Philip Concannon reviews the latest (but not the last) volume of Simon Callow’s biography of Welles.
In April of 1953, Orson Welles was invited by the BBC to record extracts from Walt Whitman’s A Song of Myself for a radio broadcast. “The BBC recording is the zenith of his poetry reading,” Welles’s biographer Simon Callow notes, “not merely sonorous but deeply felt, a perfect congruence of reader and poet.” In fact, it’s hard to avoid the observation that Welles himself might have written some of these lines.
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
In the preface to his new book One-Man Band, Simon Callow recalls the genesis of his attempt to survey the life and work of Orson Welles in 1989. He planned to write a biography that consisted of three volumes (the third of which, he originally suggested, should be a novel), but over the course of the subsequent quarter of a century that plan has long fallen by the wayside. This is the third instalment of Callow’s monumental project (following The Road to Xanadu and Hello Americans), and there is still more to come, as One-Man Band only takes us up to the completion of Welles’s Chimes at Midnight in 1967. Perhaps it’s appropriate that a biography of Orson Welles should expand so far beyond the scope of the biographer’s intentions; after all, Welles’s singular life and extraordinarily brilliant/eclectic/frustrating/confounding body of work surely merits a biography like no other. “Welles packed more living into his life, pursued more professions, thrust out in more directions and formed more intense relationships, than any twenty men put together,” Callow writes. In other words, he contained multitudes.
The most striking thing about Callow’s study of Welles throughout these books has been his desire to plunge into every single aspect of that life. While most writing about Welles focuses on his work in cinema, Callow gives equal weight to his adventures in theatre, radio, television, journalism, and whatever else he happened to try his hand at along the way (reading about his brief excursion into ballet here is a highlight). He digs into the nuts and bolts of Welles’s approach, finding a man so fascinated by process and experimentation above all else that “occasionally (perhaps quite often) what happened with Welles on location or in the rehearsal room was more remarkable than what ended up on the screen or on the stage.” One-Man Band gives us fascinating insights into the making of some great films, but the most compelling and revealing material in this volume focuses on the work Welles did elsewhere.
For example, while his film production of Othello was languishing in financial dire straits (as it usually was), Welles took the same play to the stage in 1951. As with many of Welles’s theatrical endeavours, Othello began in a dizzying flurry of energy, ideas and potential only to rapidly fall into chaos and confusion. Welles was frequently absent from rehearsals and when he did show up he rarely took part, choosing instead to orchestrate the action from the stalls. In fact, despite playing the leading role, he never engaged in a full rehearsal with his company, which led to a predictably disastrous opening night:
“Everything that could go wrong went wrong: The curtain stuck, the pieces of the set ended up in the wrong place, the flying pieces became intertwined. Never having run the play fully, even in the rehearsal room, Welles – who now appeared on stage for the first time – came on from wherever he thought might be best, without reference to anything the understudy had done, speaking whatever lines came into his head, some but by no means all of them from Othello, and rarely in the right order. The result was certainly lively, but more often than not it meant that the actors found themselves in darkness, though Welles inevitably managed to locate his own light.”
A common theme throughout One-Man Band is a sense of Welles the actor letting down Welles the director. He wouldn’t allow himself to be directed by anyone else on stage, and he rarely submitted to direction in his film work (often undermining and wrestling control from the nominal director on set), but the fact of the matter is that he wasn’t a disciplined enough stage actor to command both roles. “Not only when he was rehearsing, but during the run itself, more than half of Welles’s mind was on his fellow actors, the lighting, the stage machinery. The slow, selfish growth of a performance within an actor over the course of rehearsal and performance never happened for him,” Callow observes. Welles also suffered great anxiety about performing alongside his co-stars, avoiding rehearsals with them and on film sets shooting his side of conversation scenes alone (he even asked the rest of the cast to close their eyes as he recited a climactic courtroom speech in Compulsion), and he sometimes seemed to be hiding behind his layers of prosthetics and padding. When writing about Welles’s iconic performance as Harry Lime in The Third Man, Callow notes that it was a rare occasion when Welles “gave of himself” for another filmmaker, and adds: “It is a glimpse of a very different acting career that he might have had, had he chosen to trust a director again.”
In 1956 Welles was again on stage playing one of Shakespeare’s most challenging roles and the production was again beset by problems. In New York he took on King Lear, but after managing to injure both of his ankles following the (troubled but quite well-received) opening night, the curtain rose the following evening to reveal Welles sitting in a wheelchair. “Ladies and gentleman, I am Orson Welles,” he said, “and there will be no performance of King Lear tonight, we will not dance The Red Shoes.” Instead, Welles simply spoke to his public – reciting speeches, telling jokes, performing conjuring tricks – and he managed to entertain three-quarters of an audience that had arrived at the theatre that evening expecting to see a full production of King Lear, sending them home happy with a 90-minute one-man show. This was Orson Welles’s true gift as a performer; his ability to connect with people, to captivate them with his incomparable wit, intelligence and charisma. He was a better actor as himself than he could ever be as anyone else.
It’s little wonder that television proved to be such a natural home for him. Welles actually had one Shakespearean triumph on the small screen – his performance as Lear in Peter Brook’s production for Omnibus being widely lauded – but television was the perfect medium for Welles the bravura personality to flourish. His facility for establishing a sense of intimacy with the viewers at home, to make it seem like he was casually chatting to each of them personally, was uncanny, and it was utilised superbly in series like Orson Welles’s Sketch Book and Around the World with Orson Welles. Callow sums up this gift of his by recounting an electrifying moment that occurred during a BBC interview programme called Press Conference, when Welles was asked if ‘the quiet school of acting’ is going out of fashion.
““It can’t go out of fashion,” says Welles, “as long as there’s that machine there” – and he points to the camera, staring straight into the lens with a look so frank, so intimate, so playful and so seductive that he seems to leap straight into one’s front room, and television suddenly becomes the most brilliant form of communication ever invented. Sixty years later, one feels in direct personal contact with the man; in the background his prickly interlocutors are by now visibly purring with pleasure, vanquished by his charm.”
Of course, Welles’s love affair with television didn’t last. He explored it, mastered it, got bored with it and turned his attention elsewhere. During one recording of Sketch Book he threw down his pen in anger when it ran out of ink, and when the show’s producer arrived on set to resolve the issue, having walked the short distance from the control gallery, he was told Welles had already left for Paris.
It is this haphazard narrative – littered with arguments, tantrums, bad debts and frustrated dreams – that bolsters the view of Welles’s career as being one long downward slide from Citizen Kane, but One Man-Band is not a story of failure. How could any man who produced Othello, Touch of Evil, The Trial and Chimes at Midnight within the span of two decades (not to mention The Third Man and the myriad fascinating experiments and tantalising near-misses) be classed as a failure? “He never, ever stopped, not for one waking moment, trying to tell stories he believed mattered in a way in which he wanted to tell them,” Callow writes, “till he drew his dying breath, Welles served his restless daemon, experimenting, exploring, pointing a way forward.” The passages of the book that capture Welles at his best – firing on all creative cylinders during the shooting of The Trial or Touch of Evil, for example, or embodying Falstaff, the character he felt a unique kinship with – are joyous and inspiring, and we just have to accept that all of Welles’s triumphs and disasters are borne from the same iconoclastic genius and capricious spirit.
Should we lament what might have been? When Welles was on the set of Compulsion, he argued with the director Richard Fleischer over how his character should exit the scene. He insisted that he should leave to the right, disregarding the fact that there was no wall present on that side of the set. “Do you know what I would do if I were directing this picture?” Welles asked, “I’d wait until they built me a wall.” “That is why I am directing this picture and you are not,” Fleischer pointedly replied. This exchange gets at a simple truth, that Welles could have had an easier and much more productive career if he had only been a little bit smarter about playing the game, if he had curbed his natural impulses, chosen his battles more wisely and shown a willingness to compromise at a few crucial junctures – but what would we have lost in this exchange? He would then have been just another filmmaker, just another actor. He would have risked being – heaven forbid – ordinary. And a single-volume biography would probably have sufficed.
Orson Welles: One-Man Band by Simon Callow is published on November 26th by Random House.