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From Mercury to Mars: Jennifer Hyland Wang’s “After the Martians” from Antenna

WOTW75_NV_Postcard_WEB (1)“What I find so intriguing about the heated public discussion immediately following the War of the Worlds broadcast – in letters to the FCC and to Orson Welles, in newspaper pages, and in industry trade journals – is not just the way the controversy comments about the power of radio or the susceptibility of the audience, but the way in which the gendered logics embedded in the broadcast system rose to the surface in these debates and informed the popular, industrial, and regulatory discussions about the mass “hysteria” of October 30, 1938 …”

[Reblogged from Antenna]

With Jennifer Hyland Wang‘s terrific exploration of the gendered logics surrounding the reception of the “War of the Worlds” broadcast and its implications for communications regulations, our six month series on the radio work of Orson Welles — From Mercury to Mars — comes to a close.


I have many supporters to thank for helping to bring this project together, but none so much as the Sounding Out! team – Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman, Liana Silva-Ford and Aaron Trammell, as well as our co-conspirators Nick Rubenstein and Monteith McCollum who contributed so much to the #WOTW75 project. Also a big thanks to Andrew Bottomley, my counterpart at Antenna and recruited all the authors from that end.

welles11Chiefly, however, I want to thank all our writers for such smart and entertaining work. I think it’s fair to say that the Mercury to Mars project brought more insight into Welles’ radio years than virtually any other body of collected writing. In August, Cornell professor Tom McEnaney started out the series with a detailed study (here) of the role that Latin America played in Welles’ radio imagination and early film projects. Eleanor Patterson of the University of Wisconsin Madison followed up with her take on WOTW as a kind of residual radio (here). In the early Autumn, Professor Debra Rae Cohen of the University of South Carolina took on Welles’ first play in the Mercury cycle – his version of “Dracula” – explaining how it commented on the medium (here). On Antenna, Cynthia B. Meyers from the College of Mount Saint Vincent provided keen insight (here) on her experiences teaching WOTW in the classroom. Soon afterward, Kathleen Battles of Oakland University brought us her fascinating take (here) on Orson Welles’ self-parodies on the Fred Allen show and elsewhere, and in the lead-up to our #WOTW75 event, NYU’s Shawn VanCour made a compelling case (here) for why the second act of WOTW was so much more remarkable than the first.

971153_10151467911611783_635005065_nOn the 75th anniversary of the “War of the Worlds” broadcast last October, we organized (or at least inspired) listening parties and collected hundreds of real-time tweets from participants in seven states and three countries all listening at the same time and using our hashtag #WOTW75. The exercise was coordinated with a three-hour SO!-produced broadcast from WHRW at SUNY Binghamton, with comments on the show by a dozen prominent scholars and writers, including Kate Lacey of Sussex University, Alex Russo of Catholic University, Brian Hanrahan of Cornell, John Cheng of SUNY Binghamton, Damian Keane of SUNY Buffalo, Jason Loviglio of the University of Maryland, Paul Heyer of Wilfrid Laurier University and more. We couldn’t be more proud of the depth of the material and the breadth of the event, which stretched from the University of Mississippi to Northwestern University, from Bournemouth University in the U.K. to the Ontario College of Art and Design in Toronto. Here is the navigator page we put up the night of the event, here is Aaron Trammell‘s remarkable audio documentary that aired early that night and here is Monteith McCollum‘s amazing WOTW “remix” that aired later.


After the anniversary, our series continued to grow. Josh Shepperd of Catholic University reflected on what WOTW meant for the development of media studies (here) based on new archival research, and Jacob Smith of Northwestern wrote a terrific article (here) about “Hell on Ice,” Welles’ great drama of sailors lost in frozen wastes. We also commissioned new writing (here) on Welles’ adaptations of Sherlock Holmes by A. Brad Schwartz, who co-wrote a PBS program on the WOTW scandal. We also heard from two of the most prominent media studies scholars out there: Michele Hilmes of Madison wrote about the persistence and evolution of radio drama overseas after Welles (here), while Murray Pomerance of Ryerson University wrote a rich and provocative study (here) of Welles’ voice itself.

Thanks to one and all. For my part, it’s simply been a joy to share my boundless fascination with Orson Welles’s radio work with so many friends, fans and colleagues. Signing out now, on behalf of Mercury to Mars, I remain your obedient servant, Neil Verma.

Welles Alpha

From Mercury to Mars: Vox Orson

Citizen-Kane-MicrophoneWelleswTower_squareThe problem of the voice has been at the center of sound studies for generations, but seldom has the knot of aesthetic and philosophical concerns — of vocal mechanics, of ontology, of desire — that “the voice” raises been brought to bear on a particular voice. As a result, ironically, a terrain deeply fascinated by materiality is often approached through abstraction. To amend this problem, what better case study could there be than Orson Welles, whose voice was without question one of the signature dramatic instruments of the twentieth century, and today retains a compelling power to instruct, to hypnotize and beguile.

As SO!’s last full installment in From Mercury to Mars, a six-month series commemorating the radio work of Orson Welles we’re doing with Antenna, we are honored to present one of the most insightful writers on cinema, Murray Pomerance of Ryerson University, who has prepared a special essay focusing on the question of Welles’ voice. Writer and editor of more than a dozen books, Pomerance’s own voice has been crucial in how contemporary scholars, critics and fans have thought about the cinema for decades, and we’re elated to have him help us to wrap up the series.

What you’re about to read, ladies and gentlemen (a little razzle-dazzle, why not?), is something never attempted before, to my knowledge: a study of Orson Welles’s voice itself — not what it does, how it was used, or what it “represents,” exactly — but a study that tries to get at what Pomerance calls “that instrumentation [Welles] cannot prevent himself from employing except by silence.”

It’s the voice that sticks to every thought about Welles, the voice through which everything else in his radio work passes, and ultimately the voice that continues to outlast him.


“I know that the thing I do best in the world is talk to audiences.”
Orson Welles to Bill Krohn (“My Favorite Mask is Myself: An Interview with Orson Welles,” The Unknown Orson Welles 70).

Most radio listeners across America knew the voice of George Orson Welles, a voice particularly adept for broadcasting, before they saw what he looked like. Even when he appeared, staring wrinkle-browed and wide-eyed from page 20 of the Los Angeles Times the day after “War of the Worlds” or hiding under the thick eyebrows and beard of Capt. Shotover from George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House, as framed by Paul Dorsey for the cover of Time May 9, 1938, they had to “fit” the picture to the sound (that is, one or more of his many sounds). The tall, doughy body generally produced a soft baritone—“I think it would be fun to run a newspaper”; “tomorrow is . . . forever”—worn at the edges like an heirloom tablecloth, thick as bisque, or evanescent as an Irish field seen distantly in foggy light.


Shot of the New York Inquirer, fictional newspaper from Citizen Kane (1941).

His sound was just slightly adenoidal, but burnished, like eighteenth-century mahogany furniture. Listening to Welles, indeed, one felt raised to a cultural height, where the light could gleam more purely and satisfyingly than elsewhere. His enunciation was crisp and precise, never failing.  David Thomson types his voice as “word-carving” (Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles 239). He breathed through, rather than around, his speech so that phrases would rise and fall with the body’s natural, “automatic” move to futurity; breathed with an overt will to reach the end of the phrase, of the sentence, of the story. In this he made talk the stuff of life. He was fond of long breaths and wordy deliveries, letting his stresses fall on vowels more often than not, as in singing Schubert. While as a performer he could produce any vocal gesture—hilarity, mockery, snideness, bitterness, pomposity—these clothed rather than inhabiting the voice, which was always, inevitably, excruciatingly, heart-rendingly clear and blunt. He had the ability to persuade us that what he said came from his heart, rather than a performer’s toolkit.

Orson Welles' "Am I Richard Pierson" monologue from "War of the Worlds."

A visual rendering of Orson Welles’s voice (and pauses for breath) in the “Am I Richard Pierson” monologue from “War of the Worlds.”

Even the great John Barrymore, whose voice was an orchestra—the Barrymore whom Welles called “a golden boy, a tragic clown grimacing in the darkness, gritting his teeth against the horror” and who at the opening of Citizen Kane told a radio announcer that Orson was the bastard son of Ethel [Barrymore] and the Pope (Welles and Bogdanovich, This Is Orson Welles 24)– did not unfailingly invoke such sincerity. So it came to be, later in Welles’s life, that when on a talk show he told his host a story or gave her a lecture—cigar in hand he informed Dinah Shore in 1979 that her audience was not an audience, for example, because they had not paid to be there–one came to believe every syllable; and when he made F for Fake he counted on this vocal credibility, this urgently private and confessional key, to convey convincingly what had only been fabricated to convince. The convincing could be potent, and at the supremest level: Richard Wilson reports that it was after hearing “records of the Mercury’s radio production of The Magnificent Ambersons” (not, note, after reading a scenario) that George Schaefer, President of RKO, “gave Orson the okay for that film” (“It’s Not Quite All True,” Sight & SoundSpring 1970, 191).

The shadow of Orson Welles as Franz Kindler in The Stranger (1946).

The shadow of  Welles as Nazi Franz Kindler in The Stranger (1946).

If it is one thing to discourse upon how the voice is structured into a performance, a broadcast, a staging, invoking, to take a case, shunting, audiopositioning, overdubbing, personalizing (see Verma, Theater of the Mind 140; 35-45; 185), it is quite another to stand before, to confront, the voice. In one case we wonder what can happen to the voice, in the other we ask of the voice what it is. Orson Welles’s voice, not what he says, not what he means, not who he is pretending to be, but that instrumentation he cannot prevent himself from employing except by silence . . .? What is the voice which one takes for granted in quoting his dialogue, as though what he says were equivalent to his saying it? And given that Welles is now silent, can the reader who never heard him be brought to a sympathetic understanding through any form of argument or description? Youtubing him for the first time, what does one hear, that Welles repeatedly brought forward through the frame of his instrumentality and the agony of his breath? An urgent desire to be heard, certainly. Listen to this, listen to me, listen harder. Spitting words, or giggling like a little child.

Language as we speak it need pay no fealty to the speaker’s attitude toward—feeling about—what he says; the words have the power to contain both meaning and feeling, but it is not a requirement that they be enunciated, emphatically shifted, or turned to self-consciousness in the event that the speaker finds them, apt, silly, or simple. The voice is beyond the words.  It is something for which we can have a taste. Taste “cannot be rendered by anything other than itself,” suggests Leroi-Gourhan, it is a “[part] of our sensory apparatus [that] must always remain infra-symbolic” (Gesture and Speech 281). Thus, the trick about voicing text for microphone is to pronounce, not utter. One must put some faith that English will hold meaning without the addition of the voice; so that—as regards meaning–in voicing one expresses a humble self-deprecation in the face of something greater than oneself.


Vienna’s Riesenrad, where Orson Welles gave a famous speech as Harry Lime in The Third Man. Photo from Wikimedia Commons, 2004.

Welles’s voice is filled to the brim with this humility, this self-deprecation, this ease, this insouciant presence. The words sound out, no matter their shape. And so: “The cuckoo clock!” as a punch line in that lengthy, magnificent speech of Harry Lime’s in the Viennese Ferris wheel in The Third Man. “KOO-koo.” With Welles’s great dignity (massive girth) and profound experience, this kindergarten word gives him over to self-mockery, disidentification; but Harry Lime just says it, with a little elevation of tone for comic punch, and a lifted eyebrow, since the cuckoo clock is a most unexpected answer to the question of what the Swiss can claim to have produced after five hundred years of peace.

Is it necessary if one is hearing the actor’s voice to consider his every line of dialogue?  What he says is so unimportant next to the fact that he is saying it. In F for Fake (1973) he gives us Elmyr de Hory’s recipe for an omelette: “Steal two eggs”: but that first word is pronounced at length, shall we say “Hungarian style”? “Steeeeeal two eggs,” and with a growl, a feline growl. The speaker approves, thinks it hilarious, this recipe, but is also dutiful in trying to capture the way Elmyr, the Hungarian art forger, speaks, and thus thinks. Speaking is thinking. That’s “El-meeeer.” In voweling as he does, that is to say, reveling in the vowels, stressing them, privileging them as golden roots of speech, Welles makes a voice that is theatrically expansive, the raconteur’s exaggerations of effect and fact embedded in exaggerations of fundamental sounds. Peter Von Bagh: “Welles is the last important raconteur of tales” (“Some Minor Keys to Orson Welles,” The Unknown Orson Welles 5). The vowels open us, open our receptivity and tap our wellspring of sensibility. They are not technical, not bitten or chewed, not tongued against the palate, in brief, not tooled and machined through the body’s hard flesh but instead summoned in and thrown from the body as organ. “El-meeer”: all a kind of pretense, this apparently being Hungarian, this embedding Elmyr inside the voice, as any good raconteur will do with his prize character.

Joseph McBride becomes rapturous about a scene in the film outside the Chartres cathedral, in which, as he puts it, Welles speaks in his own voice, “dropping all pretense and facetiousness to deliver a magnificent soliloquy on the transcendent reality of art” (Orson Welles 189). Careful, I think: the form of the soliloquy instantly downgrades all enunciation into sincerity. We may think of Welles’s tendency to deliver every speech as though it were a soliloquy — to tell us, as Simon Callow notes the announcer taught on The Campbell Playhouse, “a great human story, welling up from the heart, brimming with deep and sincere emotion” (Orson Welles: The Road to Xanadu 419)—and the “magnificence” of the dialogue, carefully written to seem “magnificent,” augments our tendency to adore the voice that speaks it. Yet we do adore that voice, and adoration is part of the cinematic effect. As to whether this is Welles’s own voice: I never met him.

Old Testament figure from the Chartres Cathedral featured in Welles' F for Fake.

An Old Testament figure from the Chartres Cathedral featured in Welles’s F for Fake (1973).

Or can we think for just a moment of the singsong most frequently attributed to Welles, vitiated, almost dead: the word “Rosebud” in Citizen KaneOhhhuh. Not “Rrrose-bbuddd” but “Rohhhhhz-buhd.” Billy Budd. Billy Rose. We can hear Joe Cotten (Jedediah Leland) say it, harsh, grating, perfunctory, pushing the “b”; and Everett Sloane (Mr. Bernstein), with emphasis on the “s”: “rose-bud.” A day hasn’t gone by he doesn’t remember that girl, but what’s Rosebud? Paul Stewart (Raymond)? Everything a question out of his mouth, even the time of day. Life a question, relations a question, existence a question. “Rosebud?” he hardly gives a breath to say it.

But Welles breathes it, with an expulsion of air that seems thick with embodiment: gigantic air, fulsome air, the air of the past lasting on through a winter memory preserved under glass. Again: not the meaning of the word, its tinny echo, what it connotes, how it is grammatically constructed, but what people feel when they say. It is certainly not—anticlimax of anticlimaxes—the thing itself, whose name Rosebud is. Inside Welles, in his organ of speech, in the interior of interiors, Rosebud is a future waiting to emerge. “With youthful exuberance, Welles was after a special space concept of his own,” writes Von Bagh, “a very personal dramaturgical form, a kind of relief of sound space which then, in the miraculous turn of Citizen Kane, was elevated into a kind of relief or multi-dimension of visual space” (5).

A certain delicious theatricality flavors much of what we hear from Welles, the sort of tone that caused Ernest Hemingway, as legend has it, to berate him for the “too flowery” delivery of narration in Joris Iven’s The Spanish Earth (1937) and inspire the slur that he was nothing but a “‘faggot’ from the New York theater” (McBride 204). Welles, of course, put up his dukes. But while I don’t think Orson Welles’s voice is ever flowery, it often floats up onto an imaginary British promontory, especially, in certain precise dramatic circumstances, with the effete (but feigned) pronunciation of the “high R.”  (“High” as in Upper.) September 9, 1936 for the Columbia Broadcasting System, playing Hamlet: “‘Tis an unweeded garden/ That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature/ Possess it merely (I.ii.339-41): on the East Coast we would say GARR-dn, with the “r” emerging from a mouth where the tongue is lifted back (and possibly also the lower lip), but Welles gives us “GAH-dn” with the lazy tongue staying put:

Welles in silhouette playing Winston Churchill in the unfinished One Man Band (1968-71)

Welles in silhouette playing Winston Churchill in his unfinished One Man Band (1968-71)

Lazy: there is very frequently a sense of his lazy mouth, as though everything he says is obvious, yet he takes pleasure in the words dribbling in their channel through his mouth. His is not the striven-for, aggressive, punchy, muscular articulation of Jimmy Stewart. “An unweeded gahh-dn,” and it is possessed “meehh-ly.” To actually say the r is to try too hard, so there is something aristocratic, perhaps condescending about the style. Was it this provoked Hemingway so much? Welles’s Jean Valjean in his 1937 “Les Miserables” doesn’t talk this way at all, shows it as affectation. His is a deeper vocality— André Bazin suggests that Orson was encouraged, young, to make his voice “prematurely deep” (Orson Welles 5)—and is charged with his own masculine version of Californian vocal fry, thus seeming not only distinctively eroded, ruined, portentous, and artfully combative (in a way that we can hear as well in his insert into Manowar’s “Dark Avenger” track), but elevated in social status as well (see Ikuko Yuasa “Creaky Voice: A New Feminine Voice Quality for Young Urban-Oriented Upwardly Mobile American Women?,” American Speech 85: 3, 317). The voice of a prophet who has talked too much (perhaps to no avail).

By the middle of 1938 on “The Shadow,” Welles’s Lamont is climbing again, intoning like a bassoon but persisting in naming a ship the “Stahhh of Zealand” in an episode entitled “The Power of the Mind.” When you wish upon a “stahhhh,” you are high enough to be above wishing. Anglicism here, too, in the soft “u” sound of “news”: “The Shipping Nyews.” And hints of a “freighter” carrying “general cahhh-go.”

Dropping down to the common level again December 9, 1938 for “Rebecca” with Margaret Sullavan, but only for a fragmentary moment—“Yer not afraid of the fyew-chuh?”—before another ascension, “You’re cheap at ninety pounds a yee-ahhhh,” or “An empty house can be as lonely as a full hotel, the trouble is that it’s less impehhh—sonal.” Then when the play is done he tells his eager, and by now intimately proximate, listeners that the “STAR of ‘Rebecca’ is standing “beside me at the microphone”: “staRR,” and “mike-Ro-phone.”

In “The Hitchhiker,” September 2, 1942, he mentions a “licence number”: “num-beRR.” But for “The 39 Steps” on The Mercury Theater, August 1, 1938, he had gone for a breathy and plummy emphasis on vowels: “In the blue evening sky, I saw something . . .” spoken as “In the BLOO eeevning SKAH-eee.”

If it was true, as Charlton Heston reported, that “Orson has a marvelous ear for the way people talk” (James Delson “Heston on Welles: An Interview,” Focus on Orson Welles 62), he both relied and did not rely upon that ear, bringing out of himself a sound that was now from a street corner, now from a temple, now from an impossibly high aerie where experience is pure. That voice carried more in the imagination than in the atmosphere, and perhaps this is why it echoes so unendingly inside his listener’s desire.

* with thanks to Tom Dorey, Jeffrey Dvorkin, Bill Krohn, Sarah Milroy, Neil Verma


Welles in The Trial (1962).


Murray Pomerance is Professor in the Department of Sociology at Ryerson University. He is author, most recently, of Alfred Hitchcock’s America and The Eyes Have It: Cinema and the Reality Effect (Polity; Rutgers; both 2013) as well as editor of numerous volumes including Cinema and Modernity (Rutgers, 2006).  In August 2009 he appeared on Broadway in conjunction with The 39 Steps.
Featured image: modified from the opening shot of the trailer for Citizen Kane.

From Mercury to Mars is a joint six-month venture between Sounding Out! and Antenna at the University of Wisconsin. The fifteenth and final post, by radio historian Jennifer Hyland Wang, is coming on Antenna in a few weeks.

To catch up on the series, check out our preceding posts.

  • Here is “Hello Americans,” Tom McEnaney‘s post on Welles and Latin America
  • Here is Eleanor Patterson‘s post on editions of WOTW as “Residual Radio”
  • Here is “Sound Bites,” Debra Rae Cohen‘s post on Welles’s “Dracula”
  • Here is Cynthia B. Meyers on the pleasures and challenges of teaching WOTW in the classroom
  • Here is Kathleen Battles on parodies of Welles by Fred Allen
  • Here is Shawn VanCour on the second act of War of the Worlds
  • Here is the navigator page for our #WOTW75 collective listening project
  • Here is Josh Shepperd’s post, “War of the Worlds and the Invasion of Media Studies” 
  • Here is Aaron Trammell‘s remarkable mix of the thoughts of more than a dozen radio scholars on “War of the Worlds.”
  • Here is our podcast of Monteith McCollum‘s amazing WOTW remix
  • Here is “Devil’s Symphony,” Jacob Smith‘s study of the “eco-sonic” Welles.
  • Here is Michele Hilmes‘s post on the persistence and evolution of radio drama overseas after Welles.
  • Here is A Brad Schwartz on Welles’s adaptations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

From Mercury to Mars: The Shadow of the Great Detective: Orson Welles and Sherlock Holmes on the Air

WelleswTower_squareI predict that one day an obsessed fan — maybe you, dear reader — will devise a complete and thorough catalogue of all the characters that Orson Welles ever played (or claimed to have played) on radio.

It would be a colossal, almost nonsensical list, a set of clues that expose an experiment in sheer artistic ego that was nearly criminal: Hamlet, The Shadow, Fiorello La Guardia, The Count of Monte Cristo, Rochester from Jane Eyre, General Zaroff from “The Most Dangerous Game,” Dr. Corey from Donovan’s Brain, Mr. Jingle from The Pickwick Papers, Martin Arrowsmith from Sinclair Lewis’s novel, Paul Madvig from Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key … and not just Joseph Conrad’s Marlow, but his Kurtz, not just Bram Stoker’s Seward but his Dracula.

To that list, we can also add another pair: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and his Moriarty, characters that Welles had apparently found compelling since his boyhood.

This week From Mercury to Mars, our series on the radio works of Orson Welles in conjunction with Antenna, continues with an exciting piece on the connection between Welles and Holmes by a new voice among Welles scholars. SO! is delighted to welcome A. Brad Schwartz, who co-wrote the recent PBS special on the “War of the Worlds” panic, based on his research in archives at the University of Michigan. Schwartz also has a forthcoming book on the subject.

But first, as promised, a detour to Baker Street.


Perhaps lost among the many eulogies Orson Welles received after his death in 1985 was a brief nod in The Baker Street Journal—the “irregular quarterly of Sherlockiana” put out by the Baker Street Irregulars, America’s leading society dedicated to the study and appreciation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. It was through Welles’s work as a radio artist, they wrote, that “the Sherlockian world benefitted greatly from his talents” (Baker Street Journal 36, 1: 43)

A recent edition of the Baker Street Journal.

A recent edition of the Baker Street Journal.

The association worked both ways. Sherlock Holmes hovers over Welles’s radio work, popping up at key points as Welles pursued the stardom he would win with War of the Worlds. As Paul Heyer notes, Holmes’s stories bookended Welles’s remarkable career on the air, from his earliest experimentation with the medium as a student to his final radio performance in the 1950s (The Medium and the Magician 209). Even Welles’s most famous radio role before the War of the Worlds broadcast—the ethereal crime-fighter The Shadow—owed a considerable debt to the Great Detective, and to the formula Conan Doyle had pioneered. The interplay between Lamont Cranston, brilliant amateur detective, and Margot Lane, his plucky sidekick, shows clear echoes of Holmes and Watson. Those echoes were encouraged, perhaps, by the show’s first story editor, Edith Meiser, who produced a long-running and popular Sherlock Holmes radio series in the 1930s and 1940s that earned her the recognition of the Baker Street Irregulars at a time when they didn’t accept woman as members.

Welles’s radio work, apart from War of the Worlds, is too often reduced to a kind of transitional phase between his work in the theater and in film. But in this post, I want to take another approach, looking at the influence of the Holmes stories on Welles’s on-air career, thereby helping to shed light on his remarkable contributions to the medium. It was partly by learning from Conan Doyle’s example of great storytelling that Welles reshaped the rules of radio drama.

Welles’s dabbling in the gaslit world of Holmes and Watson can be traced, like so much of his later success, back to the Todd School for Boys in Woodstock, Illinois. There Welles began in earnest his experimentation with film, theater and radio under the tutelage of schoolmaster Roger Hill, and with the school’s remarkable array of resources at his command. Welles first grabbed Hill’s attention, appropriately enough, on Halloween Eve, 1926—exactly twelve years before the War of the Worlds broadcast—in the guise of Sherlock Holmes. That night, according to Barbara Leaming, Welles took center stage dressed as Holmes in a show put on by Todd students, only to toss off his deerstalker cap and Inverness cape to reveal a flowing theatrical cloak (Orson Welles: a Biography 22). Then he launched into an elaborate magic show. Welles was eleven—“a cute little round-faced boy,” as Hill’s wife, Hortense, later described him—but his undeniable panache immediately registered with Hill. Indeed, that was the idea; Welles, already an inveterate seducer of adults, had set out to catch Hill’s eye, having sensed upon his arrival at this somewhat stuffy school that this youthful, energetic teacher was someone he could get along with.

Recognizing Welles’s potential, Hill would let the student essentially take over Todd’s drama department and turn it into his own repertory company. It was a major opportunity for Welles to stretch his creative muscles, and Hill gave invaluable shape and direction to Welles’s exploration. The school even had its own radio station, for which Welles wrote and performed his first radio dramas. The very first was a Sherlock Holmes adaptation written in about 1928, when Welles was thirteen. This show was apparently never produced, but it marks his first foray into the medium that would make him famous.

It’s not surprising that Welles’s first radio drama would be a work of fan fiction, and he could not have picked a better example of the craft of storytelling. Much of the pleasure of reading the Holmes stories comes from their first-person perspective. Dr. Watson is a magnificent storyteller, painting an affectionate if complex portrait of his friendship with Sherlock Holmes, and through him Conan Doyle establishes a genuine rapport with the reader. “[O]ne cannot imagine feeling gauche or ill at ease in Watson’s presence,” wrote the poet (and brilliant radio writer) Stephen Vincent Benét, in a paean to Holmes’s faithful companion, “the very thought of him is as stodgy and comfortable as a Morris chair” (“Dr. Watson” 154).

When, in 1938, Welles debuted his own radio series on CBS, The Mercury Theatre on the Air, it was similarly based around the power and intimacy of the first-person narrator. Its original title, First Person Singular, reflected Welles’s belief that radio was fundamentally a narrative, and not a dramatic, form, which worked best when the protagonist engaged directly with the audience. As Welles explained it to The New York Times: “When a fellow leans back in his chair and begins: ‘Now, this is how it happened’– the listener feels that the narrator is taking him into his confidence; he begins to take a personal interest in the outcome.”

That sense of intimacy between narrator and audience is a major part of what makes the Holmes stories work; readers come to trust Watson even when perhaps they shouldn’t. As author Max Allan Collins explains it, “Watson is not merely a reporter, but the human filter through whom the sometimes outlandish plots are made to seem more plausible.” (The History of Mystery 27). That he still exists in the minds of many fans not as a fictional character, but as a real person, is a testament to this effect, and Welles recognized its power when combined with that most intimate of media: radio.

Indeed, it wasn’t long before the Mercury Theatre found its way, in Welles’s words, “back to Baker Street,” with an episode entitled simply Sherlock Holmes on September 25, 1938. Rather than directly dramatizing any of the Conan Doyle stories, Welles instead adapted William Gillette’s 1899 play based on them. Welles had just come off of a spectacular failure in bringing another of Gillette’s plays, the ribald farce Too Much Johnson, to the stage, complete with filmed sequences that proved unique but impractical. These segments, Welles’s first professional film, were only recently rediscovered.

William Gillette as Sherlock Holmes

William Gillette as Sherlock Holmes

At the time of the Mercury broadcast, Gillette’s Sherlock Holmes was still the most popular and well-known adaptation of Conan Doyle’s stories. Gillette himself so resembled the detective, both physically and temperamentally, that he effectively became the character in the public mind. The lasting image we have of Holmes, as a willowy man in a deerstalker cap and Inverness cape, with a drop-stem pipe under his aquiline nose—the costume Welles wore that night in the Todd School in 1926—comes from Gillette, not Conan Doyle. “It is too little to say that William Gillette resembled Sherlock Holmes,” Welles said at the top of this broadcast. “Sherlock Holmes looks exactly like William Gillette.”

However, because it is a drama and not a narrative, the Gillette play lacks one key component of the Holmes formula: Dr. Watson’s narration. And so Welles, at the outset of his broadcast, had his Watson (Ray Collins) introduce himself to the audience and bring them into the story:

The monologue, like Welles’s introduction, is studded with Sherlockian references, some of them slightly obscure, suggesting its author had a real regard and affection for these stories. The authorship of the Mercury radio plays has always been contentious—this was before Howard Koch joined the staff, so Holmes was likely a collaboration between Welles and his producer, John Houseman—but one thing is clear: the addition of Watson’s monologue to Gillette’s drama is Welles’s theory of the “first person singular” at work.

If there’s one wrong note in the show, it’s the lead actor. Welles as Holmes sounds bored and effete, with the affected accent of a young man desperate to hide the fact that he’s from Wisconsin. Because Welles’s Sherlock lives in the upper register of his voice, he cannot use the full basso profundo power of his instrument, and so comes off sounding airy, disinterested and inauthentic. This is the voice of the foppish playboy Lamont Cranston, not the manic detective Sherlock Holmes. Compare, for example, a clip from the Mercury broadcast with Gillette playing the same scene two years before. Even at the age of eighty-two, and just one year before his death, Gillette’s Holmes has more verve than the twenty-three-year-old Welles’s:

Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls, an 1893 illustration by Sidney Paget in Strand Magazine.

It would be fourteen years before Welles returned to Baker Street on the radio, but when he did it was in the perfect Sherlockian role for his remarkable voice—not the detective himself, but his nemesis: Professor Moriarty. Welles apparently liked to play opposing characters; in the first Mercury broadcast, he’d performed as both Count Dracula and Dr. Seward, and played both Marlow and Kurtz in his adaptation of Heart of Darkness. But as an actor, particularly on the radio, Welles was more convincing in sinister roles than in heroic ones, partly because of his deep voice, and partly because playing a villain allowed him to cloak himself comfortably in melodrama. Even his radio heroes, like The Shadow and Harry Lime, have more than a touch of menace about them. When it came to playing Holmes and Moriarty, it should be no surprise that he did better as the latter than as the former.

By 1952, Welles was in England, working with producer Harry Alan Towers on a couple of radio series, including one based on his character from The Third Man (1949). Towers wanted Welles for the lead in a Sherlock Holmes series he was producing for the BBC, but Welles, struggling to complete his film of Othello (1952), was too busy. All Welles could manage was a guest slot as Moriarty in the last episode: an adaptation of the Conan Doyle story “The Final Problem,” in which the author famously tried (and failed) to kill off his detective.

Opposite John Gielgud as Holmes and Ralph Richardson as Watson, Welles gives one of his best performances as a radio actor, fully exploiting the lower register of his voice to imbue his Moriarty with just the right amount of menace. His interplay with Gielgud is fast-paced and witty, easily establishing that these are two characters of equally phenomenal intelligence, but also painfully polite. The ambivalent tone of Welles and Gielgud’s banter makes clear that their Holmes and Moriarty regard each other very highly, and are almost sorry to be stuck on a collision course.

John Gielgud as King Henry IV in Orson Welles's Chimes at Midnight (1966)

John Gielgud as King Henry IV in Orson Welles’s Chimes at Midnight (1966)

Both the Mercury and the BBC shows both contain a nearly identical scene in 221b Baker Street, drawn directly from Doyle’s story, in which Holmes and Moriarty, each fingering a pistol in his pocket, have a polite conversation and decide that they can’t go on long without killing each other. It’s loaded with tension and is one of the best scenes Doyle ever wrote, but it falls flat in the Mercury broadcast. Not only is Welles miscast as Holmes, his Moriarty (Eustace Wyatt) crosses too easily into the realm of a snarling Saturday matinee villain.

By contrast, Welles and Gielgud read their lines with a fair amount of humor, but their performances retain a high level of dramatic intensity. Their restraint makes the scene much more dramatic, and their chemistry, at least in these roles, is much stronger than Welles and Wyatt in the Mercury version.

Sherlock Holmes survived the fight at the Reichenbach Falls, of course; Professor Moriarty did not. Likewise, “The Final Problem” marked Orson Welles’s last appearance in a radio drama. It was a fitting end not just for Moriarty but for the radio career of an actor and director who had done so much for the medium, and who owed at least some of his success to fiction’s greatest detective: Sherlock Holmes.

Orson Welles as Cagliostro in Black Magic (1949)

Orson Welles as Cagliostro in Black Magic (1949)


A. Brad Schwartz co-wrote an episode of the award-winning PBS series American Experience on the War of the Worlds broadcast, based in part on research from his senior thesis at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He is currently writing a book on Welles and War of the Worlds for Farrar, Straus & Giroux, to be published in 2015.


From Mercury to Mars is winding down it’s long career on Sounding Out! Stay tuned for a few new posts from Antenna, as well as a special post  by renowned film scholar Murray Pomerance on this site in the coming weeks to wrap things up.

New to the series? Check out some of the many places we’ve visited while chasing down radio’s greatest magician.

  • Here is “Hello Americans,” Tom McEnaney‘s post on Welles and Latin America
  • Here is Eleanor Patterson‘s post on editions of WOTW as “Residual Radio”
  • Here is “Sound Bites,” Debra Rae Cohen‘s post on Welles’s “Dracula”
  • Here is Cynthia B. Meyers on the pleasures and challenges of teaching WOTW in the classroom
  • Here is Kathleen Battles on parodies of Welles by Fred Allen
  • Here is Shawn VanCour on the second act of War of the Worlds
  • Here is the navigator page for our #WOTW75 collective listening project
  • Here is Josh Shepperd’s post, “War of the Worlds and the Invasion of Media Studies” 
  • Here is Aaron Trammell‘s remarkable mix of the thoughts of more than a dozen radio scholars on “War of the Worlds.”
  • Here is our podcast of Monteith McCollum‘s amazing WOTW remix
  • Here is “Devil’s Symphony,” Jacob Smith‘s study of the “eco-sonic” Welles.
  • Here is Michele Hilmes‘s post on the persistence and evolution of radio drama overseas after Welles.

Me? Why I’m your host, Neil Verma.

From Mercury to Mars: The Legacy of War of the Worlds: What Happened Here? from Antenna


Our ongoing series on the radio work of Orson Welles, From Mercury to Mars, continues this week on our partner blog Antenna with a post that explores the lack of innovation in American radio and its connection to public radio as an institution.

University of Wisconsin professor and senior radio historian Michele Hilmes explains these connections…

“Yet what happened to this legacy of innovation in American radio drama that Welles’
cbs-radio-mystery-theatercareer so emphatically marks?  We can trace the tradition of creative radio drama forward through the suspense serials of the 1940s and 50s, jump to the 1970s with Himan Brown’s CBS Mystery Theater – and then virtually nothing, certainly not on a regular basis, until we get to the present radio revival …”

[Reblogged from Antenna]

To catch up on our M2M series here are some links.

  • Here is “Hello Americans,” Tom McEnaney‘s post on Welles and Latin America
  • Here is Eleanor Patterson‘s post on editions of WOTW as “Residual Radio”
  • Here is “Sound Bites,” Debra Rae Cohen‘s post on Welles’s “Dracula”
  • Here is Cynthia B. Meyers on the pleasures and challenges of teaching WOTW in the classroom
  • Here is Kathleen Battles on parodies of Welles by Fred Allen
  • Here is Shawn VanCour on the second act of War of the Worlds
  • Here is the navigator page for our #WOTW75 collective listening project
  • Here is Josh Shepperd’s post, “War of the Worlds and the Invasion of Media Studies” 
  • Here is Aaron Trammell‘s remarkable mix of the thoughts of more than a dozen radio scholars on War of the Worlds
  • Here is our podcast of Monteith McCollum‘s amazing WOTW remix
  • Here is “Devil’s Symphony,” Jacob Smith‘s study of the “eco-sonic” Welles

Still to come in our series are works by A. Brad Schwartz, Murray Pomerance, Jennifer Hyland Wang, and Bill Kirkpatrick.

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