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.
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The end of 1938 was a chaotic time for Welles. His radio career had been jump-started by the brouhaha surrounding “The War of the Worlds” and he was producing a radio series called Campbell Playhouse. He was no stranger to juggling projects, but and had done so with great success, but his luck in this regard would run out with Five Kings. Biographer Charles Highman writes that Houseman recalls that Welles was tossing back multiple bottles of booze per night and still finding time for sexual exploits. This time these things would prove toxic, leading to sloppy rehearsals featuring a late director with a nasty headache. In fact, they opened without having a proper dress rehearsal. The play was long and unwieldy, and Welles insisted on including two intermissions. This meant it didn’t wind down until 1:00 a.m., at which time the majority of the audience had headed home. The usually effusive press didn’t fail to notice the lack of preparedness at the Feb. 24, 1939 Broadway