Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Orson Welles On Stage


If Orson Welles had never made a single film or spoke a single word over the radio, he'd still be a legend: a legend of the theater. His accomplishments in this realm are as fascinating as anything he did elsewhere. There have been books written about his theater work, most notably Richard France's THE THEATER OF ORSON WELLES, which covers Welles's theatrical activity from 1931 to 1940, but I really hope someone somewhere is laboring on a magisterial deep dive into his entire career in theater. Although he shifted his focus to filmmaking in 1940, he dipped in and out of the theater for years, and his work, from start to finish, makes for absorbing reading.

Here are some highlights of his theater work:

1. Childhood productions: Welles made his first brief appearance on stage in a Chicago Opera production of MADAME BUTTERFLY when he was about 3 years old, and in some respects he never looked back. At ten years old he adapted and played the title roles in DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE for a state park production in Wisconsin, followed by a turn as Scrooge in A CHRISTMAS CAROL. After his mother's death, he was sent to Todd's School for Boys in Woodstock, Illinois, where he more or less took over the theater department. He adapted, directed and acted in productions of Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw, as well as performing in some musical theater composed by his friend and headmaster, Roger Hill.

2. Dublin: After graduating from high school at 16 (shortly after his father's death), Welles skipped college and headed to Ireland instead where he talked his way into the Gate Theater run by Hilton Edwards and Micheal MacLiammoir. There his professional career began with a role in JEW SUSS, an adaptation of a Lion Feuchtwanger novel by playwright Ashley Dukes. Welles did more work at the Gate (including a turn as The Ghost in a legendary production of HAMLET), but he also branched out to take roles at other theater companies (like the Abbey Theater and the Peacock) and mount some productions of his own around Dublin, including productions of Lewis Carroll, Ibsen, Chekov, Eugene O'Neill, P.G. Wodehouse, and, of course, some more Shakespeare.

3. New York: After returning to America and mounting some productions at his alma mater (a period which I'll skip here, but which is fascinating all on its own), Welles headed to New York to try to sell some plays he'd written. Success as a playwright never came but he landed roles as an actor, first as Tybalt in ROMEO AND JULIET for Katharine Cornell's rep company, and then a breakout role in playwright Archibald MacLeish's PANIC. The play only ran a few performances but it got Welles noticed, not least of all by producer John Houseman, who recognized the young man's talent and ambition.

4. The Federal Theater Project: The first project Welles and Houseman launched was the all-Black cast "Voodoo MACBETH" set in Haiti. The production was a landmark success, and the crown jewel in the Federal Theater Project run by Hallie Flanagan (a part of the New Deal's WPA). Welles followed it with an adaptation of a French farce which he titled HORSE EATS HAT, a smash hit comedy which he regarded as some of his best work as a writer and director. Then he issued a dramatic turn as the title character in DOCTOR FAUSTUS, another success that also lifted his profile as an actor as well as a director. Welles and Houseman had a falling out with the WPA over their next production, the radical agitprop musical THE CRADLE WILL ROCK. When they were barred from the theater (locked out with an actual chain fastened to the doors), Welles, Houseman and their actors led the audience twenty blocks up Manhattan to another theater. Forbidden by labor laws to take the stage, they sat in the audience and performed the musical from their seats while the composer Mark Blitzstein played piano, an act of defiance that became the stuff of legend.

5. The Mercury Theater: With their association with the FTP at an end, Welles and Houseman started their own theater, The Mercury. Their first play, which Welles adapted, directed and starred in, was the anti-fascist CAESAR, a resounding commercial and critical success that might well be the most important production of Shakespeare ever done on the American stage. Stylistically daring, emotionally resonant, and unapologetically political, it would influence countless Shakespeare adaptations to come. Orson Welles was barely 23 years old. 

The Mercury followed CAESAR with another comedy in the mold of HORSE EATS HAT, this time a racy production of Thomas Dekker's THE SHOEMAKER'S HOLIDAY. The show was a smash hit, but it would also be the highwater mark for the theater. The troubled productions that followed--Shaw's HEARTBREAK HOUSE, TOO MUCH JOHNSON (for which Welles shot some footage intended to be shown within the context of the play) and the German drama DANTON'S DEATH, failed to catch on with audiences or critics.

Two important productions remained, however. Welles directed Richard Wright's adaptation of his own novel NATIVE SON for Broadway, a landmark of African American theater. The play was a critical and commercial success, and, along with his other left leaning works, would contribute to the FBI labeling Welles a Communist in later years. His other important production was FIVE KINGS, Welles's first attempt to do the story of Shakespeare's Falstaff, a story culled from several different plays featuring the character. The production was not a success, but it laid the groundwork for a masterpiece to come.

Welles and Houseman split up after NATIVE SON and went their separate ways, and spent the rest of their lives shitting on each other in interviews. Still, Welles kept the Mercury going (mostly in name) for a few more years, but he really needed a producer to watch the bottom line. What drove the nail into the Mercury Theater's coffin was the epic disaster of Welles's 1946 AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS, which featured music by Cole Porter and boasted enormous, costly sets. The production bombed with audiences and was savaged by critics. It also rendered Welles all but unemployable in New York theater.

6. Europe: By the 1950s, Welles was concentrating primarily on independent moviemaking, but he kept working in theater off and on over the next ten years. He did OTHELLO in New Castle and London as prep for making a movie of the play (he'd done the same thing on stage in Utah in 1947 while working on his film version of MACBETH), he did a one-man show AN EVENING WITH ORSON WELLES in Germany, and in Paris he directed THE LADY IN THE ICE, a ballet, for which he wrote the libretto. 

After a brief disappointing return to New York for short lived production of KING LEAR, he produced one of the most fascinating works in his oeuvre, MOBY DICK REHEARSED a meta play he wrote, directed, and starred in at the Duke of York's Theater in London in 1955. With minimal sets and props, the play begins with actors hanging out, talking, joking, complaining, and then gradually morphs into a rehearsal of a play of Melville's story, before morphing into the the story of Ahab and the White Whale itself. 

In 1960, Welles mounted a production of CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT in Dublin with his old Gate Theater pal Hilton Edwards producing. The play was the next evolution of Welles's Falstaff project, which he'd tried with FIVE KINGS back at the Mercury, and which he'd been working on, in some form or fashion, since he was a boy in Woodstock, Illinois. The play helped him clarify his ideas for the story and it also helped him find the final piece of the puzzle, the actor who would play Prince Hal to Welles's Falstaff, Keith Baxter. Five years later, Welles and Baxter brought the play to the screen with the movie FALSTAFF, which many Welles fanatics, including your humble correspondent, consider his finest film.

Welles could have hung it up after CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT, but he directed a final play, 1960's surrealist headscratcher RHINOCEROS, starring Laurence Olivier. Welles and Olivier clashed during rehearsals, and enough drama ensued that forty years later, in 2000, the Steppenwolf Theater mounted ORSON'S SHADOW, Austin Pendleton’s play about the chaotic production.

Happily, though, RHINOCEROS was a hit with both audiences and critics, and it sent Welles's career in theater out on a high note. Though he lived another 25 years, and though there were still cinematic masterpieces like FALSTAFF and F FOR FAKE still to come, he never worked in the theater again.

But, god, what a run. From his childhood, well into his middle years, Orson Welles was one of the theater's great interpreters and innovators. I hope someone out there will give us the book that this part of his career deserves.