A Blast From The Past: The Mercury Theatre Presents Heart of Darkness


Before he revolutionized cinema, Orson Welles revolutionized both theater and radio. As the host and mastermind behind the Mercury Theatre On The Air, Welles was heard on a weekly basis as the show broadcast adaptations of literary classics into American homes. In 1938, both Welles and Mercury Theatre On The Air achieved a certain immortality with their broadcast of War of the Worlds. What is often forgotten is that, one week after terrifying America, the Mercury Theatre presented an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, one which featured Welles in the role of Kurtz and his future Citizen Kane co-star, Ray Collins, as Marlow.

This broadcast was significant in that, when Welles first went to Hollywood, it was with an eye towards turning Heart of Darkness into a film. Welles planned to shoot the film strictly from the point-of-view of Marlow, with the camera serving as Marlow’s eyes. Welles not only planned to play Kurtz in the film but he also intended to provide the voice of Marlow. Unfortunately, the film was never made. With the outbreak of war in Europe, it was felt that the audience most likely to embrace Welles’s experiment would no longer be going to the movies. Welles would instead make his cinematic debut with Citizen Kane, a film that fully embodies Welles’s artistic vision regardless of what Mank tried to sell everyone last year. As for Heart of Darkness, it would later be adapted for television, appearing in greatly altered form as an episode of Playhouse 90 in 1958. Boris Karloff played Kurtz and Roddy McDowall played Marlow and someone decided that it would be a good idea to add a subplot in which Kurtz is revealed to by Marlow’s long lost father. There would be many attempts to turn Conrad’s novella into a feature film but it was not until 1979, with Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, that Conrad’s story would appear on the big screen, albeit in massively altered form. Nicolas Roeg would later direct his own version of Heart of Darkness, one that featured Tim Roth as Marlow and John Malkovich as Kurtz. (I haven’t seen it but that just sounds like perfect casting.)

Today, in honor of the 106th anniversary of the birth of Orson Welles, here is the Mercury Theatre On The Air’s production of Heart of Darkness. This broadcast also features an adaptation of the play, Life With Father. The casts are as follows:

Heart of Darkness: Orson Welles (Author, Ernest Kurtz), Ray Collins (Marlow), Alfred Shirley (Accountant), George Coulouris (Assistant Manager), Edgar Barrier (Second Manager), William Alland (Agent), Virginia Welles (Kurtz’s Intended Bride), Frank Readick (Tchiatosov)

(For those keeping track, Welles, Collins, Coulouris, and Alland would all have key roles in Citizen Kane. Alland played the reporter who is assigned to discover the meaning of Rosebud. Ray Collins played Boss Jim Gettys, the political boss who prevents Kane from being elected governor. Coulouris played Kane’s guardian, Walter Parkes Thatcher. And Welles, of course, was Charles Foster Kane, American. )

Life With Father: Orson Welles (Father), Mildred Natwick (Mother), Mary Wickes (Employment Office Manager), Alice Frost (Margaret), Arthur Anderson (young Clarence Day).

This program was originally aired on November 6th, 1938. Welles was 22 years old at the time of this broadcast. So, sit back and enjoy Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre.