Dear Jeff and Knowles: I've been behind the battle for a week or so, but I think I've solved the mystery of Houseman's story concerning the September 5, 1938, Mercury Theater on the Air Production of "The Man Who Was Thursday." As you point out, Jeff, an hour and ten minute recording of a rehearsal exists, and the broadcast version of "The Man Who Was Thursday" is full and complete, showing the love Welles expressed for Chesterton's novella. I believe it to be one of the best of the Mercury efforts: a truly surreal and amusing allegory of what nations do when they use espionage to solve their problems.
So Houseman has to be wrong in his droll, mocking tale of Welles' ineptitude in adapting the story for the air.
Here is what I think happened.
On December 17, 1940, The Campbell Playhouse presented one of its rare original productions: "There's Always a Woman." It is a kind of breezy Nick and Nora Charles sort of private eye story. Welles and Marie Wilson play a pair of investigators, and there is a complicated caper plot. The script is assumed to be by Welles. Perhaps, Welles spent too much time before Christmas with his latest bodacious young discovery, the bosomy Miss Wilson, because the play shambles along, and all-of-a-sudden, stops. Welles, playing his other role as the host, interrupts jovially, and introduces the entire cast, some of whom make what might be regarded as surprised remarks. There is a commercial, of course, and then, the play resumes. There is another session with the cast at the end.
This play fits the basic scenario of Houseman's anecdote. Welles undertakes to do a piece of writing for radio; he will write a radio play, from start to finish, without anyone's help. On rehearsal day, there is not a complete script, and at air time, he has failed to complete it, or it is lost, or gets mixed up in some way. There are 20 minutes to fill; the regular writers are downstairs, desperately trying to figure out some logical end for "There's Always a Woman"; Welles and the troupers are in the studio, bravely and blindly carrying on. The play leaves that kind of impression; it staggers to sign off.
Houseman may well have had the experience he described, but mixed up the occasion, or did not want facts to interfere with a thesis about his estranged old partner; that Welles sometimes made foolhardy, egotistical commitments he could not deliver on.
Marie Wilson, by the way, in all accounts, was extremely brainy, just 23 or so in 1939. She had her first big role in Movies the year before, BOY MEETS GIRL, from the Broadway hit by the Spewacks, directed by LLoyd Bacon, with Jimmy Cagney and Pat O'Brien. Like Lucille Ball, Miss Wilson came into her own with Television, as the "dumb blonde" on My Friend Irma, 1952.
Tapes of "There's Always a Woman" are out there.
What do you think?