(See front cover)
Art theatres, experimental theatres, repertory theatres are like frail children. They get the most devoted care, but seldom get any exercise, grow any muscle, gain any weight. In the quarter-century before 1937, Manhattan saw only four such theatres survive adolescence: the Theatre Guild, the Provincetown Hay-house, the Civic Repertory Theatre (thanks to Director Eva Le Gallienne), the Group Theatre (thanks chiefly to Playwright Clifford Odets).
When Broadway heard last summer that two up-&-coming young men were starting a new repertory company, play-goers waited with lively interest but natural distrust to see what Orson Welles, 22, and John Houseman, 35, would do with their Mercury Theatre. One bedrock essential that Welles & Houseman apparently lacked was cash. But after a succession of muffled death-rattles backstage, the Mercury came to its first play's first night. On November 11 it produced Julius Caesar. On November 12 the public was informed that Shakespeare's five-act classic had: 1) been turned into a one-act cyclone, 2) on a bare stage, 3) in modern dress, 4) with a modern meaning, 5) gone over with the loudest bang that Shakespeare-lovers could recall. And decidedly First in Rome had been Director Orson Welles for managing the entire production, Actor Orson Welles for making Brutus come alive in a blue-serge suit.
With his Caesar a smash hit, Welles flung his laurel wreath into a cupboard, backed Marc Blitzstein's The Cradle Will Rockthe sceneryless, music-quickened strike play which a scared WPA had dumped overboard the season before and The Cradle rocked like mad. Then, having enough of boom and roar. Welles and the Mercury turned back to Elizabethan times for a bellylaugh, rigged up Thomas Dekker's bawdy, roistering The Shoemakers' Holiday. That was a success too.
"Who Are You?" To conclude the season, the Mercury chose to revive Shaw's Heartbreak House for its "timeliness." Negotiations with Shaw were characteristic. His first cable ended up: "Who are you?" Finally cabling permission, he stated that terms "would not be too unreasonable." Without the least notion of what the cagiest bargainer among living dramatists would consider reasonable, the Mercury took on the financial gamble with the same light-heartedness with which it took on the cumbrous play itself. When Heartbreak House was presented last week under Welles's direction and with himself in the leading role of 88-year-old Captain Shotover, even the dottiest Mercury fan could not help having qualms. For this more-than-three-hours-long,* brilliant Mad-Hatter symposium on modern life is among the most difficult of Shaw's major dramas: garrulous, subterranean, exhaustive. But, skirting a forest of unintelligibility on the one side, and a swamp of tediousness on the other, Welles has cut a clean if slightly winding road, has achieved a capital production.