Orson Welles - Mercury Theater - 1938 Recordings, including Julius Caesar and 4-Minute Video of Voodoo Macbeth
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 25.369 Tuesday, 26 August 2014
Date: August 26, 2014 at 7:27:45 AM EDT
Subject: Orson Welles - Mercury Theater - 1938 Recordings, including Julius Caesar and 4-Minute Video of Voodoo Macbeth
I learned from Will Sutton of the availability of audio recordings of the Mercury Theater, which may be downloaded or streamed from the Internet Archive:
These include Julius Caesar.
1914 Film from Folger Shakespeare Theater Digital Image Collection
Mercury Theater’s radio programmes - 17 from 1938 (July-November) and 2 from 1946
BONUS: 1988 Special Programme - Mercury Theater Remembered with appearances and voices of those who worked in those programmes and still remember how Welles used to work.
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In 1937, Welles and the Mercury company earned a reputation for their inventive adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar set in contemporary Fascist Italy. They moved on to productions of The Shoemaker’s Holiday, Heartbreak House, Too Much Johnson and Danton’s Death in 1938. In 1939 Five Kings was produced along with The Green Goddess. The last theatrical production of the company was Native Son in 1941.
Welles had already worked extensively in radio drama, playing the title character in The Shadow for a year and directing a seven-part adaptation of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, both for the Mutual Broadcasting System. In 1938, he was offered a chance to direct his own weekly, hour-long radio series, initially promoted as First Person Singular. However, this title was never announced on the air. Radio Guide initially mentioned the series’ debut as Mercury Theatre before later listing it as The Mercury Theatre on the Air.
Welles insisted his Mercury company — actors and crew — be involved in the radio series. This was an unprecedented and expensive request, especially for one so young as Welles. Most episodes dramatized works of classic and contemporary literature. It remains perhaps the most highly regarded radio drama anthology series ever broadcast, most likely due to the creativity of Orson Welles.
The Mercury Theatre on the Air was an hour-long dramatic radio program which began in the summer of 1938 on the CBS radio network. Paul Holler, writing in Critique, described the program’s origin: 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 Misérables the year before, approached him and Houseman 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 Misérables the previous year, Welles was given complete creative control by CBS over the new series. 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 Thornton Wilder. But it was clear to Welles and Houseman 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. Adventures of 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.
Houseman wrote the early scripts for the series, turning the job over to Howard Koch at the beginning of October. Music for the program was conducted by Bernard Herrmann. Their first radio production was Bram Stoker’s Dracula, with Welles playing both Count Dracula and Doctor Seward. Other adaptations included Treasure Island, The Thirty-Nine Steps, The Man Who Was Thursday and The Count of Monte Cristo.
Originally scheduled for nine weeks, the network extended the run into the autumn, moving the show from its Monday night slot, where it was the summer substitute for the Lux Radio Theater, to a Sunday night slot opposite Edgar Bergen’s popular variety show.
The early dramas in the series were praised by critics, but ratings were low. A single broadcast changed the program’s ratings: the October 30, 1938 adaptation of H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds.
Possibly thousands of listeners thought Martians were in fact invading the earth, due to the faux-news quality of most of the broadcast. Significant publicity was generated, and The Mercury Theatre on the Air quickly became one of radio’s top-rated shows.
The War of the Worlds notoriety had a welcome side effect of netting the show the sponsorship of Campbell’s Soup, guaranteeing its survival for a period, and beginning on December 9, 1938, the show was retitled The Campbell Playhouse. The company moved to Hollywood for their second season, and continued briefly after Welles’ final performance in March 1940. Welles revived the Mercury Theatre title for a short series in the summer of 1946.
Welles used the banner “Mercury Productions” on many of his films, and several of the actors from his Mercury Theatre Company appeared in them, notably in Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons and Macbeth.
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After posting Will’s link to The Mercury Theater recordings on Facebook, I learned from Bob Sawyer of a 4-minute video of the Voodoo Macbeth:
Orson Welles & the Federal Theatre Project’s 1936 “Voodoo” Macbeth (with Annotations)