Orson Agonistes, plus Framing the Early Middle Ages

By Benjamin Schwarz

September 2006 ATLANTIC


The wonder boy got everything he’d wanted, very quickly. Sixteen years after his birth in Kenosha, Orson Welles tramps to Dublin, then one of the world’s great theatrical centers. Within two months he’s starring at the Gate, the city’s leading art theater, and “Young Welles” is the toast of the town. By eighteen, in 1933, not only has he joined Broadway’s fanciest production company, he’s signed up to play Marchbanks in Candida and, astonishingly, Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, thus snagging one of the most amazing breaks in theatrical history. At nineteen he’s performing daily on CBS (radio, of course); within six months, in the depths of the Depression, his broadcast work is bringing him $1,000 a week. At twenty he’s adapting and directing an all-black “voodoo” Macbeth in Harlem. It’s the sensation of New York. When he reaches voting age he adapts, directs, and acts in a Broadway farce; directs and plays the lead in Doctor Faustus; and begins a two-year gig playing the Shadow on radio. Generations of kids will imitate his sinister chuckle. The year he would have graduated from college, he’s cheating on his first wife and forming, with John Houseman, his own theater company, the Mercury Theatre, for which he produces, directs, and plays Brutus in a stripped-down, “fascist”Julius Caesar. It wins nearly universal accolades and is a gigantic box-office success. At twenty-three he’s doing weekly Mercury Theatre on the Air broadcasts on CBS. His Halloween-eve production ofThe War of the Worlds sets off a national panic, and literally overnight Welles is world famous. Hollywood comes calling. At twenty-four he makes an unprecedented deal with RKO. They hand over the car keys: he’ll shoot his script, with his actors (he brings with him to Los Angeles his Mercury troupe, including Jo Cotten, Aggie Moorehead, and Ray Collins), and edit it as he sees fit. (“There but for the grace of God, goes God,” quipped one Hollywood wag, his future collaborator Herman J. Mankiewicz, when he met the pampered brat from New York.) At twenty-five, given what he calls “the best train set a boy ever had”—the full run of a Hollywood studio—he produces, cowrites, directs, and stars in his first motion picture. Sixty-five years later it remains generally applauded as the greatest film of all time.


Aggie Morehead, Citizen Kane

The second volume of Simon Callow’s biography of Welles begins in May 1941, at the premiere of Citizen Kane. It ends nearly 450 pages and only seven years later. In that period Welles fully engaged his passions, if not always his talents. He shot five ambitious and innovative movies—one of which,The Magnificent Ambersons, his restrained and elegiac adaptation of Booth Tarkington’s novel about the disintegration of the nineteenth-century provincial ruling class, was sublime (he filmed it while simultaneously preparing for a documentary, acting in and supervising another picture on an adjacent soundstage, and starring weekly in The Orson Welles Show on radio). He transformed himself into a political commentator and crusader, writing a daily column for the New York Post and presenting a weekly current-affairs radio show (Welles’s progressive views were a bit simplistic and self-important, but he comes off as a philosophe compared with the current Hollywood left). He doggedly attempted to start a new career as a radio comedian. He slept with countless women, though rarely with his second wife, Rita Hayworth (the press dubbed the couple “Beauty and the Brain”; Callow maintains that she “found herself married to possibly the only heterosexual man in the Western world who did not want to go to bed with her”). And he, a great showman who captivated a skeptical Clifford Odets with the confession “I have a touch of rhinestones in my blood,” staged two vaudevillian extravaganzas: The Mercury Wonder Show (in which he, an accomplished magician, nightly sawed Marlene Dietrich in half before an audience of troops and munitions workers) and, on Broadway, Around the World in 80 Days. But despite this frenetic and diffuse activity, it was clear that after the premiere of Kane, Welles’s supernatural run had ended.

This volume, in fact, attempts to answer “the most persistent question asked about Orson Welles: what went wrong after Citizen Kane?” In so doing, it chronicles the years in which one of the most extraordinary American lives utterly and permanently changed direction. And, concomitantly, it traces what David Thomson, the great film critic and historian, calls “one of the small tragedies of the 20th century”: the terrible fate of Ambersons.

Callow is both well and poorly suited to tell this story. Welles has inspired an unusual number of good biographies. Thomson’s uneven, eccentric, superbly written Rosebud remains the most astute assessment of Welles’s work and personality; equally idiosyncratic, Peter Conrad’s Orson Welles: The Stories of His Life is smart but at times ponderous; Peter Bogdanovich’s fat volume of interviews with Welles, as penetrating as it is tendentious, covers most aspects of the subject’s life and career; the lives by Frank Brady and Barbara Leaming are somewhat more workmanlike, though they tower above standard Hollywood portraits. But Callow’s work in progress is a monument (he says he’ll finish up with a third volume, though given the depth and detail of the first two, I’d guess he has a couple left to write). Doorstop biographies nearly always get mired in chronology and minutiae. Animated by a brisk intelligence, Callow’s opus seldom does, although it now totals nearly 1,000 pages. He shapes and interprets his material and with panache places his story in rich context. Moreover, Callow is as indefatigable a researcher as he is stylish a writer—an indispensable trait, given that Welles shamelessly and consistently embellished his remarkable curriculum vitae. Even more important, Callow is exquisitely sensitive to the force—the seductiveness, the menace, the usefulness—of Welles’s immense charm; as an actor and theatrical director, Callow grasps the captivating devotion Welles bestowed upon his players; as a homosexual, Callow grasps the beguiling power that the thoroughly heterosexual young Welles exercised on a series of influential gay men.

By far the most penetrating and original aspect of both volumes is Callow’s vivid scrutiny of Welles’s work in the theater—I’ve never read accounts of long-vanished stage productions that equal the immediacy and precision of Callow’s—and on radio (“the medium,” Callow reminds us, in which Welles “earned a living for most of his professional life”). But Callow, a man primarily of the English stage (though many Americans know him best as the hammy, kilted homosexual in Four Weddings and a Funeral), falters the farther he gets from his milieu. He lavishes many pages on Welles’s political activity, for instance, but has little understanding of the history of American politics (Helen Gahagan Douglas was a liberal Democrat, but she was hardly a “radical,” as Callow avers and as the young senatorial candidate Richard Nixon tried to tar her; Truman was a creature of Tom Pendergast’s Kansas City Democratic political organization, not of the “southern Democratic machine”).


Aggie Morehaed, Ambersons

Far more crucial, Callow loses his sure touch when he examines the film work of Welles, which is, after all, that genius’s supreme artistic achievement. Without a commanding and subtle grasp of the technical and formal aspects of moviemaking, Callow, in analyzing Welles’s pictures, fails to employ the acumen and grace he brings to his assessment of Welles’s theatrical productions. Instead he resorts to lengthy summaries of plots and reviews—the very kind of bloated, unfocused approach he otherwise eschews. For all his insight into theatrical acting style and method, he, alas, fails (in both volumes) to illuminate and analyze with originality Welles’s most important collaboration as a director with an actor: his film work in Kane and Ambersons with Moorehead, whom he pronounced “the best actor I’ve ever known” (she’s the cynosure in what Thomson memorably calls “the two most indelibly humane moments” in Welles’s oeuvre). This is all the more disappointing in that Callow has actually written books on the two directors who most treasured her, Welles and Charles Laughton.


Aggie Morehead, Ambersons

Not at home in the history and culture of Hollywood and, it seems, fundamentally indifferent to the movies, Callow brings few new insights to the much-discussed, pivotal event of the years covered in this volume: Welles’s fateful decision to leave Ambersons without finishing the film’s all-important postproduction work, in order to fly to Rio to film the Carnival for a wartime documentary the government had asked him to direct in support of inter-American unity. For Welles, the South America trip was equal parts patriotic gesture, serious attempt to make something like an anthropological art film, and sybaritic boondoggle. Indisputably, though, his adventure there destroyed his already-fragile relationship with RKO (the company was footing the bill) and led to the studio’s evisceration of Ambersons—RKO cut nearly an hour from the film, diminishing it from 131 minutes to eighty-eight, and the studio inserted new material that was neither written nor directed by Welles.

The adulterated fragment contains some of the finest moments in the history of the cinema (most famously Moorehead’s “strawberry shortcake” scene, Welles’s own poignant and witty narration, and the truncated but still lyrical ballroom sequence—the original sequence, a single tracking shot, was, Welles later maintained, “the greatest tour de force of my career”). But many cineastes agree with Thomson that the uncut movie, had it survived, “would now be regarded as the greatest film ever made” (Robert Carringer’s painstaking Magnificent Ambersons: A Reconstruction, based on the studio’s continuity script, surviving storyboards, and stills of missing scenes, gives the clearest sense of the original movie). At the time, the “giant boy,” as Welles was often called, seems to have been too absorbed in his pleasures and projects to apprehend fully the ramifications of the destruction of Ambersons—and his own role in that destruction. Four decades later he would recognize, as his film archivist recounted, that it “was the worst thing that had happened to him in his life.”

Welles would go on, in at first a headlong and later a bravely hopeful way, and, as Callow recounts here and as he will recount in subsequent volumes,images-7 Welles would make movies with flashes and aspects of great beauty and brilliance (most notably, I think, his Othello and Chimes at Midnight). But in all his subsequent efforts he was, as Callow discerningly remarks, essentially “an experimental artist, deeply unconcerned with … the idea of a finished art-work.” When not yet a man, Welles had made two pictures that were carefully wrought masterpieces, but, submitting to his own boyish and wanton profligacy, he had helped ruin the second before it was born. That he afterward shrank from the pursuit of perfection seems inarguable. Surely in large part, as Callow maintains, Welles’s character—his anarchic and “exploratory urges”—was his fate. But Callow doesn’t acknowledge the toll Welles’s chosen medium itself exacted. That perfect ballroom sequence lasted maybe fifteen minutes on film. It took nine ten-hour days to shoot. Moviemaking is colossally complex, constantly frustrating, a torment that engenders frenzy and despair. In such a realm, to have perfection within one’s grasp, as Welles had with Ambersons, and then recklessly be a party in its demolition would break any artist, especially one who had climbed so far on merely prodigious talent and good fortune. Welles could never summon the wherewithal for another attempt.

Framing the Early Middle Ages, by Chris Wickham (Oxford). Historical research incessantly accrues, but at certain times the study of a particular subject or era enters a period of unique originality and brilliance. The 1960s and 1970s proved to be a golden age for the study of both American slavery and British imperialism; the 1950s was such a time for scholarship on European intellectual history. Since the 1990s, the historical profession’s most spectacular achievement has probably been the study of late antiquity—the period in Europe and the Mediterranean world between A.D. 250 and 800, which saw the end of classical civilization as well as the triumph of Christianity and Islam.

Theodora_mosaik_ravennaThe research has been both voluminous—the archaeological picture for some countries has grown a hundredfold—and transformative. Historians have profoundly altered their understanding of religious, cultural, intellectual, social, economic, and even military developments, and with it their understanding of, say, the fluidity between barbarian and classical societies, between Islam and Christendom, between paganism and Christianity, and between Eastern and Western Christendom. This historiographical explosion shows no sign of ending, perhaps because the dynamism of the subject fuels the dynamism of the research: ultimately, the scholars are attempting to fathom far-reaching historical change, and although it’s true that all of history is marked by flux and transition, this period is especially so. (One of the myriad fundamental questions historians are wrestling with, for instance, is the rather obvious but terrifically complex one of how societies in northern Europe absorbed a religion whose outlook had been shaped in the Middle East and the Mediterranean.)

That two lasting works of synthesis—both marked by stunning sweep and analytical depth—have been published in three years attests to the fecundity and vitality of this scholarship. The radically revised Rise of Western Christendom, by the doyen of the field, Peter Brown, distilled a generation of scholarship on late antiquity, concentrating on cultural history, specifically the processes by which Christianity rose to dominate western Europe. Now Chris Wickham, an Oxford historian, has published his summa, a history of the period between A.D. 400 and 800 that almost wholly ignores cultural and religious matters, concentrating instead on socioeconomic change. A work that comparatively examines ten regions (Denmark, Ireland, England and Wales, Gaul, Spain, Italy, North Africa, Egypt, Syria and Palestine, and the Byzantine heartland of Anatolia and Greece), it assesses such matters as state structures, the aristocracy and the peasantry, urbanism, and above all systems of exchange. It’s usually clearly written, and often cleverly so, though as a systematic, Marxian history, it’s always intellectually demanding and hence slow reading (it took me forever to finish its nearly 1,000 pages). But while few general readers will peruse it (and at $175, it’s aimed exclusively at academic libraries and the largest public ones), history doesn’t get any better.

Inventively and commandingly integrating documentary and archaeological sources, Wickham carefully compares the intricate and often patchy evidence, revealing the complexity of the societies and changes he’s probing (most crucially, the innumerable and multifaceted social ramifications of the contraction of trade and taxation that attended the gradual fragmenting of the Roman Empire). More than almost any history I’ve read, Wickham’s manages to be at once grand and rigorous. In its adroit and confident treatment of an array of subjects and disciplines, and in its exhaustive bibliography, this book, like Brown’s, has encapsulated and synthesized a burgeoning field of scholarship at the point of perhaps its greatest creativity.

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