A Terrible Time to Be Alive
Robert Kaplow’s Me and Orson Welles is essentially a pedestrian coming-of-age story that is heroically rescued from its own sticky sap, as so many inferior artistic endeavors have been, by the appearance of the brash and brilliant Welles. The narrator of the slim and fast-paced novel is Richard Samuels, a 17-year-old high school senior who literally walks into his first acting job for the Mercury Theater Company.
Richard has all the aches and pains of adolescence, “feeling the increasing necessity of seeing a girl naked” and an urge to strike out on his own and leave the family homestead and the constrictions and restrictions of family life behind. The year is 1937, the pinnacle of the Great Depression, and the used tire business that Richard’s father owns is a booming concern (nobody can afford new tires anymore), allowing the family to live in a “fairy-tale looking Victorian house … in Westfield (New Jersey), where the green-eyed Lutherans grew.”
Early in the first act of Me and Orson Welles, Richard summarizes Welles’s career up to 1937:
At twenty he had starred in Broadway in Romeo and Juliet. At twenty-one he had directed Macbeth for the Negro Theater in Harlem – transforming the witches into witch doctors and setting the play in Haiti. Later that year he directed and starred in Doctor Faustus – then marched an entire audience to an empty theater uptown when the federal government had locked out his production of The Cradle Will Rock. I’d heard that now he was forming his own classical repertory company on Broadway. He was to be the producer, the director, and the star. He was twenty-two years old.
Add to Richard’s summation the words of Sonja, the neurotic “emotional mess” of a love interest in Me and Orson Welles who manages the Mercury Theater and harbors dreams of working for movie producer David O. Selznick: “Orson told me he was directing plays when he was ten… Sometimes I think the gods know just exactly what we’re supposed to be doing, and they sit around patiently waiting for us to make the decisions we have to.”
By all biographical accounts, Welles knew from an early age that the arts were an exciting field to explore but not for the sake of art itself.
“I experiment; experimenting is the only thing that stirs me up,” Welles told Andre Bazin for the book Orson Welles: A Critical View, “I’m not interested in works of art, you know, or posterity, or fame, just in the pleasure of experimentation itself – it’s the only domain where I feel I’m really honest and sincere.”
The creative projects next on the young wunderkind’s slate – the 1937 Mercury Theater production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and the 1938 CBS radio production of H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds, a production that would scare the living wits out of thousands of Americans suffering from pre-war jitters and earn its own footnote in textbooks on the psychology of mass human panic – would reveal in no uncertain terms how Orson’s ceaseless need to “experiment” (“the anti-traditional procedure”, as Francois Truffaut described it in his introduction to the 1972 re-issue of Andre Bazin’s study of Welles) and his deep-seated love and respect for literary classics combined to create a genius whose incredible achievements are unmatched by any other living artist today.
“When you have eliminated the impossible,” Holmes instructs Watson in The Sign of the Four, “whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.”
In Depression-plagued New York City in 1937 the impossible task would be to sell tickets to a stale “Romans-in-togas… John Gielgud, drawing-room Shakespeare” production. Eliminate the impossible, as Holmes suggests, and the improbable – the truth – emerges: Welles endeavors to produce, direct, and star in a modern-dress production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar with the contemporary political implications of the text underscored. (Welles referred to his production as “a response to the startling political development in Europe”, namely the ascension to power in Italy of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini).
“I’ll mount a Caesar that will astound the eye and ear,” the boy genius boasts in Me and Orson Welles. “It will be Shakespeare as it’s not been since the time of Elizabeth herself, Shakespeare written in the language of tears and blood and beer, in the language of starlight and fireflies and the sun and the moon.”
Welles’s declaration of a new Shakespeare – a task he had already accomplished once with the voodoo-inspired Macbeth – was not fabricated by Kaplow but rather taken almost directly from Welles’s own introduction to The Mercury Shakespeare: Julius Caesar (1939, MacGraw-Hill):
“Shakespeare said everything. Brain to belly, every mood and minute of a man’s season. His language is starlight and fireflies and the sun and the moon. He wrote it with tears and blood and beer, and his words march like heartbeats.”
So what was improbable about mounting a modern-dress version of Caesar in 1937? Everything. The moral, political, and social forces at play at the time were as bleak and as familiar as our own modern times are.
“Do you sometimes think these are terrible times to be alive?” the contemplative Sonja asks of the young narrator in Me and Orson Welles. “I keep thinking about that, what it means to be born at a certain time. Every day layoffs, plant closing. People scared of losing their jobs. It must do something to you psychologically, don’t you think? To live like this every day?… Sometimes it seems to me as if the whole world is falling apart.”
In a rare display of the naïve wisdom of youth, Richard counters Sonja’s lament by observing that in “times as hard as these… people go right on doing what they’ve always been doing: putting on plays, getting married, changing jobs. It’s kind of heroic, isn’t it? They go right on looking for apartments, making their big plans for the future.”
The human ability to acknowledge harsh times and hard turns of history but to move forward nonetheless is a point that Kaplow relentlessly – perhaps redundantly – hammers home in his narrative. Consider the following narrative passage that precedes Sonja’s lament by little more than ten pages:
“And, yes, I knew people were still desperate to find work, and people were still bombing each other in Shanghai, and the world could be dark and terrible—- but not that afternoon. Not for that second. That second it was sunshine rising beyond the clouds. It was Orson Welles and the taste of hot chocolate and the smell of the New York Times ink and the face of every extraordinary woman passing on Sixth Avenue.”
In a world where “the words ‘morally right’ don’t mean anything anymore” (Sonja), it must have been giddy and exciting and just a wee bit maddening and chaotic and—fun, yes, that’s the word: fun, something that people don’t know the meaning of in such punishing and serious days – to pour one’s heart and soul into a modern-dress production of Caesar because that is exactly what Welles expects from all of his performers: 100 percent and nothing less. And the play doesn’t go on until Orson is convinced it is ready to go on. As Shakespeare wrote: “That way madness lies.” And genius. But is there a difference between the two realms?