Mercury Theatre

The Mercury Theatre was a theatre company Welles established with John Houseman in 1937, right after Welles finished his work with the Federal Theatre Project. It would later have an incarnation as Mercury Theatre On the Air, the radio series in which the infamous “War of the Worlds” broadcast would air.

Productions of the Mercury Theatre were:
  • Julius Caesar 
  • The Shoemaker’s Holiday 
  • Heartbreak House 
  • Danton’s Death 
  • Five Kings
Always ambitious and goal-oriented, Welles wanted first to clarify and publicize the Mercury Theatre’s aims. So on August 29, Welles published, on the front page of the New York Times Sunday drama section, the theatre’s “declaration of principles.” These were few in number, promising merely that Mercury would produce four or five classic plays that had some current political relevance. However, the quality of the play would always be a more important criteria than its political content. Mercury would offer tickets at two dollars and under.

Julius Caesar

This was the company’s first production, opening Nov. 11, 1937. Addressing its current relevance, Welles wrote in a press release, “Our Julius Caesar gives a picture of the same kind of hysteria that exists in certain dictator-ruled countries of today...our moral, if you will, is that not assassination, but education of the masses, permanently removes dictatorships.”
Welles continued to refine a style he’d begun with Faustus, viewing the stage as a canvas. Stage manager Ash says, “when (Welles) directed it was visual--he saw how it would look. Then he put people there.”

The production featured the actors, including Welles as Brutus, in modern garb. Brooke Atkinson, in the New York Times, wrote, “[t]o judge by their first production, the Mercury will be a theater where enthusiasm for acting and boldness in production are to be generously indulged by young actors with minds of their own.”

The Shoemaker’s Holiday

Written by Thomas Dekker, this Elizabethan drama had originally been performed before Queen Elizabeth on New Year’s Day, 1600. The story details a romance between an aristocrat, Rowland Lacy, and Rose, the daughter of the Mayor of London. Welles sought a “busy” set that would recapture the original performance. He borrowed elements from his Julius Caesar set and began production of Shoemaker’s Holiday while the former was still running. Once again, a Welles play garnered kudos from the press. Time magazine proclaimed, “The Shoemaker’s Holiday struck Broadway like a brisk wind.”

Heartbreak House

This George Bernard Shaw play takes in one day in the home of Captain Shotover, a retired navy captain. The drama revolves around Shotover being asked to create devastating weaponry.

Danton’s Death

Written by playwright/revolutionary George Buechner, Danton’s Death chronicled Robespierre taking over power during the French Revolution. Welles, Houseman and Howard Koch were in the midst of banging a script into shape when they broadcast “The War of the Worlds” on Mercury Theatre On The Air. Before the cosmic dust of that program’s controversy had even settled, Welles was back to work on readying Danton’s for the stage. Biographer Charles Higham summarized Welles’ process: “As so often before, he disposed of the intermission and most of the stage directions and trimmed the play to his favorite ninety minutes.”

His work ethic was, as so often before, fevered, but even moreso. He ate at and slept on a couch he’d installed at the theatre. He produced, with the labor of lighting director Jean Rosenthal, a stage that was visually striking, shot with grays, blood-reds, and blazes of light.

The play was intense and possessed of substantive thematics, yet panned by critics upon its November, 1938 debut. Stark Young of The New Republic criticized Welles’s delivery of the curtain speech as “merely stylized exhibition, arbitrary and too hard to follow.”

Old Time Radio: Mercury Theater
Higham, Charles. Orson Welles: The Rise and Fall of An American Genius. New York: St. Martin’s. 1985.
Leaming, Barbara. Orson Welles. New York: Viking. 1983.


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