Orson Welles, Essential American Artist

By Geoffrey Heptonstall, December 25, 2015

Orson Welles

Orson Welles

It is thirty years since he died, but the success and failure of Welles will continue to be discussed as his career raises questions about the relation of imaginative art to popular culture.

‘In a world of supermarkets it’s good to have a neighbourhood grocery store,’ Orson Welles observed in a lecture not long before he died. His career was certainly that of an independent mind and a personal eye. The customary description is maverick, but this is a term implying censure of one who steps out of line. A better word perhaps, though less frequently applied to independents, is pioneer. The world is made by those who step out. America especially has been made by pioneers. Welles was born in a mid-West not yet wholly out of the pioneering phase of development. The Frontier was closed in 1890, but elements of the Wild West lingered in the glare of the publicity machine. Hollywood was recreating Western heroes even in their lifetimes.

Welles knew how to utilize publicity, to make myth out of fact. An early entry into theatre is not unusual. Peter Brook was directing in his teens. The famous professional debut of the untrained but talented young Welles owes much to the conscious creation of legend out of mundane fact. Welles auditioned in Dublin, and due to his charm rather than his as yet unproven ability, was taken on for the summer. He showed promise, but it was a talent in need of training which duly when he applied himself seriously as a member of Katharine Cornell’s company. Miss Cornell herself had no time to undertake such work which was assigned to another. Welles had much to learn, but he learned quickly and, with his flair and confidence, displayed his gifts effectively.

The talent was not so much as an actor but as a creative director with the ‘voodoo Macbeth’ and a production of Julius Caesar that drew parallels with contemporary fascism. He was experimenting with film incorporated into stage productions decades before this became customary. He also crossed media by making use of radio to stress the importance of sound as an imaginative resource to the mind’s eye.

Hollywood inevitably beckoned. American culture is a public affair, a showman’s display of tricks, a performance readily adaptable to preaching, politics and salesmanship. Even poetry may adapt itself to hucksterism as Walt Whitman’s career testified when his face appeared on cigar boxes. That Welles should have given a magnificent radio reading of Whitman is no coincidence.

But to live according to the terms of publicity is to dwell beyond the tensions of art and intellect in a land of realized opportunities, of dreams made flesh, of desires fulfilled so easily and naturally they may be mistaken for virtue. It’s true if everyone believes it’s true.

After a decade of New York – theatre and radio – Welles accepted RKO’s contract. He made overtures to Hollywood before, but his MGM screen test [which still exists] was not promising. RKO, however, offered him unprecedented creative control. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that Welles was likely to change the nature of film so radically that it would mean beginning again. Fitzgerald died before he saw his prophecy almost come true. American was to have been the film [with Joseph Cotton in the title role]. It was intended as an epic depiction of an entrepreneur whose wealth and success served as a paradigm of American aspirations. Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons suggest what might have been. As it was, Welles’s novice team was thought to be over-reaching itself, and the actual results were cobbled together quickly amid rumours of chaos and failure.

It was evident that the studio system with its corporate structure was not going to accommodate an auteur. In the eyes of established Hollywood attitudes the imaginative personal vision is erratic and uncertain. These were attitudes that despised out of fear all that could not conform. Gratuitous public humiliation followed when lesser talents rudely insulted Welles to his face, although the respect of better talents welcomed him.

Jean Cocteau sought Welles out, as Truffaut and Pagnol were to do. The indication was that Europe was the true home of an auteur’s talent. It was a restless, impulsive talent, one of constant experiment with ideas of performance. A furious energy combined with an incisive intellect to inspire collaborators to give more than they supposed capable of giving. Michael Redgrave was to say that working with Welles was so stimulating he did not want it to come to an end. Welles literally sent Joan Plowright spinning across the stage, seemingly fired by the essence of performance. [It was a technique she was to call upon again when the occasion required it.]

Hollywood did not know how to approach the nature of Welles’s panoptic talent. It was beyond Hollywood’s functioning capacity, beyond the power of its control. In the studio system everyone has a place. In the corporate world abilities are limited to an agreed agenda. The purpose is to entertain for an immediate financial return. If a picture is box office much will be forgiven [or, at least, tolerated through a glittering rictus that serves as a smile]. In the end, which was to come soon, nothing was forgiven Orson Welles. The Hollywood phase did not last a decade. Even as a star in other directors’ pictures Welles had no certain role. After 1948 he directed only one American film, and that [A Touch of Evil 1957] was after intense pressure was placed on a very reluctant studio.

The third decade, the Fifties, saw Welles work mainly on stage and mainly in Europe. The initial hope of alternating Hollywood with Broadway did not work, although Welles never had been away from theatre for long. His stage now was many cities. It was to be Paris, Berlin, London, and Dublin again. Home was Andalusia and marriage to an Italian contessa. Privately he returned to his first love, art. His sketches show the expected flair, the mercurial energy that is ever in search of another blank canvas, another empty stage.

What is evident is that Welles could not confine himself to one medium. He continued to incorporate film within his theatre. His use of striking sound effects, the screech especially, complemented the expressionist camera angles and chiaroscuro lighting. These effects were styles of the Orson Welles signature that distinguished him as an artist rather than a craftsman. He had a personal vision to be recreated in public performance. He had something to say that was his personal take on things.

There is much scope for discussion on whether acting and directing in theatre are interpretative rather than creative arts. The conclusion depends on the meaning of the terms. What is evident is the ephemeral nature of theatre. It is there, then it is gone. Memories linger. Modes of recording can capture the memory. But the essence cannot endure in the way of the plastic and literary arts. That is not to diminish the importance of performance, for the interpretative moment can be one of exquisite achievement enriching sensibilities even at a remove.

The creative artist, however, seeks permanence, the indelible mark on the fabric of human experience. Film has a permanence, so, too, does the written word. Welles had begun writing in radio. This developed into a series of theatre plays. It was a development as wise as it was natural, given the intellect and imagination and the verbal fluency displayed in brilliant interviews and talks, including a series of extempore autobiographical sketches for broadcasting. Prodigious talent requires a framework. The authored script was the opportunity taken as a gift from a guiding hand.

Of the several plays not all have been published. Two are available only in French translations. Such provenances have opened questions of authorship. Apart from some trivia, the indications are that Welles wrote the works bearing his name. There is anecdotal as well as internal evidence. Significantly, the two works which continue to be performed have an epic quality rarely seen in the modern theatre other than in Brecht. Around the World, after Verne, is a lavish spectacle. Moby Dick Rehearsed relates Melville’s narrative of obsession and endurance to King Lear, a bold venture essaying American naturalism in terms of Classical European tragedy. The accomplishment is equal to the grandeur of its conception. Other plays include Time Runs, a version of Faust, perhaps a telling choice of subject.

As an actor, the role most suited to his persona was Falstaff whom Welles was to play throughout his career, especially in The Chimes at Midnight [1965], the last of a trilogy of films based on his Shakespeare productions. Falstaff combines folly and tragedy, making of these contraries a single quality that raises him to a mythic level, a symbol of the gain and loss in human endeavour.

Even in his forties Welles was adopting the role of grand old man. His fame had endured for so long, and seen so many tidal changes, that he looked ageless, as if he were himself a creature of myth. In the cloak and hat of a Spanish don Welles, an accomplished stage magician, considers the nature of truth in art as he wanders Europe in F for Fake [1973], a masterclass in entertaining enquiry. The final scene, a contemplation of Chartres, is a fine and noble summation. With hindsight it feels like a valediction. He had abandoned theatre, and it seemed film had abandoned him. Cameo appearances for serious American directors and for the European masters, including Bondarchuk, Gance and Pasolini, could not compensate for the elusive great work, anticipated since the preparation for American.

Perhaps it was to expect too much. Film is a popular art, a reluctant art because, relatively speaking, it is a new art. That must be respected if it is to be understood. A vision may raise it to the level beyond mere spectacle, but the nature of a restless imagination is to move too quickly for the sustained achievement of the Homeric or Tolstoyan. Scattered about are the relics of an imagination that turned showmanship into poetry. There are about a dozen films authored by Welles. Not one is less than interesting. As a whole they represent an oeuvre equal to the best.

And yet a sense of failed ambition clouds the reputation. ‘What went wrong?’ is often asked, as if all that remains is a void because the final years saw Welles grounded, his talent trivialized by a celebrity status that diminishes a serious reputation. He settled in Bel-Air, the unwelcome exile returning to remind time-servers of their shallowness. Long ago there was the public ridicule in a Hollywood restaurant. It was a defining moment of the remaining forty years Welles spent both defying and appeasing the publicity culture that had made and unmade him. He was to a degree its creature enamoured of its meretricious allure. He was never going to be wholly independent of the need to seek the respect mediocrities did not know how to give. He remained American: that was his tragedy. And it was his nation’s that success is measured by applause in the public glare rather than appreciation in sequestered spaces. Orson Welles understood the use of shadow as well as light. That is what is so right about his charm, his talent, his life.


Geoffrey Heptonstall writes regularly for The London Magazine mainly on poetry and Open Democracy primarily on social questions. He is a playwright, poet and essayist.

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