The ABP Journal
Fall 2005, Vol. 1 No. 1

Richard J. Hand is Reader in Theatre and Media Drama at the University of Glamorgan, Wales (UK). He has a special research interest in the areas of horror culture and the adaptation of fiction into performance media. He is the author of The Theatre of Joseph Conrad: Reconstructed Fictions (Palgrave, 2005) and a forthcoming book entitled Terror on the Air: Horror Radio in America, 1931-52 (McFarland, 2005).

[journal table of contents]

         
     
Vincent Price on CBS Radio
     
Adapters may have had a gift in working on "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," but they were nonetheless obliged to expand the story or embellish it with additional material and extra characters when it came to transforming the work into dramatic media.
     
Another important technique employed by Robson is a shift in narrative point of view. We, the listeners, are often implicated: you are Peyton Farquhar; the bullet lodges under "your collar," not his.
     
     
Still from Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-1962)
       
"Owl Creek Bridge" established a paradigm for performance horror: namely a narrative with a surprise ending in which it is revealed that the vivacious protagonist – who often miraculously "survives" a gravely perilous situation – has in fact been dead for most of the story.
       
Still from Robert Enrico's film adaptation (1962)
       
 
Still from Robert Enrico's film adaptation (1962)
       
 
 

REANIMATING PEYTON FARQUHAR: THE ADAPTATIONS OF
AMBROSE BIERCE'S "AN OCCURRENCE AT OWL CREEK BRIDGE"
IN AMERICAN RADIO & TELEVISION


IN THE "GOLDEN AGE" of American radio (early 1930s to the late 1950s), the dramatic output was extraordinarily prolific, not least because the anti-recording policies of the time required that all broadcasts be live. Horror and suspense were particularly popular genres; as Martin Grams Jr. notes, by the late 1940s, “U. S. radio . . . fired at least 80 programs of horror and bloodcurdling adventure at its listeners every week.” [1] While some notable original works were produced for this new medium (such as Lucille Fletcher’s “Sorry, Wrong Number” for Suspense in 1943), the sheer number of horror and suspense shows requiring material meant that the adaptation of literary fiction was an extremely important option available to the radio dramatist. Although some examples of horror adaptation were clichéd and expedient, some – perhaps most famously the Mercury Theater on the Air’s “Dracula” (July 1938) and “War of the Worlds” (October 1938) – remain landmarks of cross-media transformation. In the many examples of horror literature selected for adaptation, some source texts lent themselves extremely well to radio dramatization; as Jim Harmon remarks, Edgar Allan Poe would not have known it, but in “The Tell-Tale Heart” he had written “a beautiful radio script.” [2] It might be argued that Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” (1890) is a tale that warrants equal status. Jack Sullivan celebrates “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” for the following reasons: “Experiments in language and temporal relativity are brilliantly handled in this story.” [3] These qualities, together with its concision, focus, and manipulation of suspense, combine to make the story excellent material for radio drama. However, as we shall see in the course of this essay, as much as the story is a superb basis for radio drama, it is just that: a basis. Adapters may have had a gift in working on “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," but they were nonetheless obliged to expand the story or embellish it with additional material and extra characters when it came to transforming the work into dramatic media.

"An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” first appeared in golden age radio on The Witch’s Tale in an adaptation by Alonzo Deen Cole entitled “The Deserter” (January 23, 1933; revived May 30, 1935). No recording of this adaptation exists, but fortunately several versions of the superb dramatization by the major radio writer-producer William N. Robson do. Robson’s adaptation – loyally entitled "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” – premiered on Escape (December 10, 1947, starring Harry Bartell) and was revived three times on Suspense (December 9, 1956, starring Victor Jory; December 15, 1957, starring Joseph Cotton; and July 19, 1959, starring Vincent Price). Although all three performances ostensibly used the same script, close scrutiny reveals a number of differences between the scripted text and each performance, a result of live broadcasts and the individual stamp given to the central role by actors as diverse but equally accomplished as Joseph Cotton and Vincent Price. Regardless of the peculiar nuances and differences between the various performances, the impact of Bierce’s tale is undiminished. Indeed, the bleak, ironic twist of Bierce’s most famous short story creates a paradigm in radio horror which is repeated, copied, or honored in countless other examples of the genre. The statement in the preamble to the Escape broadcast that “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is "one of the great short stories in American literature” becomes, by the time it is revived and revised for Suspense, an assertion to the listener that the story is a “true classic," the great exception in a literary world of short fiction in which “few are memorable, fewer still are classics."

For one of the “true classics” of fiction, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is remarkable for its economy: Bierce’s short story is characterized by its concision (it is considerably less than 4000 words in length) and a quality of honed yet vivid description that is almost imagistic. Like an Imagist poet, Bierce believes in the efficacy of the “hard, clear image,” [4] yet can startlingly shift gear into a descriptive mode which could even be described as impressionistic; for example, “Objects were represented by their colors only; circular horizontal streaks of color.” [5] The economy of the story is not simply with regard to description; it is a simple tale with minimal exposition, its three short sections painting three detailed scenes or three dramatic episodes. The grotesque finale of the story is like a “punch line” to bitter Bierce’s hideous joke. The story reveals, as Cathy N. Davidson writes, “the fatal presumption that war can have a happy ending.” [6] The tale ingenuously exploits the reader’s naiveté in hoping for one. In hindsight, all the clues to the ending are there: the ages it takes Farquhar to awaken after falling into the water and his other deliriums; his impossibly microscopic visions and the fact that his run through the forest “seemed interminable” (312); the haunting “whispers in an unknown tongue” (312). The story is also an exploration of mortality in universal terms: the precision of Farquhar’s vision when he resurfaces from the creek may be mocking irony or it may be a revelation of the return to dust. In other words, the “audible music” (310) of spider’s legs and “the prismatic colors in all the dewdrops upon a million blades of grass” (310) signify that Farquhar is at one with creation. Similarly, with the benefit of hindsight, the story has a mythic connotation. The “Federal scout” (308) is a Grim Reaper, the bringer of death who ultimately visits everyone, while the river of life and escape is really the River Styx, the dizzying “vortex” (311) that represents Farquhar’s journey into oblivion. Despite such mythic connotations, the fact that the story is set in a Civil War context lends the work, on first reading, the possibility of being real and even anecdotal – a tale of real life adventure and survival – although at the end of the story specific history crumbles and universal horror prevails.

William N. Robson’s radio adaptation of Bierce’s mythic story presents a highly complex narrative. The radio play broadly shares the same structure – indeed, in one of the broadcasts it is specifically described as having three acts. However, the first act adapts section I of the short story along with some of section III (the breaking of the noose and the beginnings of Farquhar’s escape). This is because Robson’s adaptation reworks Bierce’s tale as a suspense thriller in what was a highly competitive market; radio drama needed to hook the listeners and ensure that they can resist the temptation to retune their radios. Therefore, the first few minutes (approximately four minutes) are highly dramatic and suspenseful: we need to know what will happen and, even if we are familiar with the original tale, we still need to know how the tale will be told. Another important technique employed by Robson is a shift in narrative point of view. We, the listeners, are often implicated: you are Peyton Farquhar; the bullet lodges under “your collar,” not “his collar." At the same time, the action is framed – and occasionally interrupted – by an objective account and description of Farquhar. Occasionally, Farquhar becomes a first-person narrator. In the 1959 Suspense version, these moments are given heightened treatment with Vincent Price using a mechanical filter which distorts and distances his voice to emphasize that it is a moment of interior monologue, as well as lending it an uncanny quality. The adaptation also develops a significant amount of exposition and narrative embellishment. Frequently, this is achieved as an expansion on existing Bierce material. For example, the adaptation develops some of the short story into a highly lyrical and even philosophical mode. As Farquhar awaits his execution we hear his thoughts from the brink of death:

     Who has come back from the dead to tell what dying is like? I don’t recall any childhood      memories now. The past does not engulf me in this naked moment. I am only aware of what’s      here, now: those Yankees lined up on the bank; the captain’s tired eyes; that turkey buzzard      circling up there, waiting for me . . .

Such material adds dimensions to Farquhar’s character. Other expansions have a more expositionary function, simply making the story clearer and, for a performance in the genre of suspense, more gripping. There is, for instance, a major expansion of the retrospective section II in which the “gray-clad soldier” (307) arrives at the Farquhar plantation. The few, succinct lines of dialogue in the short story are embellished in Robson’s adaptation to create a fuller dramatic scene with Farquhar, his wife and, as the adaptation has it, the “confederate corporal” underneath the “magnolia trees” on the plantation. This includes Civil War detail such as a discussion of the war and the corporal describing the Alabama regiment he belongs to (later in the play he is revealed to be a lieutenant in a Massachusetts regiment). The scene concludes with a clear set-up for Farquhar’s entrapment, the corporal riding off on his horse after coaxing Farquhar into sabotage with the words “You couldn’t do a greater service for your country.” The substantial expansion of this scene in the process of adaptation creates a more dramatically gripping episode inasmuch as it develops the sense of conspiracy and covert sabotage in a style similar to the many adventure, espionage, and hardboiled crime dramas of the same period. A scene like this is designed to hold the listener’s attention and awaken their curiosity, making one wonder “Will Farquhar see it through? What will go wrong?” and so on.

If the plantation scene is an example of the expansion of original Bierce material, some other scenes are complete additions. Robson adds a scene in which Farquhar is entrapped and summarily tried. This partly serves to reinforce the Civil War setting of the play but it also intensifies the drama, permitting Farquhar’s desperate plea for his life in the presence of an officer who sentences the “southern patriot” Farquhar to death for his intended treason. This scene evokes pity for Farquhar (another strategy to hook the attention of the listener), yet the most important addition to the play is morally complex and is condemnatory of Farquhar – a decision which ultimately enables the listener to assuage the shock and horror of Farquhar’s grim fate. When Farquhar clambers out of the water, he is assisted by a man on the riverbank fishing for catfish. The man turns out to be Jethro, Farquhar’s former slave. The narrator informs us that Farquhar – or rather “you” – sold Jethro knowing that he was dying of consumption. Farquhar is astonished that Jethro is still alive, but rather than being riddled with remorse, the increasingly unpleasant and egotistical Farquhar believes that Jethro will exact revenge. But Jethro is imbued with altruism and forgiveness, declaring, “I’m free! I’m free at last!” Farquhar’s inner narrative responds with contempt that Jethro has subscribed to Abraham Lincoln’s “traitorous emancipation proclamation.” The fact that the terminally ill Jethro is still alive is a clue to Farquhar’s genuine fate, but Robson promptly steers us away from any further suggestion of the supernatural when the dreaded “gray-clad soldier” returns on horseback looking for the fugitive Farquhar. Jethro helps Farquhar hide, after which the latter swiftly departs, interpreting Jethro’s drawn knife as a sign that “he’s gonna do you in himself” despite the former slave’s assertion that he is merely going to “slit up them catfish."

The most successful plays in the genre of suspense radio are able to reach an unambiguous climax. The radio listener must be able to comprehend lucidly what is happening in the denouement of the play, no matter how ironic, fantastical, or downright implausible it may be. Robson’s play succeeds in doing this in an inexorable final section that builds from the narrator’s question “How long have you been running down this endless road?,” a line that serves as Robson’s equivalent to Bierce’s “interminable” forest. The listener is cast into absolute darkness which is either night or “blood bursting into your congested eyeballs.” However, a burst of lightning (accompanied by the classic and ever-popular radio sound effect of thunder) reveals a world of fierce Yankee soldiers “aiming at your heart,” Jethro baring his knife and his teeth and, ultimately, nooses swinging from all the branches. The sequence ends in a piercing scream and then the glorious sunshine as Farquhar finds himself in his garden. The moment of reunion with his wife is expanded into a romantic and lyrical scene accompanied by appropriately sentimental music: all the agonies of Farquhar’s journey and fatigue are nothing compared to the “sanctuary of these arms, the security of these lips.” However, Robson is merely deploying a strategy of misdirection. The seemingly happy ending is a technique to heighten the shocking final line: “Peyton Farquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek bridge.” The line is uttered by the framing narrator and is accompanied by the rhythmically creaking sound of the swinging noose.

The creaking sound of the noose is one of the finest moments in Robson’s elaborate soundscape. The adaptation and the brilliant skills of the live sound effects technicians variously create the sounds of the waters of Owl Creek (varying from a gentle lapping to the frenzy of a whirlpool), the echoing sounds of military commands, the crack of muskets and the boom of cannons, the croaking frogs on the riverbank and even an exact replication of Bierce’s description of “the humming of the gnats” (310). Similarly, the use of orchestral music (once again performed live on air) enhances the production. On Escape, the score uses a register that is both lyrical and harmonious, with the interjection of dramatic chords as a punctuational strategy. The music for Suspense, however, is more consistently sinister, using eerie dissonances merging with military bugle sounds. In both programs, descriptive music, such as descending scales for Farquhar’s fall into the creek, is used. In Escape and all but the final production on Suspense, an ingenious dramatic twist makes use of music: the narrative is accompanied by the increasing, rhythmic beating of timpani, which is explained thus: “it’s your heart, of course, you hear, stepping up its cadence, pounding under the forced graft of fear."

Despite differences in music, William N. Robson’s adaptation of “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” remains broadly unchanged across Escape and Suspense. The actors cast as Farquhar all capture and convey a distinct southern accent, although the broadness of dialect may vary. It is, arguably, at its most broad in Harry Bartell’s performance on Escape, although, in contrast, Jethro’s accent in the same production is less broad than in the 1950s versions. Probably the least pronounced accent is Vincent Price’s in the 1959 production. Although Price adds considerable southern “drawl” to certain words, such as “writhe” (lengthening the word emphatically). Overall, the lack of heavy accentuation on Price’s part retains the distinctive quality of his own voice: Price was one of the leading stars of golden age radio, not least as the lead star on The Saint (1947-51), and in notable horror plays such as “Three Skeleton Key” (several productions on Suspense in the 1950s). Any radio producers who secured Price would not want their listeners to be in any doubt as to the identity of the leading actor. In addition to Price’s performance, the other notable feature of the final production of “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” on Suspense is that it is considerably shorter. The Escape and other Suspense productions are all around the 25-28 minute range. In contrast, the 1959 Suspense production is around a mere eighteen minutes, very short for the standard “thirty-minute slot.” This major reduction primarily dispenses with some of Robson’s longer descriptive material and lyrical exposition, although it retains the additional scenes such as the entrapment retrospective and the encounter with Jethro. What this sharper adaptation produces is a succinct, thrilling journey that never lets up its thunderous pace and is perhaps more in keeping with the concision and pace of Bierce’s original.

Although the last adaptation of “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” in the golden age of live radio may have aimed for unprecedented concision, the most significant radio adaptation after the golden age could not have been more different. Sam Dann’s dramatization of Bierce’s tale for the pre-recorded CBS Radio Mystery Theater (June 4, 1974 and repeated on August 24, 1974 and September 15, 1979) is near the forty-five minute mark in duration and turns the story into a full drama with several characters, lengthy exposition, and substantial embellishment. These embroideries reflected the ambitious attempt, during the 1970s, to revive American radio drama: the longer time slot made demands on narrative sweep. The actions of, in this version, “Peyton Forrester” are not part of a cunning entrapment but a calculated collaborative sabotage in which his accomplice is killed. Forrester’s attempt fails, but he escapes Union custody and attempts to blow up the bridge again. In another major plot change, the moment that Forrester thinks he has succeeded in blowing up the bridge is the moment he hangs, dead, from Owl Creek Bridge. Dann’s adaptation also develops the drama of the Civil War, including the domestic ructions caused by a nation at war (“We’ve lost, we’ve lost, Peyton!” says Forrester’s wife, disapproving of her husband’s terrorist plot). Similarly, Dann uses the development of several other characters to expand the setting and scene of the play. At the start, for example, a Union officer supports a young soldier who declares “I’m gonna be sick!” as the execution is about to occur. However, as laudable and rich as Dann’s adaptation is, it does diminish the intensity of Bierce’s original tale and the live radio versions. Similarly, although the slightly different ending may be ingenious, it is not as powerful, poignant or disturbing as Bierce’s sex (Eros) and death (Thanatos) ending with Farquhar – in the cruellest irony of frustrated desire – dying as he is about to embrace his wife.

As well as providing great source material for radio adapters, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” established a paradigm for performance horror: namely a narrative with a surprise ending in which it is revealed that the vivacious protagonist – who often miraculously “survives” a gravely perilous situation – has in fact been dead for most of the story. Numerous characters in golden age radio’s finest suspense and horror plays, such as the car driver (Orson Welles) in “The Hitch-Hiker” (Suspense, September 2, 1944), the scheming adulterers in “Broadway Here I Come” (The Mysterious Traveler, June 17, 1945), and the taxi driver (Ernest Chappell) in “Take Me Out to the Graveyard” (Quiet, Please, November 3, 1947), are all hapless souls who, like Peyton Farquhar, do not realize that they are already dead. These plays may have been produced some fifty years before The Sixth Sense (M. Night Shyamalan, 1999), but they come, nevertheless, fifty years after Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge."

Bierce’s masterpiece did not just inspire radio drama; it also enjoyed two major television adaptations. The tale was adapted by Harold Swanton for Alfred Hitchcock Presents (December 20, 1959) and by Robert Enrico, whose film was broadcast as an episode of The Twilight Zone (February 28, 1964). The Alfred Hitchcock Presents version “presented stark performances grabbing the attention of critics and viewers alike,” and the memorable spectacle of Hitchcock giving his host introduction from the inside of a cannon, declaring that the Civil War was a time when “space travel was in this primitive means.” But the Oscar-winning version featured on The Twilight Zone is "generally considered superior,” and it is to this version that we will now devote our attention. [7]

As Marc Scott Zicree explains, in the fifth and final season of The Twilight Zone (1963-64), producer William Froug discovered that the series was running seriously over budget. The solution Froug came up with was an ingenious one. Froug had seen La Rivière du Hibou (1962), the French film adaptation of “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” which had won first prize for short film at the 1962 Cannes Film Festival. Froug was so impressed by Enrico’s film that he secured all American television rights to it (for a mere $10,000). Froug did not acquire the rights to Enrico’s film with The Twilight Zone in mind, but the television series’ financial crisis suggested to him an unusual idea. He proposed that the short French film be used as an episode of The Twilight Zone, an unprecedented move, since all previous episodes had been produced “in-house” by CBS. For their part, CBS executives were uneasy about screening a French film on American primetime television, but the prospect of the instant budgetary solution that Enrico’s short film promised was sufficient to override any misgivings. In fact, the gamble paid off: thanks to the screening of Enrico’s film, the financial crisis of The Twilight Zone was not only solved immediately but, by the end of the season, the series had come in under budget. Moreover, the episode was extremely well received by critics and audiences. Indeed, Enrico’s film went on to win the Oscar for Best Short Film in 1964, and had obviously not been done a disservice by being screened on The Twilight Zone. As Variety remarked, thanks to The Twilight Zone, Enrico’s film “undoubtedly received more exposure than any such candidate in Oscar history.” [8]

CBS’s concerns about broadcasting a foreign language film as part of a popular series would have been justified if the dialogue were plentiful. The soundtrack could have been dubbed, although such a decision would have been at aesthetic odds with the frequently high caliber of production on display in The Twilight Zone. However, Enrico’s film version has barely a line of dialogue and includes a ballad sung in English. The film is dominated by the visual – from (as in Bierce) a sense of broad landscape to the microscopically detailed – and is enhanced by an impressive use of sound. Enrico uses numerous strategies and codes of film, and his work remains an outstanding essay in film technique. The film offers experiments in perspective and distance (long shots of the creek and close-ups of a caterpillar on a leaf), light and shade, but is perhaps most impressive in relation to time with the use of ellipsis and slowdown. As such, the film replicates the proto-modernist techniques of Bierce’s fiction such as the assimilation of a journalistic style with abstract imagery, and the infusion of a precise historical setting with mythic connotations. In its turn, the film has moments that are documentary in their realism and then other moments of anti-realistic alienation, especially in the long, final sequence of Farquhar in his garden, running toward, but never quite reaching, his wife.

As Jack Sullivan says, “Horror is not a motif or even a genre in Bierce but a totality, an end in itself.” [9] Such pure and all-encompassing horror is never better displayed than in “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge." Works such as “A Tough Tussle” may feature a grim creature who is a remarkable precursor to the modern zombie, but the simple tale of Peyton Farquhar is not a tangential or neglected link but an essential horror tale that has and will continue to loom over horror culture. “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” presents a universe of horror in which the moment of death may seem to be a final quest for hope, but is rather a hideous irony in which the creaking rope of a noose mocks the laugh of freedom. The tale continues to be an archetypal paradigm of horror with a special appeal for the performance media: a story that succeeds, impressively, whether the subsequent adaptation is dependent on the pure dialogue and sound of radio, or on the visual and audial language of cinema.

WORKS CITED

1. Martin Grams, Jr., Inner Sanctum Mysteries: Behind the Creaking Door (Churchville, MD: OTR Publishing, 2002), 34.

2. Jim Harmon, The Great Radio Heroes (New York: Doubleday, 1967), 75.

3. Jack Sullivan, ed., The Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986), 33.

4. J. A. Cuddon, A Dictionary of Literary Terms (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979), 324.

5. Ambrose Bierce, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," The Complete Short Stories of Ambrose Bierce, ed. Ernest Jerome Hopkins (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984), 311. All citations hereafter appear parenthetically within the text.

6. Cathy N. Davidson, Foreword, The Complete Short Stories of Ambrose Bierce, 3.

7. Martin Grams, Jr. and Patrik Wikstrom, The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion (Churchville, MD: OTR Publishing, 2001), 40, 56.

8. Marc Scott Zicree, The Twilight Zone Companion (Los Angeles: Silman-James, 1992), 426-7, 427.

9. Sullivan, The Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural, 34.


Copyright © 2005 The Ambrose Bierce Project and Penn State University. All rights reserved.