Monday 6 July 2020

"U S" by W. H. Auden

On Saturday Night's Leap in the Dark the American actress Stephenie Elleyne and myself performed "U S",  W. H. Auden's script for a lavishly-funded 1968 documentary which formed the visual centrepiece for the HemisFair exposition in Texas.

This film, Auden's last collaboration in cinema, is a spectacular example of the original documentary movement’s self-imposed remit to Tell Truth to Power’ - a state-funded critique of the state, a provocative interrogation of the way a free society should function and an indignant presentation of democracy's shortcomings.

It was seen by huge audiences during its run including the President's wife, 'Lady Bird' Johnson, who publicly condemned it. The film has never been screened since then as it depends for its effect on site-specific multiple projections on three large screens, reminiscent of Abel Gance’s approach in the silent epic Napoleon (1927). The commentary has likewise disappeared from view so the performance on 4th July was not without significance.

After queuing patiently in hot sunshine outside a circular modernist Pavilion the crowds were ushered into the aptly-named Confluence Theatre, at the heart of the exposition. This consisted of three separate 400-seat auditoria, anticipating today's multiplex arrangements. The audience, once seated in one of the three screening rooms, settled down for what they were led to believe would be a conventional movie presentation. The lights dimmed, the projectors whirred and the film began. with an immediate sense of anti-climax: blurry photographic images of early settlers, in black and white and deliberately unremarkable, like humdrum snapshots from a family album. This opening sequence concluded with a flickering image of a Wright Brothers era biplane struggling to take off as the roar of a modern jet engine gradually flooded the auditorium. The image grew larger and larger and the engine noise louder. Then, in a thrilling moment, the dividing walls between the three theatres were smoothly and silently raised into the ceiling and the three screens became a vast single curved display measuring 38 by 140 feet. Now united in a sweeping auditorium the combined audience of 1,200 formed a single community and together witnessed a jaw-dropping panorama of cumulus clouds towering above a landscape of mountains and forests. This was accompanied by a stirring score by composer David Amram (b. 1930) of the New York Philharmonic. It was a breathtaking, immersive experience, an unforgettable spectacle. ‘You were swept up together in the idea of one nation,’ recalled one audience member, twenty years later. 

What follows is a transcript of the stapled mimeograph sheet (a very unprepossessing souvenir of the screening) distributed free of charge to members of the audience as they entered the auditorium. The copy I worked from was in possession of the London book dealers Maggs Brothers. The typescript included no images, logos or other identifying marks. I am unaware of any other printed ephemera connected with the screening although I assume there were posters, fliers and similar promotional material.

United States Pavilion NEWS   HEMISFAIR ‘68
U.S. Department of Commerce/U.S. Expositions Staff
Erna S. Hallock
Information Office

For release at will

“U  S”

Narration written by W. H. Auden for the documentary film “U  S,” shown in the Confluence Theatre, United States Pavilion, at HemisFair ’68.

The waiting land

Was this the Vineland the Vikings’ legend
Said they saw? If so, the glimpse
Was soon forgotten. Centuries passed.
The map was blank till Iberians looking 
For a less expensive passage, a quicker
Route to the Indias, rich in spices,
Stumbled instead on a strange continent.

Vast, unhumanized, a virgin wilderness,
The land lay in her long sleep,
Waiting to be woken by western man.

Quite empty? No. There were noble savages,
Indian tribes, tillers and hunters,
Roaming freely through the forests and plains,
Well content with their way of life.

Early settlement

When we came to these shores and encountered the Indians,
There was good-will at first: gifts were exchanged
And treaties sworn. Presently though . . . 

Each year the coast became more civil,
Till we broke with England to be our own masters,
And founded a republic, the first on earth
Where all men should be equal and free.
Immigrants were needed. Immigrants came.


Most were poor, peasants and such
From the underlayers of the old world’s
Stratified heap. They streamed to join us,
Men and women, a million a year.
These came by choice, as they crossed the Atlantic
They looked forward with hope . . . 

….Unlike those earlier
Luckless millions who were made to come,
Torn from their African homes by force.

No rejoicing, though, for Indians:
We wanted their land,
With war and whiskey we worsted them.

Scenes of American achievement

America:  A land of great plenty with promises to keep.

The highway sequence

Our frontier lands are fully settled;
Overcrowding is the headache now.

So we have built superhighways and automobiles
To give us freedom of movement.

We have pinned our hope on our machines.

Yes, we have pinned our hope on our machines.

The wild landscapes

However, for our rare moments of escape, we have managed 
to preserve a few landscapes that are still wild. Here, 
we still may wander by ourselves and fall again under the 
spell of nature, and re-enter her magic circle where we 
lived when we were children.

These precious places are few and far between.

The beach sequence

Solitude and privacy are not easy to come by in a 
mechanized world.

Devastation of our natural resources

The marvellous machines we have made obey us,
And couldn’t care less for the consequences:
Nothing good or evil can happen to them.
If we want it that way, they will lay waste the earth.
Loot the land and leave behind them
An irredeemable desolation.

Yes, we are free in our greed to let poisons
Befoul the streams till the fish die,
Discommodate cities, turn smiling fields
Into junk graveyards and garbage dumps,
Let noxious effluvia fill the air, polluting our lungs.

The American neighborhood

Pleasant places exist, of course, comfortable retreats
Where the air smells good, the nights are quiet, and
One can forget about all the problems of the world outside.

The American poor

For the unskilled, the unschooled, there is now no
Place in this world, neither on the land, nor in
the city.

Nobody needs them, and they know it.


The eyes of the world are upon us
And wonder what we’re worth,
For much they see dishonors
The richest country on earth.

Shamefully we betray
Our noble dead if we,
After two hundred years,
Cannot or will not see,
Behind their conscious ideas,
More clearly what is meant
By certain truths that they
Believed self-evident.

On each of us depends
What sort of judgement waits
For you, for me, our friends,
And these United States.

1 comment:

  1. Dear David Collard:
    My deep gratitude for this, and for making available the text to this movie, which in my 67 years has very, very often popped into my memory. In 1968 I was in eighth grade, and our school class went to San Antonio from Corpus Christi on a one-day field trip to Hemisfair. It was a very big deal for us. I remember snapping loads of black and white photos on a cheap instamatic my mother bought me. But I have never forgotten the movie at the Confluence Theater. I really wish I could see it again. Again, thank you.