This entry in the Mercury series seems to me to represent a fresh experiment, a departure from the previous efforts, dealing for the first time with short forms; and in that regard, it is quite successful.
If we look at what they had done so far, a pattern emerges. First, there was "Dracula," a dramatic adaptation of a Gothic novel written in epistolary form. Next, "Treasure Island" adapted conventionally but with vivid sound effects, the classic boy's romantic adventure story. Third, "A Tale of Two Cities" took on a long historical novel, and covered a complicated plot structure full of Dickensian characters, over a number of years. Last time, we listened to "39 Steps," a radio version, done in cinematic style, of one of the most successful entries from the spy novel genre. [We might also note the obvious, from our advantage of 75 years; each of the original source materials, in the previous five or ten years, had been the subject of at least one highly publicized motion picture.] And now we have adaptations of three short stories which involve the young.
Each of the first Mercury productions appears an experiment in adapting an older form to the new medium of Radio. If so, the three works presented here extend the pattern, drawing from three different cultures, realizing each in a slightly different dramatic format.
"I'm a Fool" is one of the best known short stories by Sherwood Anderson, a disturbing writer in his time, little mentioned today. For one thing, as Welles suggests, Anderson was disturbing because, when a successful manager of an Ohio factory, he walked out of his office one afternoon, abandoned his wife and children, to entrain for a bohemian life of writing short stories in Chicago. Like his more voluminous contemporary, Thomas Wolfe, he was widely mistrusted as a figure who encouraged young people in his stories to leave the safety of an American home for the sinister uncertainties of a wider world. His spare stories generally represent the struggles of sensitive souls -- "grotesques," he called them -- to escape the strictures of Midwestern conformism "between the wars." Ironically, in a coincidence which an Ohio Evangelist might proclaim to be God's wrath, Anderson succumbed in a freak accident a couple of years after this Mercury production. On a luxury liner to Rio, he swallowed the toothpick from his Martini and died subsequently of peritonitis.
"I'm a Fool" is about one of those who does not escape Western Ohio, but who wishes that he had. Telling the story in a straight forward way, Welles, plays his age (about 23), bringing his voice up to his true range, but as you suggest, Jeff, sounds tentative and even more unsure of himself than his character calls for. Much of "I'm a Fool" is compressed within a neat little dramatic sketch of the story's "big scene." Once again "the soundscape" is an experimental marvel evoking the atmosphere of that most classic of midwestern sports, Sulky or Harness Racing, and the music evokes Stephen Foster's older America. Welles may indeed have been drawn to the story because Western Ohio, along the shores of Lake Erie, might have reminded him of his boyhood near another of the Great Lakes, at Kenosha, Wisconsin. Finally, I don't think it too great a stretch to imagine that Bernstein's "girl on the ferry" may have been, if not born, at least encouraged by the radio play of "I'm a Fool" to remain in the final script of CITIZEN KANE, the emotional situation ringing true here, and the scene being one of the true gems in Welles' first film.
"The Open Widow" by Saki (H.H. Munro) is regarded as one of the perfect English short stories, concise, subtle, and elegantly sophisticated in conveying a tragic incident with wryly absurd humor. While the Mercury adaptation admirably realizes the story's strengths, I follow Jeff's judgment. It makes a terrible error at its start.
Had the play begun like the short story, we would have been right into the play:
"'My aunt will be down presently, Mr. Nuttel,' said a very self-possessed young lady of fifteen; 'in the meantime you must try and put up with me.'"
As it is, perhaps because a slavish need to carry out the Mercury goal of "first person narrative," it takes us too long to become involved, and the delicious irony of Framton Nuttel's situation is lost on us.
I would also agree that whoever played the ingenue did not have the brittle, romantic energy of what would become known as "a bright young thing."
Incidentally, Welles in his usually erudite afternotes, inexplicably identifies Saki as "H.K. Munro," and unless Munro had three given names, compounds the error by calling him Hector Kenneth Munro, rather than his more common identification: Hector Hugh Munro.
Finally we have the longest of the adaptations, if we can call it that, of "My Little Boy," by the most obscure of writers so far tapped, the Danish translator and children's story writer, Carl Ewald (1856-1908). It is more of a condensation than an adaptation, though the narrator's son and his wife do make appearances.
I've never quite gotten the usual interpretation of Ewald's short book on which the Mercury radio play is based; that a father enters into his son's problems in growing up as a kind of co-conspirator, and isn't that wonderful, la-la-la-la? My take on it is that Ewald, at least as Welles tells the tale, creates a rather mordant parable about how a child is shaped by experience and society to make the same sad mistakes of previous generations.
In any case, as you point out, Jeff, when Welles repeated the story for "The Lady Esther Show," in 1942, he claimed that of all the Mercury radio productions, it was "My Little Boy" which received the most listener comment.
Sorry to take so long with this one, but I was busy with other matters.