Sunday, November 29, 2009


In November of 1937, the Mercury Theatre Company led by Orson Welles presented a radically pared down 90 minute production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar that was called simply Caesar. Like a whirlwind, it seemed to destroy everything in its path. It was so different and yet so likable that for many people it changed New York theatre forever. Its fascist costumes and setting, its monumental, skyscraper-like lighting, its original music by Marc Blitzstein, its rat-a-tat-tat line readings, the audacity of editing Shakespeare so heavily, all resulted in a one-of-a-kind show. You could say this is the play that convinced a lot of people that Orson Welles was a genius and that made possible many of his future triumphs on radio and on film. The story of this production is told well in a book by Robert Kaplow - Me and Orson Welles - and has resulted, too, in a surprisingly well done movie by the same name. Although I haven't seen the movie yet, I plan to as soon as I can. As for the book, I finished it in a hurry and have to rate it a fun and revealing read.

The Orson Welles who is portrayed in this carefully researched novel is self-centered to an extreme, incredibly temperamental, an incorrigible philanderer, and an artist obsessed most of all with his own artistic reputation. He also borders on the criminally irresponsible who leaves John Houseman to clean up all the chaos and damage he leaves behind, and is, well, at the same time, also an authentic theatrical genius, whose instincts are almost always right, who knows better than anyone what lighting effects work best, what music needs to accompany the action for maximum effect, how actors' voices should be modulated to emotionally manipulate the audience, and what lines should be cut and which retained to leave that indelible impact. To this day, probably no other director has had the arrogance and daring to alter Shakespeare so utterly and to leave his audiences so shaken in the process. This Welles was blessed with one of the great voices of all time, and he could do almost anything with it. Like Chaplin, he probably would have preferred to play all the parts himself, but his confident approach and his sense that hard, unrelenting work could lead to greatness inspired everyone in his company to try harder and do better. Which is why his productions are pretty much the ones that his actors remembered best, even as they despised his meanness and shamelessness. As a human being, Welles was some kind of monster, but as an artist, he was peerless.

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