This blog post is by Matt Barton, curator of the Recorded Sound Section.
“Arch Oboler, a restlessly intelligent man…utilized two of radio’s great strengths: the first in the mind’s innate obedience, its willingness to try to see whatever someone suggests it see, no matter how absurd: the second is the fact that fear and horror are blinding emotions that knock our adult pins from beneath us and leave us groping in the dark like children who cannot find the light switch. Radio is, of course, the “blind” medium and only Oboler used it so well or completely.” Stephen King, Danse Macabre, Everest House, New York, 1981
Radio’s golden age of drama and comedy had many star performers, but there were also star writers, whose authorship of a series or individual program was sufficient to draw millions of listeners. This year, “Bathysphere“, a 1939 radio play by one of them, Arch Oboler, was added to the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry.
Like Norman Corwin, author of We Hold These Truths and The Undecided Molecule, Oboler (1909-1987) saw enormous social and philosophical potential in radio, and after paying his dues for several years in various genres, he became the writer for Lights Out, a late-night NBC program that specialized in the macabre, in 1936. Wyllis Cooper created the program in 1934, but Oboler was soon synonymous with it, attracting audiences willing and wanting to be scared, but also at times, to think. The unanticipated consequences of politics and science and were frequent topics for Oboler, though often in unusual and audacious settings.
In 1939, in an effort to compete for the thoughtful audiences that Norman Corwin’s plays were drawing for CBS, NBC gave him his own series, entitled simply Arch Oboler’s Plays, which found an appreciative audience on Saturday nights. “Bathysphere” featured two rising performers. George Zucco had been in films for many years in character roles, but was only now getting wide exposure as Professor Moriarity in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, opposite Basil Rathbone. Joining him was the unknown, 22 year old Hans Conried, whose voice is barely recognizable here, though he would eventually be one of the most distinctive voice actors in the business thanks to his roles as Captain Hook in Peter Pan and Snidely Whiplash in The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show.
World War II was only 11 weeks old when “Bathysphere” aired on November 18th, 1939. The United States was neutral at the time, and there had been no major engagements between the Axis and the Allies since Nazi Germany defeated Poland in early October. During this period, sometimes called “the phony war,” Oboler imagined a unique dialogue with a representative of the aggressors.
The “Bathysphere” of the title was a spherical diving bell lowered into the ocean on a cable from a ship in which naturalist Dr. William Beebe and inventor Otis Barton made a series of deep sea dives in the waters near Bermuda, beginning in 1930, eventually reaching the record depth of 3,028 feet in 1934. On one of the dives, they spoke to the radio audience via telephone from the deep, a broadcast that was unfortunately not preserved. (The original Bathysphere and this broadcast are covered in an earlier blog by Bryan Cornell, reference librarian in the Recorded Sound Research Center.
The divers in Oboler’s play were a less likely pair: the dictator of an unnamed country (Zucco), known only as “His Excellency” and the unnamed scientist (Conried) piloting the bathysphere addressed simply as “doctor.” “His Excellency” is thrill seeking, hoping to burnish his image by setting a new deep sea diving record. When they reach the ocean floor, the scientist reveals his plan to strand them both at the bottom of the sea, their dialogue becomes a political debate, with the dictator declaring:
“When an ancient rule of privilege is threatened it seeks to live no matter what the cost. The cost to them was me. And they found me worth it. For I threw to the masses none of the wealth they had worked to build, but only fighting phrases of prejudice and hate. It cost the men who made me nothing but the rent of the halls for the simple to hear my opiates. And so, I call you ‘fool’: fool to die and fool to kill me. The conditions that made me will still exist when I’m dead. You free them from me, but what of hunger, what of ruthless exploitation? These will still be free up there to put hate and desperation into men. And so, the ones who gave me power will find a new leader to stop the rumblings of rebellion with all the tricks that I’ve taught them.”
Unlike some of Oboler’s creations, “Bathysphere” is at least physically possible, and as unlikely as the scenario is, the setting was eerily apt and still compels: a tiny diving bell, submerged into the crushing pressures of the ocean depths. In it, a fundamental debate about freedom and power rages as the supply of oxygen dwindles inexorably.
A few year later, Oboler revived “Bathysphere” for a new Lights Out series on CBS. The new production of “Bathysphere” aired on June 29, 1943. Unfortunately, this version does not survive, though the script is in the Arch Oboler Collection at the Library of Congress and is virtually identical to the 1939 version. Hans Conried, who was just starting to get better roles in the movies, reprised his original part. George Zucco, by now well established as character actor in horror movies, was replaced by Lou Merrill, who appeared in other shows in the new Lights Out series. This time, Oboler was the host, and with the tide turning in the war, he promised listeners a story “about a breed of gentlemen whose time is rapidly running out. I refer to the specie ‘Dictator.’ And so, this that you hear tonight, is fiction – the story of a new dictator whom all of us hope will never again exist on this earth.”
In 1957, Oboler reworked the script for a television project that was never produced. The locale was changed an unnamed country in South America.
Finally, in 1964, NANA Radio, a venture launched by the North American Newspaper Association, offered a selection of new radio dramas to stations, using updated scripts and new casts for old series such as Pepper Young’s Family and The Fat Man. A new series of Arch Oboler’s Plays was created, with a new version of “Bathysphere.”
This time, the roles were played by Khigh Diegh as “His Excellency” and Tommy Cook played “the Doctor.” Dhiegh had recently made a strong impression in the film The Manchurian Candidate and would go on to greater fame as crime kingpin Wo Fat in the original Hawaii Five-O television series. Tommy Cook began his long acting career with a juvenile role in an Oboler play in 1939, and worked with Oboler regularly through the 1940s.
Both are excellent, and this production of “Bathysphere” is also enhanced by having been recorded to tape in stereo, the better to hear the ominous reverberations inside the steel ball. Oboler kept the South American location from 1957, and updated the script to take account of the new deep sea diving record established by August Picard and Lt. Don Walsh USN in the Trieste in 1960, which had reached a depth of nearly seven miles in the Mariana Trench near Guam.
NANA’s scheme was short-lived. Though old-time radio had proved popular in syndication, with low priced packages of vintage programs such as the Lone Ranger in wide distribution, production costs for new programs made the new project untenable after only a few stations signed up for the initial offering. Millions had heard the first two versions of “Bathysphere,” but probably only a few thousand heard the last one when it was first broadcast in late 1964, though it later found a wider distribution when the thirteen NANA Oboler plays were licensed by the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service.
In 1993, the Library of Congress acquired the prolific Oboler’s considerable collection of scripts, correspondence and recordings. If you’d like to listen to “Bathysphere” and other Arch Oboler programs, or if you want to know more about Arch Oboler and his collection at the Library, don’t hesitate to get in touch with our reference librarians at the Recorded Sound Research Center.