Welcome back to our continuing series on Orson Welles and his career in radio, prompted by the upcoming 75th anniversary of his 1938 Invasion from Mars episode and the Mercury Theater series that produced it. To help us hear Welles’s rich radio plays in new and more complicated ways, our series brings recent sound studies thought to bear on the puzzle of Mercury‘s audiocraft.
From Mercury to Mars is a joint venture with the Antenna media blog at the University of Wisconsin, and will continue into the new year. If you missed them, check out the first installment on SO! (Tom McEnaney on Welles and Latin America) and the second on Antenna (Nora Patterson on “War of the Worlds” as residual radio).
This week, Sounding Out! sinks its teeth into Orson Welles’s “Dracula,” the first in the Mercury series, and perhaps the play that solicits more “close listening” than any other—back in 1938, Variety yawned at Welles’s attempt at “Art with a capital A” and dismissed his “Dracula” as “a confused and confusing jumble of frequently inaudible and unintelligible voices and a welter of sound effects.” Here’s the full play, listen for yourself:
It’s a good thing that our guide is University of South Carolina Associate Professor and SO! newcomer Debra Rae Cohen. Cohen is a former rock critic, an editor of the essential text on radio modernism, and has also recently written a fascinating essay on the BBC publication The Listener, among other distinguished critical works on modernism. Below you’ll find the most detailed close reading of Welles’s “Dracula” (and of Welles as himself a kind of Dracula) ever done.
Didn’t even know Welles ever played Count Dracula? That’s just the first of many surprises you’ll discover thanks to Debra Rae’s keen listening.
So (to borrow a phrase), enter freely and of your own will, dear reader, and leave something of the happiness you bring. – nv
It’s one of the best-known anecdotes of the Mercury Theater: Orson Welles bursts into the apartment where producer John Houseman is holed up cut-and-pasting a script for Treasure Island, the planned debut production, and announces, only a week before airing, that Dracula will take its place. At a time when Lilith’s blood-drenched handmaidens on the current season of True Blood serve as an analogue for our own cultural oversaturation with vampires, it’s worth recalling why, in 1938, this substitution might have been more than merely the indulgence of Welles’s penchant for what Paul Heyer calls “gnomic unpredictability” (The Medium and the Magician, 52).
In fact, 1938 was a good year for vampire ballyhoo; Tod Browning’s 1931 Dracula film had been rereleased only a month before to a new flurry of Bela Lugosi press. Welles’s last-minute switch was a savvy one, allowing him to capitalize on the publicity generated by the continuing popularity of the film (and the popular Hamilton Deane and John Balderston stage adaptation from which it largely drew), while publicly disdaining its vulgarity in favor of what he seemed peculiarly to consider the high-culture status of Stoker’s original novel. Here he is defending the book:
But more importantly, Welles’s production reclaimed and exploited the novel’s own media-consciousness, a feature occluded in the play and film versions, and one to which the adaptation into radio adds, as it were, additional bite. Dracula introduced several of the radio innovations we’ve come to associate with the Mercury Theater (and The War of the Worlds in particular)—first-person retrospective narration, temporal coding, the strategic use of media reflexivity—but Stoker’s novel may have made such innovations both alluring and inevitable.
Stoker’s Dracula is made up of a patchwork of documents—shorthand diaries, transcribed dictation cylinders, newspaper clippings—that do not simply serve as a legitimizing frame, as in Frankenstein. Instead, they are deeply self-referential, obsessively chronicling the very processes of inscription and translation between media by which the novel is built. Confronted with the terrible threat of Dracula free to prey on London’s “teeming millions,” Mina Harker vows thus: “There may be a solemn duty, and if it come we must not shrink from it. …I shall get my typewriter this very hour and begin transcribing.” Processes of ordering information serve, as critics since Friedrich Kittler have noted (see for example here, here, and especially here), as the way to combat the symbolic threat of vampirism that, as Jennifer Wicke argues, stands in for “the uncanny procedures of modern life,” and a threat that may have already colonized intimate spaces of the text itself (“Vampiric Typewriting,” 473).
That threat, in the novel, sounds oddly like . . . radio. Seeping intangibly through the cracks of door frames, invading domestic spaces, riding through the ether “as elemental dust,” materializing abruptly in intimate settings, communicating across land and sea while rendering his receiver passively malleable, Stoker’s Dracula is terrifying by virtue of his insidious ubiquity, a kind of broadcast technology avant la lettre.
In adapting Dracula for radio, then, Welles could play on the deep division in the novel between the ordered forces of inscription and the Count’s occult, uncanny transmissive force in order to exploit the anxieties connected with the medium itself. Even the double role Welles plays in the production—both Dracula and the doctor Arthur Seward—functions in this regard as more than bravura.
Seward’s primary role in the drama as compère, or advocate, threads together Dracula’s multiple documentary “narration,” through what became the familiar Mercury device of retrospect-turned-enactment. As Seward, Welles performs an argumentative and editorial function that’s nowhere in Stoker’s novel, where the various documents make up a file that is explicitly uncommunicated, because unbelievable, for a case no longer necessary to make. Shuffling the various documents that make up the “case,” Seward stands outside of definite place, but also outside of time, animating “the extraordinary events of the year 1891” by directly addressing an audience of a medium that does not yet exist. Here is part of Seward’s address:
Seward is our first “First Person Singular,” and yet his persona is unsettlingly thin. Though his voice at the outset is strong and urgent, it feels bland compared with the dense goulash of “Transylvanian” effects that competes for our attention through the first ten minutes of the production—hoofbeats, thunder, wolf howls, whinnies, the sound of a coach seemingly about to clatter to bits, the singsong of prayers muttered, perhaps, in some exotic foreign tongue. The “documents” on which Seward’s claim to the trust of the audience rides are overwhelmed by the sound that saturates them. Here is the scene:
It’s not until nearly 20 minutes into the production that Seward reveals his own connection with the story—as the lover of Lucy Westenra—and from this moment forward Welles allows Seward’s authority in the “present” to be eroded by his bland inefficacy in the scenes of the “past.” By Act II, he has ceded authority by telegraph to Dr. Van Helsing (Martin Gabel, in a brilliantly crafted performance):
Without the didactic authority of Van Helsing and with small claim on audience sympathy, Seward becomes, through the second half of the production, a strangely insecure advocate, whose claim on authentic first person experience often disrupts, rather than augments, his role as presenter.
The listener does not consistently “follow” Seward either narratively or sonically—indeed, he is often displaced to the sonic periphery by Dr. Van Helsing. In the final confrontation with Dracula, Seward is explicitly shooed to the outer margins of the soundscape to pray.
Here the technical exigencies of Welles’s double role support a subtext that his unmistakable voice has already suggested: that Seward is here the “other” to Dracula (as, later, his Kurtz would be to his Marlow), waning as he waxes. As Lucy is weakened through Dracula’s occult ministrations, so too is Seward sapped of vitality, his romantic passages voiced as strangely bloodless, while Dracula’s wring from Lucy an orgasmic sonic response. Penetrating the intimate chamber Seward ineffectively desires to protect, Dracula replaces him as the production’s central sonic presence—who even when silent, possesses the sonic space.
Contrast Seward’s feeble voice during his night-time vigil here,
to Dracula’s seductive visit here,
Welles needed to distinguish his Dracula from Lugosi’s, employing, rather than an accent, a kind of sonorous unplaced otherness. But his performance shares the ponderous spacing of syllables that, in Lugosi’s case, derived from phonetic memorization of his English script; in other words, Welles is “recognizable” as Dracula without “playing” him. As an analogue to Lugosi’s glacial movement, Dracula’s voice is here surrounded by depths of silence in an otherwise effect-busy soundscape.
From the beginning, Dracula is also sonically on top of the listener, uncomfortably intimate, as in this scene of a close shave:
And although Dracula’s voice is not heard for a full thirteen minutes after Lucy’s death, it nevertheless seems to inhabit all available silences, until he quietly seeps through the door frame of Mina Harker’s bedroom:
The closely-miked phrase “blood of my blood” is reprised throughout the second half of the production—it is repeated seven times, by both Dracula and Mina (Agnes Moorhead), though it occurs only once in the novel—underscoring the ineffable aurality of Dracula’s “transmission.” The line doesn’t present as meaning, but as a tidal echo, the pulse of a carrier wave. While it signals an action unrepresentable to the ear—Dracula’s literal bite or its resonances of memory and desire—it also functions as a “signal” in the sense that Verma describes, as a repetitive element that compels listenership like an incantation (Theater of the Mind, 106). This is the power against which the “documents” are marshaled, the power of “pure” radio—ironically the very power that allows them to be shared. And the hypnotic thrum of radio rips them to shreds.
Indeed, the closing minutes of the drama present the vampire hunters, the novel’s forces of inscription, as an array of anxious noises marshaled against this lurking silence. The frenzied pacing of the final chase back to Transylvania—an element of Stoker’s novel that both plays and film sacrificed—gathers momentum through ever-shorter “diary entries” delivered, breathlessly, over the sound effects of transport:
Welles exploits the familiarity of his audience with a mechanism that Kathleen Battles calls a “radio dragnet”; the forces of order deploy the ubiquity of radio itself to shore up social cohesion, enlisting the audience within their ranks (Calling all Cars, 149). But here that very process is, simultaneously, unsettled and undermined by the identification of Dracula himself with invisible transmission. As Van Helsing repeatedly hypnotizes Mina to tap in on her communion with Dracula—radio, in a sense, deploying radio—the listener is aware of being both eavesdropper and the sharer of rapport, a position that implicates her in Mina’s enthrallment. Here is part of the sequence:
This identification intensifies in the climactic sequence, completely original to Welles’s adaptation, in which Dracula, at bay before his enemies, weakened by sunlight, calls upon the elements of his undead network:
This tour-de-force moment for Welles is also the point when radio shatters the documentary frame and undermines its logic. Though Mina hears Dracula, the others do not, and as Van Helsing’s “testimony” attests, even she does not remember it. This communication can’t, then, be part of Seward’s “evidence.” Rather, it is the radio listener—Dracula’s real prey—who who has received Dracula’s transmission, who has heard across time and space what no one else present can hear: “You must speak for me, you must speak with my heart.”
Although Mina refuses this rapport by staking Dracula at the last possible second—or does she refuse it? Is this not perhaps the Count’s secret wish?—the effect of the uncanny communion persists beyond Seward’s summation, beyond Van Helsing’s subsequent account of Dracula’s end. It renders almost unnecessary Welles’s famous playful post-credits epilogue, in which he abruptly adopts Dracula’s tones to tell us that, “There are wolves. There are vampires”:
But with the hypnotic reach of radio at your disposal, who needs them?
Debra Rae Cohen is an Associate Professor of English at the University of South Carolina. She spent several years as a rock & roll critic before returning to academe. Her current scholarship, including her co-edited volume Broadcasting Modernism (University Press of Florida, 2009, paperback 2013) focuses on the relations between radio and modernist print cultures; she’s now working on a book entitled “Sonic Citizenship: Intermedial Poetics and the BBC.”
REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:
“Radio’s ‘Oblong Blur’: Notes on the Corwinesque“– Neil Verma
PercussiveThoughts is giving me a facial. The voice tells me about the “little scrubbies” in the exfoliant, and I begin to hear their delicate sibilance on my temples. If I’m lucky, a pleasurable, tingling sensation might begin somewhere on the back of my head and travel down my spine, turning my facial into something closer to a massage. The sole caveat is that I’m not really being touched at all.
This is ASMR, “Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response,” a pseudo-medical designation whose native soil is YouTube. The term pulls together a range of physiological and affective states: goosebumps, chills, relaxation, melting, tingles, and so forth. PercussiveThoughts and her fellow vloggers (I call them “Whisperers” here and explain why below) aim to trigger these frissons through a cornucopia of techniques. Sound is paramount; Whisperers scratch rough surfaces with their fingernails and percuss everyday objects with fingertip drum-rolls. And, of course, they whisper, sometimes using lozenges or gum to increase the opportunities for swallowing and lip-smacking.
What’s interesting about these videos is how they manage to traverse the gap between the sonic and the haptic. There is, of course, something familiar about this leap. Like the magician’s hat that produces rabbits and endless handkerchiefs, an audio speaker produces a volume and variety of sound out of proportion with its small, blank visage. In the case of Whispering, however, sound is transduced into touch, and the taut membranes of the listener’s headphones become coterminous with his own skin.
Apart from Steven Novella’s suggestion that ASMR might be a mild form of seizure, it does not yet appear to be a subject of scientific research. So Whisperers have taken on the role of amateur scientists themselves, with YouTube serving as a public petri dish. For this very reason, Novella has also cautioned against the assumption that ASMR is a real physiological phenomenon at all, since feedback loops of suggestion on the Internet might create “the cultural equivalent of pareidolia.”
Whisperers, however, have no doubts. And while the ASMR acronym is a recent development, many Whisperers say their first encounters with the phenomenon occurred sometime before their first exposure to the Internet and often before adulthood: during make-believe tea parties, while watching their classmates draw or braid each other’s hair, and, perhaps most commonly, while watching The Joy of Painting with Bob Ross.
The audience for Whispering is anyone who can have this experience, which apparently isn’t everyone. Contrary to the soporific themes of their videos, Whisperers and their fans identify themselves as having awakened to a special form of pleasure. Some have even made videos recounting their first experiences. The downside of this ability is the anxiety about its social acceptance. Whisperers sometimes opt for anonymity in their videos, revealing their faces only after much encouragement from fans. Rarely do they they let their family and friends in on the secret.
That this familiar, tingly feeling has assumed a pseudo-medical acronym is hardly coincidental. ASMR isn’t just pleasurable, it’s therapeutic. Hundreds of YouTube comments attest to the power of ASMR to help relieve them of insomnia, anxiety, and panic attacks. Nor has this dimension been overlooked by Whisperers themselves, who regularly perform as doctors or therapists in their roleplay videos. This is particularly interesting in light of recent scholarship on human/machine interactions. In Addiction By Design, Natasha Schüll shows how therapy for video-poker addiction can take the same format as the gambling itself, namely, “ongoing technological self-modulation to maintain equilibrium” (250).
Homemade Whisper videos, while habit-forming, are clearly not the sort of intricately-engineered machines that Schüll writes about. Nor do they wreack the same sort of havoc (depletion of one’s life-savings, deterioration of one’s physical health, etc.). And yet, both are arranged in problematic feedback loops of self-medication. The slow-paced, low-volume respite that Whisper videos offer is made all the more necessary by the fact that viewers must go online to watch them. This paradox is amplified by YouTube’s advertisements, which will sound especially abrasive because viewers tend to turn the volume up while listening to Whisper videos. That some of the more popular Whisperers earn money from their videos only complicates things further.
“No, we don’t get as many men here as women,” PercussiveThoughts says, as though responding to a question from me. Of course, I wouldn’t be so rude as to contradict her – I know better. To judge from the comments below, she gets plenty of male visitors. And her colleague ASMR Velous confided during an interview that around 70 percent of her viewers are men. For this reason, some Whisperers have made gender–neutral or male-oriented videos.
Gender is a major, and sometimes contentious, topic of discussion in the Whisper Community. In the YouWhisper web forum, the discussion topic “Gender Preference?,” has the greatest number of views (more than 170,000). In general, female Whisperers are more popular than their male counterparts. The three most popular male Whisperers that I could find–WhisperMister1, MaleSoothe, and TheLyricalWhispers–each have fewer than 5,000 subscribers and their per-video view-counts tend to peak around ten or twenty thousand.
Not long ago, GentleWhispering, one of the better-known names in the Whisper community, set off a series of heated back-and-forths with her ~FeminineGrace & Charmforsleep~ video. In it, she discusses universal traits of femininity while brushing her hair absent-mindedly. Whatever one might think of her opinions, the fact that GentleWhispering’s viewership dwarfs all other Whisperers to date suggests that something in her technique is working. My guess is that it has a great deal to do with her hands.
While giving Russian language lessons on a chalkboard, she points to a word with her middle, ring, and pinkie fingers while keeping the chalk poised delicately between her thumb and index finger. When she is about to touch the fabric of an armchair, her fingers arch back–rather than claw forward–as though to ensure that the contact is as light as possible. And, like so many other Whisperers, she takes any opportunity to tap hard objects with her well-kept fingernails.
The “femininity” of GentleWhispering’s hands is the performance of a soothing, caring touch, and her whispering voice is the transubstantiation of this touch through sound. Sometimes, she even short-circuits the analogy by massaging the microphone directly.
But even the performance of gendered touching does not quite explain how these sounds and images manage to reach through the speaker and screen. After a second glance at these videos, we might wonder if the preponderance of partial objects has something to do with it.
I’m talking about all of those disembodied hands stroking opposite hands or displaying objects detached from their collections. Often, for the sake of anonymity, the Whisperer’s eyes are kept out of frame, leaving only an expressive mouth, like CalmingEscape’s, with its signature tics and swallows. If even the mouth is too revealing, the camera gazes down at covered breasts, ”objects,” in a Freudian panoply of sexual cathexis (is it a coincidence that some Whisperers even roleplay as the viewer’s doting mother?). One has to wonder what effect is achieved by this strange summation of partials.
In spite of widespread insistence that these videos are not sexual, the comparison with sexual fetish is too obvious not to make. Sticking with Freud for a moment, the hyper-presence of the Whisperer would seem to disavow the separation implicit in internet communication. Her mouth speaks individually into each of the listener’s ears while also hovering on screen. Her hands animate dead objects through rappings and close-ups. In her omnipotence, she can even tell us what to do.
Fetish or not, the word “whisper” is a perfect synecdoche for this fragmentary whole, and that’s why I’ve used it instead of ASMR. A whisper is, by definition, “unvoiced.” The cheeks, mouth, teeth, and tongue accomplish the acoustic filtering that gives words their shapes, but the larynx produces noise rather than tones. Lacking pitch, a whisper might be called only a “part of speech.” And yet it speaks volumes by shifting the register of communication. Whatever is said in a whisper gains the aura of genuineness, honesty, and intimacy.
Of course, in a YouTube video, these qualities are suspect from the moment one clicks the play button. But perhaps this is what makes Whispering work. One hears in these videos, above all, the effort of performance. It is the performance of gender, as discussed above, but more generally the performance of interaction, intimacy, and proximity. What every Whisper video whispers is “Let’s pretend!” And nothing proves this better than the fact
that some popular Whisper videos contain rather unpleasant sounds. Consider TheWhiteRabbitASMR’s dentist appointment video. If one is willing to grit one’s teeth through the long sections of abrasive drilling, it’s because she so adeptly crafts the intimate space of fantasy in which it takes places.
The pleasure of pretending was made clear to me when ASMR Velous recounted her childhood tactic for inducing ASMR. “I would constantly trick people into pretending to do things. I had this little play kitchen set, and I would cook up imaginary food for people and make them pretend-eat it really slowly and make those eating sounds like [chewing sounds], and I would just sit there and be all tingly. And I just loved it….I made up this game with my friends, where we would basically mime a profession and the other person would have to guess the profession you were miming. That was another way for me to trick my friends into pretending to do stuff.”
PercussiveThoughts is wrapping things up. “That completes your facial… So you can sit up. Well, thank you. Thank you so much. I’m really glad you enjoyed it.”
I did enjoy it! But thank goodness it’s not really over; I can just hit the reload button. No matter how many times I do, I know that my pores won’t be any cleaner when I look in the mirror. But that’s not the point. Rather, Whisper fans take pleasure in the intimacy and complicity of pretending. That complicity applies even to the skin of the listener, a surface as vibrant as the skin of the speaker.