ORSON WELLES, THE NEW DEAL, AND THE MERCURY THEATRE ON THE AIR

Reported by Paul Holler

On the 29th of August, 1937, an article appeared in the New York Times announcing the beginning of a new theater company. The article appeared on page one of the Sunday theater section, at the center of the page, surrounded by other long forgotten bits of theater news.
         The new theater was to be called The Mercury. From the beginning, its founders, who were also the authors of the Times article, sought to reawaken the American public to theater’s potential. Those founders were a young but established actor named John Housemann and a precocious newcomer named Orson Welles.
         "When it opens its doors," wrote Housemann and Welles, "the Mercury will expect to play the same audiences that during the last two seasons stood to see Doctor Faustus, the Negro Macbeth and Murder in the Cathedral."(1)
         This audience, as Housemann and Welles saw it, wanted modern treatments of classic works that had relevance to the world it knew.
         "It was fresh. It was eager…," wrote Housemann and Welles of audiences of their earlier productions, "One had the feeling, every night, that here were people on a voyage of discovery in the theater."(2)
         Although they consciously took their name from American Mercury, a journal published by H.L. Menckin, (3) the image of the wing-footed messenger of the gods would prove apt. In its brief history, The Mercury Theatre would present the public with a wide view, a sense of enlightenment and a belief in the possibility of change that was inherent to a free society.
         In 1937, the public badly needed a sense of freedom and renewed faith in the possibility of change. America was in the throes of the Great Depression, the worst economic collapse in the history of the nation. The Roosevelt administration had taken the unprecedented and highly controversial step of intervening in the nation's economy through a collection of Federal programs designed to provide the unemployed with work. The New Deal, as it came to be known, was in full operation, but had yet to pull the nation out of its doldrums.
         A confidant of FDR once told him that if the New Deal succeeded, he would forever be remembered as one of America’s greatest presidents.
         "And if I fail," FDR is said to have replied, "I'll be remembered as the last."
         The Mercury Theater traces its roots back to one of FDR's New Deal programs, the Federal Theater Project. Formed in 1935 as a part of the Works Progress Administration, the Federal Theater Project operated for several years under the leadership of a Vassar College theater professor named Hallie Flannigan.(4) Her vision for the FTP was two-fold. As money for theater projects disappeared and many talented artists were left without work, the Federal Theater Project provided them with a means of making a living. Likewise, as hardships befell the public at large, the FTP provided live theater at a reasonable cost for audiences across the country.
         But Flannigan, and many others involved with the FTP, saw an even greater role for their productions. The New Deal was set to change America. The FTP and other programs within the WPA did more than merely provide jobs. They were agents of vast social change. Flannigan saw herself and the FTP as being one with the workers building roads and the artists creating Post Office murals. America, as Flannigan saw it, was being rebuilt by ordinary Americans. (5)
         The epicenter of this change in the theater was New York City. As funds from the FTP flowed into that city and more and more theaters opened their doors, both great and unknown artists of the day gathered there. One of the young, unknown actors was a round faced nineteen-year-old from the Midwest named George Orson Welles.
         When Orson Welles graduated from the Todd School in Woodstock, Illinois, he fought the idea of going to college, even though he had been accepted into several prestigious institutions.(6) He had a passion for theater. Though his family viewed the theater as a low art form, beneath the talents of their child, Welles was resolute.
         As a compromise, Orson Welles agreed to go to Ireland to study art. But when he arrived there, he soon became involved with the Gate Theater in Dublin, where be began to learn the craft of the professional actor.
         When he returned home to the midwest after his time in Ireland, Welles became acquainted with Thorton Wilder.(7) A Professor of Literature at the University of Chicago, Wilder had yet to write the plays that were to make him famous. But he had contacts that provided the teenager an entre into the world of professional theater. It was Wilder who introduced Welles to Alexander Woolcott, an author well known in the theatrical and literary circles of New York. Woolcott, like Wilder, was impressed with Welles' abilities. Soon after his arrival in New York, Welles won the role of Mercutio in a Broadway production of Romeo and Juliet. (8)
         It was a role that suited him well. While a significant portion of the audience of that time—and our own—saw the Shakespeare’s works as distant and unapproachable, Welles saw them as plays for the masses. Where established actors of his day revered Shakespeare as the greatest of all playwrights, Welles approached the bard with a different kind of reverence. He saw the plays as living works that spoke to people of all times.(9)
         Perhaps it was inevitable that such an eager young man with deep convictions about the role of theater in everyday life would find his way to the Federal Theater Project. In 1936, he did just that. The FTP's mission of uniting with the common man merged with Welles' notion that theater is for everyone. And by attempting to reach beyond the cultural elite of New York City, Welles and the FTP produced plays which stand today as some of the century's most innovative theatrical work.
         Welles' directorial debut with the FTP was a production of Shakespeare's Macbeth. He moved the setting of the story to Haiti, presumably around 1820. (10) In doing this, Welles transferred the supernatural trappings of the play to a place where belief in the supernatural still held sway. The production became known as the "Voodoo Macbeth."(11)
         The Voodoo Macbeth was a major success. Where a more conventional approach to the material might have drawn only a relatively small audience of Shakespeare buffs, this production caught the eye of the public.
         The Voodoo Macbeth serves as an early look at the kind of artist Welles would become. His unconventional approach to the great tragedy presented the world with Welles the actor, Welles the director and Welles the master showman. Time would show that the three were so closely intertwined as to be almost indistinguishable.
         But for all his gifts, Welles suffered under a serious handicap. No matter what gifts a young actor may have, it is difficult for him to overcome the mere fact of youth. Welles, at the age of twenty, looked every bit the young actor that he was. Photographs show a cherubic, boyish face. He was capable of many facial expressions and great intensity, but he could only attain the intensity of a very young person. Perhaps that is why photographs of him from this period show him wearing heavy, almost mask-like stage makeup.
         The one tool he used to overcome his youthful appearance was his voice. Even as a young child, he was able to create distinct characters by varying the tone, pitch and intensity of his voice. It is said that when he was thirteen, his drama class was disqualified from a competition because the judges, upon hearing him speak, assumed they were hearing a professional actor (12).
         During the 1930's, the primary medium for entertainment and news was radio. When Welles first arrived in New York, radio producers quickly recognized his potential in that medium and put him to work. For a young man whose voice could convince an audience that he was almost anyone, there was no better place to be than in radio.
         By the mid 1930's, Welles' voice was familiar radio listeners across the country. He had minor parts in a number of shows, but had not yet achieved a starring role. That changed in 1935.
         During that year, Welles was on the Broadway stage, portraying a ruined businessman named McGafferty in Panic, Archibald MacLeish's verse drama about the stock market crash of 1929. (13)
         John Housemann, who would be become one of Welles' most important collaborators, served as the producer of MacLeish's play. Housemann chose Welles to play McGafferty after being impressed by his portrayal of Tybalt in an earlier production of Romeo and Juliet. (14)
         As producer, Housemann sought out ways to promote Panic and its cast. With that end in mind, Housemann arranged for the cast of Panic to perform excerpts from the play on radio. It may never be known how many people came to see Panic as a result of the radio performance. But those in the business of radio were listening very closely.
         It was the 1935 broadcast of Panic that attracted the attention of the Mutual Broadcasting Company. Mutual, in the mid 1930's, was best known for such popular radio shows as The Lone Ranger. (15) But after hearing Welles in Panic, Mutual offered Welles an opportunity. Mutual proposed an ambitious production for radio, a seven part series based on Victor Hugo's Les Miserables to be adapted, directed and performed by Welles. The network offered Welles complete creative control. Welles accepted.
         Transforming the epic story of Jean Valjean into a radio script presented considerable challenges. Les Miserables is an extremely long work. Even a seven part series did not provide enough time to contain it entirely. In order to condense the work while still retaining its essential elements, Welles formulated a technique that would serve him well in later years. He wrote the script as a combination of dramatic scenes and literary passages. He narrated parts that covered long periods of time in the story and saved the dramatic scenes for crucial parts of character and story development.
         In doing so, he came upon a new form of storytelling. It was neither drama nor narrative in the tradition sense. It was a new form for a new day and a new medium. It was radio drama.
         And just as the form of the work was of its time, so was the theme. New York City of the mid 1930's, with its desperate poverty and sense of economic injustice, bore a resemblance to nineteenth century Paris. In fact, Welles began each episode of Les Miserables with this admonishment from the novel, which spoke to radio listeners of the 1930's as well as it did to readers of the century before:
         "So long as these problems are not solved, so long as ignorance and poverty remain on earth, these words cannot be useless."
         In his portrayal of the narrator and Jean Valjean, Welles found parts that suited him in a medium that accentuated his talents. Still in his early twenties, Welles was able to convincingly portray an old, poor and oppressed man. At the same time, he also played the part of the detached narrator. Welles had the ability to play a central character and a dispassionate narrator, both with equal facility and both with such distinction that the listening audience was generally unaware that they were being voiced by the same actor. The medium of radio accentuated his talent while rendering his incongruously youthful appearance irrelevant.
         Following the success of Les Miserables, doors opened for Welles in other media. He considered offers from Hollywood studios to work in movies, but turned them down because they could not offer him the money and, more importantly, the artistic control he craved. (16).
         But more radio work followed. He soon became a fixture in households across America with his portrayal of Lamont Cranston in the weekly series, The Shadow. He was often a guest on The Jack Benny Show and other popular radio shows. In fact, he was in such demand as a radio performer that he is said to have travelled from one radio studio to another in an ambulance to make it through the Manhattan traffic to his next show.
         But while he was working in radio, he continued his theater work. At the time that Les Miserables was first broadcast, the first productions of the Mercury Theatre were being considered.
         The Mercury Theatre was privately funded but was founded on the same principles as those that guided Welles' Federal Theater Project productions a few years earlier. As Welles and Housemann wrote in their New York Times article inaugurating the theater, they did not seek the elite of theater goers. Rather, they wanted to attract people who normally did not go to the theater.
         And, as with Les Miserables, the early plays of the Mercury Theatre reflected the times in which the company lived. Its first production, Shakespeare's Juilius Caesar, was chosen not for its relevance within the canon, but for its timeliness. Events in Europe in the 1930's and, indeed, the prevalence of organized crime in America lent currency to Shakespeare's tale of a tyrant's downfall.(17)
         In 1937, when the theater began, Welles was known to most Americans not as the Shakespearean actor and impresario, but as the radio voice of Lamont Cranston, the millionaire socialite who thwarted the New York underworld in the guise of The Shadow. This series, which featured the most popular and most recognizable of all of Welles' radio roles, served several purposes for Welles.
         First and foremost, he enjoyed the part.(18) To modern audiences, The Shadow may seem to be a step backward for an actor whose ambitions lay with bringing Shakespeare to new audiences. But Welles had no interest in playing to a theatrical elite. He always sought the general public as his audience and his weekly plays about a hero doing battle with the forces of evil certainly fulfilled that wish. Also, The Shadow was a highly lucrative project, lessening the need for his theater projects to be greatly profitable.
         Radio, with its power to excite the imagination and actually involve the audience in the creative process, had huge potential as a medium for serious drama. It seemed inevitable that the day would come when this medium, which had made Orson Welles a household name across the country, would become a part of his serious theater ambitions. That day came in 1938.
         It was in that year that CBS, remembering Welles' work on Les Miserables the year before, approached him and Housemann about a series of radio dramas for its summer schedule. The idea was conceived as a series of narratives under the title First Person Singular. But the series would be best remembered by the name it assumed with its second production, The Mercury Theatre on the Air.
         As with Les Miserables the previous year, Welles was given complete creative control by CBS over the new series.(19) The choices he made in developing the series were informed by what he had learned in previous years in other radio dramas. Chief among those choices was to create dramas specifically for the radio and not to simply adapt dramas in production at the Mercury Theatre for broadcast. In close collaboration with John Houseman and other writers, Welles wrote, directed and performed in the productions. The end result was a series of dramas based on literary, rather than dramatic, works. There were exceptions, most notably Our Town by Welles' early mentor Thorton Wilder. But it was clear to Welles and Housemann that the medium of radio suited the telling of a story far better than the dramatization of it. As a result, some of the most memorable Mercury Theatre on the Air productions were adaptations of great novels. Huckleberry Finn, A Tale of Two Cities, The Magnificent Ambersons, Heart of Darkness and other major literary works were offered to radio audiences during the Mercury Theatre on the Air's run.
         In a time when radio featured much light entertainment, The Mercury offered audiences works that challenged them, as the productions of the Federal Theater Project had challenged audiences for live theater.

Recommended Reading:
On the Air
On The Air
John Dunning


Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles
David Thomson

"The listening audience respected Orson Welles and his efforts on the Mercury Theatre of The Air," says Chuck Schaden, host of Those Were the Days, a weekly old time radio show on WDCB in Chicago. "But that audience was rather small because most considered it a 'highbrow' program, even though Welles did a lot of popular classics."

        The first production of the Mercury Theatre on the Air was in this vein: an adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula. This work, already well known to audiences from the classic film starring Bela Lugosi, continued the narrative style that Welles developed with Les Miserables. The story of Dracula was told by a narrator and interwoven with dramatic scenes portrayed by actors. The withholding of visual images, replaced by sound effects that suggested them, worked well for this horror classic. Horror stories work on the deepest fears of the audience. The less the senses have to work with, the more the imagination can take over and play on those fears.
         In a different way, the imagination can also enhance the effect of an adventure story. This was a key ingredient in the Mercury Theatre on the Air's next production, Treasure Island. Here, Welles himself played both Long John Silver and the old Jim Hawkins relating the story from his youth . The way the original story was written lent itself to Welles' style of radio drama. Robert Louis Stevenson's story is told from the point of view of an old Jim Hawkins. Just as Stevenson's reading audience enhanced the story in their own minds, so did Welles' radio audience. But not all of the stories lent themselves to radio as neatly as did Treasure Island.
         Another sea adventure, The Mutiny on the Bounty, used the narrative technique in a slightly different way. The original novel by Charles Nordoff and James Norman Hall was written from the point of view of a crewmember of the Bounty. Welles, on the other hand, chose to tell his version of the story from many points of view. Various members of the crew relate events, commenting on the action and giving the audience a look into their attitudes and beliefs.
         This approach accounted for the difference between this particular story and the others that were produced before it. Where Treasure Island is primarily an adventure story, Mutiny on the Bounty explores the idea of duty and the moral issues raised by defying the unquestioned authority of a sea captain. By using this approach, Welles leaves the audience with much to think about, many questions but no clear answers.
         In Huckleberry Finn, Welles introduces another narrative device. He plays himself, reading narrative passages from Mark Twain's book between dramatized scenes. But as he reads, he playfully argues with Jackie Cooper, who presumably is supposed to play the narrator, on who should do the reading. Here, he steps out of story and begins to introduce a level of reality to the action of the play. This would mark the first time Welles crossed the boundary between the story and reality. It would not be the last.
         In his search for ways to present stories for the radio, Welles developed a new narrative form that harkened back to old forms. Where the stage is a public venue requiring high drama, radio is a private medium requiring great subtlety. Where the theater puts on a show for a crowd, radio tells a story to a person.
         Perhaps radio drama, like that practiced by Welles, is not so much an extension of live theater as it is an extension of the oral storytelling tradition. It is no accident that in our own time, National Public Radio's excellent series, Rabbit Ears Radio, took its stories from oral traditions from around the world. Just as storytellers of earlier times told tales of high adventure and romance to people they knew, Welles brought Treasure Island, Beau Geste, The Count of Monte Cristo and The 39 Steps to the radio. And just as those storytellers told of historical figures in mythological terms, Welles told the story of the most mythologized of American presidents in Abraham Lincoln.
         It can be said that a storyteller is, of necessity, a showman. The traditional storyteller is a part of his or her community but often crosses the line between the reality of everyday life and the created reality of the story. The storyteller can insert himself or herself into a story. He or she can change the story for a desired effect and use effects of voice and gesture to illustrate a particular point. Showmanship is indeed a part of the storyteller's art.
         For Orson Welles, showmanship was more than shrewd marketing. As with storytellers from traditional cultures, Welles the showman cannot be separated from Welles the artist.
         When the Mercury Theatre on the Air produced Beau Geste, Welles took the cast to the roof of a Manhattan building and fired rifles into the air to recreate the sounds of battle. So lifelike was their recreation that the police stormed the building, thinking that shots were being fired at the public. The news media picked up the story and it became as much a part of the production as the performances themselves. (20)
         But the world best remembers Welles the showman for the incident of October 30, 1938. It was on that date that the most famous—or infamous—production in the history of radio was broadcast, H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds.
         It is unlikely that anyone involved with the broadcast foresaw what was to come. Many audience members tuned into the broadcast in midstream and, hearing what sounded to them like newscasts, truly believed that the planet earth was being invaded by aliens from another world. People fled in panic from New Jersey. The authorities and CBS were jammed with hysterical phone calls. Deaths were reported.
         All of this happened despite the show's signature opening sequence and regular station breaks.
         How were so many people so thoroughly taken in? One answer stems from the show's broadcast opposite The Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy Show, which drew a much larger audience. When listeners grew tired of one performer on the Bergen show, they would often change stations and listen to the news for a while. (21) Given that radios of the day had analog (dial) tuners that often made it difficult to tell with precision what station was tuned in, it is not hard to imagine someone coming into the middle of the show, thinking it really was the newscast it was intended to imitate.
         Pn his study of the incident, Invasion From Mars, Hadley Cantril examines several factors made the show seem real. First, radio was accepted as the primary vehicle for important announcements.(22) Second, the places mentioned in the broadcast were real and would have been familiar to listeners on the East coast.(23) Most importantly, Welles and Housemann wrote the script using language that listeners found convincing.
         The broadcast of War of the Worlds is often thought of as one of the great hoaxes of the twentieth century. But was it indeed a hoax, a prank intentionally played to put one over on the public?

"There was, I believe, no evidence that Welles had tried to trick the public with this broadcast," says Chuck Schaden. "That question was raised at the time, following the broadcast, but there was nothing to support that theory. Welles, however, didn't say much except that he was sorry, had no idea how the show would be received, and, always the showman, kept a slight smile on his face to indicate, perhaps, that he knew something that his audience didn't know."

         Indeed, Welles himself issued this statement after the broadcast and the panic that ensued:

"This is Orson Welles, ladies and gentlemen, out of character to assure you that The War of the Worlds has no further significance than as the holiday offering it was intended to be. The Mercury Theatre's own radio version of dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and saying Boo! Starting now, we couldn't soap all your windows and steal all your garden gates by tomorrow night…so we did the next best thing. We annihilated the world before your very ears, and utterly destroyed the Columbia Broadcasting System. You will be relieved, I hope, to learn that we didn't mean it, and that both institutions are still open for business. So goodbye, everybody, and remember, please, for the next day or so, the terrible lesson you learned tonight. That grinning, glowing, globular invader of your living room is an inhabitant of the pumpkin patch, and if your doorbell rings and nobody's there, that was no Martian…it's Halloween." (24)

         As Mr. Schaden suggests, Welles the artist was the creative force behind the broadcast, but Welles the showman kept the show alive in the public’s mind long after it was over. Welles never admitted that the show was an intentional hoax. But neither does he say anything to directly refute that accusation. The artist and the showman in him clearly relished the opportunity to animate the story in real life. In this event, the showman and the artist were a part of one another.
         By the end of the 1930's, Welles was a household name. In spite of the controversy surrounding The War of the Worlds, Campbell Soup agreed to sponsor the show, at which time it was rechristened The Campbell Playhouse. Welles and the Mercury Players moved to the West Coast and continued under Campbell's sponsorship for another year.
         As the year 1940 approached, Welles had banked the acclaim and the power to take him to the next phase of his career. Already in Hollywood, he and the Mercury Players set their sights on the movies. As the Mercury Theatre left the air, Welles was already gathering a company of long time associates and new talents to work on a film project. The medium was new for the young director, but Hollywood gave him a creative tabula rasa just as CBS had with the Mercury Theatre had three years earlier. And once again, he set out to create a work of art that wandered between reality and fiction, balanced on a tightrope of controversy. Welles chose to portray the grand and sordid life of America's most powerful private citizen. That project would be remembered by generations to come as Citizen Kane.
        
Ultimately, Orson Welles' reputation would rest on his films. Even though Citizen Kane was not a commercial success when it was first released, it has held up well over the years and is considered by many contemporary critics to be the finest movie ever made.
         But radio has a power that has largely been forgotten by modern audiences accustomed to visual presentations. No medium, except perhaps the printed word, invites an audience to become a part of the creative act in the same way as radio drama. It is not uncommon to hear of people who loved radio in its golden age and who felt let down as their favorite radio shows moved to television. The images on the screen could not compare to the images in their own minds.
         It is for this reason that the Mercury Theatre on the Air, and other shows like it, are be remembered in a way that even Welles' films are not. The Mercury's plays were not merely the work of Welles, Housemann and the Mercury players. They were, and are, the work of every listener, everywhere in the country.


NOTES
        

1. Welles, Orson and John Housemann, "Plans for a New Theater,"
         The New York Times, August 29, 1937, Section 10, Page 1.
2. ibid.
3. Callow, Simon, Orson Welles: The Road to Xanadu, Penguin, 1997, p. 308.
4. Op. Cit., Callow, p. 218.
5. ibid.
6. Thomson, David, Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles, Knopf, 1996, p. 32-33.
7. Op. Cit., Callow, p. 139.
8. Op. Cit., Callow, p. 142.
9. Op. Cit., Callow, p. 322-324
10. France, Richard, Orson Welles on Shakespeare, Routeledge, 2001, p.32.
11. Op. Cit., France, p. 30.
12. Op. Cit., Thomson, p. 28.
13. Houseman, John, Run-Through, Touchstone, 1972, p. 150.
14. ibid.
15. Op. Cit., Callow, p. 304.
16. Op. Cit., Callow, p. 306.
17. Op. Cit., Callow, p. 309.
18. Op. Cit., Callow, p. 321.
19. Op. Cit., Houseman, p. 368.
20. Op. Cit., Houseman, p. 367.
21. Cantril, Hadley, The Invasion from Mars, Princeton University Press, 1940, p. 77.
22. Op. Cit., Cantril, p. 68.
23. Op. Cit., Cantril, p. 72.
24. Op. Cit., Thomson, p. 104.