the ground, taken 2-5 minutes after detonation
“It’s a boy!” pronounced Edward Teller, the “father” of the H-bomb, when “Mike” (“my baby”) was detonated over Bikini Atoll in 1952…. It is ironic, because they are the little boys; we are the little boys. And the irony has since redoubled. By threatening extinction, the ultimate antipersonnel device is in essence an anti-baby device. One is not referring here to the babies who will die but to the babies who will never be born, those that are queuing up in spectral relays until the end of time.”
Extending his observation of this strain of infantilism that suffuses nuclear history, Amis extrapolates a keen metaphor with which to conclude his essay. Remember this was written in 1987, before the fall of the Soviet Union; though in reality little has actually changed in terms of the political chess game (or should that be crap shoot?) which keeps us perpetually betting the house on a round of nuclear Sudden Death.
The world’s nuclear stockpile c.2011
“At the multiracial children’s tea party the guest have, perhaps, behaved slightly better since the Keepers were introduced. Little Ivan has stopped pulling Fetnab’s hair, though he is still kicking her leg under the table. Bobby has returned the slice of cake that rightfully belonged to tiny Conchita, though he has his eye on that sandwich and will probably make a lunge for it sooner of later. Out on the lawn the Keepers maintain a kind of order, but standards of behavior are pretty well as troglodytic as they ever were. At best the children seem strangely subdued or off-color. Although they are aware of the Keepers, they don’t want to look at them, they don’t want to catch their eye. They don’t want to think about them. For the Keepers are a thousand feet tall, and covered in gelignite and razor blades, toting flamethrowers and machine guns, cleavers and skewers, and fizzing with rabies, anthrax, plague.
“Curiously enough, they are not looking at the children at all. With bleeding hellhound eyes, mouthing foul threats and shaking their fists, they are looking at each other. They want to take on someone their own size…..
“If only they knew it – no, if only they believed it – the children could simply ask the Keepers to leave. But it doesn’t seem possible, does it? It seems – it seems unthinkable. A silence starts to fall across the lawn. The party has not been going for very long and must last until the end of time. Already the children are weepy and feverish. They all feel sick and want to go home.”
To me, this kind of passionate, imagistic, but precisely argued writing fully captures the folly of the nuclear situation, which is every bit as six-packed, witless and ghastly a barometer of the state of civilization as its namesake on the Jersey Shore. Einstein’s Monsters is more urgently and evocatively written than any number of memoirs, histories, philosophical and political discourses that have marked the silent nuclear countdown since August 1945.
Amis was inspired first and foremost by the luminous, passionate writing of Jonathan Schell, whose classic The Fate of the Earth foretold the irradiated, polluted, slow stir-fry state of the world we now find ourselves living with, and in, for the forseeable non-future we’ve created for ourselves.
The rest of Einstein’s Monsters proceeds from the gauntlet Amis throws down for himself in the opening of his essay, “Thinkability”:
“Every morning, six days a week, I leave the house and drive a mile to the flat where I work. For seven or eight hours I am alone. Each time I hear a sudden whining in the air, or hear one of the more atrocious impacts of city life, or play host to a certain kind of unwelcome thought, I can’t help wondering how it might be.
“Suppose I survive. Suppose my eyes aren’t pouring down my face, suppose I am untouched by the hurricane of secondary missiles that all mortar, metal, and glass has abruptly become: suppose all this. I shall be obliged (and it’s the last thing I’ll feel like doing) to retrace that long mile home, through the firestorm, the remains of the thousand-mile-an-hour winds, the warped atoms, the groveling dead. Then – God willing, if I still have the strength, and of course, it they are still alive – I must find my wife and children and I must kill them.
“What am I to do with thoughts like these? What is anyone to do with thoughts like these?”
His answer is a sequence of stories which all latch upon the varied strands of the nuclear state, the nuclear argument, and the potential nuclear end-game. They explore the issues through beautifully rendered metaphors and allegories that bleed out into re-imagined Earths and states of being. In The Immortal, a man who is slowly dying, along with everyone else, of radiation poisoning, escapes reality by remembering his life as an Immortal being who has witnessed the entirety of the planet’s history. Thus the pettiness of human folly (and achievement) is put into cosmic context.
In The Time Disease, a future colony of pseudo Angelenos have traded in our current obsession for maintaining perpetual youth by any means possible for maintaining a state of premature aging (due to radiation and pollution) under a sky that is boiling with the same kind of nuclear tumescence the Manhattan Project scientists saw in the Nevada desert at the Trinity test. And this is fine by them, because to catch Time, to come down with Time – to become young again, to have hope – means you would have to acknowledge the possibility of Life. Given the impossibility of life continuing in any form we would recognize or desire in this putative future, this post-nuclear world, that would also mean the death of hope. It’s a fitting paradox from which Amis carves a dystopian future far more chilling than any of Hollywood’s creations.
The death of time and the birth of something else: a watch from Hiroshima
In the early 90s I was planning a radio adaptation for NPR of Einstein’s Monsters, which was to blend the stories with interviews and archival recordings from the frontlines of the nuclear age. The author himself was very supportive of the project. Alas, we were in the early stages of pre-production when NPR decided to scrap all its drama programming, so the project was shelved. But not before we had recorded a demo to give a taste of the series to potential underwriters. This is what you can listen to here. It gives a pretty good idea of what the shows would have sounded like, and stands on its own, I think, as a meditation upon the nuclear problem.
I have always felt that Amis’s atmospheric language, full of rhetorical flourishes and brilliant wordplay, was, like Dickens, ideally suited to be spoken aloud. Therefore, translating his stories into the medium of radio seemed not only feasible, but also desirable. Radio is both an intimate, interior medium, and also the perfect realm in which to let the imagination roam. So it seemed perfect for these kinds of psychological, allegorical and fantastical imaginings that were rooted in humanity’s contradictory nature.
The nuclear issue is a subject whose implications for how we define our species, our place in creation, and our so-called progress through history, let alone our future, are so vast, so paradoxical, so antithetical, that they resist rational argument and easy conclusions with all the slow-burn lethality of fallout. But, just as radiation invisibly suffuses the environment, its tendrils reaching into the fabric of life, initiating its slow rot from within long before physical symptoms of poisoning become manifest, so the idea of nuclear destruction has likewise insinuated itself into our mental DNA. It lingers, it corrupts and, ultimately, it decays everything it touches. For those reasons, this is one of those subjects that demands an experiential argument as much as an intellectual argument to be fully grasped. Which is what Stanley Kubrick was trying to do in Dr. Strangelove, and what, in a smaller way, Radio Einstein likewise intended.
As Einstein himself observed: “The release of atomic power has changed everything except our way of thinking … the solution to this problem lies in the heart of mankind.”
Einstein and Oppenheimer
However, as Amis observes, our hearts have already been changed by the specter of the mushroom cloud, but not, alas, in the ways that Einstein was hoping for: “We are all Einstein’s monsters, not fully human, not for now.”
The warning is clear, but will we pay heed?
The signs are not good.
To listen to Radio Einstein, click on this link, or stream via one of the two panels below:
We’ve all seen them – those fun pictures of fellow knights of the British stage, Sir Ian McKellen (aka Gandalf and X-Men maverick Magneto) and Sir Patrick Stewart (aka Jean-Luc Picard of the Starship Enterprise and X-Men leader Professor Xavier) hamming it up before the Super Bowl —
— and living it up, in and around the Big Apple.
It’s the unlikeliest bromance of the moment. It has grown out of this power duo’s Broadway performances of a hard-core theatrical double-hitter: Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land.
The shows have garnered rave reviews. No surprise here. Several of my most memorable theatre-going experiences have been courtesy of these two theatrical lions. In the RSC’s staging of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, directed by Trevor Nunn at the Barbican in the 1980s, Patrick Stewart was an unforgettable King. The scene where he realizes, on his deathbed, that the son he thought was a wastrel is actually going to be a great monarch (Henry V), and the two are finally reconciled, was indelibly moving.
Ian McKellen terrified in a studio-sized, in-the-round production of Macbeth (with Judi Dench) that has achieved a well-deserved legendary status (it was also directed by Trevor Nunn).
Some years later, in a Peter Hall production of Coriolanus at the National Theater, McKellen brought that difficult study in hubris to alarming light. I doubt I will ever see that tricky play done better.
Like Patrick Stewart, I had the good fortune to work and hang out with Ian, in Boston and New York, though at the end of an earlier era, the 80s. And it was just as much fun. We may not have gone to Coney Island…..
…… but we did have the surreal experience of sitting in a wharf-side restaurant near Wall Street as the stock market crashed. As we sipped coffee and wrote our script, even the air was jittery.
I had persuaded Ian to work with me to adapt his one-man show, Acting Shakespeare (which he was touring around the States), into a 2-hour special for National Public Radio, to be produced under the auspices of my radio station, WBUR in Boston. The program would tell the story of Shakespeare’s life and examine the lasting appeal of the plays, through autobiographical nuggets, commentary and performances by Ian, and a range of interviews, historic recordings and music. It would then extend into a discussion of Shakespearean performance in America. It was somewhat unusual for a radio station in America at this time, even one in the NPR network, to undertake an enterprise of this nature. Radio drama of any kind, let alone something as ostensibly highbrow as Shakespeare, was hard to find on the dial. But our station manager, Jane Christo, thought unconventionally, and was a big fan of Ian’s work. It did not hurt that we were able to attract substantial corporate underwriting for the project too.
The program began, as had Ian’s one-man show, in really the only way it could, with the opening of Henry V, in which the audience members are exhorted by the Chorus to enter the world of the play through the full exercise of their imagination. Is there any finer call to arms for the theatregoer?
During the course of the program we interviewed a range of people who studied and performed the plays in America.
Joseph Papp in front of posters for some of his many legendary productions
Joseph Papp, the iconoclastic director and impresario who had done so much to promote quality non-profit theatre in New York, entertained with his impression of Al Pacino doing Richard III, and his often irreverent but unique insights gleaned from a lifetime of producing the plays.
Hamlet at the Delacorte Public Theatre (1964)
F. Murray Abraham illuminated the actor’s point of view. He talked about why he loves performing the plays, and how young audience members were in thrall to a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in which he was starring as Bottom.
F. Murray Abraham as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, with Melissa Miller as Jessica
Professor Marjorie Garber of Harvard University, a leading gender studies and Shakespeare scholar, brought to life many historical, academic and philosophical issues connected to the plays and their author (not least the fascinating question of whether Shakespeare was really an actor from Stratford-upon-Avon, or someone else altogether).
Edward de Vere, one of the leading candidates for being “the real Shakespeare”. The film Anonymous dramatized his story.
We also recorded a class of school kids who studied with the pioneering New England theatre company, Shakespeare and Company.
A senior figure with that troupe, Kristin Linklater, had coached Ian in speech and diction early in his career at the Royal Shakespeare Company, and she discussed the ways in which American performances of Shakespeare were often preferable to those by British actors.
Kristin Linklater leading a class
The program also looked at the ways in which Shakespeare has permeated the popular culture, from West Side Story to the pop songs of Sting. Interviewing Sting resulted in one of my more memorable encounters with a celebrity.
The former lead singer with The Police was doing a photo shoot in New York, and suggested I come to the studio and talk to him during a break. I remember walking into the lobby of an unassuming building in midtown, only to be confronted by 15-foot-high walls covered, floor to ceiling, with cover shots from Vogue and other iconic fashion magazines. I suddenly realized this was no ordinary photo shoot.
I was led to Sting’s dressing-room. On the way I glimpsed the rock star, naked save for his Calvin Klein briefs, posing for an effervescent, wiry photographer who spoke in a flurry of Italian-English. I did not know it at the time, but this was one of the legends of the fashion scene, Francesco Scavullo. When I later told my girlfriend (who was part Italian and a big follower of the fashion-world) where I’d been, she admonished me, half in American, half in Italian, for a) not knowing how fortunate I had been to be admitted into the presence of this legend (Scavullo, not Sting), and b) not taking her with me. When I then further revealed that throughout the interview Sting remained clad only in his form-fitting Calvin Kleins, I received a sharp jab of rebuke on my arm. Clearly I had seriously messed up for not allowing her the opportunity to see the rock star au naturel. It took a while for me to emerge from the doghouse. (And, ladies, the answer to your question concerning Mr. Gordon Sumner’s attributes is, “Yes, he is.”)
Francesco Scavullo with his iconic photo of Sting
One of the most memorable evenings of my sojourn in New York now takes on the hue, in retrospect, of an historical moment in theatre lore. Ian and I were laboring intently on the script, preparing to enter the studios of WNYC to lay down his tracks before he resumed his tour. We were under the gun, but nevertheless one day he declared that we were going to take a break that evening and go to the theatre.
“You wouldn’t mind doing that, would you dear boy? I’ve been told it’s a play we absolutely must go to,” he said as he peered over his half-moon spectacles. “Absolutely” is one of his signature words. His eyes betrayed that twinkle of mischief which the world has come to love in his portrayal of Gandalf. There is a part of Ian’s psyche that remains thoroughly that of an errant school-boy, “creeping unwillingly to school”. It is one of the reasons he is a great actor: he likes to play. On this occasion he was clearly in the possession of privileged knowledge he was not about to share, but he was relishing what my reaction would be when I discovered what it was.
Rehearsing Richard III (with Mark Strong)
Thus we found ourselves heading off to Sardi’s for dinner, New York’s most famous watering hole for the Broadway set. Of course, everyone wanted to come over to our table and pay their respects. Ian held court to the manner born, garrulous and friendly, but always ready with a biting quip. The possessor of a mind every bit as lean and quick as his performances, Mr. McKellen does not suffer fools, or the lazy opinion, gladly. He’s call you on your BS. You’ve seen him do this on the chat shows, where he has become a popular guest with hosts and audiences alike.
We walked into the theatre and made our way to our seats at the front and center of the stalls. A murmur of excitement flowed through the audience – at this time McKellen was already a huge star in the theatrical firmament, even if he had yet to achieve the broader celebrity status that came with The Lord of the Rings and X-Men. He turned and shook people’s hands, and greeted old friends. Finally we settled into our seats and the play began.
An actor came out, thin with long black hair falling about his coiled shoulders.
From the second he took the stage I was riveted. His energy and intensity were extraordinary, and it was the kind of showboating role that makes a star. Now I could better imagine the galvanizing effect of Brando’s legendary performance in A Streetcar called Desire. I knew why Ian had insisted we come, and I felt like I was watching theatre history being made. After the show we went backstage and Ian introduced himself. I just stood by and watched, in awe. What a moment!
Walking home Ian commented: “You don’t see that every day – a star is born”, or words to that effect. True enough.
The actor’s name was John Malkovich, and the play was Burn This by Lanford Wilson. Also in the cast was the young Joan Allen, giving an equally powerful performance for which she won a Tony award. Amazingly, Malkovich only received a Drama Desk nomination. He was, as they say, robbed. But his stellar career was officially launched.
John Malkovich and Joan Allen in Burn This
A few days later Ian and I entered what were then the newly refurbished studios of WNYC to record his scenes and linking text. As with the writing process, Ian was completely collaborative and openly solicited my advice on his acting and presentation. It was a somewhat daunting experience for a comparative neophyte to be asked to guide one of the greatest actors of his generation, but Ian was intent on scaling back the pitch and scale of his performances so that they worked for radio. His conversational manner as host occasionally veered towards being more “BBC-like” than one normally heard on American radio, not surprisingly, but that hardly seemed inappropriate in a program about Shakespeare hosted by an Englishman.
Rehearsing Macbeth with director Trevor Nunn and Judi Dench
We wanted his commentary to feel comfortable and unintimidating, like a fireside chat, with hot tea and scones to hand. When it came to the play extracts he completely understood how one could go small and intense, rather than big and theatrical, honing in on the psychological thrust of the speeches. Radio is wonderful for this kind of “interior” approach to drama, and it also allows an actor to mold and color the language in a way that the demands of projection in a large theatrical space often preclude. Only occasionally did we shift into a proscenium, or to be more accurate, thrust-stage mode, when a scene like the opening of Henry V would be aurally placed within a theatre setting through the use of sound effects and artificially added reverberation. I particularly enjoyed doing Prospero’s Farewell from The Tempest (opening Part 2 of the program). Ian brought out all the lyricism and melancholy in the speech, and I backed it with the Norwegian composer Arne Nordheim’s music, drawn from his ballet of the play. It lent just enough of an otherworldly, eerie quality to those extraordinary words in which the playwright expressed his intention to retire from the stage.
“I’ll drown my book….” McKellen as Prospero at the opening of the London Paralympics
In another standout sequence, Ian plays a pivotal scene from Hamlet, involving the arrival of the traveling players at Elsinore, Hamlet’s family castle, taking all the roles. The listener is able to go right inside Hamlet’s head as he launches into the soliloquy “Oh what a rogue and peasant slave am I”.
To get this kind of “interior” quality of sound one has to speak as close to the microphone as possible. In this way one removes all the room resonance, so the voice is completely isolated. The problem is that in the process of doing this, every little mouth noise, lip smack, pop and breath is picked up by the microphone, and can distort the recording. We were working in the days before digital editing and mixing, so the only editing we could do to remove unwanted pops and distortions involved actually cutting the tape itself. Tricky stuff, and especially so when there is such a wide dynamic range as there is here. When Hamlet explodes with frustration in the middle of the speech, McKellen had to back off the microphone and the engineer rode levels so he would not distort. Listen to the completed scene (contained in the following clip). I think you will agree that it is a masterly piece of microphone technique allied to brilliant acting.
Ian McKellen as Hamlet (1971)
Once the sessions in New York were completed, Ian disappeared for the rest of his tour. (While he was on the West Coast he interviewed the Craig Noel, who had run the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego for decades).
Craig Noel in 1980
I was left with a mountain of recorded material to whittle down to two 1-hour shows. I disappeared into the editing room with my indefatigable engineer, David Greene, and his trusty razor-blade.
The author (l.) and engineer David Greene (r.)
One of the interesting things that happens when one works on an audio project like this is one comes to learn in intimate detail every tic and inflection of someone’s voice, their particular habits: the way breaths are taken, the way certain combinations of consonants and vowels can sound out oddly, and how even well-trained voices can reveal the layers of their background. McKellen grew up in the north of England and had a strong regional accent as a young man, but in order to pursue a career in theatre at that time (the late 50s and early 60s) it was mandatory that he not have anything other than a proper Queen’s English kind of voice. He rigorously trained away the accent of his boyhood, but as David and I labored over the tapes, those characteristic northern sounds would occasionally reveal themselves within the words. Fascinating. There were also certain, shall we say, bad habits or tics that even the most well-trained voice will fall into, and I will admit to certain moments of levity when we came across these McKellen aural signatures. Put it down to the punchiness that every editing bay plays host to.
Taking Coriolanus on tour in Greece, with director Peter Hall
What many people do not realize is how much of what they hear on the radio is not people speaking off the cuff. In fact, the reporters, interviewees, and commentators on fully produced programs are mostly edited before the shows hit the air to remove unwanted mistakes, pauses etc. (except when it is a live news show, like All Things Considered, though here it is mostly only the hosts who are live; the rest are mostly live on tape). In the days before digital, this kind of editing was done with a razor blade, cutting the master tape. To be a really good editor is a considerable art, with little room for error – you can only reassemble minute pieces of cut tape so many times. My editor on this show, David Greene, was one of the best editors I have ever worked with. Every session was a master class in how to cut tape. It wasn’t just a question of editing interviews for content: David would clean up odd little mouth noises and tighten the rhythmic flow of speech. Here you have to be so careful, because if you overdo it to get rid of redundant “ers” and “ums”, you can disrupt the speaker’s natural flow and rhythm of speech, and the end result can sound choppy.
Finally, with all the elements in place, we mixed the show. Now you might think this would be a hi-tech affair, with multi-track tape and a state-of-the-art mixing console. Far from it. At the time WBUR had yet to gain the luxurious facilities it currently enjoys. We only had several ¼ inch decks, and Betamax video decks for digital playback. The mix was all coordinated manually, with David and myself literally leaping from one source to another as different sound elements were cued in. It may have been crude, but it worked.
As Richard II (1968)
With a certain level of anxiety I sent Ian the finished program for approval. He had a few salient notes, but declared his satisfaction, and the program aired on April 19th, 1988, in time for Shakespeare’s birthday on the 23rd, on over a hundred stations across the land. The response was so overwhelmingly positive that NPR ran it again the following year on even more stations.
King Lear, with Sylvester McCoy (aka Doctor Who 1987-1989) as the Fool
An interesting coda to this whole experience came a few months later. Ian made worldwide headlines by publicly coming out. He was one of the first celebrities in the acting world to openly declare his homosexuality, and it was an act of considerable bravery at that time. It turned out that he had been seriously mulling over whether to do so or not throughout his American tour, when we had been working on the program. In San Francisco he had been staying with the writer Armistead Maupin (whose Tales of the City was a landmark work in chronicling the impact of the AIDS crisis on the gay community), and this was when he finally reached his decision. At the time, his coming out was partly driven by a desire to protest a new law discriminating against homosexuality being promoted by Margaret Thatcher’s government. McKellen has remained active in support of LGBT rights, recently adding his signature to those of 27 Nobel Laureates who wrote an open letter to Vladimir Putin to protest Russia’s policies of active discrimination against, and criminalization of, this community.
We had chosen to end the program with a speech from Henry VIII, a play that scholars believe, while attributed to Shakespeare in the First Folio, was actually written in collaboration with his contemporary, John Fletcher. Sir Thomas More confronts a mob of rioters who are protesting against the flood of immigrants entering London. In retrospect I can see how More’s condemnation of discrimination and intolerance would have resonated with Ian as he pondered his decision to come out.
Would you be pleased
To find a nation of such barbarous temper,
That, breaking out in hideous violence,
Would not afford you an abode on earth,
Whet their detested knives against your throats,
Spurn you like dogs, and like as if that God
Owed not nor made not you, nor that the claimants
Were not all appropriate to your comforts,
But chartered unto them, what would you think
To be thus used? This is the strangers’ case;
And this your mountanish inhumanity.
It was the perfect humanist note on which to end this personal look at the greatest of all literary humanists, granted by one of our foremost practitioners of the actor’s art. Working on this show was one of the singular delights of my radio career.
You can listen to the complete broadcast of Speaking for Everyman: Ian McKellen Celebrates Shakespeare’s Birthday here:
In Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (1974)
Here is a video of Ian analyzing Macbeth’s “Tomorrow and Tomorrow” speech.
AND, on a lighter note, for Stewart/McKellen fans this is essential viewing:
At one point in my errant school career I was receiving so many lines as punishment (“The rules of Latin grammar are to be approached with diligence, and ignored at one’s peril”, or “I must not flick paper pellets at my fellow pupils”) that my mother summoned my form teacher and took him to task:
“You seem to have lost control of my son. I have not.”
“And why do you set him all these lines to write? I cannot think of an undertaking of less merit that wastes so much time to absolutely no purpose.”
“That’s the point….”
“Well it seems a singularly useless one. Why, since he is dedicating so much time to making up for his errant ways, don’t you give him something useful to do?”
“What would you suggest?” inquired Mr. Gapper, with the mildly condescending tone that teachers sometimes use when addressing recalcitrant and demanding parents.
My mother, however, was now so wrapped up in her theme that she was oblivious.
“Have him learn something by heart. Like poetry for example.”
“And, since he is clearly a repeat offender, why don’t you pick something long, so that you don’t have to keep on coming up with new suggestions. How about The Rime of the Ancient Mariner? That’ll keep him busy. It’s in rhyme, so it shouldn’t be too difficult for him to remember. And maybe he will pay heed to the moral of the tale”, at which she fixed me, like the Mariner does the Wedding Guest, with a glittering eye.
Thus having settled the matter of how I should be disciplined, she swept imperiously away. Mr. Gapper let out a deep sigh of relief. Or was it anguish? Or a bit of both. My mother could have that effect on teachers (as well as bankers, accountants, and doctors). I think he felt a little sorry for me.
The upshot to this change in my disciplinary regime was that by the age of 13 I knew most of Coleridge’s 625-line poem by heart. And, while I enjoyed quite a sense of pride at this accomplishment, I had also discovered that learning poetry was much harder work than writing lines, and my behaviour in class had improved considerably as a result.
Little did I know that this unusual addition to my school resumé would one day prompt one of the most enjoyable creative experiences of my career in radio. In 1988 I was working as a producer at WBUR-FM in Boston, one of the flagship stations in the NPR system of member stations. My work largely consisted of writing and producing a range of music programming for both local and national broadcast, but I had also started directing, producing and writing radio dramas. These had, surprisingly, turned out to be very successful in terms of station carriage and, more importantly, attracting corporate underwriting. All this was very unexpected, because the popular wisdom in America was that radio drama was dead. Well, in our own small way, we were proving them wrong.
Boston University’s College of Communication, which housed WBUR at the time of our recording
The reason any of this was happening at all was due to the support and vision of our station manager, Jane Christo. A feisty, no-nonsense lady from Maine, she had taken WBUR from being an outlier in the NPR universe to the hottest station in the system, with a kick-ass news department and a little show called Car Talk that was just starting to make an impression on the national airwaves. One day Jane summoned me to her office and said: “We need a special for Easter. Can’t be religious, but something with some sort of Easter theme might work. Any ideas?” I thought for a moment, and suddenly the literary punishment of my errant schooldays came to mind.
“What about The Rime of the Ancient Mariner? It’s got a spiritual message of the importance of loving all things great and small, and it’s classy.”
Jane, who always had a keen sense of the marketplace, hesitated: “Isn’t that a little too rarefied? I mean, a long poem written over two hundred years ago?”
“Don’t worry, Jane. I’ll make it sexy.”
‘Sexy’ was one of Jane’s trigger words. If you said a program would be sexy you were assured of her full attention.
“Okay. Surprise me, Mark.”
As I left her office I had just enough good sense to realize I had made a somewhat rash promise. I had proposed the following. Recording an epic poem written in rhyme about a salty old sea dog shooting an albatross, thereby bringing down a curse upon his ship and fellow sailors that ends up killing everyone except him; he goes on a voyage into purgatory with attendant supernatural terrors, where he learns to respect the value of mercy and respect for all his fellow creatures; nevertheless he has to wander the earth for the rest of his life to tell his tale to random strangers, to warn them not to go around shooting albatrosses etc.
And I was going to make this sexy? What was I thinking?
What indeed! Well, the first thing I decided was I was not going to do a straightforward reading of the poem. No matter how good the actors were (and I had worn out an old record of Richard Burton reading the poem which was, needless to say, the nonpareil), the result of recording it in this fashion was unlikely to be described as sexy. Even if Richard Burton had been available.
No, this had to be a truly radiophonic version of the poem, something which used sound creatively to bring Coleridge’s fantastical journey to life.
I also decided this could not be a straightforward “words with sound effects” deal. That was the standard BBC Radio approach, and it would not do for this project. Funnily enough, the place where I had heard the most consistently interesting sound work growing up was on TV, on a little show called Doctor Who. Sounds and music suitable for a time and space travelling nomad in a police box were provided by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.
This enterprising collective of composers and sound artists using a hodge-podge of synthesizers and electronics were the quaint British version of places like WDR-Cologne and, later, IRCAM at the Pompidou Center, where avant-garde composers like Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez were redefining music and how to use the recording studio.
The BBC Radiophonic Workshop was mostly doing the honors for daleks, cybermen and assorted denizens of the Doctor’s travels. Its work filtered into other areas of the BBC’s line-up too, and every so often I would hear a radio play that went into the more experimental zone as a result of featuring the Workshop‘s sound experimenters.
But at WBUR-Boston we had no such equivalent or elaborate electronic gizmos. People’s reaction to seeing the main studio and control room echoed that of Arthur Dent seeing the interior of a spaceship for the first time on The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “I was expecting gleaming control panels, flashing lights, computer screens…. Not old mattresses!” We didn’t even have a sound effects library. What we did have was a staff of incredibly creative engineers, all of whom engaged in a range of eclectic musical and recording gigs outside their regular jobs. I already had a hunch that one particular engineer was the right fit for the job. Rick Wolf moonlighted as a performance artist, and I had been impressed by his one-man show which incorporated very creative, often interactive, sound design. An idea was already forming about how I was going to approach the project, and I broached it to him. He got it right away, and revealed that he had a decent 8-track recording set-up at home, with some good basic outboard gear, in particular reverb and delay – essential items for what I had in mind.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Coleridge’s poem, although written in traditional rhyming verse, was, in fact, nothing more or less than a phantasmagorical trip. It was a hippie version of a morality tale, complete with acid visions, out-of-body experiences, spirit visitations and voices, natural cataclysms, and zombies. Remember, this was the same poet who had written “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan / A stately pleasure-dome decree….” and its succeeding hallucinatory verses after tripping on opium, only to be awakened from his spell by the intrusive knock of a visitor. The spell broken, he couldn’t finish the poem.
What I had decided to do was to tap into the fantastical, hallucinatory aspect of the Mariner’s voyage via the language, and use the words themselves, as spoken, to generate a trippy sound world. We would record the poem as well as we could, then manipulate the recording, breaking down words and the voices speaking them into pure sound. This would then weave aural textures around the actors’ voices, reflecting the emotion, and supernatural elements, of the story. I would also add music, timed carefully to flow with the contours of the sound and the events of the story. There would be no sound effects per se beyond the bare minimum at the opening and close of the tale, when we are in the real world. Once we entered the fantastic realm, it would all be pure sound and music. By sampling the speech to create its own music track, as it were, the sound world, at its core, would have a pure, organic quality, all tied into the primacy of the actors’ voices and the words they were speaking. The language would, in effect, generate the “trip”.
I was, in part, inspired by what the director Stanley Kubrick had done in the Stargate sequence that leads into the final section of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Here, Kubrick needed to create a visual correlative for, and narrative of, travelling into another dimension of space and time, making contact with a higher intelligence. Through this contact, the astronaut hero (and, by implication, Mankind) would be taking an evolutionary step forward.
Working with his brilliant visual effects supervisor, Douglas Trumbull, Kubrick devised a slit scan-device in which light was broken down into a constantly morphing, travelling array of colors, shapes, and designs. Essentially they deconstructed light itself, as it passed from source via lens to the film’s emulsion — the building blocks of the filmed image. It was both the perfect method, and metaphor, for what was happening in the story.
When 2001 first played in cinemas in 1968 it rapidly became a favorite for audiences tripping on LSD, and was even promoted as “The Ultimate Trip”. Well, in its own time, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner was similarly an exploration of different stages of consciousness and supernatural experience. Deconstructing and reconstructing the building blocks of the medium I was working in — language, voices and sound — seemed the perfect way to dramatize it for radio, just as deconstructing light had been the right path for Kubrick.
There was one significant challenge, though. We needed to find an actor who could not only handle the tricky task of speaking rhyming couplets in such a way that they would not become tedious, but also would have a voice one could believe as that of a grizzled sea-dog. It would also have to be rich enough to generate the kind of varied sound palette our approach demanded. Even if Richard Burton himself had walked into the studio I doubted he would have been right for the job. I needed the radio equivalent of a method actor, someone whose voice “lived” the part.
The whole enterprise could have foundered on this point, but by some miracle a friend of mine who was an actor and worked part-time at the station said he knew just the person for the job. And boy did he. One memorable afternoon, into the station walked Mr. Brian Way, a well-known member of the local acting scene, and the moment he opened his mouth I knew we had our Mariner. He fairly breathed the swells of the Atlantic, and his voice communicated several lifetimes’ worth of rich experience. I told him what I wanted: “You are the Mariner. You lived this story. I want you to tell this tale as if your life depended upon it. With every word you speak you relive this horrendous experience that you must repeat endlessly to prevent others from making the same mistake you did. Do not hold back. Relish every word, every syllable. The language is the music by which you take me into your memory, your suffering, and your vision of redemption.”
Brian’s eyes glittered with relish already.
For the role of the narrator and a few other incidental characters I turned to students and faculty who were at Boston University’s College of Communication. We had already worked together on a few other radio drama projects, and they leapt at the chance to do something so unusual. Amongst them were the Dean of the School, Ronald Goldman, who lent a splendidly resonant baritone to the proceedings, along with an ethereal whisper for one of the spirits that visit the Mariner’s dreams. His colleague, Leila Saad, was Egyptian, and her rich accent was perfect for the nightmarish figure of Life in Death who wins the Mariner’s soul in a game of dice. The cast was rounded out by Robert Reames as the Narrator and Payman K. as the Wedding-Guest, and other assorted roles.
“‘The game is done! I’ve won, I’ve won!'”
The day of the recording arrived. From the moment we rolled tape Brian Way transfixed everyone in the studio. We hardly ever had to do second takes. The poetry was in his bones, and he rode the tricky rhythms of the couplet form effortlessly. Needless to say, the quality of his performance made everyone else bring their A-game.
Once Rick and I had edited together the spoken performances we repaired to his studio. We began the process of molding the recording with delay and reverb to create the fundamental, as it were, of the soundscape. As the voyage began the voices were untreated, but once the storm hit and the ship entered the frozen wastes we began to introduce our effects. After the Mariner has killed the albatross and the story enters its supernatural phase we began the process of carving loops and feedback out of the words.
It was akin to creating an orchestral score out of one instrument, harmonies and counterpoint working together, never against each other, to convey a consistent, unified aural argument.
Simultaneously I started to pick out music to accompany the journey. I had settled on two works.
First, Vaughan-Williams’ Sinfonia Antarctica, which was based on the score he had written for the film Scott of the Antarctic. It was as if the music had been specifically composed for Coleridge’s poem, so perfectly did its moods, rhythms and textures reflect the Mariner’s ordeal. Second, selections from Bernard Herrmann’s score for the film Journey to the Center of the Earth, another musical depiction of an epic journey and fantastical visions, perfectly dovetailed with the Vaughan-Williams. For a scene where spirits discuss what the cursed Mariner’s fate should be, a piece Herrmann had composed to evoke a lost subterranean ocean, using organ and vibraphone, conjured the necessary otherworldly quality. In a few places I also added a little extra spice with electronic sounds and motifs of my own devising.
Whenever our spirits flagged as we assembled the tracks, we had only to listen to Coleridge’s words and Brian Way’s extraordinary performance to feel rejuvenated.
Finally, after completing the mix, Rick declared it time to listen to the thing properly, all the way through. We doused the lights, lit candles, lay on the floor and cranked the volume. We cracked open a bottle of wine. I’d like to think Rick lit up something stronger, though honestly I cannot remember whether he did or not. Certainly it was the kind of show that would gain extra dimensions through “filtered” listening. Using headphones in darkness is also highly recommended.
Artwork for Iron Maiden’s version of Rime of the Ancient Mariner
After the broadcast we had listeners calling and writing in to declare their love for the program. Teachers asked for copies to use in the classroom. It won a bunch of awards. Jane, my boss, delivered her verdict: “Sexy!”. The show was repeated for a number of years, on far more stations than you would expect for such a quirky, “old world” venture. A 200-year-old poem was a certifiable hit, and I quietly thanked my mother for her intervention in my disciplinary regime at school all those years ago. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner remains one of my favorite pieces of radio work. I hope you enjoy it too.
Directed and Produced by Mark Ward for WBUR-FM and NPR Playhouse.
Engineering by Rick Wolff.
Starring BRIAN WAY as the Ancient Mariner, and ROBERT REAMES as the Narrator. Also starring PAYMAN K., RONALD GOLDMAN, and LEILA SAAD. Introduced by MARK SCHILLING and FRAN McQUADE.
You can listen to the full radiophonic dramatization of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner here —
or here —
(If the player fails to load, you can follow this link, from which you can also DOWNLOAD the program).
You can read about the making of this dramatization here.
The following are selected illustrations by Gustav Doré from the 1876 edition, with one illustration by Mervyn Peake.
Frontispiece of 1876 Edition
It is an ancient Mariner, And he stoppeth one of three.
‘The guests are met, the feast is set: May’st hear the merry din.’
The bride hath paced into the hall….
And now the STORM-BLAST came, and he Was tyrannous and strong: He struck with his o’ertaking wings, And chased us south along.
And now there came both mist and snow, And it grew wondrous cold: And ice, mast-high, came floating by, As green as emerald.
The ice was here, the ice was there, The ice was all around: It cracked and growled, and roared and howled, Like noises in a swound!
And a good south wind sprung up behind; The Albatross did follow, And every day, for food or play, Came to the mariner’s hollo!
With my cross-bow I shot the albatross.
And I had done a hellish thing, And it would work ’em woe: For all averred, I had killed the bird That made the breeze to blow. Ah wretch! said they, the bird to slay, That made the breeze to blow!
We were the first that ever burst Into that silent sea.
Water, water, every where, And all the boards did shrink; Water, water, every where, Nor any drop to drink.
And some in dreams assurèd were Of the Spirit that plagued us so; Nine fathom deep he had followed us From the land of mist and snow.
Instead of the cross, the Albatross About my neck was hung. (Drawing by Mervyn Peake)
The naked hulk alongside came, And the twain were casting dice; ‘The game is done! I’ve won! I’ve won!’ Quoth she, and whistles thrice.
One after one, by the star-dogged Moon, Too quick for groan or sigh, Each turned his face with a ghastly pang, And cursed me with his eye. Four times fifty living men, (And I heard nor sigh nor groan) With heavy thump, a lifeless lump, They dropped down one by one.
‘I fear thee, ancient Mariner! I fear thy skinny hand! And thou art long, and lank, and brown, As is the ribbed sea-sand.’
The moving Moon went up the sky, And no where did abide: Softly she was going up, And a star or two beside—
Beyond the shadow of the ship, I watched the water-snakes: They moved in tracks of shining white, And when they reared, the elfish light Fell off in hoary flakes.
And the coming wind did roar more loud, And the sails did sigh like sedge, And the rain poured down from one black cloud; The Moon was at its edge.
Around, around, flew each sweet sound, Then darted to the Sun; Slowly the sounds came back again, Now mixed, now one by one.
How long in that same fit I lay, I have not to declare; But ere my living life returned, I heard and in my soul discerned Two voices in the air.
A little distance from the prow Those crimson shadows were: I turned my eyes upon the deck— Oh, Christ! what saw I there!
Each corse lay flat, lifeless and flat, And, by the holy rood! A man all light, a seraph-man, On every corse there stood.
The boat came closer to the ship, But I nor spake nor stirred; The boat came close beneath the ship, And straight a sound was heard.
Under the water it rumbled on, Still louder and more dread: It reached the ship, it split the bay; The ship went down like lead.
I pass, like night, from land to land
I have strange power of speech; That moment that his face I see, I know the man that must hear me: To him my tale I teach.
He prayeth best, who loveth best All things both great and small; For the dear God who loveth us, He made and loveth all.
Well, 75 years ago, on October 30th 1938, large swathes of America got to find out. Listeners to CBS radio heard their regular programming interrupted by news reports of strange eruptions in space, and objects crashing to earth. That was only the beginning. It wasn’t long before the eastern seaboard was gripped by panic, and people were flooding into the streets – trying to escape what they thought was a full-scale Martian invasion.
Meanwhile, word of the panic spread to the CBS studio, where Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre company of actors were gleefully rampaging their way through Howard Koch’s adaptation of this science-fiction classic.
With little inkling of the furore outside, Orson Welles decided to defuse the situation. After speaking the last scripted lines of Professor Pierson, he announced – “out of character” – that the program had “…no further significance than the holiday offering it was intended to be”. With an impish smile in his voice he concluded: “And remember, please, for the next day or so, the terrible lesson you learned tonight. That grinning, glowing, globular invader of your living-room is an inhabitant of the pumpkin patch, and if your doorbell rings and there’s no-one there, that was no Martian… it’s Halloween.”
They went off-the-air. Then, leaving the cocoon of the studio, Welles was confronted by the magnitude of the panic he had unleashed. The laughter died on his lips. Even the master showman had been blindsided.
History was made that night. It was the first major media “Got ya!” and it turned Welles, already a cause célèbre in the theater world, into a media star. Hollywood came calling with an unprecedented contract, which resulted in the equally unprecedented innovations of Citizen Kane and a film career of, in equal measures, maddening genius and frustrated intentions. Maybe the Martians had the last laugh after all.
When I was producing radio theater for National Public Radio I had occasion to revisit that legendary night of broadcasting. L.A.TheatreWorks decided to record an updated version of Howard Koch’s script for Orson Welles with members of Star Trek, old and new generation.
Thus Wil Wheaton and Gates McFadden joisted at the microphones with Brent Spiner, while Mr. Spock himself, Leonard Nimoy, took the central role of Professor Pierson.
His voice commanded the airwaves in a manner all of these Hollywood old-timers, who grew up doing radio, theater and live TV, have to themselves. You felt every syllable of his awe and fear in the face of the alien invader. Researching the script for a subsequent rebroadcast on Halloween (naturally) I delved into the history of that original transmission, and of the book that started it all. There were a few surprises along the way. (In particular, Simon Callow’s excellent biography of Orson Welles provided a wealth of anecdotal material and pertinent observation, some of which I reference in the following.)
H.G. Wells at the microphone in 1929
Science fiction, it is fair to say, was invented by H.G. Wells, along with Jules Verne.
Wells had found a new way to explore the greatest aspirations and deepest fears of humanity through the metaphors of science and technology, and the worlds they were unveiling. But he knew the quest for knowledge was a double-edged sword, and fully exploited the unease that walks hand-in-hand with our boundless curiosity for the unknown.
For his most famous prophetic warning of the fragility of civilisation, Wells exploited the current fascination with the possibility that “We are not alone”.
In 1894, the planet Mars had been near enough to Earth to be observed in detail. The Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli identified linear patterns on the surface that he named “canalli” which, in Italian, means “channels”.
A page from Schiaparelli’s diary, 1890.
But in one of the great mistranslations of all time, English-speaking peoples thought he meant “canals”, leading to widespread speculation about the possibility of life on the red planet. Another observer claimed to have seen a strange light flashing on Mars, fuelling the debate.
Schiaparelli’s map of Mars, 1888
Meanwhile H.G. Wells was making his own observations closer to the Earth. Germany had unified, and embarked on a program of militarization. Wells and others feared this might lead to war in Europe. Inspired to fire his own warning shot, he turned to the public’s fascination with the possibility of life on Mars as a way to warn of the danger.
Title page from 1913 edition
In his hands, the utopian vision of disparate cultures uniting, of civilisation reaching beyond the stars, disintegrated in the beam of a heat ray.
1899 Cover Art
Instead humanity faced the nightmare of a pre-emptive first strike by superior technologies of Armageddon, serving masters whose only thought was: what was the point of sharing when you could have it all?
Title page of First Edition, 1898
Wells told his fantastical fable in a semi-documentary style, giving it a credibility and power it might have otherwise lacked.
When, in 1938, Howard Koch came to adapt War of the Worlds for the radio broadcast by Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre on the Air, he faced two major challenges. How to find a modern-day equivalent for the book’s hyper-realistic style, and how to overcome the dated, provincial aspects of the novel because of its period setting in England. He decided to move the action to America, randomly selecting the New Jersey village of Grover’s Mill as the site of the invasion. From then on, realistic imperatives drove the script. Koch made the medium the message, turning radio’s ability to broadcast live events as they happened into an integral part of telling the story.
Welles with John Houseman
It was a brilliant narrative strategy, but Orson Welles and John Houseman, co-founders of the Mercury Theatre Company, were initially underwhelmed by the script. Preoccupied by what had turned into a hellish theatre production of Danton’s Death, they picked at the script in their usual way, pulling it about structurally and demanding more realism. Welles dismissed it as “corny”. A lot of emphasis was placed on sound effects, in the hope they would distract attention from the thinness of the piece.
Despite – or because of this – Welles and his fellow actors went for broke, playing it for all it was worth.
Everything was pushed to the extreme – the apparent breakdowns in transmissions, the desperate eruptions of dance music – all held longer than would be thought possible in order to build suspense. The vividness of the dramatization echoed the real-life newscasts whose bulletins so frequently concerned events ominously gathering in Europe. But whether Houseman or Welles intended any serious parallel is debatable: they just wanted to liven up the story, using what was going on all around them, on the air and in the papers.
So why did listeners think there was a real invasion from Mars being reported? Houseman attributed it to a chance circumstance. Broadcasting on another wavelength was the hugely popular Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy Show.
At twelve minutes past eight the improbable principal act – a ventriloquist and his assorted dummies – took a break, and so did listeners. They reached for their dials, surfed the frequencies, and happened upon a news report, well under way, of the Martian invasion. As the play progressed so did the hysteria.
An estimate for the number of American families who had radios at the time was twenty seven-and-a-half million. The radio was frequently the principal, and often the only, source of information for Americans about the wider world. And in those days listeners trusted unquestioningly that what they heard was the truth. Despite announcements that this was a dramatization of a book, people took to the streets, screaming that it was the end of the world.
There are many colorful stories of that night. Here’s one of them. In Staten Island, Connie Casamissina was about to get married. Latecomers to the reception took the microphone from the singing waiter and announced the invasion. As Connie recalled: “Everyone ran to get their coats. I took the microphone and started to cry – Please don’t spoil my wedding-day! – and then my husband started singing hymns, and I decided I was going to dance the Charleston. And I did, for 15 minutes straight. I did every step there is in the Charleston.”
After the program went off the air, terrified listeners who’d called CBS angrily threatened violence against Welles and the company, after discovering they were victims of what they thought had been a malicious hoax. One employee recalled: “Someone had called threatening to blow up the CBS building, so we called the police and hid in the ladies’ room on the studio floor.”
The fallout from the broadcast was extensive. How would the populace have reacted in the event of a real air raid?
There were calls for censorship, but freedom of speech on the airwaves was fiercely defended. In a striking piece in the New York Tribune, columnist Dorothy Thompson acclaimed the broadcast as “one of the most fascinating and important events of all time… It is the story of the century… Far from blaming Mr. Orson Welles, he ought to be given a Congressional medal and a national prize for having made the most amazing and important of contributions to the social sciences… He made the scare to end all scares, the menace to end menaces, the unreason to end unreason, the perfect demonstration that the menace is not from Mars but from the theatrical demagogues.”
As for Orson, he made a chastened appearance in a newsreel, adopting the air of a schoolboy who’s not sure whether he’s gotten away with a prank.
Welles at press conference after the broadcast
He wasn’t as worried about society’s judgment as he was about potentially more serious, legal penalties. In the end nothing stuck, and it all turned out to be one of the most fortuitous events of his career. But his personal creative responsibility for the show had been negligible, beyond the flair of his direction and performance. In a foreshadowing of his attempts to take credit away from Herman Mankiewicz for the script of Citizen Kane, Welles repeatedly attempted to deny Howard Koch’s authorship of War of the Worlds. Unsuccessfully, to his considerable annoyance.
There’s no evidence to support his contention that the program was planned as a Halloween prank all along. The idea was improvised on the spot as a sop to the panic released during the broadcast. Nor was there a conscious attempt to play on fears of a European invasion. The fact was that Welles barely thought about the program, being completely occupied until the last minute by his losing struggle with the theatre production of Danton’s Death.
However, he did get a Hollywood contract out of it.
Grover’s Mill, New Jersey, at the site of the supposed Martian landing.