Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Orson and I

Today a new film about Orson Welles opens around the country which focuses on his innovative and triumphant theatrical production of Julius Caesar from 1937. I thought it would be fitting and rather fun, at least for me, to devote a few posts to some of the reasons for this undiminished fascination with his life and works.

One thing we should get out of the way immediately is his close identification with New York and consequently his fit for this blog. Although Welles’ first love eventually became film, his early successes all took place on the stage and on radio in New York City. His name as an actor and as a director was made in New York to such an extent that he was a nationally renowned figure by the age of 22, at least a year or two before the War of the Worlds broadcast that he produced for radio on Halloween 1938, and that turned him into a superstar.

It was his all-Black production of Macbeth that he produced with John Houseman in Harlem in 1936 that first won him acclaim. For opening night, the lines of people wanting to see the play snaked around 5 Harlem blocks and the traffic was so thick it was impossible to reach the theatre except by foot. The African dress and rhythms that were incorporated into this production were said to give it enormous power, and the performances that Welles coaxed from a largely inexperienced cast were described as phenomenal. It was a complete triumph and Welles was barely 21 years old.

How he got to this point is part of theatre legend. How he journeyed to the Gate Theatre in Dublin in 1931 at the age of 16, advertising himself as a great American thespian, despite having no significant acting experience at all; how he convinced the Gate’s accomplished impresarios to assign him major roles in important classical productions; how he returned to America, flaunting his Gate notices, and eventually toured with the great actress Katherine Cornell in Romeo and Juliet and Shaw's Candida; and then how he encountered Houseman and collaborated with him to accomplish something daring and innovative in New York; and how they established the Mercury Theatre, which would lead to one groundbreaking production after another on the New York stage and on radio, and form the basis for the cast and production crew that would create Citizen Kane.

Thus the first reason for the undiminished fascination with Orson Welles was his peerless audacity, his belief that he could do it better than anyone else despite the complete absence of any kind of track record in theatre. He would of course do this again in the world of film in such a striking and revolutionary way that what he created at the RKO studios during those terrifying years of 1940 and 1941 continues to influence filmmakers from around the world.

1 comment:

  1. Ah, a tour from prodigy to prodigiosity.
    Tell me more.....