I don't remember hearing "A Tale of Two Cities" at the time, perhaps because there were other radio versions of it in those years, possibly due to the popularity of the excellent Ronald Coleman movie adaptation (aided by Blanche Yurka's startling Madam Dufarge).
But . . .
Yes, indeed, mteal. Welles was attracted to projects involving doppelgangers. From his earliest efforts in film and drama, such as "Hearts of the Age" and Bright Lucifer, he was contrasting characters who represented innocent and flawed personalities, good and evil figures, often playing both. As time passed, in his best work, these characters sometimes exchanged valences.
I agree, too, that he was interested, from nearly the beginning, in the subject of revolution. His Black Macbeth, the Modern Dress Julius Caesar, his Les Miserables for Radio, and many of his later radio projects featured dual personalities or ambivalent characters. The events of the French Revolution seem to have been a particular draw. As you suggest, in 1938, he was only a year or two from one of his most ambitious stage projects, Danton's Death (his first truly great stage failure). The Spanish Civil War, which dominated the late 1930's, the rise of Fascist dictators, and the turbulence caused by the Soviet Union must have been other factors.
[Welles strong interest in what would become known as the Civil Rights was implied in these revolutionary themes, but would be come more marked in the 1940's.]
In much of Dickens' work, the doppelganger has also been noted. Nowhere is that more true than in his "popular novel," his only historical work, A Tale of Two Cities.
Two notable additions to Welles' new Radio series struck me immediately upon listening again, after several years, to the First Person Singular, "A Tale of Two Cities." The first change followed upon the soon to be familiar (and popular) introductory theme. Announcer Dan Seymour announced that not only CBS but "the stations of the Canadian Broadcasting Company" were to carrry the program. Thus, Welles now encompassed not only the United States but all of English-speaking North America.
[In the next twenty years, Canadian Radio would outstrip the American Networks in providing intelligent drama and other programming. Dare we speculate that Welles' example (in addition to the work being done by CBC's model, the BBC) might have been an influence on this flowering?]
The second new factor which impressed me was the sheer size of the cast: Welles, Martin Gabel, Betty Garde, Frank Readick, Ray Collins, Edgar Barrier, Kenneth Delmar, Erskine Sanford, Eustace Wyatt, Mary Taylor, Richard Wilson, and William Alland, etc. Here was obviously an ambitious, maximum effort.
[Most of these actors appeared in subsequent Welles' work. Martin Gabel went on to marry Kay Francis (another Mercury player) and have a distinguished stage career. Kenny Delmar became famous as the character of "Senator Claghorn," a hornswogglin' politician the equal of any today. Only Mary Taylor seems to have not continued in any real capacity. I wondered if she might have been related to Producer Davidson Taylor, but I was not able to find any confirmation of that speculation. Does someone else know anything about her?]
The sheer scope of the production may well have worked against it. Remember that those present describe Welles directing his radio casts like a concert conductor, stressing some notes and suppressing others, adding and deleting parts as he went along. Here, in "A Tale of Two Cities," was a symphony for full orchestra, potentially more complex and by leagues more difficult than anything the Mercury Players had thus far done. And it was breaking new ground. There was only one chance to get it right.
I agree with the criticisms already expressed, and in partial explanation, I detect an almost habitual flaw in Welles' method. The adaptations seem to begin well, and they often end well, but the middle acts can sometimes be hurried, garbled or full of holes. This observation is markedly true of "A Tale of Two Cities."
The First Person Narrative concept is nicely handled in the show's beginning, with Welles' Dr. Manette augmented by Martin Gabel's Jarvis Lawry (an important but much less dominant character in the novel), setting up the story and creating suspense. Transitions are well accomplished by the use of criers, peasants and bailiffs; sound effects and musical bridges. The addition of Charles Darnay (Edgar Barrier) and Sidney Carton (Welles) begins to interfere with understanding, due to a need of keeping track of the voices, but the First Act ends well with Dr. Manette safe in England and Daughter Lucy (Mary Taylor) in the arms of Darnay.
In Act Two, however, to my ear, there is a confusion of Darnay with Jarvis Lawry. It is as if, two elements of Darnay's return to France and his subsequent imprisonment were interchanged. One event seems to illogically occur before the other. It would be interesting to know if this failing (if I am correct, at all) occurs in the adaptation or in the execution.
You certainly have a point, mteal, in skewering Mary Taylor's performance, as Jeff is right about Garde and Readick's Dufarges. The absence of Agnes Moorehead is crucial; she contributed so much to the first two productions, especially in "Dracula." It is easy to imagine how she might have handled both Lucy Manette . . . and been a trully memorable Madam Dufarge!
Finally, a note from a documentary tape included in a casette album I have, The Theater of the Imagination (Voyager, 1988):
In discussing "A Tale of Two Cities," which is part of the album, Cliff Thorsness, who was a CBS soundmen on the series, describes how Welles personally supervised experiments to give the listener an approximation of his Sidney Carton's sacrificial demise on the Guillotine. Welles' answer: A cabbage split sharply by a meat cleaver!
In that act, Welles and Carton were, in a sense, "restored to life," but I might note that the production was so bulging at the seams that there was little room for Welles' customary introduction and afterword, which had added to the charm of the first two Mercury Radio stories. And would become an affection signature in his later productions.
I hope others will add their reactions or recollections.