Sunday, December 20, 2009

This Day in Theater History (Welles Makes Most of Supporting Role in Cornell’s “Romeo and Juliet”)

December 20, 1934—To her legion of admirers, the premiere of Romeo and Juliet at the Martin Beck Theatre marked Katharine Cornell’s shift from the melodramas that made her famous to more classic female roles.

But the show might have been more noteworthy because of a second-tier actor who in no time managed to annoy the more seasoned members of the company with the arrogance that accompanied his brilliance: Orson Welles.

An audience member that night, John Houseman, was so entranced by the startling 19-year-old that within three weeks, he would seek him out. Within a few years, the two formed a partnership—Welles as director, Houseman as producer--in Shakespearean revivals and other productions at the Mercury Theater that made Cornell’s star vehicle seem decidedly old hat.

Last weekend, I saw one of the few films interesting enough to lure me to a multiplex this entire year: Me and Orson Welles, an account of the troubled backstory behind Welles’ innovative, modern-dress version of Julius Caesar. Except for a few points where it oversimplified motives or events, the movie is, in the main, not only a vivid but a realistic account of this hinge moment in American theater history.

(More so, let it be said, than the interviews given by Welles over the year, which, if ever collected, could be called, in a variation on the legendary unfinished documentary that marked the end of his creative freedom in Hollywood, It’s Half True.)

In particular, the Richard Linklater film gave full credit to Welles’ genius while depicting the horrors posed to Houseman by his partner’s creative madness. (Among the exasperating traits of the wunderkind: hogging credits from subordinates and spending money the productions didn’t have.)

Though Welles appeared in Caesar as Brutus, his production—instantly hailed for making the Bard relevant to contemporary audiences by setting the action in Fascist Italy (giving oxygen to the current trend toward modern-dress versions of Skakespeare)—became known more for making the director the star than any actor in the company. Moreover, his ruthless approach to the text—in particular, the last 20 minutes were heavily cut—was at odds with the respectful, even laissez-faire version advanced by Guthrie McLintick, the director of Romeo and Juliet—and the husband of Ms. Cornell (who happened to be the producer of her own show).

Welles had acted in repertory for McLintick earlier in the year in Candida, The Barretts of Wimpole Street, and Romeo and Juliet. Welles being Welles, though, he wasn’t shy about expressing his opinion that he knew more about Shakespeare than anybody, McClintic included.

Adding to Welles’ resentment at the Broadway premiere was his shift from the part he had played out of town—Romeo’s antic, but neurotic and doomed, best friend Mercutio—to Juliet’s cousin Tybalt. (Brian Aherne got Welles' former role.) The result: constant bad-boy behavior (including, but hardly limited to, throwing a teacup at a stage manager who upbraided him for coming late to rehearsals). If Welles had turned up at any point as a corpse, the entire cast and crew could justifiably, a la Murder on the Orient Express, have fallen under suspicion.

But perhaps that sense of anger, that heightened sensitivity to a perceived slight, only added to the sense of coiled danger he conveyed as Tybalt.

One person who realized this—who understood how different he was from the overwhelmingly middle-aged principals of Romeo and Juliet—was the 33-year-old Houseman, who wrote years later, in Run-Through: “What made this figure so obscene and terrible was the pale, shiny child’s face under the unnatural growth of dark beard, from which there issued a voice of such clarity and power that it tore like a high wind through the genteel, modulated voices of the well-trained professionals around him.”
British actor-author Simon Callow has a terrific account of the genesis of this relationship in Orson Welles: The Road to Xanadu, the first in his projected multi-volume biography of the star.

At 32, Houseman not only looked older than Welles but acted older--kind of like Professor Kingsfield in larvae form. Wherever the younger man went, others had marked him down for greatness, but Houseman’s struggle was harder. Romanian-born and British-educated, he had come to the U.S. in 1924, taking up his father’s business—grain trading—only to be wiped out in the Depression. By 1934, he’d directed a well-received version of the Gertrude Stein-Virgil Thomson opera, Four Saints in Three Acts, but he was at loose ends when he saw Welles.

It took another three weeks for the two to meet, when Houseman offered him a part that had been turned down by Paul Muni, in Archibald MacLeish’s Panic. After that, they proceeded from one astonishing production after another:

* organizing the Negro Theater Project for the Works Progress Administration, where they staged a “voodoo” version of Macbeth;

* forming the WPA’s Classic Theater, where Welles came into the public eye as actor-hyphenate by directing and starring in Doctor Faustus;

* staging Marc Blitzstein’s “proletarian musical” The Cradle Will Rock;

* scaring the daylights out of Americans with the Mercury Theater’s radio production of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds; and

* making film history with Welles’ rookie (and greatest) movie, Citizen Kane.

Strains that had been growing in their partnership finally led to a parting of the ways during Citizen Kane. Just as Welles had once deprived Sam Leve credit for the stage design for Julius Caesar, so now he tried to induce Herman Mankiewicz to forsake his screenwriter’s credit on Kane.

In the Leve incident, Houseman staved off major unpleasantness by giving Welles credit, but leaking to the theatrical community that Leve was responsible for the much-praised look of the show. This time, the producer refused to go along at all with Welles’ attempt to take sole credit for the script. (If anyone besides Mankiewicz was responsible for the final script, it was himself, Houseman believed, not Welles.) The dispute led to a chill in the air, then a rupture, then a definitive break in the relationship.

In the mid-1950s, Welles and Houseman had an encounter in a restaurant that, as described in the latter’s memoir Front and Center, soon turned confrontational. When do you intend to see my Moby Dick? Welles asked his old colleague. Houseman’s answer—when he could work it around seeing the hottest show in town at the time, Laurence Olivier’s Macbeth—did not at all please Welles.

Besides earning Oscars, both men shared something else in old age: indelible pitchman performances--Welles for Paul Masson wine, Houseman for Smith Barney. When Houseman passed away in 1988, it was only hours after the 50th anniversary of the drama that made him and his young partner the buzz of the entertainment world: The War of the Worlds. He survived his younger colleague by three years. One senses that Welles would not have been amused by the irony of the older man surviving him.

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