So what ultimately was it about Welles that is so worth talking about that he keeps coming up?
I'll take it on faith that people know about the broadcast production of War of the Worlds that made Welles internationally famous because many people thought it was an invasion of actual aliens. What we must remember is that Welles was already world-famous when he made Citizen Kane, catapulted to fame as a 23-year-old wunderkind for whom all futures were possible.
Francois Truffaut, himself one of the great film directors of history and even before he became a director a young genius of a film critic, wrote what's surely one of the most insightful lines ever written about Welles's achievement:
..(Citizen Kane) is only the 'first' film directed by a famous man. Welles was forced to make not a film which permitted him to get started in the industry, but THE film, the one which sums up and prefigures all the others. And, my God, this mad gamble was very nearly won.Anything less than the world's greatest film ever made would have been a disappointment relative to expectations, and Welles fulfilled those expectations to the cross of every t, but the price was the whole of his life thereon.
The twentieth century was both a wonderful and terrible time for the arts. There were a lot of great achievements in the arts, but very few figures who have the kind of consistent and always evolving greatness over the course of a lifetime one gets from Michelangelo, Beethoven, Goethe...: perhaps there are a few, the most obvious being Picasso, but perhaps also Stravinsky, or Yeats, or Joyce, or Matisse, or Neruda. And there are artists you can make arguments for like Thomas Mann, or Shostakovich, or Henry James, or Philip Roth, or perhaps untold numbers we'll still sorting through from places in the world that don't get much publicity or artists who simply when their lives long without becoming known for what they did. Or for that matter, Ingmar Bergman or Luis Bunuel if you consider artfilm a high art, and believe it or not some people still don't.
So perhaps this pronouncement is completely premature. But even if there's plenty of great paintings, great music, great books, great films, great poems, there aren't too many cosmic creators of them, creators who were made revelatory things when they were young and completely different kinds of revelatory things when they were old with a line of evolution all the way that Rembrandt did, or Turner, or Bach, or Wagner, or Monet, or Titian or arguably Shakespeare and Tolstoy if you make some allowances, but completely different kinds of: the way there are, rather, a thousand or two extremely talented artists briefly inflamed by the muse of fire before it moved on to its next vessel. Maybe there were these kinds of geniuses in the more popular world: Alfred Hitchcock is the first that comes to mind to me, but no matter what point in Hitch's career and how ingenious his productions became, was pretty much stuck on humiliating women his entire career, though the variety of ways he found to do it was undeniably impressive.
Spielberg has certainly evolved and matured over the course of his career, and even if the trademark tics of sentimentality never left him, you look at his movies from Schindler's List onward and it's immediately perceivable, at least to me, that there is a maturity to his later work that was unreachable by the creator of Jaws, Closer Encounters, Raiders, and ET. There are days in my life when I look at certain movies of his and I say to myself that the real depth in Spielberg is so overlooked that if he were mentioned as the cinematic Shakespeare in 2500, my reincarnated self wouldn't be surprised at all. And then, i look at the same movies the next day, and I wonder how the hell I could be so stupid (or how Spielberg could). So many artfilm snobs of a certain age hated Spielberg like anything because they rightly saw the death of their lifestyle in his work, perhaps even the death of art in movies. Lots of relatively early critics saw the death of various kinds of literature in what they took to be the influence of Shakespeare's barbarism too. In that sense, both Shakespeare and Spielberg are larger than art itself. I'm still inclined to think this doesn't make Spielberg the cinematic Shakespeare. Even at his imposing best, there are still so many gears that show, so much that feels like superficial manipulation rather than real feeling, that I would imagine he will be an unforgotten sidenote in the history of art - appreciated for all those qualities which will always make him watchable, even if future watchers looking to him for real poetic truth will seldom find it. Readers who are gluttons for punishment still pick up Les Miserables or Notre-Dame de Paris, but neither book can ever hope to have the colossal impact on them that Victor Hugo once had on his contemporary French readers. Even if Victor Hugo doesn't speak to later readers anymore in a way that changes the curvature of the earth the way Tolstoy or Dostoevsky or Dickens or Balzac or Flaubert do, stretches of his writing can still be pretty great. There are a lot of once-colossal artists like that, we all know that they're not nearly as colossal as we once thought they were, but so long as you make allowances, what they are is still pretty great. A lot of genre fiction may turn out like that because it's so specifically self-limiting, placing arbitrary limitations on itself in an era when our imaginations ostensibly have the freedom to do anything at all. I would make another list of this kind of work but you'd be listening for twelve hours. Even so, the sheer inescapability of Spielberg in our time is, in many ways, an indicator that his impact on the life of the entire world from now until the end of humanity itself could be very very lasting, and that art itself might be something completely different before him, and after him. As hard as it is to believe, he may perhaps be closer to Shakespeare than we know...
Duke Ellington might be the best musical candidate for that kind of cosmic creator, he certainly evolved enormously as his career went on from the 3 minute sides that made his name. Of course Duke Ellington wasn't as important to the life of 1960 or 70 as he was to 1940, but he hardly disappeared, he just had to keep playing old hits to make a living. Had he the freedom to composer more new pieces, who knows? Perhaps Miles Davis will be reevaluated and later generations will understand all those things about his 70's and 80's albums that baffle us. In 19990 Stephen Sondheim might have seemed an easy candidate, but for a quarter century he slowed his productivity to something nearly a crawl.
A lot of people suggest certain great singer-songwriters, beginning and ending with Bob Dylan, but even if Dylan still writes some pretty good songs, I doubt anybody will say that many songs of his last twenty years match the output of his majority's first twenty. Perhaps Leonard Cohen is a better candidate. I'm sure many people would hear the criteria and immediately say David Bowie - and his personas did speak to a certain kind of quirky genius, but I'd be hard put out to say that Bowie's music had much genius in it. I love Randy Newman even if I'm the only one, but it's hard to say that Newman has evolved at all - he's pretty much been the same satirical nerd his entire career. Maybe if John Lennon had lived longer, but we can only, ahem, imagine... Ultimately, it's much too early to make any kind of definite pronouncement, even if I were a hundred times the authority I am. But it's hard to escape the idea that if that kind of genius was there, we'd have known because he or she would have made their work impossible to miss. And by that metric, Spielberg outpaces any competitor since The Beatles by a factor of n.
Genius, true genius, comes from a place so deep that nothing is any longer what it seems. We call many people geniuses who are 'merely' brilliant. Brilliance suggests illumination. A brilliant person can suggest possibilities we've never thought of in our lives, open our minds and hearts and souls to possibilities undreamt. Such a gift should never be dismissed and always celebrated, but genius doesn't just suggest possibilities, it brings those possibilities into reality, fully formed and totally plausible. A genius doesn't just open us up to places, but to entire worlds and universes. The root of the word 'genius' antedates Latin and even Greek, it comes from the ancient Arabic concept of the al-Jinn, familiar of course to anyone who's dabbled in the Arabian Nights (and distantly to anyone who's seen the Disney version...), it has the same linguistic root as words like Genie and Genesis. It suggests not just illumination, but the very fabric of creation itself.
Movies are clearly the dominant artform of the last century, and at the very nexus of the place they were made, the director with the vision to make his oeuvre the crowning achievement was denied every opportunity to fulfill his potential - and jesus, doesn't oeuvre just sound so incredibly un-Hollywood?
Welles is the great tragedy of the arts in America, and perhaps an indication that movies, with all their commercial compromises, are not meant to be an art in the manner of older, more venerable arts. Or at least the way they've generally been in America until now. How many great filmmaking talents have been so severely curtailed by the limitations imposed by producers? Producers streamline the product, and while I'm sure their presence prevents a lot of disasters, they also prevent a lot of magnificence. When every release needs giant commercial success rather than a product for a smaller but more passionate, knowledgable, and guaranteed audience, we have a major problem; because there will always be artists trying to make art for a more passionate, knowledgeable, and guaranteed audience, but if they can't find distribution for what they make, they have much less idea what works artistically and what doesn't. The critical opinions of this audience, not just Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris but box office receipts from educated doctors and lawyers and teachers and businessmen, is how the great artfilm directors of the 50's and 60's and the great American auteurs of the 70s knew what worked in their films and what didn't.
A lot of artists like to say that they make art only to please themselves - and that is where disaster lies. At best, they risk making work that only pleases people from niches who are exactly like them, so rather than an audience of educated, critical, individualists, each of whom brings a their own, often wholly different, perspective, you have miniscule scene after scene of like-minded individuals whom an artist cannot try new things for, because he or she has to cater and pander to the monolithic prejudices of the couple hundred people upon the future of their career depends.
Art is one of the toughest things in the world to get right. It's not only not for the feint of heart, it is not a career for anybody who is not utterly obsessed with it. People can discourage you and tell you that it's a difficult life, but you have no idea the amount of rejection you get in this life until you experience it for yourself. The process winnows out the non-obsessives, because anybody capable of living a different life than an artist will have jumped ship by middle age. Even the successful live a stressful existence in which fame and fortune are accompanied by constant scrutiny and pressure to live up to your last success, and because their success is so rare, they earn the resentment of thousands of colleagues who think that given their opportunities, we could have done it better.
The mental pressure it takes to create a art in a constant stream does not usually come from people whose brains are well-regulated. Welles himself hated this kind of psychologizing, and I'm a little ambivalent about it too, but there are so many myths surrounding Welles that he's one of the few for whom a little bit of armchair psychoanalysis might shed light rather than obscure it with darkness.
Artists don't need to be crazy or depressed to make art, but only an idiot wouldn't see at least a moderate correlation. I recently went to a conference of composers in Boston and went to a talk on depression in music. The composer giving the talk spent a significant portion of it railing against the stereotype of the crazy artist and how dangerous it is to place artists in such a destructive box - I had to come away with the conclusion that he was the best evidence against his own thesis. I can't do better than this quote from the science-fiction writer Yevgeny Zamyatin:
Real literature can be created only by madmen, hermits, heretics, dreamers, rebels, and skeptics, not by diligent and trustworthy functionaries.Of course it's not as simple as that straw man, and taking Kafka and Chaucer into account, the second part of that statement is obviously disprovable - on the other hand: Kafka was also a madman, a hermit, a heretic, and everything else listed in that quote. The problem is not that artists suffering mental illness is a dangerous stereotype, the problem is that mental illness itself is a dangerous stereotype. A condition which the World Health Organization estimates that one in four people suffer from at some point in their lives is not an illness, it is a fact of life which all people in the world encounter, either from suffering it directly or watching loved ones. The presence of mental illness in one's life is nearly as inescapable as death, but death is very brief, mental illness often lasts an entire lifetime. Mental illness, rather, is part of the life cycle of any community, and the strength of a community's moral fitness and emotional bonds is ultimately measured by how well they can treat those who do not conform to their norms. Those which find room for people who are different, whether emotionally or in an infinity of other manners, have an evolutionary advantage, and their ability to adapt to the next era is greater because of it. If such communities historically die, it is usually because those communities which cannot abide their difference kill them off, along with themselves. But inevitably, it is the vision these tolerant, forward thinking communities, which carries over to the next era, while the worldview of the intolerant dies with them.
But think of the world after 1945, what did fascists win? In every generation, reactionaries want to recapture a world that can never again be, and we should doubt it ever was. Hitler shot himself in a Berlin bunker, Mussolini hung upside down in Milan, but the Communists they wanted to stop inherited half the earth. Jews not only thrived in America but Israel became a highly prosperous nation of its own. Gay rights took a generation to begin, but while their rights may soon be sorely tested again, their march of progress has been undeniable. While the forces of right-wing reaction in Germany are more powerful than they've been in seventy years, their conservative Chancellor, Angela Merkel, has fought them tooth and nail with every trick in the book she has.
One could of course make a similar list of how greatly the aims of Communists were thwarted, but the point is that the world is in constant flux. In every generation there are ever new versions of reactionary hatred, and yes, many of them can be found on the left in addition to the right, and occasionally, when things are particularly dire, in the center too. I generally oppose views which I find excessively progressive rather than liberal because of the instability which they inevitably bring, but even I can't deny that eventually, it is the world which progressives long to see which becomes a reality. The difference between them and me is that I would like, if at all possible, to spare us the inevitable seeming price-tag.
The point of this digression is to illustrate that some part the mental conflict which often results in people going into the arts is because they often come from precisely the conservative or reactionary, sort of background that roots for their failure, because for them to succeed would contradict everything which their communities believe is true about life. It is the divided self which this background creates: between love and affection for these people who do truly love them back and the knowledge that these communities who raise them hate everything they represent - the supposed irresponsibility, the hostility to predictable norms, the wind of change their ideas seem to guarantee. And then, when some of them work through that conflict through the arts, however abstractly, it causes further levels of guilt, which necessitates the creation of more art.
While it's not the dominant element, there is no question that this stability is part of the Welles makeup, and you see it particularly in The Magnificent Ambersons, in which George Amberson - and Welles's full name was George Orson Welles - was, like how Welles probably viewed himself, the spoiled brat son of an immensely prosperous midwestern family of suburban industrialists for whom all change is viewed as a threat. Booth Tarkington, the writer of the novel on which the movie was based, was a family friend of Welles's father who would come to stay in the Welles family mansion. Welles claimed, though it's not proven, to be descended from Gideon Welles, famous abolitionist and Lincoln's Secretary of the Navy.
The Welles mansion was in Kenosha, Wisconsin, a very small city bordering Lake Michigan situated right near the Illinois border, across which grew perhaps the boy starring the antithetical American story of their generation to Welles, Ronald Reagan. Kenosha was a midwestern town founded in the 1830s and seemingly grew into a city because a railroad needed a stop there. Simon Callow notes in his biography that:
Every country has its joke towns, good for an easy laugh, and if Kenosha is not quite in the league of Oshkosh, Wisconsin and Normal, Illinois, it is still sufficiently redolent of boondockery to seem to mock the very idea of aspiration in its sons and daughters.An article about Welles appeared in 1947 which remarked that Welles:
...is annoyed at his parents to this day because he sprang yelling into the world in prosaic Kenosha, Wisconsin.'Welles replied in the article:
I never blamed my folks for Kenosha - Kenosha has always blamed my folks for me.Welles himself was not from the kind of background which Kenosha, Wisconsin would seem to denote, but his parents decidedly were and made sure to move out of Kenosha before he was four, and so were many relatives of Welles's father whom they left behind.
And yet the stability of certain kinds of families is also its own kind of myth. It's not usually the people who find great happiness in the usual kinds of family and community stability who lash out at those who pursue a different path, if that kind of life gives them genuine fulfillment, they would understand why it wouldn't give the same fulfillment to a different kind of person. It's usually those people who do not fit soundly in the rubric of Normal, USA or Normal, Anywhere Else, who feel threatened by those who pursue a different kind of life, precisely because if such people succeed, it might invalidate their own choices, or still worse, endanger the security of their position as people strive more to emulate this new lifestyle rather than theirs. Stockholm Syndrome is real, and far wider spread than anybody imagines. After a certain age, the real threat to people's self-worth is not the people who place limitations on their options in life. After such limitations are internalized, the real threat to people's self-worth are those who succeed in creating a different kind of life for themselves after we ourselves failed, because they show that we didn't have to make the compromises we made, and could have been happier.
And this is, in many different ways, the story of Orson Welles's paternal grandmother, Mary Head Welles Gottfredson, who probably would have been much happier and caused much less turmoil in others if people like her could have lived a life like Orson Welles's. She was the daughter of the similarly temperamental and apparently quite powerful Orson Head, described as 'one of Kenosha's pioneer attorneys' who accumulated great wealth and helped to establish Kenosha society. Don't let that term fool you, once upon a time there were high societies and sharply defined social castes in every small town in America.
Mary Head seemingly travelled without chaperone to St. Joseph, Missouri so she could compel a freight clerk named Richard Wells to marry her, brought Richard back to her parents, who were horrified, and defied her parents by marrying him. She was fourteen at the time, so perhaps this is where Welles got his precocity. After Mr. Head signaled his harsh disapproval, they returned to St. Joseph, where it wasn't a long time before they'd spent her entire dowry. They returned to Kenosha with their son Richard in tow, and after her notoriously temperamental father passed, she moved into his mansion along with the family members who were hostile to her life choices.
Less than ten years later, Richard Wells was so tired of Mary and her family that he fled Kenosha for an existence somewhere between an existence somewhere between a cad and a hobo. He was declared dead in 1885 so that Mary could collect the patrimony her father made generously conditional on her husband's demise, but was sighted as late as 1901.
In the meantime Mary went about scandalizing her family a second time by marrying a Danish immigrant whose last name was Gottfredson. She became a society hostess whose gatherings were actively meant to scandalize her family's elegant manners, with such wonderful innovations as charging admissions to her parties. Richard Head Welles was so embarrassed by his mother that he added an extra 'e' to his name so that it was less likely people would associate him with his mother.
Some of the next events are better described by Welles in two autobiographical pieces he wrote for Paris Vogue - they are the closest he ever came to writing an autobiography. Like everything about Welles, we have no idea how much if any of it is true. But they do testify to the fact that his grandmother was both mentally unsound and a kind of tyrant who could probably have benefitted from a different kind of life than the family life which was ultimately her only option in life:
Callow's biography of Welles vividly describes the period around Richard Welles's funeral:A strange marriage all the same. My paternal grandmother put a curse on it.The ballroom on the top floor of the old woman’s house had, at some remote period, been mysteriously converted into an enormous indoor miniature golf course full of wooden hills and nasty little sand traps, still partly covered with rotting green paper. Crowning the highest of the hills there had been erected, at a later date, what was unmistakably an altar. Representing some more recent epoch in Grandmother’s spiritual progress, it was no place for Christian sacraments. The feathers of many birds long dead lay all about the golf course, and the altar itself was deeply stained with blood. This dreadful woman – dwarfish, obese and evil-smelling – was a practicing witch.On the occasion of her son’s funeral, celebrated in that huge house of hers this hellish creature managed to sandwich some obscure passages into the ordinary protestant service, so that the wretched, weak-willed minister was confused enough to read out during the ceremony several of the more bizarre invocations employed by Madame Blavatsky, and great, reeking dollops of Aleister Crowley.I was in no condition to interfere, being convinced – as I am now – that I had killed my father.
But what of Welles's self-accusation? What matters here is not proof one way or the other (quite obviously he did not physically kill his father) but the fact that he felt that he was, at the deepest level, responsible for his father's death. He was already riven with guilt about him. He had favored his mother over his father, was her emissary in the world, living out her hopes and dreams. He had perhaps wished his father out of the way. Often, in the years to come, he would frighten himself with the destructive power of his will; perhaps he had used it here, with apparently direct results. Above all, however, Orson had, at the behest of others, abandoned his father. Six months is an awfully long time in the relationship of a fifteen-year-old boy to his father. He had never let more than a couple weeks go by before without seeing Dick. And now he could never see him again. The loss of his mother occurred when he was nine, a child; and besides, he had never really lost her. Now he was a man. The loss of his father was irredeemable, a shattering blow. Having never really had him, he searched for him all his days, sometimes trying to be him, sometimes trying to create an image of him that would absolve the disappointment of the past. He remained an absence, a void, a gap deep within Orson which nothing could fill.
For the immediate future, there was more pain to endure. It was decreed, inevitably, that the funeral must take place in Kenosha; arrangements were in the hands of Dick's - 'unknown' - mother, Mary Head Welles Gottfredson. Orson's relationship with her had never been a success. Despising Richard Junior (who for obvious reasons was not at his father's funeral), she was permanently incened by Orson, whom she regarded as unmanly. Orson fiercely defended his right to aestheticism. Their occasional encounters after the family had left Kenosha were fraught, with Orson defiant - not something to which Mrs Gottfredson was accustomed. Her other grandson Edward recalled that 'Orson once tried to scare Grandma with a rubber dagger and when Grandma refused to become frightened, he dramatically plunged the dagger into his own heart, and died as horribly as his youthful histrionic powers would permit.' 'He was always emoting all over the place' explained Mrs Gottfredson Junior. 'And egotistical as hell,' added her husband. When Orson arrived, explaining that his father must be buried at sea or cremated, he was brushed aside. He persisted, frantic and tearful, and was ignored. his brimming cup of guilt must have overflowed. The final betrayal, to break a solemn oath given to a dying man.The desire to create art can also come from familial stability and broken homes. That kind of artistic background is so commented upon that I don't feel the need to add to it - you can find explanations of that virtually everywhere. But by having such august grandparents and great-grandparents, Welles himself had both in his background, perhaps you need both in order to feel the urgency of why a different kind of life than either might be necessary to both endow you with the desperation to fall back upon your own wits, and also the hope that a better kind of life is possible.
Welles's mother, Beatrice Ives, was, apparently among many other things, a suffragette, a champion rifle shot, the first woman in Kenosha to hold public office, later becoming Chair of the Board of Education, a great beauty, and a lecturer for all manner of women's groups who would enrapture audiences about Eastern religions, impressionist music, modern poetry, current events. Like her family, she grew up in Springfield, Illinois. Abraham Lincoln was her grandparents' longtime neighbor and friend. But for illness, stomach cancer, she may yet have found time for an international career as a concert pianist. Frederick Stock, the longtime music director of the Chicago Symphony, called Beatrice Welles the greatest woman pianist he knew. At the time, it was considered de rigeur for society hostesses to feed the famous touring musicians who came into town. So by the time his mother died, he'd had met Stravinsky, Ravel, Schnabel, Casals, and Heifetz. She homeschooled her son and taught him to recite Shakespeare aloud along with Swinburne, Rossetti, Keats, Tennyson, and Whitman. The artists and intellectuals he met were Welles's school, and Welles convinced himself form the earliest age that he was an adult - drinking wine at five as though it were the most natural thing, declaiming speeches in King Lear by the time he was eight, the same age when he would start mixing drinks and write a paper entitled "The Universal History of The Drama",producing a drawing room version of King Lear with himself in the title role by the time he was nine, and at nine, he started drawing lines on his face so that people would think he was older. This was also the age when he ran away with a girl named Marjorie Watson, telling her they would support themselves as traveling actors - at the beginning of their journey he flung his money into a river and told her they would live by their talent or die trying. They were found in a small town four days later. He apparently was smoking cigars at ten, at which age he wrote a critique of Nietzsche's Thus Spake Zarathustra.
In many ways, Orson had two fathers. Dr. Maurice Bernstein (tell the story of how he met Beatrice and Orson in more detail).
Even Dr. Bernstein was something of a drunk himself whom Welles would have to give money in adulthood so Bernstein could spend it in some bar. Bernstein was a surgeon who met Welles's mother while attending to her mother. He was an amateur cellist and composer of some ability who also knew many of the great classical musicians personally. Together, Dr. Bernstein and Beatrice Welles saw to it that Orson would become the boy extra of the Chicago Opera Company. Welles of course became so heavy that he could no longer be lifted, which was often part of the choreography, and his career ended when Giovanni Martinelli, one of the great tenors of the age, said that Welles was too heavy to pick up.
Like both of Welles's parents, Dr. Bernstein loved theater, and one of his first gifts to Orson was a puppet theater, for which of course Welles became entranced, and then a box of magic tricks, and so entranced was Welles by that that Bernstein took him to meet Houdini. Welles's mother lived longer, it's highly possible Bernstein would have become Welles's stepfather, and he certainly incurred the jealousy of Welles's father.
To compete with Mother and Dr. Bernstein, Father introduced him to the closest to intellectual friends he could find, famous cartoonists of their time: Bud Fisher, inventor of the comic strip and writer of the first nationally syndicated American comic, Mutt and Jeff, about two mismatched tinhorns - which is an antiquated terminology for people who pretend to have power and influence, most of all money; and George McManus, who drew and wrote Bringing Up Father, a famous comic about Irish immigrants and their troubles. His father told him to try his hand at cartoons and see if he could make some money; of course, his cartoons made money right away.
So even if his parents were quite hostile to each other, one can't say that Welles's immediate family was hostile to artists. In many ways, love of the arts was the problem. Welles's father would go to the theater after work and when it was over to hotel rooms with a different chorus girl every night, leaving no time for Beatrice. Mother thought Father a scoundrel, Father thought Mother a social climber. By the time Orson was six, his parents separated completely.
No doubt Dickie, his ten-years-older brother, had more memories of the marital rows. He apparently had a stammer as horrible as Welles's elocution was perfect, and starting at twenty-three was committed for schizophrenia from time to time. When Orson became an actor, Dickie Welles railed down on his brother for ruining the family name, but after War of the Worlds became a worldwide success, Dickie tried to pull a similar martian prank on a radio station on the West Coast. For their entirely lives, Orson had to pay his brother money to ensure Dickie never again cashed in on the Welles name.
Welles lived with guilt for all his life for feeling as though he abandoned his father, and it's impossible not to view Chimes at Midnight, Welles's Falstaff movie, without seeing parallels in how Prince Hal abandoned Falstaff for the worldly success of being the King. In a 1982 issue of Paris Vogue, Welles wrote he was "convinced - as I am now - that I killed my father."
Richard Head Welles was, in his way, highly intelligent though no intellectual, but clearly a bit of a 19th century cad - so legendary as a partier in Chicago that he had a restaurant and a racahorse named after him and his own private brand of cigar. He bought a hotel in Grand Detour because he liked the service, and threw the other guests out because they irritated him. The only people Welles pere allowed in were friends and acquaintances. His success as a businessman was due in large part to being an inventor. He began in selling railroad supply wagons for his uncle and did well enough at it to become an equal partner at twenty-five in his uncle's subsidiary company: Badger Brass, whose main product was a lamp that made and burned its own gas. They produced a thousand lamps a day, and thanks to the new popularity of bicycles at the beginning of the twentieth century, they'd sold over a million lamps. He also invented a carbide bicycle lamp a collapsible picnic outfit which made him a fortune during World War I thanks to a government contract. From these inventions he could spent very profligately for the rest of his life.
So inveterate was his partying however that he drank himself to death in a Chicago hotel room in 1930. Barbara Leaming's biography tells: "...the young Orson told people that he was present at his father's suicide." Welles would also claim that his father, not Henry Ford, invented the automobile, so it was probably not what in fact happened. Leaming believed it wasn't literally true that he was present at his father's suicide, and it's doubtful Welles's father even committed suicide in any literal sense. The truth is probably that Welles believed sent his father to his death by refusing to speak to him in an attempt to get his father to stop drinking. Welles called his behavior 'inexcusable' and said 'I don't want to forgive myself.'
After his mother died, Richard gave up his business and took Orson to the Far East, which back then was a year-or-more long excursion. It was not without its benefits, Welles got to see Chinese theater and magic, which influenced him his entire life, but along with that came the requirement for Orson to minister to his father in many of the most ignominious of alcoholic circumstances. At ten, after a fourth grade replete with bullies, one of which he scared into stopping bullying him by applying stage makeup to make his injuries look much worse than they were, Welles was finally enrolled at a progressive school with a headmaster appropriately named Skipper Hill with a passion for theater who saw the potential in him. Together, he and the man who would soon become Welles's guardian, Dr. Maurice Bernstein, notice the last name, did everything they could to keep Welles away from his father, which fundamentally meant giving the boy genius what he needed to keep his talent growing. It is perhaps this guilt which is at the heart of both Welles's psyche, and the daemon which made his gift so fecund. Here's Callow again:
His position was desperate. Paralysed with guilt, he felt that both his surviving father figures (of whom we'll hear more in a moment) were somehow implicated in Richard Welles's death: Dadda Bernstein had stopped Orson from seeing him when he was in most need. 'I didn't think I was doing the right thing, I simply wante to please the Hills . . . (after his death) I felt that they had been, momentarily, false gods; that I had followed the wrong adults, you know, and for the wrong reasons.'Until Orson's arrival, theatrical productions at the Hill School had just been small things. Orson stretched them out to be Doctor Faustus, Everyman, and Moliere's The Physician in Spite of Himself. He made a forty-five minute condensation of Richard III that included Henry VI to show the evolution of Richard III's evil. On successive Christmases he played the Virgin Mary, Christ, and Judas. When the director of the Goodman Theater judged a competition of high school productions, Welles's Julius Caesar was passed over because the director, named Whitford Kane, assumed that two adult actors had been brought in as ringers to play both Cassius and Marc Antony, both of which were played of course by Welles himself. After Welles threw a fit at the injustice, he was awarded a special prize. The next year, Ashton Stevens, the most influential drama critic in Chicago, saw him play Richard III and commented:
I am going to put a clipping of this paragraph in my betting book. If Orson is not at least a leading man by the time it has yellowed, I will never make another prophecy."Welles also got control of the school radio, and there exists a radio script of Sherlock Holmes stories which Welles adapted when he was thirteen. When he as fourteen, he passed himself off as a classical scholar and sold a translation of the play to a theater group for $300. It was then discovered that Welles did not translate it but rather adapted it in iambic pentameter from a prose version. When it came time finally for Welles to tour Europe, which became an extended stay in Dublin Welles packed books and painting material, and Dr. Bernstein pointed out that Welles's suitcase was missing just one thing: clothing.
When he came to Dublin, he went his first night to a Dublin theater and claimed he was a star of the New York Theater Guild. Nobody believed him, but they were sufficiently impressed that they gave him a part anyway. The director of the theater recalled:
There followed one of the strangest sights I have witnessed in my life. The young man looking larger, taller, softer and broader in the face than ever, bounded onto the stage with our poor little script in his hand. He confronted us with glazing eyes and seemed, as far as we could judge from our seats at the back of the two-and-fourpenies, in a towering rage. A chair was hurled through the air, and he struck an attitude suggestive of stated repose. Then he thought better of that and a small table followed the chair. A violent cloud of dust, like a miniature sand-storm and an accompanying desiccated rustle of paper and twigs informed me that some branches of plum blossom were sharing the same fate. A few books and a harmless necessary cushion or two concluded the holocaust, and after a brief prayer of gratitude that the valuable clock used in Act Three was in the prop room and that I myself was out of reach for the moment -- my partner I was sure could take care of himself -- I began to wonder what was to be lfeft of our theater before it was ready for this young man to play it.Welles proceeded to complain that the stage was too dimly lit, and finally began reading for the part. Here's the theater director, MacLiammor, again:
It was an astonishing performance, wrong from beginning to end but with all the qualities of fine acting tearing their way through a chaos of inexperience. His diction was practically perfect, his personality, in spite of his fantastic circus antics, was real and varied; his sense of passion, of evil, of drunkenness, of tyranny, of a sort of demoniac authority was arresting; a preposterous energy pulsated through everything he did. One wanted to say, "Now, now, really you know," but something stopped the words from coming. And that was because he was real to himself, because it was something more to him than a show, more than mere inflated exhibitionism one might have suspected from his previous talk, something much more.Here's Welles talking a bit about his debut:
Here now is Frank Brady talking about Welles's theater debut in his biography, which is, of course, titled: Citizen Welles -
Somehow, he mumbled through the next few lines, the curtain fell, and Welles crept backstage in preparation for Act V. But now he had experienced the baptism of the theater: fear. By the time he returned for the final act, he was so nervous that he began to transfer an otherwise credible performance into something of an unintentional comedy. As if in a Laurel and Hardy film, his sword actually got stuck in his scabbard. At his crucial death speech he was to say, "Ring the bells and fire all the cannons!" Instead, his voice, no longer sounded of a perfectly tuned oboe but now the shrill of a teenage girl's, blurted out: "Ring the cannons and fire all the bells!" Before anyone in the audience could audibly guffaw, Welles, "in a mood of suicide," as he recalled it, but in what developed into a coup de theatre, instantly flung himself in a sort of backflip, head-first down a flight of stairs. "I didn't care whether it killed me or not," Welles has said, but the act of theatrical desperation brought the house down in applause. "In all the striving years since my debut, I have never received such an ovation."Welles lasted nine months in Dublin before he left because he wasn't allowed to play Othello yet. He travelled to London - then as now, especially then, the theater capital of the world - where, being an American, he couldn't get any work during the Great Depression when all the parts went to struggling English actors as a matter of national policy. He then went back to America where he wrote a four-hour theatrical blockbuster meant to wow the world about the John Brown rebellion. Another play called Bright Lucifer about a likeable but evil teenager that was clearly autobiographical. Much more successful was a Shakespeare edition he began with Skipper Hill, his old headmaster, called 'Everybody's Shakespeare', he got through Twelfth Night, The Merchant of Venice, Macb*th, and Julius Caesar before deciding that he needed a change of scenery. While in Dublin, he met a Moroccan Prince, and went to stay with the prince in Casablanca so that he could work on the Shakespeare edition - which sold 100,000 copies. He ended up instead in Seville so he could become a bullfighter- at which he failed miserably. but he called himself The American, which was, of course, the working title of Citizen Kane. While being a bullfighter, he wrote some detective fiction which was all bought by various magazines.
Seeming to fail as an actor, Welles decided instead to try to make it as a writer, and use his acquired knowledge of John Brown write a biography. He told a man at a Chicago dinner party about his plans for the book, this man was also had an interest in the old America. Over the course of the conversation, it dawned on Welles that this was Thornton Wilder, writer of Our Town, and before he could say anything, Wilder had identified him as Orson Welles, who had apparently heard of this American theater prodigy working in Dublin. Wilder told Welles that Katherine Cornell, one of the great American actresses, was about to take Bernard Shaw's comedy, Candida, on tour, and while people had mentioned Orson Welles for the part of the vionary young poet, nobody knew how to find him.
Welles went to New York, where Cornell also engaged him to play Mercutio. Theater in 20's New York was both much more sophisticated and much more simple than today. It was very easy to produce a new play on Broadway for an enthusiastic audience, but nobody had done Shakespeare on Broadway for the ten years since John Barrymore played Hamlet. Few actors even knew anything about Shakespeare, so at eighteen, Orson Welles was not just playing Mercutio on Broadway, but was considered Broadway's foremost Shakespeare expert. On the side, Welles made extra money by doing $2 fortune readings, for which he borrowed, probably stole, a turban and cape from the theater. Welles was apparently good at it, and he later said "I believe I saw and deduced things my conscious mind did not record."
Rehearsals were in the spring, but the Broadway debut was not until the fall. Shakespeare was too difficult to take on tour to the South, so Orson was told his services were not needed over the summer. So instead, Welles founded a summer stock festival in rural Illinois for which through a series of telegrams he persuaded the two main actors he knew from the Gate Theater in Dublin to help him found - for which they cancelled tour of Spain, Portugal, Morocco, Paris, and London. It was moderately successful, but it was in this summer stock company that he met a leggy blonde whose parents were about to present her in her society debut. She recited a monologue from Henry VI at her audition, that was all it needed for the Orson and Virginia Nicholson to become a pair. Her parents had to cancel the debutante ball.
When he arrived back in New York, he was told he was demoted to Tybalt because an untrained movie star would take the role of Mercutio - then as now, movie stars sell more tickets than actors. The reviews didn't have much to say about Welles, but one person did notice: John Houseman, Welles's soon to be producer and a theater director in his own right. Here's what Houseman had to say:
When the furious Tybalt appeared sudenly in that sunlit Verona square: death, in scarlet and black, in the form of a monstrous boy--flat-footed and graceless, yet swift and agile; soft as jelly one moment and uncoiled, the next, in a spring of such furious energy that, once released, it could be checked by no human intervention. What made this figure so obscene and terrible was the pale, shiny child's face under the unnatural growth of dark beard, from which there issued a voice of such clarity and power that it tore like a high wind through the genteel modulated voices of the well-trained professionals around him. "Peace! I hate the word as I hate Hell!" cried the sick boy, as he shuffled along, driven by some irresistible interior violence to kill and soon, himself, inevitably, to die. Orson Welles' initial impact -- if one was sensitive or allergic to it -- was unforgettable.