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.]
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.
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