The Magic World of Orson Welles (5 page)

George Orson (named in memory of his distant relative George Ade and Chicago businessman Orson C. Wells) was a sickly child and spent his earliest years in an environment as chaotic as anything he experienced afterward. His parents had a troubled relationship and were divorced when he was six. Beatrice then took the boy to Chicago, where he lived in a musical salon. (Even as a baby, he had been in demand as a sort of prop for the Chicago Opera.) His mother died unexpectedly three years later, and Welles was obviously shaken by the event; he was already an accomplished violinist, but he said
that he did nothing with music afterward—although François Truffaut has called him the most “musical” of directors. After a brief stay with friends, he returned to his father, who by this time had developed an addiction to gin. The two of them made an incredible world trip together, visiting China, among other places, and then settled in Illinois at a bizarre hotel that Dick Welles had purchased. Fire destroyed the hotel, the two Welleses moved again, and not long afterward, when Welles was fifteen, his father also died.

During all this time, young Orson had been treated as an adult and was on speaking terms with a number of well-known artistic figures. He was given very little conventional education, partly because of illness and partly because in his earliest years his mother kept him always by her side. Welles claimed to have been learning to read from his mother's copies of Shakespeare at the age of five, and he was smoking his father's cigars at twelve. At various periods in his youth he made a study of Nietzsche, met Harry Houdini, and staged elaborate plays and puppet shows. But if he was like an adult, he was also something of a freak, overgrown in body and talent, and he quickly became a subject for child psychologists to examine and reporters to publicize. Such precocity doubtless made him insufferable, yet it did not conceal the essential pathos of his circumstances. Virtually from the time he could walk, he was attracted to playacting, using a makeup kit to fulfill two kinds of pretenses. On the one hand was an aggressive or perhaps defensive disguise; for example, during a brief stay at Washington School in Madison, Wisconsin, he frightened teachers and bullying schoolmates with bloody horror makeup. On the other hand, he liked to change his appearance to make himself as unlike a child as possible; repeatedly he put on whiskers and wrinkles, pretending to be an old man. Interestingly, these two elements—horror and old age—are central to much of his later work.

From 1928 on, Welles was the ward of Dr. Maurice Bernstein, a Chicago physician, family friend, and patron of the opera. Dr. Bernstein had divorced his wife and married a soprano, but the resemblance to Charles Foster Kane stops there; purportedly an expert with gifted children, Bernstein had the wisdom to enroll Welles at the progressive Todd School in Woodstock, Illinois, a town the boy later described as “a Victorian posy under a bell of glass.” It was the happiest time of Welles's youth, largely because of his mentor and friend Roger Hill, the peaceful surroundings, and the free rein he was given with his imagination. Among Welles's accomplishments were a huge mural for the school and several dramatic productions that were virtually one-man shows; for example, he was Brutus
and
Cassius, Androcles
and
the lion in productions he also directed and designed.

Despite Welles's obvious dramatic talent, first his father and then Dr. Bernstein tried to focus his attention on art. The father tried to make him a cartoonist, introducing him to Bud Fischer (the elder Welles's acquaintances included not only creators of comic strips but also William Randolph Hearst himself), and Dr. Bernstein subsequently encouraged him to study at the Chicago Art Institute. Finally, using part of the inheritance Dick Welles had left, Bernstein sent the young man on a painting tour of Ireland; the Irish climate, for some unexplained reason, was supposed to be good for Welles's chronic hay fever, and the landscape would give him a subject for his art. But the experiment did not work. Welles found his way to Dublin and the Gate Theatre, where he auditioned for Hilton Edwards and Micheál MacLiammóir, claiming to be a veteran of the New York Theatre Guild. (He did not try the Abbey, which was better known in America, because there he would have to be an Irish citizen with at least a marginal proficiency in Gaelic.) No one really believed Welles's lie about the Theatre Guild, but he was such a curious and demonic overactor that he was immediately given roles to play, and from his first performance as the villainous Duke in
Jew Süss
he was a small sensation. After his triumphant stay at the Gate, however, he found it difficult to get a work permit for the more famous theaters in England; more travel and some writing followed, and he finally returned, somewhat disillusioned, to the Midwest, where he occupied himself with a variety of activities. With William Vance he directed his first film, a silent expressionist farce called
Hearts of Age
, which Joseph McBride has described in detail. It is actually a short but elaborate home movie, with Welles and the other players nearly unrecognizable under layers of makeup. Welles appears in the role of Death, garbed as a stage Irishman, dancing about and leering around corners or through windows. The movie is virtually plotless and is filled with the camera trickery and heavy-handed symbolism of the avant-garde, all of it presented in the form of a crude parody.

At about this same time, when he was eighteen, Welles collaborated with Roger Hill on editing
Everybody's Shakespeare
and writing a play about John Brown, titled
Marching Song
. He also wrote another play on his own, which he called
Bright Lucifer
. No one seems to have shown interest in either project, although as late as 1938 Welles spoke fondly of
Bright Lucifer
to an interviewer from the
New Yorker
and talked of having it produced. It happens that the manuscript of this play survives in the Arnold Weissberger Collection at the University of Wisconsin's Center for Theater Research, and while it is hardly the product of genius, it is valuable for its revelation of the young Welles's personality—in fact, the title seems to me an apt description of his whole
career in America. Like many of Welles's best-known films,
Bright Lucifer
is a curious blend of philosophic argument and gothic fantasy, loaded with playful and sometimes troubling autobiographical references; it indirectly summarizes Welles's childhood and adolescence, and it foreshadows much of his later work.

The three-act play is bound in a folder that looks almost like a child's copybook. It is covered with handwritten revisions, and on the opening page is an impressive sketch by Welles of the play's only setting—the main room of a sportsman's cabin, sparsely furnished but darkened with atmospheric shadow. Three characters have gathered here on an island for a few days of fishing: a middle-age newspaperman named Bill Flynn, editor of a Sunday feature that is described at one point as an “inquirer”; Bill's younger brother, Jack, a burned-out actor of Hollywood horror films; and Bill's ward, Eldred Brand, a demonic adolescent who is the “bright Lucifer” of the title. Eldred is a precocious, sexually ambiguous, and quite insane child whom Jack calls a “busy little bitch boy.” In many respects he resembles the young Welles: he is an orphan, a victim of hay fever, a cigar smoker, and a devotee of Nietzsche; he also has more than a little in common with Shakespeare's Edmund, the chief villain in
King Lear
, one of Welles's favorite dramas. Indeed the play is so filled with situations drawn from the author's experience that one cannot help wondering what Dr. Bernstein would have thought of the following exchange between Eldred and his foster father, Bill:

ELDRED
: You never miss a chance, do you, to remind me that I'm an orphan—an adopted orphan?

BILL
: Please, Eldred—

ELDRED
: If it had just happened that you were my father instead of the man that beat you to it—

BILL
: Please, Eldred—(pause) I've never denied that I loved your mother, but I loved your father, too.—And Sonny, I love you, but you're getting past the age—

ELDRED
: You've tried to be just like a father to me, haven't you? All those years tucking me into bed. I have my mother's eyes, haven't I? I used to wear bangs and we went on little walks together and you taught me the alphabet. Yes, and Christ knows you've taught me that litany!
All these years!
 . . . my adored old stepmother . . .

BILL
: Listen, Sonny, your mother and I—

ELDRED
: My mother? You mean
Martha, that
woman?

BILL
:
Eldred!

ELDRED
: She hates me! She hates me, Bill! It's true! She's jealous of our love for each other. So's [Jack]!

BILL
: Eldred, my God!

ELDRED
: I tell you I've seen it in his eyes all day, jealousy and hatred and craziness—

Naturally it is Eldred who is crazy, and one should hesitate before imputing a purely autobiographical motive to these lines. Even at eighteen, Welles had a highly developed sense of the Eldred-like roles his voice and body had destined him to play. He was too sophisticated a writer not to disguise his private life, and his emphasis on oedipal rivalry may be less a considered analysis than an attempt to be au courant. The passage does, however, prefigure a tendency in his later work, where he constructs fantasies loosely based on his own life, often projecting himself into the role of a possessed, pathologically troubled character whose behavior is the result of misplaced libidinal energy. The demonic, self-destructive urge for power in this character grows out of a Freudian conflict, and the fictional world Welles constructs belongs in a tradition somewhere between old-fashioned gothic melodrama and psychological “realism.”

Despite the setting, the play is dominated by themes of savagery and devil worship, symbols of Eldred's troubled consciousness, and the staging suggests Welles's later experiments in the “Voodoo
Macbeth
.” A group of Indians—probably based on the Menominee of northern Wisconsin—are encamped near the island, engaged in a burial ceremony for a squaw; the sound of their drums keeps entering from offstage, providing eerie background for the contest between Jack's sanity and Eldred's affection for the “dark gods.” Ultimately the monster actor is no match for the real thing. While Bill is momentarily away, Eldred takes advantage of a conversation about practical jokes in order to convince Jack that a trick can be played on the Indians: Jack will dress up in his Hollywood costume (which happens to have been brought along on the fishing trip) and appear at the ceremony outside. Jack agrees to this adolescent scheme, but he is carried away by his own performance; he kidnaps the squaw from the frightened Indians and spends most of the night running through the forest carrying a dead body. Eldred has somehow anticipated all of this and is trying to engineer Jack's madness. When the actor returns to the cabin, shaken and guilty, Eldred helps him conceal the facts from Bill and proposes that he put on the monster costume once more in order to give Bill a good laugh. Again—somewhat implausibly—Jack capitulates; and when Bill sees a horribly realistic “ghoul” standing in the cabin, he dies of a heart
seizure. Eldred and Jack are left confronting each other in the lonely cabin, Eldred raving madly about the triumph of evil and offering to become Jack's “manager” for any hauntings in the future. Jack seizes a revolver and shoots Eldred dead, but as he stands over the body, an apparition appears: a ghoul, looking exactly like Jack himself in the monster costume. Jack rushes out into the night, screaming Eldred's name. The devil drums begin sounding outside, and Welles's stage directions remark, “Something old and dark has got its way.”

This contrived story provides some basis for psychological speculation about Welles, who has put so much of his public self into the character of Eldred. As we shall see, a great deal of Welles's work can be explained in terms of the conflicting demands of his humanism, personified in this case by Jack, and his romantic rebelliousness, represented by Eldred. It is as if characters like Eldred give him the opportunity to express an anger that the more rational side of his personality then corrects and criticizes. But clearly his imagination and passion were fired by the notion of the tragic outlaw; usually he makes such characters the victims of some kind of determinism, and in so doing he gives a certain humanity to their rebellion. They remain villains, but they also function as critics of bourgeois society and as scapegoats; after all, there is a little of Eldred in Jack—and, by extension, in everyone. In one sense, therefore, the Eldreds of the world have nearly the same perverse appeal for Welles as Milton's Satan had for writers of the nineteenth century; they become symbols of the desire to reject one's hated circumstances and gain control over destiny.

On a less speculative level,
Bright Lucifer
is interesting for the way it embodies Welles's major themes. The mixture of Midwestern pastoral, grotesque terror, and “family drama” vaguely suggests both
Citizen Kane
and
The Magnificent Ambersons
, and when the white man/red man conflict is added, we find ourselves at the veritable center of American literature. The spiritual tension of the play—the contest between a somewhat flawed humanist and a power-hungry maniac who models himself on the devil—will appear again and again in Welles's later work, most obviously in stage productions of
Faust, Julius Caesar
, and
Danton's Death
, and in films like
Kane
and
Touch of Evil
. On one side of this battle are liberal reason and good feeling; on the other are the demons of psychoanalysis and the supernatural. Whenever Welles depicts such a contest, he comes to the same potentially radical conclusions that are implicit in most gothic fiction: he shows that evil characters have both power and consistency, whereas liberals are either complacent, badly flawed, or swept up into the tyrant's own madness. In his more obviously political
dramas and films, he presents the conflict in terms of a social dilemma, his moral being somewhat pessimistic: evil always wins, the one consolation being that the tyrant's hubris leads to his downfall.

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