So what ultimately was it about Welles that is so worth talking about that he keeps coming up?
I'm just going to take it on faith that people know about the broadcast production of War of the Worlds that made Welles famous because many people really thought it was an alien invasion. The point, in this case, is that Welles was already world-famous when he made Citizen Kane, catapulted to fame as a 23-year-old boy genius for whom any future at all was possible.
Francois Truffaut, himself one of the greatest directors who ever lived and even before he became a director a boy genius of a film critic, wrote what's surely one of the most insightful lines ever written about Citizen Kane:
It (meaning 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 greatest film ever made would have been a disappointment from the expectations that were upon him, and Welles fulfilled those expectations to the point of the dotted i, but the price was the entire rest of his life.
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's 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 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. There is no question that this stability is part of the Welles makeup, 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 in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Ronald Reagan grew up in a town six miles away. The Welles mansion was ruled by his grandmother, of whom he said: "This dreadful woman - dwarfish, obese and evil-smelling - was a practicing witch." While it's disputed, he claimed to be descended on his father's side from Gideon Welles, famous abolitionist and Lincoln's Secretary of the Navy.
Welles himself was not from that kind of background, but his parents were. The desire to create art can also come from familial instability 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 might be necessary.
His mother, Beatrice Ives, was, among other things, a sufferagette, and a lecturer for all manner of women's groups who would enrapture audiences about Eastern religions and current affairs. She was from Springfield Illinois and Lincoln was her grandparents' longtime friend and neighbor. But for illness, she would have been an international concert pianist, and by the time his mother died, Welles had met Stravinsky, Ravel, Schnabel, Casals, and Heifetz. She homeschooled her son and taught him Shakespeare aloud to him, in addition to any number of more recent poets. 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, memorizing the speeches in King Lear by the time he was eight, mixing drinks at eight, at which age he wrote a paper called "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.
To compete with his mother and Bernstein, his father introduced him to his relatively intellectual friends, who were famous cartoonists of their time: Bud Fisher, who basically invented the comic strip in the first nationally syndicated American comic, Mutt and Jeff, about two mismatched tinhorns - an antiquated term for people who pretend to have money and influence; and also George McManus, who drew and wrote Bringing Up Father, a famous comic about Irish immigrants. His father told him to try his hand at cartoons to see if he could make some money, and of course, he did.
So one can't at all say that Welles's immediate background was hostile to artists, even if his parents were quite hostile to each other. In fact, love of the arts was in many ways the problem because Welles's father would often go to hotel rooms with chorus girls. The mother thought the father was a scoundrel, the father thought the mother was a social climber. By the time Welles was six, his parents were completely separated. No doubt his eight-years-older brother, Dickie, had many more memories of the marital rows. He apparently had a stammer as horrible as Welles's elocution was perfect, whom when he was twenty-three hospitalized with schizophrenia. When Welles became an actor, Dickie Welles criticized his brother for ruining the family name, but after Orson became a worldwide success with War of the Worlds, Dickie apparently tried to pull a similar martian prank on the West coast, and Welles had to pay him money his entirely life to make sure his brother never did anything like that again.
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, also highly intelligent, 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. He was an inventor as well as a businessman who ran the Badger Brass Co., which manufactured one of the earliest auto lights. 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." She believed this wasn't literally true but was a result of his guilt over having abandoned his father in an attempt to get him to stop drinking, which he thought sent his father to his death. 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. Until then, school productions 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.
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.
Bernstein, like both of Welles's parents, loved the 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.
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.