Here are a few excerpts from Marguerite H. Rippy's fine book Orson Welles and the Unfinished RKO Projects: A Postmodern Perspective
in which she discusses Welles and the Mercury Theatre's 1938 broadcast of OLIVER TWIST. Of the 85 hour-long shows that the Mercury did in 1938-39, this is sadly one of the thirteen that are now missing, so Rippy's observations are taken from the script, which is apparently the only thing that survives of it. Her observations don't make it sound like one of the better Mercury shows, but Welles's portrait of Fagin is still obviously a big loss:
In the OLIVER TWIST broadcast, the pattern of narration does not hold together well. Welles’s OLIVER TWIST often shifts between Brownlow, the primary narrator, and Oliver, who narrates sections of his life himself…to the confusion of the listener.
Welles echoes Dickens’ criticisms of capital punishment, bureaucratic waste, showing that these things had not become less relevant in the 1930’s. Through the meditations of Fagin on capital punishment, Welles matches Dickens’ balance between social reformer and showman.
The script makes extreme cuts in Dickens’ text, and opens by dropping the listener directly into the scene of Oliver’s arrest for picking Brownlow’s pocket. The confusing and melodramatic mystery of Oliver’s identity in the novel is omitted from the radio broadcast. In Welles’s broadcast, he is simply a stranger to Brownlow, no more related to his interests or his family then any other street urchin (whereas in the novel Brownlow is later revealed to be a very close friend of Oliver's father). The question of Oliver’s parentage is omitted from this version entirely.
In line with this adaptation’s emphasis on social reform, the script keeps Oliver’s request for more gruel only as a second hand report from an outraged Brumble, making it a less immediate narrative then A TALE OF TWO CITIES. Since very little of the actual action of the narrative happens to our first-person narrator (Brownlow), the show suffers from a didacticism not present in the earlier adaptation of TALE OF TWO CITIES.
The audience is directed to focus not on Oliver’s actions, but on the government perspective. The first part of Oliver Twist sounds more like an editorial commentary on social policy then the immediate drama often associated with Welles’ radio productions. By softening the anti-semitic rhetoric surrounding Fagin - not referring to him as “the Jew”, as in Dickens’ original - Welles depicts him as an example of the failure of bureaucracy in the justice system, rather then as Satan himself, the embodiment of Christian fantasies of Jewish evil.
Thus Welles keeps social critique while reducing the pervasive anti-semitism of the era, which is no small feat. Welles may have traded one ethnic stereotype for another, however, since the draft script suggests that Fagin speaks in an Irish brogue and refers to his dangling red hair as he faces the irate mob. In addition, the anti-semitic cannotations of greed and cannibalism do remain from the original text.
A major problem in this adaptation: the narrator is either Brownlow, who is largely uninvolved in the events of the story, or Oliver, who is a child, and therefore unable to explain events fully.
Additionally, the use of Welles to play the violent Fagin splits the audience’s sympathies to confusing effect. One could hardly imagine the audience identifying with Fagin.
The broadcast is at odds with itself, both structurally and thematically, although it is hard to interpret the effect of the actual broadcast from it’s only currently available form, the draft script.
Welles’s adaptation of Oliver Twist found him emphasizing contemporary social critique in tandem with mass entertainment, and ultimately maintaining the balance between progressive politics and entertaining art would test the limits of RKO’s patience with Welles in his incomplete projects such as IT’S ALL TRUE and HEART OF DARKNESS.