Welles had first made a name for himself in 1936 at the ripe old age of 20 as an actor and director on the New York stage. In 1937 Welles and his partner, future Paper Chase star John Houseman, formed their own stock company, the Mercury Theatre. This also proved very successful, especially the 1937 production of Julius Caesar in a then-contemporary Fascist Italy setting.
In 1938, CBS hired Welles, already a veteran of radio acting, to perform in a summer series filling the time slot of Lux Radio Theatre. Welles insisted that he be allowed to take his entire Mercury Theatre troupe with him, and CBS agreed. The series (originally titled First Person Singular but renamed The Mercury Theatre on the Air a few months later) debuted on July 11, 1938, with an adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula. In addition to hosting the program, Welles co-wrote, directed, and played the lead in each episode. His Mercury Theatre company included several performers who would become famous when Welles brought them to Hollywood for Citizen Kane, including Ray Collins, Agnes Moorehead, and Joseph Cotten, as well as musical director and composer Bernard Herrmann.
Still, the show might be largely forgotten today if not for the most famous—or infamous—broadcast in the history of American radio: The War of the Worlds, first aired on October 30, 1938. Welles chose to present his adaptation of the novel by H. G. Wells as a Phony Newscast reporting on a "live" Martian invasion. The following day the nation's newspapers were full of stories of mass panic caused when listeners tuned in and missed the opening announcement of the fictional program. These stories were almost certainly fabricated by newspapers wishing to discredit radio, but they still made Orson Welles famous.
They also resulted in a Retool and re-name of the program. The Mercury Theatre on the Air had run without corporate sponsorship, but after the War of the Worlds publicity, Campbell Soup picked up the show and it became The Campbell Playhouse. The new show, debuting on December 11, 1938, also featured a Special Guest star every week, typically a Hollywood actress starring opposite Welles, and veered more towards adaptations of popular contemporary movies. The trope list below is based on the original July–December 1938 run of The Mercury Theatre on the Air.
Four of the 22 episodes are lost.
- Dracula (July 11, 1938)
- Treasure Island (July 18)
- A Tale of Two Cities (July 25)
- The Thirty-Nine Steps (August 1)
- Short story collection: "My Little Boy", "The Open Window", "I'm a Fool" (August 8)
- Abraham Lincoln (August 15)
- The Affairs of Anatol (August 22)
- The Count of Monte Cristo (August 29)
- The Man Who Was Thursday (September 5)
- Caesar (September 11)
- Jane Eyre (September 18) (Missing Episode)
- Sherlock Holmes (September 25)
- Oliver Twist (October 2) (Missing Episode)
- Hell on Ice (October 9)
- Seventeen (October 16)
- Around the World in Eighty Days (October 23)
- The War of the Worlds (October 30)
- Heart of Darkness, Life with Father (November 6)
- A Passenger to Bali (November 13)
- The Pickwick Papers (November 20)
- Clarence (November 27) (Missing Episode)
- The Bridge of San Luis Rey (December 4) (Missing Episode)
Episodes of The Mercury Theatre on the Air with their own trope pages:
The other episodes use the following tropes:
- Abandon Ship: The crew of the Jeanette have to abandon ship when it is crushed by the Arctic ice (Oct. 9, 1938, adaptation of Hell on Ice, the Real Life story of the Jeanette expedition).
- Adaptational Badass: In the original novel Dracula, as well as the 1924 stage play, the men kill Dracula with a stake through the heart. In Welles's version, it's Mina who grabs the hammer and stakes Dracula through the heart, after Harker freezes up.
- Apocalyptic Log: Hell on Ice ends with Welles' character reading from Capt. DeLong's log, as DeLong recorded the horrifying fate of the sailors in his party, starving to death in the Siberian far north.
- Audio Adaptation: The show didn't perform original stories, instead adapting well-known novels and stage plays.
- Bad Guys Play Pool: In The 39 Steps, Richard Hannay has chased down the trio of bad guys, but can't be sure that they're actually the right people. While they all sit in the seaside house in a standoff, they all play a game of billiards—until the three men are in fact revealed to be the bad guys. This is a change from the novel where they play bridge in the climactic scene.
- Based on a True Story: While most of the episodes were adaptations of novels or plays, Hell on Ice was not. It was an adaptation of a non-fiction book of the same name, about the Real Life disastrous DeLong expedition to the Arctic aboard the Jeanette.
- Broadcast Live: Every episode, leading to some amusing moments. Welles seemed to be unhappy with the broadcast of Julius Caesar (Sept. 11, 1938), muttering in the background, once calling out for a cue ("I'm not running this show!"), and at one point interrupting his soliloquy as Brutus to shout "QUIET IN THE STUDIO!" before dropping right back into character and continuing his soliloquy.
- The Coconut Effect: This most famous effect of radio drama is heard in the first scene of the first episode (Dracula, July 11, 1938), when Jonathan Harker's coach makes its way to Dracula's castle.
- Evil Sounds Deep: Welles adapts appropriately low, rumbling voices to play both Dracula and Edmond Dantes in The Count of Monte Cristo.
- Extra! Extra! Read All About It!:
- "Extra special, extra special", cry the newspaper sellers in the Dracula show, carrying stories of children being attacked by a vampire that looks a lot like Lucy Westenra.
- "Extra, extra, read all about it" is how the adaptation of Around the World in Eighty Days tells the audience about the robbery at the Bank of England. In the novel, it was simply described by Verne's third-person narration.
- Failed Future Forecast: "The Affairs of Anatol" aired on Aug. 22, 1938, just five months after the Nazi takeover of Austria. In his opening narration Welles muses about how there once was a charming, cosmopolitan city called Vienna, where the story is set.
- For Doom the Bell Tolls: The adaptation of The Thirty-Nine Steps (Aug. 1, 1938) starts off with the ringing of heavy, ominous church bells as Richard Hannay, a murder suspect on the run from the police and enemy secret agents, is trying to catch a train.
- Genre Anthology: A drama anthology. And specifically, the August 8, 1938 episode featured three short stories: "My Little Boy" by Carl Ewald, "The Open Window" by Saki, and "I'm a Fool" by Sherwood Anderson.
- Halloween Episode: The October 30, 1938 episode is pretty famous.
- Have a Gay Old Time:
- The captain of the Demeter in the Dracula episode describes the boxes of earth loaded onto his ship as "a queer cargo".
- The narrator of The Affairs of Anatol describes the time of his story as "a very gay winter".
- Flashback / In Medias Res: The 39 Steps starts In Medias Res, with Hannay already on the run. Later, Hannay recounts in a long flashback how things came to this.
- Flying Dutchman: It turns out that Mr. Walkes, the creepy passenger on board the Roundabout, is an anarchist who specializes in raising the natives of the South Pacific and Far East against their colonial overlords. Capt. English finds out to his horror that no port will accept Walkes, thus dooming their ship to sail apparently forever. Walkes is even called a "Flying Dutchman".
- Intro Dump: The adaptation of Hell on Ice introduces most of the characters by having them answer to their names at roll call, while Welles explains who they are.
- Lohengrin and Mendelssohn: The Mendelssohn part, namely, the wedding recessional, is used at the end of "The Affairs of Anatol" to confirm for the audience that Anatol the ladies' man did in fact go through with his marriage to Louise.
- Mood Whiplash: The November 6, 1938 broadcast featured two stories: harrowing drama Heart of Darkness, followed by light comedy Life with Father.
- Narrating the Obvious: A near-unavoidable drawback of radio drama, with its lack of visuals. In the Dracula broadcast Van Helsing explicates how the earth from Dracula's coffin has spilled over the snow, while everyone else there is seeing the same thing.
- The adaptation of The Man Who Was Thursday (Sept. 5, 1938) is told by Syme in the first person, a device the novel does not use, likely to help with the radio exposition.
- The staging of Julius Caesar used radio commentator H.V. Kaltenborn as a narrator to fill in the action. (Among other things, Kaltenborn narrates the actual murder scene, since on radio the audience couldn't see the actors getting stabby or Caesar collapsing at the foot of Pompey's statue.)
- Not Even Bothering with the Accent: In various dramas set in England, like Dracula, The Man Who Was Thursday, A Tale of Two Cities (July 25, 1938), and The Pickwick Papers (Nov. 20, 1938), neither Welles nor most of his cast make attempts at British accents. Averted when Welles did make a stab at an accent as Long John Silver in Treasure Island, probably because he was also playing Jim Hawkins using his own voice.
- Ominous Fog: In A Passenger to Bali, the crew of the Roundabout comment about how the fog is unnaturally thick. They're all creeped out by it. Then Mr. Walkes steps out of the creepy fog and talks the captain into letting him sail with them.
- Radio Drama
- The Remake: One of the shows that had made Welles and the Mercury famous in New York theater was their staging of Julius Caesar, in modern dress, Fascist Italy-style. For the radio series the Mercury reprised Julius Caesar, getting the same fascism vibe across over the radio with the sound of marching boots and military music. To further evoke the modern-day feel, since modern dress couldn't be used for a radio show, Welles got radio commentator H.V. Kaltenborn to narrate.
- Special Guest: H.V. Kaltenborn, who in his day was a very well known radio commentator and news analyst, appeared as the narrator in the Mercury's broadcast of Julius Caesar.
- Sting: The Dracula episode leans on this trope heavily, with dramatic chords at dramatic moments.
- Time-Shifted Actor: Welles manages to get this effect across with only his voice when playing Edmond Dantes in the August 29, 1938 broadcast of The Count of Monte Cristo. He adopts a higher pitch when playing Edmond Dantes before he's thrown into prison, and a low, rumbling voice when Dantes emerges a couple of decades later as the Count of Monte Cristo.