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MERCURY IN RETROGRADE

This being Veterans Day (and with memories of war dead on our minds), it’s appropriate that on this date eighty-two years ago the fabled Mercury Theatre’s revolutionary modern-dress production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar opened on Broadway. The brainchild of its director Orson Welles (who also produced alongside John Houseman), with its conspirators dressed in suits and ties, the game of back-stabbing (and front-stabbing) was a first for audiences caught up at the time in an international game of intrigue that portended an encroaching menace by way of a fascist leader. Sound familiar?

Orson Welles (at age 22) as Brutus in Julius Caesar (1937)

Founded by Welles and Houseman, the Mercury took its roots in the theatre, expanded to radio, then found a short period of critical fame (if not outright financial success) with two films: Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons. Before disbanding, this astounding group of artists from all backgrounds and disciplines, shook the country with boldly original theatre productions and its groundbreaking use of radio, never more provocative than when in 1938 it aired The War of the Worlds, turning H.G. Wells’s book into a night of terror for unsuspecting listeners who thought what they were hearing was a real news report of an alien invasion in the fictional town of Grover’s Mill, New Jersey. Broadcast the night before Halloween, it caused near rioting in some communities and foreshadowed the sort of power a live, on-air manipulation could wreak. This notion of realism informed all the work of the Mercury Theatre, even before it garnered its official title, with the very first Welles-Houseman collaboration for the Federal Theatre Project, a production of the “Scottish Play” in 1936, forever after known as the “voodo-Macbeth.” Set in the West Indies, with an all-African American cast of 150 (!), it sent an immediate message this was not your father’s Shakespeare. Welles, its director, was twenty years old. The “genius” from Kenosha, Wisconsin was on his way.

Joseph Holland as Caesar (1937).

The death of Caesar.

In the intense world atmosphere of 1937, in direct response to the uprising of fascism in Europe, Welles and Houseman went to work on Julius Caesar, in what would be the first stage production of their newly found Mercury Theatre. Mirroring what was going on in Italy, it was set in contemporary Rome just under the new regime of Mussolini. The production ignited a flame of passion in its audiences to the degree that one of its last surviving cast members Norman Lloyd (age 105 and still going strong) has written, “to this day, it remains the most exciting Shakespeare production I have ever seen.”

Norman Lloyd (far right) as Cinna the Poet (1937).

Since then, so many classics have been done in modern ways that it may be difficult to imagine what impact such a take may have had in its day. For greater detail, here is what one of Welles’s biographers, Charles Higham, wrote about its costumes and scenic and lighting design:

“Caesar wore a Sam Browne belt and a dark green uniform, exactly like Mussolini; the conspirators bent on the assassination of Caesar wore fedora hats turned down at the brim and turned-up coat collars, like gangsters in Hollywood ‘B’ movies; and Brutus wore an ordinary civilian suit, not unlike that which a politician might sport during a campaign… At the time we used to see newsreels of the Nuremberg rallies, with the great stream of light going from the ground to the heavens — very effective theatrically. And Orson thought Julius Caesar might be adapted to parallel that, to Hitler… he put these beams in the floor, and at the appropriate moment they lit the stage. It was just dazzling.”

Jean Rosenthal’s lighting design in a rendering for Julius Caesar (1937)

The lighting designer was Jean Rosenthal, the woman who would change the face of her profession. Here, Norman Lloyd describes Rosenthal’s achievement in an on-line interview he gave at age ninety-nine: “Orson had the brick walls of the theater all painted blood red, and the set was open wall-to-wall in the theater. On the stage itself was a series of risers, and one had squares cut in it and lights put in the squares that shot straight up. They were known as the Nuremberg lights because they were an imitation of the lights Hitler used at the Nuremberg Conference, a famous 1934 visual conference done by Leni Riefenstahl.”For anyone curious enough, Welles’s Mercury Theatre on the Air, debuted on radio in 1938 with a one hour version of this Julius Caesar. If you like, here is a link to listen to it:

The team of Welles and Houseman didn’t last long, even though they brought out the best in each other. Houseman went on to a long and varied list of successes in many areas of the business: producer, director, author, educator (he founded the Julliard School of Drama), as well as his late blooming as an actor, winning a Best Supporting Actor Oscar at age seventy-three for The Paper Chase. Such was not the case for Welles. Although many of his setbacks were entirely of his own doing, as his self-destructive nature was a deterrent to what should have been one of the all-time great careers (even though, in spite of his shortcomings, he managed to create a few masterpieces along the way).

The Mercury Theatre endures in its reputation as one of the most exciting upstarts in the history of the American theatre, though it lasted but two seasons with its stage work. Welles’s exit from the theatre was a tremendous loss, but at least for one brief shining moment, a production like Julius Caesar had an impact that reverberated over time to make possible all that came after by way of innovative Shakespeare productions the world over.

If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Also sign up to follow me here, and feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.

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