The Columbia Workshop was a commitment by the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) to discover new forms of radio drama. From 1936-1945, and then again 1946-1947, each of the nearly 400 episodes of The Columbia Workshop experimented with using the radio medium and sound for telling stories, many of which are considered the finest examples of radio drama ever produced. LEARN more about The Columbia Workshop, its' long history and many outcomes.
Season 10, Episode 4
Program Guide for The Fall of the City
Re-Imagined Radio pays tribute to The Columbia Workshop, perhaps the most important American anthology radio program, and its mission to explore and present new forms of radio storytelling. The Willamette Radio Workshop performs Archibald MacLeish's "The Fall of the City" which follows the collapse of a city under an unnamed dictator and the ambiguous relationship humans have with freedom. The Voices perform samples from Jack J. Ward's "Great Day for a War" which concerns a scheme by a broadcasting company to increase its viewers during ratings week. Ward’s radio drama is unpublished, unperformed until now, and we thank him for permission to use the portions that we did. We hope our tribute will bring further praise to both these remarkable works of radio storytelling.
Broadcasts and streams by our local, regional, and international partners. Archival recordings available for on demand listening below.
Optimized for radio broadcast
"The Fall of the City" performed by members of The Willamette Radio Workshop
Sam A. Mowry
Adam S. Moore
Sound Design and engineering by Marc Rose
Recording by Robert Kowal and Michael Gandsey
Foley conductor Martin Gallagher
Produced by Sam A. Mowry, Robert Kowal, and Marc Rose
Co-Producer Cynthia McGean
Directed by Sam A. Mowry
Recorded at PCC Sylvania in Portland, OR
Produced by special arrangement with Mr. Richard B. McAdoo
"Great Day for a War" performed by The Voices
Sam A. Mowry as Daniel Stone
Mago Weston as Anna-Marie Hammond
Sam Gregory as GlobalWeb Announcer
Eric Newsome as GlobalWeb News Service Announcer
Eric Newsome as President
Stephanie Crowley as Sheila MacDonald
Jeff Pollard as Colonel Brachenswich
Produced by special arrangement with Jack J. Ward
"The Fall of the City" written by Archibald MacLeish
"Great Day for a War" written by Jack J. Ward
Sound Design, Music, and Engineering by Marc Rose of Fuse
Social Media by Regina Carol Social Media Management
Promotional Graphics by Holly Slocum Design
Curated and Hosted by John Barber
Thank you for a lovely melding of MacLeish's "Fall of the City" with my "Great Day for a War". Just so tickled pink to hitch my star with "The Fall of the City" and Archibald MacLeish. I feel thrilled to have my name connected with him, and even more so with Re-imagined Radio. The acting was superb. The production was on fire! And the script was a seamless blend.
— Jack J. Ward, author of "Great Day for a War"
We're thrilled and excited to hear this amazing fusion of the classic, "The Fall of the City" with an unproduced Jack J. Ward script "Great Day for a War"!
— Sonic Society
This is the second tribute Re-Imagined Radio has offered to The Columbia Workshop. The first was in 2015 and featured performances of "The Fall of the City" and "R.U.R." by The Willamette Radio Workshop, directed by Sam A. Mowry. See below. For this 2022 tribute we reprise a recorded performance of "The Fall of the City" by The Willamette Radio Workshop and build out the story with samples from "Great Day for a War" by Jack J. Ward.Archibald MacLeish
Archibald MacLeish (1892-1982), Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, writer, and Librarian of Congress, wrote and edited for the Yale Literary Review while he studied at Yale University, 1911-1915. In 1918 he served in France during World War I. MacLeish felt the war was the beginning of a new world order that was sensed rather than felt, and tried to capture his feelings through poetry. In 1923, he moved, with his family, to Paris, France, and began a career as a poet. MacLeish returned from Europe in 1928, continued writing poetry, but also developed a "public voice" during the worldwide political chaos of the 1930s and 1940s, feeling it was his responsibility as a poet to interpret the times and events using verse. When he returned to the United States in 1928, MacLeish committed himself to public service as Librarian of Congress from 1939 to 1944, assistant director of the Office of War Information in 1942, Assistant Secretary of State from 1944 to 1945, and chair of the US delegation to the founding conference of UNESCO in 1945. He continued to consider and explore freedom, independence, and government in poetry and verse plays through the rest of his life.
Verse is related to poetry, a major form of literature, and has several meanings and applications. Two are important for this episode of Re-Imagined Radio. First, verse and poetry both use rhythm, pulse, language, and rhyme to convey a story. But, where poetry uses aesthetic and rhythmic aspects of elevated language and symbolism to convey meaning, verse might be heard as closer to conversation. William Shakespeare is noted for his use of verse in this way.
Second, as a vehicle for storytelling, verse can be very useful. Rhythm and repetition can help keep a story focused even while encouraging audiences to use their imaginations to build on the information provided by verse. Meaning is often conveyed through word choices, their relation to one another, and associations they can make with audiences. Rhyming is not required at the end of every line, but may be used as the conclusion of a group of lines, or "stanza."
MacLeish wrote three verse plays: "Panic: A Play in Verse" (1935), "The Fall of the City" (1937) and, "Air Raid" (1938).
Panic: A Play in Verse
A stage play written in verse, in the form of a Greek chorus. Set during the bank panic of 1933, six years into the Great Depression, "Panic" concerns how individualism turns into individual greed and freedom is replaced by a failing "free enterprise" system. Orson Welles, then 19 years old, played the leading role, his first in an American stage production, for three performances, 14-16 March 1935, at the Imperial Theatre, New York.
At first, MacLeish was concerned for the ability of the young Welles to portray the lead character, 60-year-old McGafferty, modeled on financier J.P. Morgan. But, according to producer John Houseman, MacLeish set aside all doubts where he heard Welles' first reading for the part. "Hearing that voice for the first time in its full and astonishing range, MacLeish stared incredulously. It was an instrument of pathos and terror, of infinite delicacy and brutally devastating power" (Houseman, John. Run Through: A Memoir. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972, pp. 148-151).
On 22 March, Welles began his radio career on the CBS Radio program The March of Time performing a scene from "Panic" for a news report on the stage production (Brady, Frank. Citizen Welles: A Biography of Orson Welles. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1989, pp. 70-71). Welles continued as a member of the program's reperatory cast for three years.
The Fall of the City
MacLeish submitted his script for "The Fall of the City" in response to a call from Irving Reis, director of The Columbia Workshop radio series for experimental work. Remembering Orson Welles, MacLeish promoted him for the leading role as "Announcer." Featuring Welles, "The Fall of the City" episode, first broadcast 11 April 1937, is the first American verse play for radio and is often praised for its stylistic innovation and social power, and as an illustration of the artistic potential of radio broadcasting.
"The Fall of the City", the first verse play written for American radio, focuses on the collapse of a city under an unnamed dictator. MacLeish drew from two sources. The first was his 1932 long poem "Conquistador" with its descriptions of the uncontested conquest of the Aztec city Tenochtitlan (tã-nóch-tët-län, now Mexico City) by Hernán Cortéz of Spain in 1521. MacLeish visited Tenochtitlan in 1929, specifically the Zocalo, the great square at the center of the city, where he learned the Aztec legend of a woman who returned from the dead to prophesize the fall of Tenochtitlan just days before its conquest (Drabeck, Bernard A. and Helen E. Ellis, eds. Archibald MacLeish: Reflections. Amherst, The University of Massachusetts Press, 1986, pp. 106-112). MacLeish won a Pulitzer Prize for "Conquistador" in 1933, his first of three.
The second inspiration was the projected Anschluss, the takeover of Austria by Nazi Germany which did not actually happen until 12 March 1938 when German troops marched across the border unopposed by the Austrian military. On 10 April, Germany forced Austrian citizens to vote for the annexation of Austria by Germany. Those who voted against annexation could have lost their jobs, or their lives.
MacLeish said the theme of "The Fall of the City" was "the proneness of men to accept their own conqueror, accept the loss of their rights because it will in some way solve their problems or simplify their lives" (Drabeck, Bernard A. and Helen E. Ellis, eds. Archibald MacLeish: Reflections. Amherst, The University of Massachusetts Press, 1986, pp. 107).
Critics have suggested "The Fall of the City" is not about the conqueror, but rather about the way people lose or sustain the burden of freedom. We want freedom but we also like order and structure, even if that order and structure is imposed upon us. How much freedom and liberty are we willing to sacrifice to enjoy convenience and comfort, order and structure? Because of this ambiguity, we both fear and welcome the conqueror. While we vacillate, the Conqueror approaches slowly. Often unnoticed. Unbelieved. Until it is too late.
"The Fall of the City"
Episode 35, 11 April 1937
First broadcast by the Columbia Broadcast System (CBS) as part of The Columbia Workshop radio series. Orson Welles and Burgess Meredith starred, Irving Reis directed. The 30-minute broadcast originated from the Seventh Regiment Armory, New York, a location large enough to accommodate the hundreds of extra actors required for the crowd scenes. The cast included . . .
House Jameson (Studio director)
Orson Welles (Announcer)
Adelaide Klein (Dead Woman)
Carleton Young (1st Messenger; Later played Philip Gault, in the OTR crime series The Whisperer)
Burgess Meredith (Orator)
Dwight Weist (2nd Messenger)
Edgar Stehli (Priest)
William Pringle (General)
Guy Repp, Brandon Peters, Karl Swenson, Dan Davies, Kenneth Delmar (Antiphonal Chorus)
A second broadcast, 28 September 1939 (episode 156), originated in the Hollywood Bowl, Los Angeles, California. The cast featured Myron McCormick, Burgess Meredith, Dorothy Meredith, Ted Osborne, and Earl Ross.
Listen to The Columbia Workshop performance of "The Fall of the City," 11 April 1937 . . .
A radio announcer, voiced by Orson Welles, reports from the plaza of a nameless city, where a crowd awaits the appearance of a woman who has risen from her grave for the previous three nights. She appears and predicts
The city of masterless men will take a master.
There will be shouting then: Blood after!
The first messenger brings news of a conqueror's arrival. He says those conquered live in terror. A pacifist orator argues for non-violent acceptance of the coming conqueror. Reason and appeasement and scorn will eventually conquer the conqueror, he says.
A second messenger arrives and reports the conquered peoples have embraced the conqueror. The priests of the city then advise the people of the city to "turn to your gods" and almost instigate the sacrifice of a citizen before they are interrupted by a general who calls for resistance. The citizens have already given up, however, their will broken by the hope that their loss of freedom will solve their problems or simplify their lives.
The conqueror arrives and ascends to the podium. He raises his metal visor. Only the radio announcer can see that the suit of armor is empty. He concludes
People invent their oppressors. The city is fallen.
Reception of "The Fall of the City" was positive. The writing, use of sound effects, and radio production techniques were all noted as opening a new era for radio drama. Read a review in Time magazine (Theatre: Fall of the City, 19 April 1937).
The Fall of the City trailer by Holly Slocum and Marc Rose
The Fall of the City web poster by Holly Slocum, Holly Slocum Design (240 x 356)
The Fall of the City cover poster by Holly Slocum, Holly Slocum Design (820 x 356)
The Fall of the City social media poster by Holly Slocum, Holly Slocum Design (2000 x 2000)
The Fall of the City full poster by Holly Slocum, Holly Slocum Design (2000 x 3000)
Re-Imagined Radio presented a live performance of "The Fall of the City" and "R.U.R." by Willamette Radio Workshop actors and other community volunteers at Kiggins Theatre in downtown Vancouver, Washington. No recording available.
Directed by Sam A. Mowry
Hewitt, Scott. Bits 'n' Pieces: Radio Plays Scare up Some Chills at Kiggins. The Columbian, 3 Oct. 2015, pp. D6-D7.
Today we understand radio drama to include plays written for the radio medium, as well as docudramas, dramatizations of literary works, plays written orginially for the theatre, musical theatre, and opera, all adapted for radio. In the 1930s, however, the idea and form of radio drama was just beginning to evolve. Stage plays with actors moving about, interacting with each other and various props, were models. Adapting stage plays to radio, a medium based entirely on sound, meant that radio dramas had to rely on voices, sound effects, and music to help listeners imagine their characters and stories.
What was possible with the new radio medium? How might its features and affordances be best used to transfer stage plays to radio's sound stage? What new forms of radio presentations, especially radio dramas might be developed? The Columbia Experimental Dramatic Laboratory was established to answer these questions.
The Columbia Experimental Dramatic Laboratory
In 1930, CBS appointed Georgia Backus, American actress, writer, producer, and director of radio dramas, to lead the network's Dramatic Programming Division where she was to develop the new art of radio drama. Backus gathered a team of engineers, directors, writers, and producers under the title The Columbia Experimental Laboratory (noted in the press as "Columbia Experimental Laboratory" in 1931 and "Dramatic Laboratory" in 1932).
Two series of experimental radio dramas were planned by Backus and her team. The first series of eleven experiments was broadcast Wednesday evenings, 10:00 PM CST, over the CBS network. The second series premiered on Sunday, 5 June 1932 and offered eighteeen episodes until 9 October 1932.
By the end of these two series CBS had introduced many of radio's earliest writers, producers, directors, and engineers to listeners and set standards for new radio programs that appeared throughout the 1930s.
The Columbia Workshop, Irving Reis, Director
In 1936, CBS formalized its experiments with radio drama by establishing The Columbia Workshop and appointed a new director, Irving Reis (1906-1953), a young playwright involved with The Columbia Experimental Laboratory who saw in the radio medium opportunities for new forms of storytelling. Beginning with the first episode, Reis experimented with new and different ways of radio storytelling. His efforts included developing echo chambers, sound effects (including those produced by voice), as well as microphone placements, types, and filters which are still in use today. He cast production techniques and music as characters, or in place of them. Narrative experimentation included encouraging young, unknown writers to submit their own writing, or adaptations.
Exemplary episodes under Reis's leadership included . . .
"The Fall of the City" (See above)
"R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots)"
Episode 36, 18 April 1937
A classic, if little known, OTR drama. Adapted from the original play by Karel Capek "R.U.R." asks the haunting question: "How does artificial life affect the fate of humankind?" LEARN more about "R.U.R".
Listen to The Columbia Workshop performance of "R.U.R.," 18 April 1937 . . .
The Columbia Workshop, William N. Robson, Director
Reis left the The Columbia Workshop in January 1938 to become a script writer for Paramount Pictures in Hollywood. In February 1940, Reis began directing films for RKO Pictures. William N. Robson (1906-1995), Reis's protege, succeeded him as director of The Columbia Workshop and continued technical and narrative experiments. Robson worked with Bernard Herrmann, music director, hired by Reis, to offer more extended musical works, even opera, as content for The Columbia Workshop.
Robson commissioned Archibald MacLeish to write another verse play for radio, "Air Raid," again in the form of a radio broadcast, and aired both the dress rehearsal on 26 October 1938 and the final production on 27 October 1938 (Episode 110). The performances starred Aline McMahon and Orson Welles. "Air Raid" was inspired by the German and Italian bombing of Guernica, Spain, during the Spanish Civil War, and Pablo Picasso’s response to that slaughter with his painting Guernica. Rather than a political statement, MacLeish intended this verse play for radio to explore the changes in the nature of war and the alterations in the human spirit that permitted such changes. Script available here. MacLeish's "The Fall of the City" was produced and broadcast by The Columbia Workshop the previous year.
Listen to The Columbia Workshop performance of "Air Raid," 27 October 1938 . . .
The Columbia Workshop, Norman Corwin, Director
Robson stepped down as director in 1939. Norman Corwin (1910-2011), a CBS writer whose adaptation of Stephan Crane's The Red Badge of Courage was broadcast as an episode in 1938 took over leadership of The Columbia Workshop in 1940 and changed the focus to address social justice and current issues. Corwin contributed many radio dramas to The Columbia Workshop mostly collected series called "Corwin Presents" and encouraged other interesting experiments. One example was "The City Wears a Slouch Hat" written by Kenneth Pachen and supported with a percussion-based score by John Cage.
"The City Wears A Slouch Hat"
Episode 254, 31 May 1942
A collaboration between John Cage and Kenneth Patchen. Combines Patchen's script with live and recorded sound effects composed by John Cage. Every scene in Patchen's drama, narrated by "The Voice," is accompanied/interpreted by Cage's percussion / sound effects, creating an aural imagery that permeates every aspect of the imaginary city. LEARN more about The City Wears A Slouch Hat.
Listen to The Columbia Workshop performance of "The City Wears A Slouch Hat," 31 May 1942 . . .
With the United States' entry into World War II, listeners waned. The last episode of The Columbia Workshop was broadcast 25 January 1947. Corwin left CBS in March 1949. LEARN more about Columbia Workshop.
The CBS Radio Workshop
Nearly a decade after its cancellation, the legacy of The Columbia Workshop and its experimentation with radio dramatic presentations was revived as The CBS Radio Workshop. The new series, "dedicated to man's imagination—the theatre of the mind," began with a two-part adaptation of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, 27 January 1956. Huxley himself narrated both episodes. Subsequent episodes, hosted by William Conrad, like The Columbia Workshop gave priority to creative production. As result, The CBS Radio Workshop offered a number of interesting radio dramas in its short history. The popularity of television, however, drained radio listeners, and The CBS Radio Workshop ended 22 September 1957. Today is is remembered as one of the great radio series.
Episodes of The Columbia Workshop at the Internet Archive website
Episodes at the Old Time Radio Researchers Group Library website
The Columbia Workshop radio logs at Jerry Haendiges Vintage Radio Logs website
CBS Radio Workshop radio logs at Jerry Haendiges Vintage Radio Logs website
Columbia Workshop at Digital Deli Too website preserved at Internet Archive
CBS Radio Workshop at The Digital Deli Too website preserved at Internet Archive
Columbia Workshop scripts at the Generic Radio website