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Leviathan 99

Radio drama, BBC 1968, produced by H.B.Fortuin.

BBC Radio 3, May 03, 1968.

The Cast

Denys Hawthorne (Ishmael)

Christopher Lee (the Captain) - who was pivotal in getting the play produced by the BBC.

Leviathan 99 is sometimes described as Moby Dick in space - and with justification, since Bradbury here transposes Melville's tale of ships and whale to a tale of rocketships and a great white comet. This radio production was the first public outing of this play, which would subsequently be adapted for stage.

Bradbury apparently completed the radio script in 1966, and submitted it to NBC, who declined to buy it. He then approached the BBC, in a two-pronged attack: Bradbury sent one copy direct to producer D.G.Bridson, while his London agents sent another copy direct to the BBC Script Editor, Richard Imison. This led to a little confusion within the BBC, as two departmental heads were unknowingly each considering producing the same play.

The main cast of the BBC production are the British actors Denys Hawthorne (as Ishmael) and Christopher Lee (as the Captain). It seems that Lee was also instrumental in getting the show produced. He is quoted as saying "Bradbury gave me a story...and said 'Can you get this made in England?' I managed to get it made for radio... I played Ahab, the captain of a spaceship out to destroy a comet because it blinded him. The thing is, how do you play a blind man on radio?"

The play was produced as a piece of experimental drama, and used an electronic score "composed and executed in stereophony" by Tristram Cary. Cary later arranged a concert version of his score, which was performed live in 1972. This version, along with a definitive collection of Cary's other works, is available on CD. The play also made extensive use of sound montages built up out of classical music and historic speeches. The play was apparently recorded over an extended period of a few weeks in March and April 1968.

The play's producer, H.B.Fortuin, was convinced of the quality of the production, even before it was completed. He urged the BBC to put Leviathan 99 forward as the official BBC entry for the prestigious Prix Italia. The BBC took him up on this, but papers in the BBC Written Archive Centre show that Bradbury vetoed this (for unknown reasons). The BBC remained impressed with the production and they and Fortuin assisted in further productions, one in the Netherlands and one in Germany. Fortuin himself carried out the translation into Dutch. He told Bradbury this was "not easy to make. Your language is highly inventive and demands much of a translator."

Audiences were, however, divided. Although BBC Audience Research Reports show that appreciation ranged from "A+" to "C-", there was a definite split between those who enjoyed the Moby Dick parallel and the "plausible" science fiction elements, and those who strongly disliked both of these aspects.

The radio and stage versions of the play have some major differences, not least in their length. The unpublished scripts housed at Bowling Green State University Popular Culture Library are 46 pages long (radio play) and 100 pages long (stage play). Douglas Carter has undertaken a textual comparison of the two - click here for an abstract.

Working on the screenplay for the 1956 film of Moby Dick clearly had a major influence on Bradbury's career and writing. Before he joined John Huston, Bradbury supposedly had never been able to finish reading Melville's classic novel; after Huston's movie, Bradbury would be seemingly fascinated by the great white whale, as evidenced by Leviathan 99 and Green Shadows, White Whale.

To hear the beginning of the play, click here.

Stage Productions

Bradbury developed his radio script into a stage play, which premiered in Hollywood in 1972. The poster design is by Joseph Mugnaini, who also created projected backdrop designs for the production.

Recent productions include one starring John Rhys Davies as the Captain, 2003.

Bradbury has also developed Leviathan 99 into an opera, with music by Jerry Goldsmith.

Information sources:
BBC Written Archive Centre, Caversham

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Page updated 8 March, 2019