(Simon Callow's article appeared in the Times of London, 11/28.)

Orson Welles — a theatrical giant

Orson Welles knew how to make an entrance. Whatever the frustrations of later years, his directorial debut was a triumph

When you know a lot about someone, as I do about Orson Welles (having written two fat volumes of a biographical trilogy over the past 20 years), you rather dread fictional treatments of that person. So I approached the new film Me and Orson Welles very gingerly, especially since it is set in the Mercury Theatre in the 1930s. I was at drama school when the Welles virus first infected me: I read about the Mercury in Run-through, a book by John Houseman, a good portion of which is devoted to describing his relationship with Welles in the 1930s, culminating in a magnificent description of their work together, first for the Federal Theatre Project, then the Mercury Theatre. That’s the life for me, I thought: working 20 hours a day, under the charismatic leadership of a young genius — stretching oneself and the theatre to the very limits, defying convention, electrifying the audience, changing lives.

Houseman was describing a golden period in the theatre, and these are rare. Welles in his early twenties set off a series of brilliant theatrical fireworks that were unlike anything that had come before — were, indeed, unlike each other; each production had its own particular style, although iconoclasm was the rule. Of course, Welles went on to other glories. Made internationally famous — notorious, perhaps — by his radio version of The War of the Worlds, which panicked people thought was a report of an actual Martian invasion, he directed Citizen Kane, his first film, when he was 25, but then he fell out with the studio, and somehow nothing was ever the same again. His films were often taken away from him and re-edited, his radio career petered out, his theatre work imploded spectacularly with a musical version of Around the World in 80 Days that all but bankrupted him. In Europe he made extraordinary films such as Othello and Chimes at Midnight (known in some countries as Falstaff); none of them made any money. He acted in other people’s films to raise money for his own; he did commercials and chat shows in the hope that they would remind the industry that he was around. He did a huge amount of work, but few people saw it, especially not in America. What had started in such glory ended in a rather muted melancholy. Why this should be has been the subject of my books.


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