One of the legends of radio drama (or possibly the only legend of radio drama) is Orson Welles's notorious production of The War of the Worlds, which supposedly convinced listeners that the US was actually experiencing a Martian invasion.
Another of Welles's radio pieces has resurfaced, thanks to audio drama podcasters The Sonic Society. Subscribe to The Sonic Society, download the latest episode entitled "Shadowlands", wander along to around 12:30, and you'll find Orson Welles presenting, starring in, and talking about, his radio version of Mutiny on the Bounty. It's a reminder that, once upon a time, drama was all over the radio in the States, with distinguished theatrical types lending their talents to a very popular form.
Hindsight creates some odd distancing effects when listening to archive broadcasts. In this case, the three verbose ads for Campbell's chicken soup seem bizarre and even surreal, given the flash-forward mental imagery of Warhol's appropriation of Campbell's cans. And although Welles doesn't voice the ads, it's hard not to imagine him standing by, with no inkling of his own future role flogging sherry on the telly.
The play is presented in a style that mixes courtroom statements with dramatised scenes. This makes for a lot of framing, creating an effect a little like a pageant. Welles, as Captain Bligh, rages marvellously at the milder and deeper Fletcher Christian, played by Joseph Cotton. The other characters have lesser roles, and Christian's Tahitian lover is predictably presented as a childlike "native".
The surprise of the production is the coda where Welles conducts a scripted interview with an amateur radio enthusiast from Queens. After a tortuous introduction built around a pun on "ham", Welles and the lady from Queens explain that Fletcher Christian's descendants on Pitcairn Island are suffering from lack of food and medical supplies, and urgently need help. This sudden shift from the historical to the contemporary, and the involvement of a non-professional in the broadcast, would be unlikely on radio today, where genre boundaries are rather strictly obeyed. Welles's gambit moved to TV, where connections of this kind are now common.
I was left pondering what it means to be cast adrift - two hundred years ago, fifty years ago, or today. The Pitcairn Islanders resurface in the international news every so often: abandonment is inevitably their leitmotif (even though it was Bligh who was cast adrift, not Christian). But the weird psychology of Captain Bligh remains less easy to stereotype, or to explain. Welles maintains the mystery of the man while successfully recreating the sense of the random terror of his reign aboard the Bounty.