If you’ve been hanging around my blog for any length of time, you know I’m a big fan of radio playwright Arch Oboler. Best-known for his work on Lights Out and his own series, Arch Oboler’s Plays, Oboler could take the most mundane ideas and make them fresh and compelling. He had a busy mind, and like many writers, Oboler liked to look ahead, even if the future scared him.
When the atomic bombs were dropped in August of 1945, Oboler couldn’t help but wonder what this would mean for mankind. On September 20, 1945, a little over a month after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, Arch Oboler’s Plays aired ‘Rocket From Manhattan.” The story was set in the year 2000, and follows a group of three astronauts who are on their way back from man’s first landing on the moon. As they approach Earth, they are horrified to learn that nuclear war has broken out.
The play found new life when it was retitled Night of the Auk and opened on Broadway December 3, 1956. Produced by Kermit Bloomgarden and directed by Sidney Lumet, the play featured an all-star cast, including Claude Rains, Christopher Plummer, and Dick York.
For the stage version, the story was lengthened to three hours and included all sorts of onboard intrigue, including the crew leaving one of its members behind on the moon. Instead of the year 2000, the plot was moved up to an indefinite day in the near future. The play was written in blank verse, because Oboler meant for it to resemble a Greek tragedy. Lumet had reservations about the language in the play, but Oboler wanted it left as is.
The play was well-received by the critics. The public disagreed, however, and Night of the Auk closed after eight performances. It would very briefly return to the stage, only off-Broadway, in May of 1963.
On May 2, 1960, Night of the Auk found its way to the small screen as an installment for the TV series, Play of the Week. None of the Broadway cast reprised their roles for the show, and this time it featured a pre-Captain Kirk William Shatner (watch clips here).
It’s extremely difficult if not impossible to find an intact copy of the full program nowadays, but this very brief snippet gives a sample of the language used. It may have made more sense in context, but it’s clear why the show failed.
Simply put, less is more. Don’t get me wrong, the language in the play is beautiful, and there’s nothing wrong with elevated dialogue, but it takes some wading to get at the meaning. If too much wading has to be done, it’s easy to miss important points. Oboler’s forté was definitely radio, and he was never quite able to adapt his style for audiences who could already see what was happening. He was also well-known for not liking to dumb things down, and this may be why he chose to write the dialogue the way he did.
The other flaw was that people may have found Night of the Auk just plain depressing. While the original radio show left the fate of the astronauts open-ended, the play had suicide and murder happening on the ship. If nuclear annihilation didn’t get these men, the destructive atmosphere on board their ship would. Either way, mankind would go the way of the auk.
The play hasn’t totally gone extinct, though. In 2012, Night of the Auk was revived again as part of the New York Fringe Festival. Oboler’s estate allowed the play to be shortened to seventy-five minutes, and in this iteration the cast was co-ed. They loved the descriptive language, although the style gave them pause. Michael Ross Albert, who adapted and starred in the new version of Auk, remembered that the actors got lost on more than one occasion:
I have seen some of the actors struggling with the text, to inhabit that world. Recently, in rehearsals, one of the actors playing Bruner has a six line speech, and she said about it “is that just a fancy way of saying: I have a bad feeling about this?” But, Oboler’s writing has a lengthy way of speaking.
Oboler himself would have agreed with this assessment, as he later thought the dialogue and setting of Auk didn’t mesh well. Regardless of the reasons for its early failure, Night of the Auk and its predecessor Rocket To Manhattan are valuable works. They are chilling relics of a time when people were uncertain about what the atomic bomb would mean for mankind and cautionary tales about what could still happen in the future. Arch Oboler hoped with all his heart that he was wrong, and the rest of us can only hope he was as well.
Hope to see you all next week for the Fourth Annual Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon. Thanks for reading, everyone!