Me and Orson Welles: The Mercury Theatre

Me and Orson Welles Me and Orson Welles Me and Orson Welles Me and Orson Welles

Richard Linklater's "Me and Orson Welles," starring Zac Efron and Christian McKay, surrounds a teenager who is cast by young Orson Welles in a 1937 play. The film is being released November 25 by Freestyle Releasing.

Time magazine once described the Mercury company’s origin as “at first just an idea bounded North and South by hope, East and West by nerve.”  The co-founders were 35-year-old European émigré actor and producer John Houseman and 22-year-old Wisconsin-born actor and director Orson Welles. Houseman had spotted Welles in a production of “Romeo and Juliet” and was impressed with the young actor’s creativity and drive.  In 1935 Houseman was about to join the Federal Theatre Project, a New Deal initiative supporting live performance in the United States during the Great Depression and invited Welles to join him.

In 1936 Houseman assigned Welles to take charge of a project for Harlem’s American Negro Theatre and the resulting “Voodoo Macbeth” established the young director as an extraordinarily precocious talent. In the summer of 1937, he and Houseman embarked on an ambitious plan to start a classical repertory theatre in New York City, based on the youthful nucleus of the company they had assembled for their staging of Marc Blitzstein’s controversial opera, “The Cradle Will Rock”, their final project at the Federal.  The new enterprise was incorporated a few days later as the Mercury Theatre and they eventually found themselves a home in what had been the Comedy Theatre, on 41st Street and Broadway. 

Built in 1909, the building had fallen into disrepair, but the company spent a month restoring and preparing the stage area for the first production, Welles’s version of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”, billed as “Caesar: Death of a Dictator”, which would open a mere ten weeks after the Mercury Theatre was conceived.  The stage was to appear bare, covered with platforms, steps, and ramps of varying heights and rakes.  These had been acquired from a warehouse which stored lumber from the sets of other productions, hence the lack of uniformity, which Welles and his production team utilised with a particular creative flair. The rear wall of the theatre was left visible, also painted a rusty red, together with its steam pipes and heating ducts.

Another feature of the production design, which was based on Welles’s original drawings and executed by Sam Leve, was the use of a series of open traps, from which steps led to the under-stage areas.  These hazards were beloved of the director, despite the cast’s apprehensions, although, following a blackout at the first dress rehearsal, the lights came up on the conspirators waiting to assassinate Caesar and one of their number was seen to be missing.  Brutus, played by Welles himself, was found unconscious beneath the stage, fortunately with no lasting damage. 

Welles’s production was stunningly contemporary.  The Roman senators and citizenry wore Fascist military uniforms or sharp suits with turned-up collars and black hats and the action was accompanied by Marc Blitzstein’s martial music, the thump of the mob’s feet on wooden boards and the forest of dramatic, vertical shafts of brilliance – the so-called ‘Nuremberg lights’ – reproduced by technical director Jeannie Rosenthal.  Pared to an hour-and-a-half without an interval, this “Julius Caesar” lived up to the Mercury manifesto, which had been published in the New York Times on August 29th, 1937.  Written by Welles and Houseman, it declared: “By the use of apron, lighting, sound devices, music, etc., we hope to give this production much of the speed and violence that it must have had on the Elizabethan stage.”

John Mason Brown described the show as “by all odds the most exciting, most imaginative, the most topical, the most awesome and the most absorbing of the season’s new productions.  The touch of genius is upon it.”  The first outpouring of an avalanche of critical praise, this presaged the extraordinary success of what is still acknowledged to be a landmark in the history of American theatre and the anointing of the “boy wonder” who would go on to create cinematic legend.

When it came to reproducing the visual impact of this groundbreaking production, the filmmakers were determined to be as faithful to the original as the budget would allow.  Basing the look of the theatrical performance on contemporary photographs taken by Cecil Beaton, as well as copies of the original stage plans, Richard Linklater and his team have recreated the dramatic lighting and stage effects, the Fascist imagery of sets and costumes, all to the accompaniment of Marc Blitzstein’s original score.




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