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 theaters 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
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
Americas 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 Shakespeares 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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
"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
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
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
"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
himself issued this statement after the broadcast and the panic
"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
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
publics 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.
1. Welles, Orson and John Housemann, "Plans for a New Theater,"
The New York Times, August 29, 1937, Section 10, Page
3. Callow, Simon, Orson Welles: The Road to Xanadu, Penguin, 1997, p.
4. Op. Cit., Callow, p. 218.
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,
11. Op. Cit., France, p. 30.
12. Op. Cit., Thomson, p. 28.
13. Houseman, John, Run-Through, Touchstone, 1972, p. 150.
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.