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Matthew Rovner

Night of the Auk

By Matthew Rovner

[Note: The television production of Night of the Auk is not available on home video in any format. The UCLA film library kindly let me view a video cassette of the production. However, I was not allowed to take any photos; nonetheless, there are pre-existing photos of the TV production, on the Internet, that are included here. Unfortunately, the quality is somewhat poor. Additionally, there are low fidelity video clips  available at the links below.]

James MacArthur and William Shatner in the TV production of ‘Night of the Auk’

On May 2, 1960, William Shatner took his maiden voyage on a spaceship in a television production of Arch Oboler’s ill fated Broadway play Night of the Auk. Shatner plays Lewis Rohnen, the megalomaniacal leader of mankind’s first expedition to the moon, which at the start of the play, is making its return to Earth. Auk is written entirely in a Walt Whitmanesque poetic form and watching Shatner declaim his lines in blank verse is immensely entertaining, akin to the pleasure of watching him speak Esperanto in Incubus.

William Shatner, as Lewis Rohnen, is the heavy of this five act tragedy. Rohnen is a spoiled billionaire who has privately funded the expedition. In order for Rohnen to receive the prize money for his venture, the expedition must both land on the moon and one of its crew must walk on its surface. However, upon landing on the moon, Rohnen discovers that its surface is radioactive. Undeterred, Rohnen gets one of the crew members drunk and encourages him to walk on its surface. However, before the ill fated crew-member returns, Rohnen’s expedition accidentally blasts off for home. To make matters even worse, Rohnen touches off a nuclear war when, during a radio broadcast to Earth, he claims the moon for the United States. William Shatner turns in a compelling performance as a neurotic egomaniac and even his occasional overacting seems to befit the role of a larger than life schmuck whose actions cause the end of the world as we know it. Shatner is supported by an able cast including Warner Anderson (Oboler’s The Arnelo Affair) as a hardened military General and James MacArthur (Swiss Family Robinson) as a wide-eyed communications expert.

The original stage production of ‘Night of the Auk’

It is unclear how much of a hand Oboler had in the production. But, given the presence of Warner Anderson, and of Oboler favorite Raymond Edward Johnson as the narrator, it appears that he had some involvement.

The piece is directed by the Broadway maestro Nikos Psacharapoulis. Despite the fact that Oboler’s play is cut by nearly a third, Psacharapoulis remains true to Oboler’s vision. Nothing of Oboler’s play feels lost, and its pacing may, in fact, be improved. Psacharapoulis seems to have cut some of Oboler’s more confusing language—his director’s script is filled with question marks. Given the limited set and space, Psacharapoulis does a surprisingly good job of using an active camera, with tracking shots, overhead shots, and few close-ups. The piece is shot entirely on black and white video.

The set is very minimal and somewhat amusing. It looks like a multi-platformed conversation pit, with filing cabinets, levers, a ticker-tape machine, and an airlock in the rear wall. The props are similarly minimal and somewhat comical. For example, the actors use absurdly long binoculars to see Earth from the ship. The majority of the cast wears jumpsuits with pocket protectors, which makes them look like big interstellar nerds. But for some reason, the ship’s scientist, Dr. Bruner wears a button down sweater.

Overall, Night of the Auk is worth watching and is genuinely compelling entertainment despite its limited visual appeal.

More information on the production, plus photos and video clips, can be found at the official James MacArthur website.

Copyright © 2013 Matthew Rovner

Arch Oboler’s ‘Bewitched’ and its Alter Egos

Matthew Rovner follows up his career overview of radio pioneer and film director Arch Oboler, published in 2009 on Parallax View, with this study of his 1945 film Bewitched.

By Matthew Rovner

Arch Oboler’s intriguing noir, Bewitched (1945), is a dark thriller about a woman with multiple personality disorder, now termed dissociative identity disorder (DID). Oboler adapted his film from one of his most popular and critically acclaimed radio dramas, “Alter Ego,” which was in turn inspired by the true story of Christine Beauchamp, one of the first persons diagnosed with DID. Briefly, Bewitched details the plight of mild-mannered Joan Ellis (Phyllis Thaxter) as she is besieged by the voice of her evil alternate personality, Karen (the voice of Audrey Totter), and driven to murder. This article examines how Oboler adapted both the Beauchamp case and his own radio play “Alter Ego” into Bewitched.

Christine Beauchamp was treated by American neurologist Morton Prince, who wrote about her in his book The Dissociation of a Personality: A Biographical Study In Abnormal Psychology. The following passage from Dr. Prince’s book may have inspired Oboler’s imagination:

Miss Beauchamp is an example in actual life of the imaginative creation of [Robert Louis] Stevenson, only, I am happy to say, the allegorical representation of the evil side of human nature finds no counterpart in her makeup. The splitting of personality is along intellectual and temperamental, not along ethical lines of cleavage… Each personality is incapable of doing evil to others.

By contrast, in both Oboler’s radio play and film, Joan Ellis’s alternate personality is capable of evil, specifically murder.

Oboler’s “Alter Ego” is a considerably darker work than Bewitched. In “Alter Ego,” Joan Ellis willingly goes to the gallows in order to kill off her evil personality (named Carmen in the radio adaptation). In Bewitched, Joan is cured by kindly psychiatrist Dr. Bergson (Edmund Gwenn). In what critics considered one of the film’s more contrived scenes, Dr. Bergson cures Joan through hypnosis, separating out her evil personality and shaming it into oblivion. In this scene, Oboler shows us a visual representation of this separation [through the use of multiple exposures, we see the good Joan and the evil Karen emerge from Joan’s hypnotized body]. In real life, Dr. Morton Prince cured Christine Beauchamp through hypnosis by reconciling her disparate personalities with her original personality. Oboler’s idea is not as hokey as it may appear.

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