Orson Wells on Sprawl and Time-Space Compression

I've become totally hooked on Orson Wells' Mercury Theatre On The Air, after discovering a trove of original broadcast on MP3.  The radio show ran from 1938-40 on CBS and CBC.  They became famous when their production of "War of the Worlds" convinced listeners that the Earth (or at least New York State) was under attack by fire breathing Martians.

On a recent bus ride back from Washington, I stumbled on this great clip of Orson Wells (of Citizen Kane fame) and Walter Hughston summing up both the perils of automobile centred urbanization and the concept of time-space compression.  It's from a 1939 broadcast of the novel “The Magnificent Ambersons.”

To set the scene: Orson Wells – the young George who doesn't want to work -- is courting Lucy, the daughter of Mr. Eugene Morgen (Walter Huston) the automobile tycoon.  But George's technique could use some work...

Even though the novel  won the Pulitzer Prize in 1919,  “The Ambersons”  isn't the best of the Mercury productions – for entertainment value try "The Count of Monte Cristo." But the backdrop of the melodrama is a creepy and ambiguous portrait of 20th C. urbanization and the rise of the automobile.

An uneasy prescience comes through as you listen to both Wells and Tarkington dwell on the same issues that preoccupy us now: sprawl, the seeming shrinking significance of physical distance, and the impact that cars are having on our cities and our culture.   (Ask Steven Hawking, and he would tell you that Wells' was right about alien invasions as well.)

Thanks to Kim Scarborough  for maintaining the fantastic Mercury Theatre website.


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