Friday, August 2, 2013

The Mercury Theater's 1938 Dracula

I had fairly high hopes for the Mercury Theater of the Air’s 1938 Dracula, preceding their famous adaptation of War of the Worlds by a matter of months.  However, it was their first adaptation in this style, and though the anecdotes about it being hashed out by Houseman and Welles in an all-night diner over steak and cognac is amusing, that doesn’t make it more than a middling effort.  Of the three full-length straight adaptations of Dracula I’ve heard (the 1998 seven-hour BBC one and the svelte two-hour BBC one from 2012), it easily drifted to the bottom (even parts of Sherlock Holmes vs Dracula had it soundly beaten).  The question is, why?  Why did Houseman and Welles fundamentally misunderstand or wilfully misrepresent the book?  With the 1931 Dracula in people’s minds, perhaps Houseman and Welles’ attempts to take it “back to the book” was more in reaction to the film?

The major problem with Dracula à la Houseman and Welles is that it excises the sexual heart of the story.  I can only wonder why?  Was it to make Jonathan Harker look more manly?  The adaptation spends a great deal of time and effort on getting Jonathan to the castle (kudos, though, for depicting the scene as Dracula, in disguise as the coachman, drives Jonathan down the Borgo Pass with the wolves following them on both sides) and then letting him sit their impotently but merely at the risk of death and abandonment, not to the loss of his immortal soul via the sins the of the flesh.  There are, regrettably, no Brides.  But the real travesty, which is difficult to justify, is the fact that Mina Harker doesn’t show up until about twenty minutes into the drama!  It’s all very well excising characters like Arthur, Lord Godalming, Quincey Morris, and Renfield, all of whom are absent from this version, but neutering Mina’s power is cringe-worthy.  

One could argue that the downgrading of hers and Lucy’s roles—Lucy barely has a staking scene, much less much a life—at least allows them to bow out gracefully instead of being made fun of, as Stoker sometimes seems to do, unintentionally (Mina being described over and over by characters as an angel, Lucy being penalized for wanting to marry three men).  However, I don’t buy it—Rebecca ‘s adaptation understood the female characters in Dracula, perhaps for the first time, so it can be done, and with limited time resources, too.   Dracula himself is in general less voluble than some later adaptations make him, which is in some senses preferable, though he does go on about “blood of my blood, flesh of my flesh” in a suitably Welles-ian seductive way (Edward Cullen could take a page out of the Welles-Dracula book).  There are no Brides to say that Dracula could never feel love, ergo in this case there is some justification for a romantic interpretation à la Bram Stoker’s Dracula.  

Granted, it’s a bit like kicking a man when he’s down to apply standards of the 1990s and 2000s to one of American radio’s earlier attempts at unsponsored, serious dramatic adaptation work, but there’s the tantalizing glimpse of how bloody good the Mercury Theatre on the Air could be with War of the Worlds.  This is, of course, also live radio.  As such, I found the sound quality remarkably poor in some sections and had to imagine what was being said rather than actually hear it.  A sound effect at which this adaptation excelled were wolves howling, which sounded much more organic than the wolves from the 1998 BBC adaptation (I’m not sure how they managed that in studio!).  However, there were not a huge amount of sound effects used (for obvious reasons), and narrative rather than dramatized scenes was the norm for conveying action.  

The last fifteen minutes, easily the most gripping, diverged rather wildly from the book.  Although Mina was tempted by Dracula, the Brides were obviously not there so Van Helsing didn’t have to destroy them; there was no holy circle in the snow; Mina didn’t even have the holy wafer burned onto her forehead.  Dracula was more betrayed by human error than anything else; in the pursuit, his servants dropped his coffin on the rocks, which split open.  The sun was going down so he was trapped.  The one good thing you could say about it was that Mina struck the killing blow, surprising the others who thought she was going to let Dracula transform and escape.

Welles played both Seward and Dracula.  Seward held everything together, assembling the evidence in an homage to the book (though no longer being a doctor at an asylum, he was altogether less troubled than in the book).  Welles’ Dracula was quite good.  Furthermore, in yet another taste of what was to come, Welles addressed the listener at the end to ask him or her to send in their favorite stories, presumably so they could be adapted.  Would the BBC ever do that?!  Finally, he left the listener with a troubled suspicion that something was lurking in the dark, and a wolf was howling at the door . . .

Monday, July 22, 2013

I Wanted to Be Usefrul

I Wanted to Be Useful was written by Thomas Oléron Evans and is my first experience with UCLU’s Radio Drama-making.  It’s the seemingly simple story of Garry Martins (Rob Beale), killed in a car accident on 16 February 2012, and taken to the corporate, bureaucratic headquarters of (St.) Peter (Stuart Moss) in some (simulation of?) the bucolic English countryside.  Like many of those who have found themselves knocking at Heaven’s door, Garry is being taken to account for his life.  Did he live it with some spark of genius that qualifies him for ascending to Heaven?  What does he need to say to convince the rather smarmy and quota-obsessed Peter that “being useful” is enough toward the criteria of having lived a good life?  It’s an enjoyable and thought-provoking piece.  

Red, Granny, and Wolfowitz

I’ve decided recently that anything from Misfits Audio is bound to be good.  Distorted Fables:  Red, Granny, and Wolfowitz is another example of their creativity and wiliness to experiment.  Like all of the Distorted Fables, Red, Granny and Wolfowitz is engaged in breaking the fourth wall and in offering very funny reworkings of classic fairy tales.  “Little Red Riding Hood” is forced through the meat-grinder of the Dragnet-like cop show, though everyone involved is rather incompetent.  There’s Metcalf Mahoney, the photographer, and deadpan Detective Mac Adams, investigating a disturbance in the house of Red’s grandmother.  Adams is joined by Detective Nicholls, a bizarre character to say the least.  Granny says she was attacked by a “furball,” which Nicholls interprets literally as something “the size of a softball, maybe slightly larger, soft to the touch, feels nice on your face . . .”  

Nicholls is directed to the wolf lying on the ground in Granny’s house. “His ID proves that this furball is you.”  Granny explains that the wolf has stolen her identity, while Adams implores the Dragnet-type music (which you thought was nondiegetic but was, in fact, diegetic) to stop.  While Red and Grandmother identify the wolf as, well, a wolf, Nicholls points out that “he could just be a mountain man with a long nose.”  Red explains that she was bringing some French crullers—“not the famous Parchesi player”—to her grandmother and being near-sighted, mistook the wolf for her granny. The wolf, when Red had figured out what was going on, tried to escape and ran smack into a wall. “You’ve been watching too many late night detective shows, ma’am.”  

Grandmother explains that she called Red the night before—“nights and weekends are free”—to ask her to come over with some strawberry tarts.  At that point, Adams accuses Granny of luring the wolf over (though I’m still unclear for what purpose) and feeding him mind-altering berry tarts.  At that point, the wolf wakes up and introduces himself as Special Agent Johnny Wolfowitz and says that “This was a simple training exercise.”  He explains that after this he was meant to go visit the Three Little Pigs to investigate their shoddy building practices.  Just when you thought the bumbling detectives were more obtuse than Stephen Fry in Gosford Park, Detective Adams realizes that Wolfowitz is lying and already ate the Three Little Pigs. 

I think what makes these works so funny is that all the characters act contrary to the situation.  You think you know what to expect, and when something completely different happens, you erupt into surprised laughter.  Furthermore, when you start to be convinced by Wolfowitz’s explanation, the detectives surprise you by revealing some aplomb under all that haplessness.  Furthermore, we should be impressed by the fact that Glenn Hascall plays both Metcalf and Wolfowitz and that KD Dehnert plays both Granny and Red!  Tom Chalker played Adams and Delvin Kenser played Nicholls. 

Leinigen and the Ants

I only learned about a month ago that the Fitzrovia Radio Hour, in addition to their live touring performances which pastiche (both affectionately and knowingly) old-time radio, recorded some of their early live performances (though not of their own material).  I wasn’t sure what to expect of these plays, which they’ve generously made available on their website; part of the charm of their original material is its rewriting of the genre as well as the visual element.  I’m happy to say that Leinegen and the Ants, an action-adventure script from the US, has translated very well in podcast format.  

Although I can’t verify it, I can imagine that the script would have come from something like Carleton E. Morse’s I Love a Mystery serials. It hasn’t got any parts for women, but one can see why a script like this was chosen:  it’s fun to act, and it’s even more fun to imagine.  We can only surmise, by the audience’s laughter, what kind of crazy stuff the cast was doing live to achieve the sound effects, but this detracts not at all from the experience.  

It concerns some British explorers in “the darkest heart of Africa.”  The manly Leinigen has been warned by his neighbor Carruthers that he needs to abandon his farm because a wave of man-eating ants are swarming by; “nothing of you [will] be left but a skeleton picked clean!”  Leinigen wants to stay and fight because, in his opinion, “Intelligence directed by right always makes man a master of his fate.”  Leinigen asks his African staff (that’s a euphemistic way of putting it) if they will stay and help defend his farm.  They will, if Leinigen ensures the safety of their wives and children further down the river.  Leinigen sounds a bit like Gaston from Beauty and the Beast:  “I knew the men would give me that answer.”   Carruthers’ masculinity impugned, he eventually agrees to stay and help Leinigen and his men.  They try various techniques to keep the ants at bay, including using dammed flood water, and a wall of petrol flame.  They watch a springbok covered by aunts, and Leinigen has to dive into ants heroically in order to save everyone else.  He will recover (somehow).     

Coconut shell horses and all, it would have been nice if Leinigen and the Ants could have seen Leinigen’s men heroically find the solution while brawny but not brainy Leinigen carried out their orders. 

The Rats in the Walls

The Rats in the Walls is an adaptation by 19 Nocturne Boulevard (why do I always want to write Avenue??) of an H.P. Lovecraft tale with which I’m unfamiliar (and frankly, there’s a lot of Lovecraft with which I am unfamiliar).  To be honest, I had rather mixed feelings about the only other 19NB play I listened to, Puppets, so that is what has taken me so long to give them another try (which is ludicrous, considering their output and importance and doubly so, considering Julie Hoverson does a great deal of the work herself, and we female audio drama enthusiasts must support each other).  To say I was pleasantly surprised would be partially true but might detract from the fact I thought this was a damn good play.  Again, I don’t know how faithful it is to the source material, but I don’t really care.  It’s very well-told, suspenseful, and wicked fun.

The play concerns Mrs Delapor, an American widow who in 1926 moves to Exom Priory in Anchester, England, where her invalided son, Alfie, stayed before he left for active duty—she has bought the place and intends to “lavish my remaining time and money” on it.  Rats in the Walls concerns itself with the horrors of the First World War, but tangentially, not in-your-face, helped in large part because of the oblique way it invokes Alfie’s voice, and its unreliable narrator.  Blackie is another important character, Mrs Delapor’s faithful cat, and so is Captain Norris, Alfie’s best friend during the War.  

The story is complex.  Alfie is available to us only in his letters, performed by the actor and backgrounded by ragtime music to signify they come from 1918.  Mrs Delapor is made aware by Cap. Norris of Exom Priory’s “evil past,” and while one might be tempted to lump Rats in the Walls with the works of Oscar Wilde and Edith Wharton, it is not that interested, satirically speaking, in American pragmatism versus British, old-world credulity backed by aristocratic tradition.  Exom does have its share of gossips/historians who would be at home in The Canterville Ghost or “Afterward,”[1] Laura and Eugenie, who give Mrs Delapor the full history of her star-crossed ancestors:  In 1600, a Delapor murdered his entire family, then fled.  The workmen who are fixing up the place for habitation are well-aware of the rumors, as in “Thurnley Abbey” by Perceval Landon or, for that matter, Louis Noura’s Echo Point[2].  Furthermore, Mrs Delapor does have her moments of pigheaded American expediency:  “I wonder if they installed that creak with the door”—if she didn’t, it wouldn’t make a very entertaining story.  (Alfie is more apt to comment on Anglo-American relations.  “If anyone ever offers to talk Freud at you, show them the door.”)

Mrs Delapor will need her pragmatism as her staunch allies are not able to offer her much assistance.  When she starts hearing rats in the walls—very confidently and creepily evoked by the production sound effects—and Blackie, as well as the other Priory cats, start going berserk, one might forgive Cap. Norris for thinking she’s a bit crazy.  “I’ve been at war, ma’am,” he assures her.  “I’ve had all the ‘terrified’ clean knocked of me.”  No doubt he has, but there is much more to come.  Mrs Delapor has terrible dreams.  She follows the sounds of the rats—“a lean, filthy, ravenous army”—to the lowest cellar, and though she sets up traps, “all were sprung, yet all were tenantless.”  Eventually, she and Norris find a crevice between the floor and the pagan altars in the cellar, the Temple of Cybele[3], about which “the antiquarians have been very enthusiastic.”  

When I think of Lovecraft, I also tend to think of Mike Mignola, for the reason that they both seem to like when antiquarian adventurers find skeletons in grottos that are neither wholly human nor animal.  I won’t spoil too much of Rats in the Walls as it is the kind of play you need to experience for yourself and about which you want to know as little as possible before setting out.  There are antiquarians, there are bones, there are creepy children, voodoo priests, and rats aplenty.  It’s clear that Hoverson and her cast had a good time while making this play, and it’s a great, creepy thriller.  To tell you more would do you a disservice, but I enjoyed it very much.

[1] The BBC has done a very good reading of the former by Alistair Macgowan and a full-cast play of the latter, broadcast as part of The Female Ghost series.
[2] One of my favorite plays broadcast on the BBC in 2012.
[3] I’ve just learned in The Ancient Guide to the Modern World that frenzied followers of Cybele occasionally would self-castrate.  ‘Nuff said.