Orson Welles: A Man of a Certain Ego

“How small we feel with our petty ambitions and strivings in the presence of the great elemental forces of nature,” Sherlock Holmes declares to Dr. Watson in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel The Sign of the Four (1889), the second full-length detective yarn to feature one of the world’s most beloved fictional creations, once dubbed “the greatest man who never lived.”

“The chief proof of a man’s real greatness,” Holmes continues, “lies in his perception of his own smallness. It argues, you see, a power of comparison and of appreciation which is in itself proof of nobility.”

Book: Me and Orson Welles

Author: Robert Kaplow

Publisher: Penguin

Publish date: 2009-11

Length: 272 pages

Format: Paperback

Price: $14.00

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/columns_art/j/jacobs-mewells-bkcvr.jpgIn Robert Kaplow’s extremely engaging and nostalgia-laced novel Me and Orson Welles (originally published in 2005, reissued by Penguin in a movie tie-in edition in late 2009) Welles, dubbed “the wonder kid of Kenosha, Wisconsin” by the late film critic Andre Bazin, tells the young narrator that he is “a God-created actor” because he has “the look”, invoking the sentiment of Holmes in The Sign of the Four:

“The bone-deep understanding that your life is so utterly without meaning that simply to survive you have to reinvent yourself. Because if people can’t find you, they can’t dislike you. You see, if I can be Brutus tonight – I mean, really be him from the inside out – then for ninety minutes I get this miraculous reprieve from being myself. That’s what you see in every great actor’s eyes, you know.”

There are numerous similarities in the psychological make-up of Orson Welles and Doyle’s famous fictional detective, both men possessing extraordinary intellectual gifts, both haunted and made dangerously restless by the “bone-deep understanding” that each individual life is but a mere speck in the cosmos.

A serious re-examination of Welles’ brilliant work is long overdue on the 25th anniversary of his passing, just as Hollywood is now renewing the Holmes legend 173 years after the detective first appeared in print (Welles portrayed arch villain Moriarty in a 1952 BBC radio production of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, featuring Sir John Gielgud as Holmes and Sir Ralph Richardson as Watson.)

There have been numerous fictional versions of larger-than-life American artists in print over the decades: F. Scott Fitzgerald became the alcoholic has-been writer Manly Halliday in Budd Schulberg’s rambling roman-a-clef The Disenchanted; rowdy filmmaker John Huston was transformed into cold-blooded John Wilson in Peter Viertel’s fictionalized account of the production of The African Queen, White Hunter, Black Heart, and Ray Bradbury penned a novel, Green Shadows, White Whale, about his experiences making Moby Dick (a novel that particularly obsessed Welles throughout his life and career) with John Huston in Ireland in 1953; the legendary William S. Burroughs has appeared as a fictional character in several Jack Kerouac works and last, but certainly not least, is Charles Bukowski, poet and novelist of the underclass, who created his own fictional alter ego, Hank Chinaski, in dozens of short stories and novels.

The outsized persona of Orson Welles, however, has escaped the novelist’s scrutiny, despite the fact that he remains one of the most towering figures to emerge from the media of the 20th century: Broadway, radio, and, ultimately, motion pictures.

While Me and Orson Welles is by no stretch of the imagination a definitive fictive rendering of the life of the creator of Citizen Kane, the novel does offer fascinating insights into a critical juncture in the man’s scattershot career: New York City in 1937, less than two years before Hollywood came calling and Welles departed on gilded wings for the west coast where, as biographer Charles Higham precisely describes in his book Orson Welles: The Rise and Fall of an American Genius, the multi-talented artist would begin work as “the brilliant architect of his own downfall” owing to “some perverse streak of anti-commercialism.”

A Terrible Time to Be Alive

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.

Book: Orson Welles: A Critical View

Author: Andre Bazin

Publisher: Acrobat

Publish date: 1992-03

Length: 138 pages

Format: Paperback

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/columns_art/j/jacobs-orwells-critview-cov.jpg“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?

A Caesar to Astound the Eye and Ear

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.”

Fall From Grace

Fall From Grace

Movie-making, Orson Welles explained in the documentary The Battle Over Citizen Kane, is “about two-percent movie-making and ninety-percent hustling. It’s no way to spend a life.”

Two years after the Mercury Theater production of Julius Caesar, Welles was in Hollywood directing Citizen Kane for RKO Pictures, a film that would forever alter the linear narratives that the film industry had previously been so fond of. Many in the film industry feared the much-heralded arrival of the boy genius and fought to sabotage his success from the outset.

DVD: Citizen Kane

Film: Citizen Kane

Director: Orson Welles

Cast: Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten

Studio: Turner

Release Date: 2001-09-25

Price: $26.98

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/columns_art/j/jacobs-citizenkane-cvr.jpgIn the 1939 Esquire magazine short story, “Pat Hobby and Orson Welles” by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Pat, a once-successful screenwriter who has become a forgotten hack on a Hollywood lot, blames newly-arrived Welles for his own career misfortunes (“… that name, sinister and remorseless, spreading like a dark cloud over all his skies.”)

“I wouldn’t be surprised if Orson Welles isn’t the biggest menace that’s come to Hollywood for years,” Fitzgerald’s envious anti-hero warns a studio executive. “He gets a hundred and fifty grand a picture and I wouldn’t be surprised if he was so radical that you have to have all new equipment and start all over again like you did with sound in 1928.”

In the end, however, it was that “perverse streak of anti-commercialism”, as Welles biographer Charles Higham called it, the need to think and create outside of established norms that would prove to be the Wonder Boy’s undoing (Andre Bazin writes that when Welles arrived in the film-making capital of the world, he hungrily screened films from past masters and contemporaries, not to get a sense of how film-making is done but “how to do it differently”, in his own unique way).

Book: Orson Welles: The Rise and Fall of an American Genius

Author: Charles Higham

Publisher: St. Martin’s

Publish date: 2002-06

Length: 416 pages

Price: $20.99

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/columns_art/j/jacobs-risefall-bkcvr.jpg“The truth is that Welles gallantly tried to do the impossible,” Higham writes in Orson Welles: The Rise and Fall of an American Genius, “he tried to create films as novelists create novels, as poets create poems, as composers create music, as painters create paintings. Snatching finances from any possible source, drawing from his own pocket when need be, taking all the time that seemed necessary, he has gone beyond any other figure of the screen, including Kurosawa and Renoir, in seeking to convey a personal vision through celluloid, at his own pace and without restraints.

“Many lives have been affected, not all for the better, and many pockets have been emptied in this relentlessly single-minded pursuit. Yet those who have understood him, who have been really close to him, have put up with everything in order to accommodate the genius they recognized.”

Orson’s instincts and desires were rarely in alignment with those of movie producers, whose primary consideration was showing a profit at the box office. Welles wanted to bring new interpretations of the classics to the screen. Unrealized productions of Moby Dick and Don Quixote would plague Welles his entire life; unproduced film scripts at the time of his death in 1985 include adaptations of Henry IV (Pirandello), Crime and Punishment, Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days, Julius Caesar, The Merchant of Venice, The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens, and King Lear.

Many of the screenplays mentioned above were never produced because Welles, who burned bridges in Hollywood quicker than they could be completed, ended up working outside the studio system to finance many of his projects. He addressed his artistry and his alienation in an interview with Andre Bazin for the 1978 English translation of Orson Welles: A Critical View:

“I’m not in ecstasy before art,” Welles told his great French admirer. “I’m in ecstasy before the human function, which means everything that we do with our hands, or senses, and so on. Once our work is completed, it has less importance in my eyes than it does to most aesthetes: it’s the act that interests me, not the result, and I’m compelled by the result when the smell of human sweat or a thought emanates from it.”

Welles pauses and adds some circumspect reflection: “Now I write and paint. I look for ways of using up my energy, for I’ve spent the better part of the last fifteen years looking for money, and if I were a writer or particularly a painter I wouldn’t have to do it. I also have a serious problem with my personality as an actor: I have the personality of a successful actor, which encourages critics all over the world to think that it’s about time they took me down a peg or two, you know: ‘It would do him some good to tell him he’s not all that great.’ But they’ve been telling me that for twenty-five years! No, I really have spent too many months, too many years looking for work, and I only have one life to live. So, for the time being, I write and I paint.

“I throw away everything that I do, but maybe in the long run I’ll do something good enough to keep: I have to. I can’t spend my whole life at (film) festivals or in restaurants begging for money. I’m certain that I can only make good movies if I write the scripts for them; obviously I could make thrillers, but I have no desire to. The only film that I wrote from the beginning to the end and was able to complete properly was Citizen Kane, and too many years have gone by since I was given the chance. Can I afford to wait another fifteen years for someone who’s willing to have total confidence in me again? No, I must find a cheaper means of expression… like this tape recorder!”

At the end of Bazin’s study we find the once-great giant of the arts restlessly wandering “across the earth, as they (the great poets) travelled across Europe, begging for patronage, passing from one court to another in quest of that artist’s Holy Grail which exists only in the possibility of creating.”

The “possibility of creating” for mass audiences eluded Welles in his remaining days after he directed the little-seen F is for Fake in 1973. He became a wanderer, a film festival fixture in the US and abroad, a frequent television talk show guest, and a seller of wines, frozen foods, and restaurants in TV commercials, as well as a guest star in The Muppet Movie (1979) and The Muppets Take Manhattan (1982).

“Of all ruins,” writes Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, “that of a noble mind is most deplorable.”

The Orson Welles worth remembering, however, is distilled in a telling moment recreated early in Robert Kaplow’s Me and Orson Welles, when Welles and his “more practical and sensible collaborator John Houseman” spar over who is doing the most to help the Mercury Theater. (Houseman would go on to make his own valuable and lasting contributions to the arts as the head of the acting program at New York’s Juliard School for the Arts and as a highly-regarded and much sought-after supporting actor. Romanian-born Houseman also won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 1973 for his role as the demanding and curmudgeonly Professor Kingsfield in the film The Paper Chase, a role he reprised in 56 episodes of the CBS series based on the film that aired between 1978 and 1986.)

“This is an infinitely rewarding partnership, Orson,” a weary Houseman says. You go around smashing everything, disenfranchising every friend, every supporter we have. And then I’m left desperately trying to clean up the mess. I’m the one who ends up making the apologies, making the corrections, making the ten thousand phone calls I don’t even tell you about.”

“And I’m out acting in The Shadow and The March of Time and every other goddamn sonofabitch piece-of-shit radio show in this city,” Welles bullies back, “just to pour my money – my personal money, a thousand dollars a week, into this goddamn sonofabitch theater that you’re supposed to be running.”

“That I’m supposed to be running!” scoffs Houseman, the veins in his neck and forehead protruding. “Singlehandedly I’m supposed to be running the Mercury Theater! I’m killing myself trying to run it! What in the hell are you doing for the Mercury Theater?”

I am the Mercury Theater!” thunders Welles.