Orson Welles

A Man of a Certain Ego

by Rodger Jacobs

4 February 2010

 

A Caesar to Astound the Eye and Ear
In the opening chapter of The Sign of the Four, Dr. Watson remarks that he is “diffident and backward” in crossing and confronting the great Sherlock Holmes over his dangerous cocaine and morphine addiction because he stands in awe of the detective’s “great powers, his masterly manner, and the experiences which I had had of his many extraordinary qualities.” Such is the way geniuses are often regarded by their so-called inferiors.

“The only thing he has is talent,” Richard tells a hurt and fuming set decorator whose credit in the theatrical handbill for Caesar has been appropriated by Welles, “all other human virtues: generosity, decency, loyalty – whatever – are missing. And because people are so hungry to be part of his success, they’ll endure anything from him. Any kind of behavior is acceptable, no matter how demeaning, as long as he keeps bringing in success. I respect Welles as an artist; I really do. I’m in awe of him. But, as a man, he seems to me more and more a kind of monster.”

Early in Me and Orson Welles, Richard writes of Welles as “brash, handsome, successful, and talented”, all of the traits our narrator hopes to hear applied to his own name some day, but, as he will learn in a stunning act of betrayal, this leader, this self-appointed Gaius Julius Caesar of the Mercury Theater has more in common with Shakespeare’s noble but treacherous assassin Brutus and the scheming, envious Cassius than with the great emperor of the Roman republic.

In his introduction to the published version of The Mercury Shakespeare: Julius Caesar, Roger Hill, teacher, scholar, Welles mentor, and co-author of Caesar (though he never is even so much as mentioned in Kaplow’s otherwise well-researched novel) writes: “Shakespeare cared little or nothing for rules, just as every great genius in every great art cared little or nothing for rules.”

To accomplish his modern Caesar, Welles broke all the rules. He kept the Elizabethan language intact while combining elements of different acts of Shakespeare’s play into a single scene, and added material (Welles brazenly and unapologetically transposes a song from Henry VIII into Caesar) and sprinkled in a few colloquialisms here and there throughout the dialogue in order to drill down and find the pure essence of the Bard’s timeless political fable.

The end result is the most breathtaking, bold, thought-provoking Shakespeare this writer has ever read, seen, or heard, not to mention the most accessible Shakespeare imaginable, short of Ian McKellan’s marvelous, militaristic film adaptation of Richard III (1995), a modern-dress affair that owes much to Welles’s 1937 production of Caesar without a shadow of a doubt.

(The excellent and highly recommended 70-minute version of the 11 September 1938, rehearsal of the Mercury Theater production of Julius Caesar for the CBS radio network can be heard in its entirety in very clean audio in Real Audio or MP3 format at The Mercury Theater on the Air online; just as Shakespeare plundered Plutarch’s Lives for the narrative history of Julius Caesar, Welles also engages Plutarch’s verse to provide narration for the radio play to make up for the lack of video, which the auteur laments over in his brief opening comments.) 

“It takes a lot of audacity to transpose Shakespeare’s text,” Andre Bazin notes in Orson Welles: A Critical View, “but as Bertolt Brecht replied to a critic who asked him if he had the right to take liberties with classical texts: ‘One has the right to do it if one is capable of doing it.’”

Bazin – a Welles devotee if ever there was one – marvels at the “audacious impact” that the modernized version of Julius Caesar had on critics and audiences at the height of European fascism. Even more daring and postmodern for 1937, the entire production was staged without sets, using movable platforms set against the bare bricks of the theater’s back wall and trap doors in the stage floor (Those trap doors provide an endless and somewhat juvenile source of repetitive humor in Me and Orson Welles; Richard Samuels, the narrator of the novel, also observes that Welles lit the production “like a movie … like one of those German horror movies”). 

The opening of Julius Caesar on 11 November 1937, Bazin notes, “caused a stir among New York critics, who were all the more unstinting in their enthusiasm since they could use it the following day as a foil to the sumptuous and flashy staging (at a competing Broadway theater) of Antony and Cleopatra with Tallulah Bankhead. The success of Julius Caesar was such that the program had to be quickly revised. The production was moved to a larger and more central theater, where it ran for several months before returning to the Mercury.”

Bazin and most other Welles biographers believe that the short-lived Mercury Theater and the successful and daring production of Caesar marked an essential plateau in Orson Welles’ career.

“With his more practical and sensible collaborator John Houseman, he (Welles) transformed the American stage overnight,” writes Charles Higham. “By disposing of the intermission and cutting his productions to a mere ninety or one hundred minutes, he took theater to the edge of cinema. He broke free of the proscenium arch, extended the apron stage into the heart of the audience, and invented patterns of light and darkness that matched those to be found in German expressionistic movies and, paradoxically, those that figured in the Hitler mass rallies he despised…

“By revolutionizing and freeing the stage, he was able to use it as a vehicle for the liberal sentiments that animated him. At the same time, driving his foodless and sleepless cast through long nights of rehearsal and re-rehearsal, he was able to convey the essence of his dreams and nightmares, visions that left him sleepless. A poet of the macabre not unlike Poe, he was a haunted man, driven by terrifying ancestral memories of his belligerent and demented family, fearful always that madness would strike him as it had seemingly struck his brother, afraid of death as only one who had witnessed it at close quarters and in such agonizing circumstances could be afraid.”

And Andre Bazin concludes more simply: “It was with the Mercury that, at the age of twenty-three, he (Welles) was finally able to realize the full measure of his theatrical genius.”

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