ME, MYSELF AND I
-WILL ACT, WRITE, CAST, DIRECT, PRODUCE THE MERCURY THEATER ON CBS THIS MONDAY NIGHT
One day in 1931 a big-boned, round-faced young man appeared at the famous old Gate Theater in Dublin.
"I'm Orson Welles," he told the stage manager. His voice was extraordinarily deep, persuasive. "You've heard of me, I presume?"
Diffidently, the manager of one of the greatest theaters in Dublin admitted that he had not. He was promptly informed that it was his own fault. Surely, everyone should have heard of Orson Welles of the Theater Guild in New York! Well, he was hearing of him now. Orson Welles would be pleased to offer his services to the Gate Theater. Of course, he never in his life had played anything but leads. If a suitable role could be found...
So Orson Welles, the incredible infant giant of today's theater, straightaway took the role of the Grand Duke in "Jew Suss." He played forty roles that season at the Gate Theater, directed and designed sets at the famed Peacock Theater, made an occasional guest appearance at the Abbey. And no one knew that Orson Welles, "star of the New York Theater Guild," was a mere boy of 16 whose only previous dramatic experience had been in high-school Shakespearian productions!
This is the Orson Welles who looms today over Broadway, admittedly the most important single factor in the American theater. At 23 Welles has founded a new theatrical company - The Mercury - and guided it through a season of such solid smash hits as Broadway has not seen in decades; blessed with the gift and habit of success, he has been actor, playwright, producer, director, all at one and the same time, and always with uniform, dazzling success. His ambition knows no limits, and neither, apparently, do his powers. He may be barely into his twenties, but today the name of Orson Welles will pack any theater in New York to the very doors.
But you don't have to be a New Yorker, you don't have to attend a Broadway play to be entertained by the incredible Orson Welles. For on Monday, July 11, Welles and the Mercury Theater Company will go on the air in a program unique in American broadcasting history. To be called "First Person Singular," it will present, for the first time in radio or anywhere else, a series of dramatizations of the great classics of literature told entirely in the first person. The "I," says Orson Welles, is more important in radio than in any other medium. Instead of telling the story at second hand, Welles and the Mercury Theater players will present it in the fresh, vivid fashion that the first person singular alone can bring.
Time-proven stories will be broadcast, most of them for the first time, by the new Mercury Theater of the Air. First, on July 11, will be "Treasure Island," Robert Louis Stevenson's endlessly exciting tale of adventure at sea. Those who thrilled to "Treasure Island" in childhood - as who did not - will recall that the story is told in the first person by Jim Hawkins. The book is thus ideal as a beginning vehicle for the new series of broadcasts.
Next will come Bram Stoker's "Dracula," another thoroughly familiar adventure story with endlessly dramatic possibilities. A vampire, in ancient ghost-lore, was an inhuman creature who roamed the world seeking victims to satisfy an insatiable blood-lust. His home was a coffin, and he could be killed only if he was discovered before sundown and a wooden stake driven through his heart.
A young man of pronounced personal convictions, Orson Welles believes that radio drama should be designed for the listener alone. "First Person Singular" broadcasts will have no studio audiences, will be marred by no studio applause. Radio is nothing new to Welles. In 1935, just before he moved in and took Broadway by storm, Orson Welles successfully auditioned for the March of Time program. Other roles followed, and in March, 1937, he began to play the lead role in "The Shadow," sepulchral mystery serial. He still holds the role, and his deep and ominous "The Shadow knows - ha-ha-ha" was a familiar phrase all over America long before Orson Welles himself became famous. He has long been in radio's thousand-dollar-a-week brackets.
An actor since childhood, Orson Welles has crammed into the last seven or eight years of his life enough of glamour, of money, and the heady thrills of success to fill out most men's lifetimes. Born in Kenosha, Wisconsin, he was playing "Peter Rabbit" in a department store children's show - and making $25 a day - before he was ten years old. At twelve, in high school, he staged Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar," and played three of the leading roles himself. He started for Scotland to paint when he was 16, went to Ireland instead, burst overnight into full-fledged stage stardom. Next he went to London, back to New York, then to Morocco for a year, where he wrote a book on Shakespeare that is today a standard school text.
Back in the United States, he played with Katharine Cornell, and through her met John Houseman, his partner-to-be in all of the fabulous stage ventures that were to come. Together Welles and Houseman produced the instantly successful all-Negro "Macbeth," with a Harlem WPA unti. Next came the thoroughly unorthodox "The Cradle Will Rock." Welles and Houseman left the WPA, leased a theater for five years, somehow scraped together enough money to produce Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar." Presented on an almost bare stage, in modern dress, with emphasis on modern problems, "Julius Caesar" took Broadway by storm. Then came "Shoemaker's Holiday" and "Heartbreak House," both smash hits - and Orson Welles found himself Broadway's No. 1 producer.
The premiere of "First Person Singular" on Monday night at 9 p.m. EDT may well make him the greatest dramatic name in radio as well. Orson Welles does things that way.
Sto Pro Veritate