Orson Welles's Dracula: A Milestone in Radio Drama

By 1938, Orson Welles was already being hailed as a prodigy and was quickly becoming a household name. The 23-year-old was a genuine star of radio’s “Golden Age,” and commanded a salary of nearly $2000 per week in the midst of the Great Depression. Meanwhile, he also worked extensively in theatre as a dramatist, actor, producer, and director—often all on the same project. With the Mercury, the company he co-founded with John Houseman in 1937, Welles mounted a series of groundbreaking productions that set Broadway on its ear and secured his reputation as a visionary artist.

Recognizing the value of his celebrity, CBS contracted Welles for a weekly radio series dramatizing great stories from classic literature, using his associates from the Mercury Theatre as collaborators. Aggressively marketed as Welles’s brainchild and initially called First Person Singular, the series was built around the power and intimacy of the narrator, a role which Welles himself filled. But the title also reflected Welles’s belief that radio was fundamentally different from theatre, and worked best when the protagonist spoke directly to the listeners. In press releases, he said,

"The Mercury Theatre has no intention of producing its stage repertoire in these broadcasts. Instead, we plan to bring to radio the experimental techniques which have proved so successful in another medium and to treat radio itself with the intelligence and respect such a beautiful and powerful medium deserves."

True to his word, Welles and the Mercury Theatre developed innovative techniques that raised the bar for radio storytelling.  Their shows featured an ambitious Theatre, soundtrack of music and sound effects, designed to captivate the senses. Welles and Houseman’s experiments with narrative structure and audience positioning blurred the line between fiction and reality, creating a truly immersive experience unlike anything in radio beforehand. 

Aired on July 11, 1938, the first episode of First Person Singular, was an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, featuring Welles as both the narrator, Dr. Arthur Seward, and of course, Dracula. After a breathless hour of taut storytelling. Welles assured the audience that the program was only fiction and that they could turn off the radio and go to bed. But then, slipping back into his Count Dracula accent, he added, “Remember...there are wolves...there are vampires...such things do exist.” His mixture of artistic showmanship and direct address capped a stunningly fresh way of engaging a radio audience and launched a new era of excellence in the medium.

- Jenni Page-White