The Magic World of Orson Welles (6 page)

For all of its interest, however,
Bright Lucifer
is only child's play. At one point in the text, in a line Welles has lightly crossed out, the frustrated actor Jack remarks of his career, “I wanted to scare people on a big scale. . . . Not lousy movies. No, I mean artistically—a huge practical joke.” Relatively soon afterward Orson Welles would be able to fulfill this ambition; fascinated with trickery and hoaxes, he inadvertently pulled the biggest Halloween prank of them all.

II

Had Welles been able to get work in the English theater after his experience at the Gate, he might have remained an expatriate; luckily, he found his way back to America during one of the most interesting periods in the nation's theatrical history. He soon landed a job with a road company headed by Katharine Cornell, met John Houseman, and began the association that led to the New York Federal Theatre and the Mercury group.

Welles entered the New York theater just at the high point of what Gerald Rabkin has called “committed” drama—the period 1934–36, when Theatre Union and New Theatre League had produced Clifford Odets's
Waiting for Lefty
and Irwin Shaw's
Bury the Dead
. His major work, however, occurred in a period of relative quiet, when the New Deal had become the chief subsidizer of social plays and even the Communists had become moderate. By the middle of the decade the Popular Front had been established, creating an alliance between Marxists and antifascist writers such as Ernest Hemingway and Archibald MacLeish. (Welles's first important American role was as a doomed capitalist, a sort of ur-Kane, in MacLeish's political drama
Panic
.) Throughout this time Welles was in sympathy with the left, and like most intellectuals he regarded Roosevelt as a hero; he remained an outspoken, active supporter of Soviet-American friendship, an antagonist of racism and fascism, until late in the forties. His political consciousness was shaped by the Popular Front. At various times he called himself a Socialist, remaining strongly antifascist yet somehow within the “pragmatic” ethos of New Deal reformers. In fact the remarkable sense of inner tension and contradiction that can be seen in a film like
Kane
is in some ways a reflection of the subtle complexities and contradictions in Welles's own political situation.

Welles also had come to prominence during a period of collective consciousness, when the major theatrical achievements were the result of group
activity. Even the clearly non-Marxist dramatists like Sherwood Anderson, S. N. Behrman, Sidney Howard, and Robert Sherwood had formed a loose alliance in the Playwrights' Company, and New York was bustling with small theater collectives. (It was toward the end of this period that Welles and Houseman dissolved their partnership; according to Houseman, their egos had begun to conflict—a foreshadowing of the loss of collective spirit in the arts generally.) Of all the groups in those days, easily the largest was the Federal Theatre Project, which brought employment to actors and drama to people on a scale that has never been duplicated; in New York alone there were four major Federal Theatre companies, so Welles and Houseman accounted for only a small part of the total. Quite naturally, the project was attacked by conservatives, particularly by the Hearst press, which called it “an adjunct of the New York Leftist literary junta.” Although only about 10 percent of the productions had an overt political content, the very existence of such a theater was troubling to Republicans. At first Hallie Flanagan, the executive in charge, resisted censorship of the plays, but political pressure from the right mounted steadily. This no doubt contributed to the trouble Welles and Houseman encountered when they tried to stage Marc Blitzstein's “labor opera,”
The Cradle Will Rock
, their only venture into truly proletarian theater, which was summarily closed by government agents and forced into a stunning improvised performance down the street in the aisles of the Venice Theatre. Welles immediately resigned his job with the New Deal, and Houseman was fired.

But if they had departed the government officially, Welles and Houseman retained their New Deal approach to theater. They formed a repertory company with an investment of $10,500, lifting the name “Mercury” from a copy of
Mercury
magazine lying in a corner of an empty fireplace at Welles's home. The company eventually had thirty-four members and took over the old Comedy Theatre on Forty-first and Broadway, announcing four productions for its first year of operation. With the blessing of Brooks Atkinson, the Mercury's foundation was headlined in the Sunday drama section of the
New York Times
, where Welles and Houseman alluded to their previous Federal Theatre projects as a way of explaining what the new undertaking would be like. (Welles had already declared himself an enemy of government-controlled theater, but his opinions about this matter tended to vacillate; a short while later he appeared in Washington to testify on behalf of the Coffee-Pepper Bill, hoping to establish a Federal Bureau of Fine Arts.)

Although the Mercury was to be dominated by Welles's personality and by publicity about him, it presented itself as a group project trying to entertain and inform a mass public. The “Mercury Manifesto,” written by Houseman,
declared that the group would play to the same audience that saw the Works Progress Administration (WPA) productions of
Dr. Faustus
and
Macbeth
: “this was not the regular Broadway crowd taking in the hits of the moment. . . . Here were people on a voyage of discovery in the theatre.” The Mercury also promised plays that would have an “emotional or factual bearing on contemporary life,” observing that social consciousness would not substitute for “good drama,” but that a “socially unconscious theatre would be intolerable.” Welles even spoke of establishing a Mercury Laboratory for Sunday nights, in which young playwrights could experiment—an idea that the WPA itself had once tried unsuccessfully on a small scale. True to most of their words, the Mercury kept their idealistic plan going for a remarkable length of time, maintaining a repertory schedule, pausing in the midst of financially successful productions like
Julius Caesar
in order to make way for different plays and other actors, all the while keeping the
Caesar
actors on the payroll.

But even though the Mercury was fostered and nurtured by the political ethos of the thirties, in many other respects Welles was out of step with the times. Partly because he had been steeped in classical theater since childhood, partly because he had developed his style and temperament in the “provincial” Midwest and in Dublin repertory, his productions often drew from the spirit of the twenties as much as from the thirties. The “new” theater was didactic in tone and Brechtian in style, whereas most of Welles's work harked back to a decade-old tradition of expressionism; the Gate had once been a center of such activity, and during the same period America saw Theatre Guild productions of Eric Kaiser and Karel Čapek, John Howard Lawson's
Roger Bloomer
, and Elmer Rice's
Adding Machine
—to say nothing of German expressionist cinema and Eugene O'Neill's
The Hairy Ape
. Welles's work, which was inspired by this older style, consisted mainly of revivals or adaptations of classics, plays mounted in starkly dramatic fashion with visual effects that prefigure the look of his later films. Here, for example, is Houseman's description of the set Welles designed for the modern-dress
Julius Caesar
:

First came the main downstage playing area—fourteen feet deep including the apron—which rose to a gentle rake to meet a set of shallow steps running the full width of the stage. These led to an eight-foot plateau, the mid-stage playing area, then rose again to a final narrow crest, six and a half feet above stage level, before falling back down in a steep, fanning ramp that ended close to the rear wall of the theatre. This gave the stage an appearance of enormous depth and a great variety of playing areas. Steps and platforms were honeycombed
with traps out of which powerful projectors were angled upward and forward to form a double light curtain (the “Nuremberg lights”) through whose beams all actors . . . were suddenly and dramatically illuminated before descending to the playing areas below.

This production, like so much of Welles's theatrical work, was a heady mixture of twenties aestheticism, antifascist political drama, and New Deal esprit de corps. It was not, however, nearly so didactic or leftist as
The Cradle Will Rock
. The confrontation between Brutus and Antony—an out-of-depth idealist and a cynical politician—was not unlike the confrontation we have already seen between Jack and Eldred in
Bright Lucifer
, and it resembles the pairings of characters we find in Welles's film projects—Marlow and Kurtz, Leland and Kane, O'Hara and the Bannisters, Vargas and Quinlan. Here, as later, Welles was so honest in his criticism of liberalism that a few people took the play as an attack on democracy. Welles felt he had to explain his theme to a
New York Times
reporter, who wrote as follows:

Brutus, as Mr. Welles understands him, was the prototype of the bewildered liberal in a confused world, a great man with all the faults and virtues of liberalism. So was Caesar a great man. Why present him otherwise just because the play is anti-Caesar? That is . . . the error of left-wing melodrama, wherein the villains are cardboard Simon Legrees.

Welles's defense was accepted by most, even though doubts lingered. Brooks Atkinson, for example, remarked that the play has “the somewhat ambiguous effect of implying that there is no use rebelling against the fascist state—which may be true, although a great many people hate to think so.”

In any case
Julius Caesar
was a great success; like most of Welles's productions it was a triumph of “director's theater” and became one of the most celebrated American presentations of Shakespeare in this century. “Bard Boffola,” said the headline in
Variety
, reporting on the avalanche of critical praise. Reviewers were awed by the brutal simplicity of the staging (a “simplicity” that, as Houseman has noted, was achieved at considerable expense, using batteries of complex lights and a series of tricky ramps), by the inventiveness of Welles's editing of the play (for one of the most impressive moments, the execution of the poet Cinna by a violent mob, he had borrowed lines from
Coriolanus
), and most of all by the frightening modern-dress parallels with contemporary fascism. When
Caesar
was followed by equally successful productions of
The Shoemaker's Holiday
and
Heartbreak House
, Welles became a sort of hero of the American theater.
Time
magazine, for example,
described him as the “brightest moon that has risen over Broadway in years. Welles should feel at home in the sky, for the sky is the only limit his ambitions recognize.”

It was this sort of publicity that helped the Mercury company obtain a contract with CBS Radio. Here Welles continued his policy of adapting classic literature in a gothic style, and although the politics of the Mercury radio shows were seldom overt, there remained a sort of New Deal, populist urge behind the broadcasts. “Radio,” Welles said to the press, “is a popular, democratic machine for disseminating information and entertainment. . . . The Highbrows are still sniffing at it. But when television comes—and I understand it is not far off—they will be the first, in all probability, to hail [radio] as a new art form.”

Of course Welles was not new to the popular arts; he was well known as “The Shadow,” and he would become even better known as the man who caused the Mars panic. His more important contributions, however, had to do with the form of radio dramatics. This moribund art is usually regarded as an extension of playwriting, but Welles always thought of radio (and later television) as a narrative medium rather than a purely dramatic one. “There is nothing that seems more unsuited to the technique of the microphone,” he said, “than to tune in on a play and hear the announcer say, ‘The curtain is now rising on a presentation of—' . . . This method of introducing the characters and setting the locale seems hopelessly inadequate and clumsy.” Welles wanted to eliminate the “impersonal” quality of such programs, which treated the listener like an eavesdropper. The radio, he recognized, was an intimate piece of living-room furniture, and as a result the “invisible audience should never be considered collectively, but individually.” (This, incidentally, was an idea FDR had understood better than any other politician of the era.)

Welles's solution to the problem was simple and effective. With his magnificent voice, he could become the perfect storyteller. Explaining the technique, he compared radio to oral narrative: “When a fellow leans back in his chair and begins: ‘Now, this is how it happened'—the listener feels that the narrator is taking him into his confidence; he begins to take a personal interest in the outcome.” The Mercury program would therefore be called
First Person Singular
(a more egocentric title one could not imagine), and all of its broadcasts, from
A Tale of Two Cities
to
Hamlet
, would be done in first-person narrative, together with related devices such as stream of consciousness, diaries, and letters. Most programs were dominated by Welles's voice reading great swatches of prose from well-known novels and by Bernard Herrmann's music; indeed, few contemporary composers have understood
so well the function of music as a narrative device. The Mercury players and the sound-effects technicians also got into the act, but passages of pure dramatic dialogue were introduced selectively. As a result, novels adapted for the program came out in something very close to their original form, moving effortlessly between pure narration and dialogue, jumping across time and space with the speed of cinema. The
New York Times
review of
Treasure Island
commented that Welles's voice was “more personal” than that of the standard radio announcer; “this . . . abetted by just enough sound effects of surf and shouts, screams and scheming, ‘paints' the picture.”

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