Treasure Island


Broadcast on:
July 18, 1938
Based on:
"Treasure Island" by Robert Louis Stevenson (1883)
Treasure Island

"I held out my hand and the horrible, soft-spoken, eyeless creature gripped it in a moment like a vice."

The Mercury Theatre on the Air was broadcast live, yet the single occasion on which an actor's lines are fluffed arrives in this production of Stevenson's novel, a novel which defined pirates for generations to come in much the same way that Dracula became the cultural reference point for vampires. A children's classic, like many of the theatre's productions, Welles's interpretation of Long John Silver is pretty chilling nonetheless.

The full script (PDF) can be downloaded here. A number of Welles's scripts are available, including the script for Jane Eyre, the recording of which is thought to be lost.

Being live, the plays often ran under (and occasionally over) their running time by a minute or thirteen (see The Man Who Was Thursday), giving Welles the opportunity to improvise the speeches which are often as inspired as the pieces that preceded them. This from the end of Treasure Island about the young actor playing Jack Hawkins, acting in Julius Caesar:

"As the consequence of what must have been extensive research into the field, he caused it to rain, actually to rain and copiously to rain, where in 300 years it has never rained in Julius Caesar before. It rained on Brutus, it rained all over Brutus in the forum, I was Brutus and I ought to know. Now, as dramatic criticism I found this telling, and even final."


The Novel

Taking place at some unknown point in the 18th century, Stevenson's tale of pirates and treasure has inspired over 70 film and television adaptations including, in 1972, Welles's big screen portrayal of Long John Silver, a mere 34 years after this performance. The novel is a sprawling adventure which created a great many of the iconic images of pirates which persist to this day. Many of the characters and locations were based upon real incidents, including Israel Hands (missing from the Mercury Theatre version), who was one of Blackbeard's pirates, apparently shot in the knee as a way of Blackbeard asserting his authority over the men. Welles was said to have used the same technique three centuries later, hiring someone for the sole purpose of firing them on the first day. He probably didn't, but then Blackbeard probably didn't either.

Full Cast

Orson Welles (adult Jim Hawkins, Long John Silver), Arthur Anderson (Jim Hawkins), George Coulouris (Captain Smollett), Ray Collins (Ben Gunn), Agnes Moorehead (Mrs. Hawkins), Eustace Wyatt (Squire Trelawney), Alfred Shirley (Blind Pew) with William Alland, Stephen Fox, Richard Wilson

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Mercury Theatre

All eighteen surviving broadcasts from the Mercury Theatre on the Air, free to listen to and download.

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Les Miserables

Welles's interpretation of Hugo's epic tale, which inspired CBS to commission the Mercury Theatre.

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Original scripts, other Welles recordings, further reading and lots more besides.

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"We're born alone, we live alone, we die alone. Only through our love and friendship can we create the illusion for the moment that we're not alone."

Orson Welles