prodigal radio: mercury in midtown

Orson Welles. The baggy trickster who scared the radio audience at 23, and in infuriated the Hearst empire at 25, with Citizen Kane.

…In the mid 1930′s, America was still far down in the Depression; as a time for launching oneself in the theatre it had only one thing to reccomend it: relatively few vessels were being launched and you could make a relatively big splash. In 1935, Welles was offered the lead in Panic, an experimental verse play by Archibald MacLeish which derived its title from the Wall Street collapse of 1933 and in which the banker Welles, was named McGolferty. This in itself was not much of a splash; the play was schedules for only three performances, with the critics invited, prudently, on the second night.

---One of the most dramatic nights in theater history occurred in June 1937 with the opening of Marc Blitzstein’s musical, “The Cradle Will Rock”, directed by Orson Welles and produced by John Houseman, ostensibly under the auspices of the Federal Theater Project (FTP). The show was due to open at the Maxine Elliot Theater when word came that government officials were concerned with the content of the musical, which was set in Steel Town, USA and featured a steelworker’s strike. A pending reduction in funding for the project as a whole was also about to take effect, so a few days before opening, the FTP sent out an order prohibiting the opening of any new plays. The Maxine Elliot was taken over by guards protecting the sets and props, which were government property, and the creative team went in desperate search of a new producer and theater. ---Read More:

But John Houseman was a member of the sponsoring group, and he and Welles were soon to become a memorable theatre team. In 1936, the Federal Theatre Project (WPA) engaged them to produce an all-African-American Macbeth in Harlem. It was set in Haiti and employed witch doctors instead of witches. In addition to its dubious artistic premise, this enterprise involved some very tricky racial diplomacy. Welles survived both the events on stage and the agitation along 125th Street, and went on to direct for the WPA a production of Dr. Faustus that was presented on a bare stage and organized by the use of great sheets of light beamed from banks of overhead spots.

He then set to work on Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock, and at that point the WPA panicked. It smelled subversion in the script and locked the theater. Welles and Houseman found another theater and on their own opened The Cradle Will Rock without scenery or costumes and with Blitzstein himself at the piano. That was the beginning of the Mercury Theatre which in the next two years, 1937-38, produced the famous anti-Fascist Julius Caesar in which Welles played Brutus in a shabby overcoat and a slouch hat; the Shoemaker’s Holiday, an Elizabethan romp by Thomas Dekker that galloped irresistibly through a set composed entirely of unpainted lath latticework; and Shaw’s Heartbreak House, in which Welles, now twenty-three, played the octogenarian Captain Shotover. It is perhaps the most unplayable of Shaw’s works, but it was seen to foretell the fall of England’s house, which made it a tract for the times.

Those plays,in those money-tight days, were not profitable, but by 1938 Welles was a veteran radio actor. He played innumerable real-life public figures for “The March of Time”; he was “The Shadow”; he was hired for so many dramatic programs that he sometimes arrived in the studio as the show was going on the air and grabbed a script with no advance notion of whether he was playing hero ,villain, or idiot bystander. There were times when he hired an ambulance to get himself rapidly through the midtown traffic; it was an expense he could well afford, since his fees were running to $17,000 a year. Much of that money went to support the Mercury.

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