Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray, dramatized by Orson Welles

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Download Vanity Fair from the Mercury Theatre of the Air

Campbell Playhouse, 7 January 1940
Regular forays into old-time radio can prove extremely illuminating. This was clearly apparent as I listened to Orson Welles' forty-four-minute dramatization of Thackeray's door-stop sized novel Vanity Fair.
Quite how he managed to distill the plot into such a short running-time is beyond my comprehension. Nonetheless, he managed to communicate something of the novel's savage comedy, focusing in particular on the exploits of Becky Sharp (Helen Hayes), a gold-digger with a unique talent for transforming herself chameleon-like into anything her suitors wanted her to be. She sounded such a respectable girl on the surface - all rounded vowels delivered in her best East Coast accent - but underneath lurked a heart of steel. No one could readlly stand up to her.
Except, perhaps, for Welles himself. As the Marquis, he assumed a central role within the drama as the narrator, telling listeners what to expect from the ensuing action, as well as interrupting the drama with frequent sardonic asides. Although the story was obviously set in the past, it was palpably evident that Welles was using it to comment on the present. Mid-twentieth century America was a full of gold-diggers as London had been a century before.
Hence Thackeray's story became a battle of wits between Hayes' Becky and Welles' Marquis as they competed for our attention. Just when it seemed that Hayes had assumed center-stage, as she showed Becky scheming her way to prosperity, both social and financial, Welles weighed in with yet another sardonic observation. Neither of them actually triumphed in the end, but the experience proved a highly dramatic one.