Orson Welles on Shakespeare: The W.P.A. and Mercury Theatre Playscripts
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Jan 05, Yourfiendmrjones rated it it was amazing Shelves: litra-char , the-drama-rama , show-bidness , bye-o. A must have for Welles completists.
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Orson Welles on Shakespeare : the W.P.A. and Mercury Theatre playscripts
This talent was particularly important when it came to the man on whom the success or failure of the production depended: Jack Carter, cast as Macbeth. Though he had previously performed in some notable roles including Crown in Porgy and Bess , Carter was not a regular actor and was by most accounts a man — much like Welles himself — of furious appetites and mercurial habits.
Throughout the remainder of the rehearsal period, Welles and Carter were all but inseparable, with Carter showing up to every rehearsal, after which Welles and Carter would tear through the local clubs. Though not so close, Welles adopted a similarly affectionate style with his Lady Macbeth, the professional actor Edna Thomas. At the other extreme, things went very differently for Abe Feder, the lighting designer whom Welles abused throughout the rehearsal process.
The tour included a notable stop in Indianapolis where Welles performed the title role in blackface, but otherwise Welles had long since moved on to other projects. Among these were radio versions of Shakespeare plays for Columbia Workshop, including a Macbeth performed live on 2 May that differed radically from the Harlem production. Though this version was also adapted and directed by Welles, it featured an all-white cast, starred Welles and returned the play to Scotland. Still essen- tially a man of the theatre, Welles was learning his way around the medium of radio and ended up alienating the composer Bernard Herrmann who would later compose the score to Citizen Kane by forcing upon him a highland bagpipe that effectively drowned out the studio orchestra.
Premiering on 11 November after a month of rehearsal, this was the first work produced by the Mercury Theatre, a com- pany formed by Houseman and Welles in the afterglow of the Harlem Macbeth. Such analogies were underscored by the costuming of the Roman aristocracy in fascist uniforms and the crowds in twentieth-century street clothes.
The idea of a fascist Caesar, like that of a tragic hero inspired by Henri Christophe, was not original to Welles. But originality only counts for so much, and the fact remains that Welles was the first to turn an anti- fascist Julius Caesar into a critical and commercial success. Welles came prepared to the first rehearsal, showing up with costume sketches, staging notes, light and music cues and a model of the set.
As to the text, he had altered it drastically. Welles cut the opening confrontation between the tribunes and the plebeians, opening his play instead with the entrance of Julius Caesar.
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On the other end of the drama, he eliminated all the battle scenes as well as almost all of the final two acts. As he would through- out his career, Welles pared down scenes and interpolated lines from other Shakespeare plays to better express his overriding directorial vision. The role of Lepidus was cut entirely, while the characters of Octavius and Antony were much reduced, choices that further focused the play upon Caesar as the per- sonification of dictatorship. The result of such alterations was a production of just over ninety minutes. The rehearsal process for Julius Caesar was just the sort of organised chaos in which Welles thrived.
One par- ticular difficulty arose in the second week. Moving the set to the Mercury Theatre ahead of schedule would have been prohibitively expensive a point that technical director Jean Rosenthal and producer Houseman were at some pains to explain to Welles. Undaunted, Welles ordered all forty members of the company to make their way out to Fort Lee, travelling from subway to ferry to bus and back again for the next ten days.
Arriving already half-spent, his cast rehearsed in the sweltering heat of an airless warehouse, often drowned out by the noise of set construction. Welles insisted that all this inconvenience and lost time was necessitated by the complexities of the set itself, on which the actors needed to rehearse regularly to feel comfortable. Thanks largely to the Fort Lee rehearsals, the only actor injured on set was Welles himself.
Predictably enough, he plummeted down one of the open traps in the first dress rehearsal, sprained his ankle and knocked himself unconscious. The accident was typical for Welles, who frequently sustained stage injuries; typical, too, was the fact that he was performing again the next night. Having saved himself the time, as well as the expense, of the battle scenes, Welles was now able to devote himself to the crowd scenes and to individual performances.
Wanting the responses to sound spontaneous and yet be precisely timed and linguistically Elizabethan, Welles developed an innovative strategy. He first recorded the two orations to disk, then played the disks to the actors playing the plebeians, who ad libbed specific lines, in modern English, to say at specific moments.
Once these lines and their timing were established through improvisation, Welles replaced the modern words with similar exclamations from other Elizabethan plays. In rehearsal, however, it was the last thing to emerge. The first trouble was a disagreement between Welles and Norman Lloyd, who was playing Cinna, as to how to interpret the character. Welles imagined him as a romantic hero, defiantly protesting his innocence to the assembled mob. At a creative impasse, Welles shelved the scene.
Orson Welles on Shakespeare : Richard France :
The underlying troubles continued, however. The trouble might have been anticipated, for Welles and Reis were ahead of their time; theatres in the mids were simply ill equipped for the kind of sophisticated sound collages that had become the staple of radio theatre.
Aside from the humiliation of artistic failure, Welles was fully aware that his Julius Caesar had to succeed — and succeed enormously — if the Mercury Theatre was to avoid dying in the cradle. Suspending future pre- views, Welles plunged himself into the business of salvaging his production. Now the arc of the scene ran, not from heroic defiance to grand tragedy, but from comic pathos to grotesque horror.
Lloyd opened the scene playing Cinna as a Chaplinesque clown, looseleaf sheets spilling from his pockets, imagining himself a great artist amidst admirers. Then, suddenly, the derisive mass chanting began and increased in intensity, the lights turned red, the mob turned vicious. The sudden, starkly political reversal captured the sensibility of the whole production. In terms of critical and commercial success, it fared incomparably worse. In the hopes of someday reviving the production, Welles kept the sets and costumes in a Bronx warehouse for almost twenty years after the Philadelphia closing.
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And, in a sense, he did revive it, though not with the same materials. On 20 February , Welles would premiere a new version of the work, built around his performance as Falstaff, entitled Chimes at Midnight. The stage version of Chimes at Midnight would run for five performances at the Grand Opera House in Belfast before moving to the Gaity Theatre in Dublin, where it ran for another month.
Once again, lacklustre audience response kept the ultimate goal — this time London rather than New York — out of reach. Still, Welles persisted. The early s saw Welles making his name, and losing it, in Hollywood. Citizen Kane was released in , The Magnificent Ambersons in , The Stranger in , The Lady from Shanghai in , and by Welles was persona non grata, bound for Europe in self-imposed exile. For his final film for the studio system at least until his brief return in with Touch of Evil , Welles went back to Shakespeare. After six performances, Welles moved the company to California to continue rehearsals for the film.
Expanding the rehearsal schedule on the one hand, Welles worked to reduce costs on the other. Perhaps most critically, all dialogue was recorded beforehand, with the actors lip-synching along with their recorded voices during their performances, and some re-recorded dia- logue added after filming. The decision to prerecord the voices proved a mixed blessing.
While it kept costs down by eliminating all on-set sound recording, it also presented technical difficulties of sound synchronisation that, as with his subsequent Othello film, were never fully overcome. In the end, however, Macbeth came in on time and on budget, a remarkable achievement for a director often unfairly accused of profligacy.
Set in an abstracted Scottish landscape and structured around visual motifs rather than rhythms, it was a sharp departure from the Harlem Macbeth of twelve years earlier. Indeed, with tongue perhaps slightly in cheek, Welles remarked that the two productions shared nothing in common.
But Welles was obviously overstating the case, as both play and film exhibited a peculiarly Wellesian indebtedness to expressionism, a love of archetypal figures, dark shadows and chthonic energies bursting forth from a sharply streamlined text. In September , Welles set to work on his Othello film, a project that would consume about four years of shooting.
Money shortages led to other difficulties. The same was true of actors, some of whom took occasional jobs in order to support their work on Othello, and some of whom simply left. The result was that Welles generally filmed in a catch-as-catch- can manner, composing individual scenes from shots that were often taken in different locations, with different actors, over a period of years. Welles was always a master of that sort of creative jujitsu that flips adver- sity into inspiration, and nowhere was this more in evidence than in his work on Othello.
Welles was distraught at the prospect of losing yet more precious time and money and spent a sleep- less night oscillating between rage and despair. By the next morning, however, he had reached a conclusion: he would set the scene not on a street, as text and tradition suggested, but in a steambath.