You have to have a life beyond Orson Welles

Elīna Zuzāne


If you want to know more about the fascinating character of Orson Welles, the American producer, director, actor and writer, whose achievements include creating the distressing radio broadcast The War of the Worlds (1938), presenting the world with one of its all time beloved films Citizen Kane (1941) and adapting Broadway plays in a ground breaking manner, you would have to devote quite some time for an extensive research. Or you could talk to Richard France, who, with his landmark study The Theatre of Orson Welles, has established himself as the leading authority on the life and work of this versatile persona. I chose the latter.

You are a writer, an author of many theatre plays and a narrator for documentaries. Could you tell me more about these career paths?

I was what was called an army brat – my father had a career in The United States Army. As I result I got to travel all over the world, but I was never a good student. In fact I hated school. I got as far as the tenth grade and then I happily flunked out. I was lucky enough, however, to have a pretty good voice that allowed me to work as an announcer for a radio. That was the mid 1950s, when rock & roll was just beginning. Later I got a job in the mailroom at the NBC [television network] because of its school of announcers, which you could only attend if you were an employee. All of the NBC broadcasters, who were big names in New York at that time, contributed to this. I got accepted and participated in it. Then I started to travel with my radio work, but eventually I came back to New York broke.

And what happened next?

Somehow I met a guy, who worked at a big city hospital of Manhattan. He was the recreation director of the hospital’s mental ward and kind enough to offer me food. I usually arrived at the hospital at one o’clock in the afternoon, had lunch and left at four. In between I played Ping-Pong with the patients, one of which was a Romanian writer Mirkov Tuman. He was a fascinating man. One day he suggested that we should write a play together and after about a month he came back with the first act. I had no idea he was serious, but it was then up to me to write the act two. I looked at his work and somehow the development of what he was doing made great sense to me. Later in life we actually sold the play! (Laughs)

After a while I wrote a second play all on my own and moved to San Francisco, which had a great community of writers. Of course then I didn’t sell anything. Most things I wrote back then were terrible, and that’s when my friend said to me “Richard, you need training and the only training you can get is either in New York or in Yale.” So one day we sat down in his office and called Yale. We spoke to an amazing man, John Gaster, who was the best common sense critic and playwright. He could not have been more welcoming. I didn’t have a high school diploma or an undergraduate degree, but none of that seemed to matter to him. I thought it was a joke, but that’s how I ended up in that drama school, the most prestigious educational programme in our country.

Somehow another opportunity arose for me – to go to Pittsburgh where a new theatre was developing. Though this theatre and some bizarre connections, I was invited to a Ph.D. programme in Carnegie [Carnegie-Mellon University]. It was all very strange – a high school drop out, who never attended college, comes out of Yale School of Drama and is off to do a Ph.D. I was thinking that it was crazy, but it was one of those fun rides you don’t want to get off. That’s what happened.

Orson Welles. A still from Citizen Kane

I’ve heard that your interest in Orson Welles also happened “by default”. Could you tell me more about it?

I was teaching in Rhode Island and Leon Katz my mentor and a great Gertrude Stein authorial, who went on to be the head of Yale School of Drama, was on a sabbatical. So I decided to go and visit him. We were very close. He was like a surrogate father to me. As we were walking along Yale’s campus he told me that if I ever wanted to survive in academe, I needed to have a book. What did I know about Orson Welles? At that point all I knew about him was that he made movies, but of course he did many other things as well. He was an incredibly versatile fellow. But this is what got me started – Leon Katz telling me that my first book should be The Theatre of Orson Welles.

Soon I found out that Orson Welles was one of those people who have so many facets about them. People often think of Citizen Kane and some other movies, but they forget the phenomenal role he played in theatre, radio and politics. I give a lecture called The Unknown Orson Welles in which I describe how he, in the decade leading up the year 1947, when he was chased out of the country, was only second to Eleanor Roosevelt. He was America’s most outspoken defender of civil liberties. That is an aspect of his life that is greatly overshadowed by his achievements in the arts. Very few people know about that. So my lecture shows the causes that he took up. They were phenomenal! Not only did he put his mouth on the line, he put his fortune, and everything else on the line too. He wasn’t one of the typical Hollywood liberals, who say, “Oh, yes, I’m for this-and-that, but don’t quote me”. Orson Welles had a strong character. If he was for something, he stood by it and he put his money into it. He was extraordinary and that’s what got him chased out of the country. It fascinated me and the more I learned about him, the more I wanted to know. It was almost like taking a drug. (Laughs)

Did you ever meet Orson Welles in real life?

The advantage I had, and I still consider it an advantage, is the fact that I never met him. He went through periods when he didn’t want to meet people, who were writing about him, and I came along at exactly that time. But it was such a benefit, because he was the most charming human being you ever encountered in your life. So if he took you in and he knew you were writing about him, he would befriend you and put that charm to work on you. He seduced you. By the time he was done with you, you were no longer a researcher; you were a stenographer – writing exactly what he wanted you to write. But once the book or the paper was out, that was it – you were done. So the advantage I had was never having met him. I wasn’t fooled by his charm. (Laughs) Everybody usually got caught up in it and I would have been just the same.

But were you ever in contact with him?

After The theatre of Orson Welles came out I wanted to publish his theatre play scripts, as they are extraordinary documents. My attorney tried at least half a dozen attempts to put this together until he finally advised me to write to him. I was given the address and I sent Orson Welles a letter explaining what I wanted to do and asking for his permission to do it. Three months went by and I didn’t hear a word from him. Then all of a sudden I received this beautiful, charming, delightful, generous note saying, “They are yours. Do what you want with them.” It’s amazing. He had no idea who I was. He hadn’t read The theatre of Orson Welles and he just gave me these documents. Today if anybody wants to produce one of these plays, they have to come to me. But I’ve never denied anybody and I’ve never tried to make money out of them.

That’s how I published the book Orson Welles on Shakespeare, but at that point I was getting tired of Orson Welles. You have to have a life beyond Orson Welles. (Laughs) I was living in Maine and commuting to Boston, where I was doing voiceovers for commercials and narrations… But it turned out that the recording studio I was using had the same engineer that had worked with Orson Welles and I was given the historical Welles’ outtakes (reel-to-reel cassettes with the material that has not been used in recordings). As it’s a 3000-mile journey back to Maine I played the cassettes on my radio during the drive and came up with the idea of a play.

What is it about?

It takes place a day after Orson Welles’ 70th and last Birthday. He is back in Hollywood and he has been promised money to finish the edit of his Don Quixote film. Steven Spielberg has promised it. It’s a little different from what actually happened, but it’s very much in the same spirit. Spielberg promised Welles two million dollars to do The Cradle Will Rock, which would star Spielberg’s wife at that time Amy Irving. Don Quixote, however, was Welles’ green project – the one he really wanted to finish. I just substituted Don Quixote for The Cradle Will Rock. In this play Orson Welles is reliving his past, doing terrible commercials, many of which are actually commercials that I did. (Some of them were so pointless that it made me wonder, why anyone would ever want to buy the product?) I was able to put myself in Welles’ shoes as for a while he was also doing this commercial stuff, which he hated. It was degrading, but that’s what kept him afloat. It gave him what he called “brochure money”. For me it was a wonderful supplement to my income. Did you know that you can make more money with two national commercials than you can make in a year of teaching? So why not do it? That was the ideal job for me as a writer. But for him – he was waiting to do another movie, but it never happened. That’s the setting for the play. Eventually Spielberg sends a notice to the studio saying “No money”. It’s typical Hollywood flip-flop.

Many film critics have described Citizen Kane as the most important American film ever made. Why do people speak so highly of this film?

It was only after the war that the film was suddenly reassessed and started its climb. When it first came out, it didn’t do well at all. After the Second World War the French discovered it and, interestingly enough, the Soviets also discovered it. Citizen Kane became extraordinary influential among early Soviet filmmakers for its creative use of sound.

When Welles went to Hollywood to do this movie he was 24. He was convinced that the camera can capture anything the eye can see. It can’t. (Laughs) He learned that very quickly. But his great good fortune was to have Gregg Toland, one of the preeminent cinematographers in Hollywood, as his cameraman. Welles fascinated Toland because, being new to the movie industry, Welles didn’t yet know what was not possible. They worked brilliantly together and Welles learned a tremendous amount in those few months of filming. I think it was the only time Welles really paid attention to his cinematographer. He respected Toland, which was not common for him. He didn’t respect many of the people he worked with. Today Welles’ influence is universal. Orson Welles has been more popular after his death than he was in the last 30 years of his life.

Orson Welles. A still from Citizen Kane

Just out of curiosity – why did Welles play the main character in Citizen Kane?

Orson Welles with his ego would have never given the role to someone else. People think it was a personal statement, but I’m not so sure. When Welles went to Hollywood it was expected that he would be in the centre of his first film. None of the other Mercury players [the Mercury Theatre troupe] were known. It was understood that the person with the most amount of recognition should do it. It would have been harmful for the project, if Welles had not done it. But of course his ego wouldn’t allow it to be anything else. Furthermore he loved playing old men. That was a big thing for him. In 1938 he was even pictured on the cover of Time magazine disguised in the make up as an 85 year old man. He was 23 at the time. Welles was always hiding behind make-up, which is why it was not a surprise that he wanted to play Charles Foster Kane.

People usually ask me – are there parallels behind Welles’ life and Kane’s life? I think that’s greatly overstated. That’s a very simplistic psychology. Welles came up with the idea of Citizen Kane. People have tried to discredit him but he actually came up with this idea at the age of 16 (eight years before he played the role)… he didn’t come up with the idea of playing William Randolph Hearst, but the story line and the way to tell it was his. When Hearst was suggested, however, he jumped at this idea. There is a kind of boyish, vulgar humour in what he was doing. People are going to be angry to hear this, but he was playing the very character he hates. Hearst did him a lot of harm to him in the theatre. Welles’ productions were usually extraordinary well received, but his Macbeth, with an all black cast, in Hearst’s reactionary papers appeared along the statement that, “a Negro should never be seen in anything that is not about a Negro’s life”. To a civil libertarian like Orson Welles that was like raising a red flag in front of a bull. It was not surprising that he wanted to get back at Hearst and when the opportunity finally came around, he grabbed it.

In the film everybody focuses on the name “Rosebud”. To most people it means the loss of innocence and youth. Welles didn’t care about that at all. “Rosebud” was a nickname for Hearst’s mistress’s vagina. (Laughs) You get the idea of how the phycology changes? I’ve never understood how people have avoided this discussion. It’s so basic. It’s Welles’ “sticking it” into Hearst’s face. He’s basically saying, “I’m going to promote on the screen your nickname for your girlfriend’s body part”. It’s like taking a neon sign and flashing it. You could say anything about William Randolph Hearst, he didn’t give a damn about it, but if you said something about Marion Davies, his mistress, he got very angry… and that’s what Welles was doing. I just don’t understand how has it been ignored. Maybe you have to be a bit vulgar to think in these terms. I don’t know. It’s so damn obvious.

Are there any mysteries about Welles’ persona that you have not yet discovered?

No, because I have stopped looking. In 2015, in Welles’ centennial year, I have no doubt that when I go to conferences devoted to him there will be all kinds of things that I will discover. A year hasn’t gone by when at least one book and a document have come out. What is there new to find out? How he cut his toenails? (Laughs) It’s absurd! Welles himself said, “How they’ll miss me when I’m gone.” He was right. The last 20 years has seen an output of scholarships, documentaries, etc. devoted to him. I find that analogous to Samuel Beckett after Waiting for Godot was published. For at least 10 years everybody was coming out with new books about Beckett. Now it has been like that with Welles. I think that finally it’s starting to fade, but it’s amazing how much stuff has come out.

Why do you think that is?

(Laughs) We just were in the University of Vienna, which has a media programme with 2500 students and 250 Ph.D. candidates. And that’s in just that one programme. It doesn’t surprise me that everywhere you turn people are looking for a topic to finish their dissertation on. Welles himself is every bit as influential of a filmmaker as he was 30 years ago. It is a lasting achievement. There is no way you can destroy that accomplishment. Narrow it – yes, but not destroy it. Most filmmakers or artists after their death recede into history. Welles is not going to retreat into history that much. Yes, the new generation is going to have to be reintroduced to him, but if they are exposed to him, they will respond to him. It’s quite extraordinary. That is the phenomenal gift he had. He engages all audiences despite their age. Young filmmakers can still learn something from him.

Such as?

How to edit a film and the use of sound. He is showing you two very valid techniques. As far as I’m concerned nobody in the theatre (and only Eisenstein and D.W. Griffith in the movies) have ever used the tool of editing more effectively. Welles is also the father of independent filmmakers. Even Martin Scorsese, when asked about the independent filmmaking movement, didn’t hesitate to point to Orson Welles by saying “He showed us the way. He made us see that we didn’t need the studios to make our movies. We are all in his debt.” And Scorsese is not somebody to give you praise if it isn’t needed. When Orson Welles made Othello, for example, every penny that went into that film was out of his pocket.

How has Welles influenced theatre and radio today?

Orson Welles is America’s foremost interpreter of Shakespeare. His 1938 production of Julius Caesar is still regarded as the most distinguished production of Shakespeare ever seen on an American stage. I think that his film Chimes at Midnight is really a theatrical masterpiece, not Citizen Kane. Many people believe that Kane is his masterpiece, but that’s because it’s been talked about again and again… I think it’s going to change in not too distant future. In terms of radio, he set the standard for radio drama. The War of the Worlds was not only a phenomenal show, it revolutionised radio drama.  That production had such an impact – positive and negative. The congress in 1938 even passed a law that you could never again pretend that a radio drama was in fact a news bulletin.

To be honest they were not trying to censor it, but the war was here and we were having terrible nervous fits. There was even a very prominent rumour going around, for an example that Germany and Japan were going to get together and invade the United States. So when Orson Welles did that radio drama people weren’t thinking –Martians, they were thinking – Germans. It was extraordinary. And that radio drama hasn’t had a single life; it’s had many lives since then.

In Quito, Ecuador, a rebroadcast The War of the Worlds was done in 1949. Two people had adapted the script in such a way, that the locations were no longer New York and New Jersey, they were places in and around Quito. And even though the audience didn’t have the Second World War to worry about, it was still phenomenal. The panic was so great that tens and thousands of people ran for an escape. The difference, however, between this event and Orson Welles’ original is that when people of Quito realised that it was a hoax, they got angry. They attacked the radio station, burned the whole building down and killed at least a dozen people. Whereupon the two people responsible for that rebroadcast crossed the border to Venezuela, where they spent the rest of their lives.

Orson Welles is probably the only humanist genius that our country has ever produced. We have produced scientists and mathematicians, who are geniuses, but a humanist is a rare commodity. Orson Welles’ imagination floats. It is fascinating how he was able to create analogies so that his audiences were able to have essentially the same feelings that overtook people when these plays were originally produced. He was able to do that and that is a very rare talent.

Orson Welles directing on CBS

Is theatre becoming a forgotten art form?

It has always had its high points and its low points, but it will never be as popular an art form as it was in Shakespeare’s time. Then again there wasn’t a competition – there weren’t films and television to distract you, and reading was still an interest primarily for the upper classes. Also if you go to a Broadway musical today, you can spend 200 dollars for a seat. That’s a very expensive proposition. It doesn’t even count the price of babysitters, dinner, etc. Whereas you can go to Netflix and rent any film as popular or as esoteric as you want for a couple of bucks. But even though it’s so comforting to sit in a movie and evaluate the effects and the performance, you just don’t have the same electricity that you feel in the presence of an absolutely brilliant actor. It doesn’t happen often, but it’s an amazing effect. We should never lose it. It’s part of our heritage.

Are you working on any plays right now?

Yes, I am writing a play about Barabbas. Do you remember when Pontius Pilate made his choice between Jesus Christ and the other guy? The other guy was named Barabbas. Having the notoriety of being saved when Jesus was killed, Barabbas is looking for sanctuary to get away from the world. He avoids being crucified in Jerusalem, goes a full circle and is crucified in Rome by an accident. In other works – he runs into his faith. In the Bible Barabbas has maybe 20 lines, but he is an amazingly interesting character. Also you have a lot of the latitude with him, which you don’t have with Orson Welles. People know so much about Orson Welles, but they know very little about Barabbas. It will be a two-character play, but only one of them speaks. Mostly the things I’m interested in writing about, however, are movie orientated. It’s very hard to stay focused on one character for two hours. It has to be a very special kind of character. A film gives you a wonderful scope. You can do many things in film that you can’t possibly do on stage.

What would be your advice those, who are just starting to write?

Don’t give up your day job! (Laughs) Hemingway said it best: “A writer writes.” That’s all there is to it. If you have the urge to do any form of art, not just write, then you should just do it. Don’t discuss it, justify it or compromise it. You have to have that need. It’s got to be there. If it isn’t, don’t waste your time.