Welles of Loneliness

 War of the Worlds is Anne Bogart's attempt to capture and define the essence of Orson Welles, an enormous presence—at the end literally as well as creatively—in American culture. But the most provocative aspects of Welles are those Bogart omits from the piece. Not that her work is empty: Bogart is too thorough and too imaginatively scrupulous for that. She proffers the elements of Welles's life, his filmography, and his personality as a set of challenging images that flow into or collide with one another. She poses needling questions, some valid (why did Welles, for all his creativity, seem to delight in destroying his achievements?) and others factitious (was he "a genius or a charlatan?"). For the delectation of those who've memorized Welles's oeuvre, Bogart salts the piece teasingly with live reworkings of filmic high points, and with cunningly canted tidbits of text that briefly turn Welles into Kane, or into one of his Shakespearean heroes. Though built of relatively few simple elements, the piece looks visually lavish, with the glittering shadows cast by Mimi Jordan Sherin's lights giving Neil Patel's mobile set pieces the aura of a vast silken labyrinth. Alluring to gaze at, it enacts what seems to be Bogart's central premise about Welles's art, that it was illusionist in nature. Beginning with a painted backdrop of a man's open palm, it ends with a sleight-of-hand trick and the recollection of a childhood magic act.

But illusionist and illusory are two different words. We know Welles wasn't a charlatan because the work he left behind still grips the imagination. And the first striking omission Bogart makes is any contemplation of the substance of that work, of the materials Welles chose and the means he picked to articulate them. In this respect, Bogart's very American: The highly conscious, cultivated, widely read Welles faces the same problem with her as he did in life with the American public and the movie moguls who claimed to speak for them. Politics, economics, and social history don't exist, while psychology, in this post-Freud era, has retreated into deeper mystery. All of them played their part in Welles's career, but none of them gets more than the briefest flicker of a mention. The Welles that Bogart presents is out there on his own, puffing on his cigar, abetted only by a few loyal henchmen and a passing parade of glamour girls, putting one over on the world again and getting smacked down for it by his detractors again, with no particular note taken of any who, what, when, where, or why that might be involved.

This is particularly curious in an artist trying to discover what made Welles tick, since much of his celebrity—and a lot of Bogart's piece is predicated on his celebrity status—came from his gift for combining two elements external to his personality: the culture of the past and the politics of the moment. War of the Worlds itself was adapted from a novel nearly 40 years old. Welles's new wrinkle, in 1938, was to make it the radio equivalent of an epistolary novel, with bits of fake news broadcast instead of fictive letters and documents—just the thing, with the world on the brink of war, to freak out an audience that had come to rely on the radio for on-the-spot eyewitness reporting. Even then, Welles's broadcast only aroused its famous panic because a dull guest performer on the competing Edgar Bergen hour brought the Mercury Theatre of the Air into the homes of a lot of channel surfers who, having missed the initial explanations, thought the "news" of Martians landing was legit. One might almost say it was Destiny that made Welles notorious—but that, too, would be an external force Bogart declines to acknowledge.


War of the Worlds
Conceived and directed by Anne Bogart
Text by Naomi Iizuka
BAM Harvey (formerly Majestic) Theater (Closed)

While the War of the Worlds broadcast tipped Welles into the celebrity category, he was already a famous artist, which is not the same thing. His fame came from the realm which is Bogart's second and more disturbing omission: the theater. Where else should the theater start to scrutinize the life of a great theater artist? Bogart thinks differently. During the latter half of the evening, we get some flashes of Welles's late, frantic attempts to jerry-build theatrical events; toward the end, Naomi Iizuka's script has him declare, "Everything I do, you see, is a kind of theatre. I'm a kind of theatre unto myself." But theater's a collaborative art, and during his most creative period, before Hollywood, Welles was not a theater unto himself, but the prime mover of a great theater company. I confess that to me his cinema career, after The Magnificent Ambersons, has always seemed rather trivial in comparison to his pre-Kane stage work. (Most cinema is trivial; it's just permanently trivial, unlike theater, which disappears.)

Welles's influence on the theater was so strong, and his innovations so striking, that to this day, for most theater people, the phrase "Federal Theatre Project" means only Orson Welles (with a little help from John Houseman). The works he chose to stage were largely distinguished and old; his means of articulating them were always the most immediate. (The one new piece he tackled in this period was Marc Blitzstein's masterpiece The Cradle Will Rock, which also merges classical structure with news-headline story.) Unlike our latter-day directorial hotshots who merely denigrate the classics with glib analogies, Welles drew on his immense cultivation to enhance the plays he staged, choosing battles that were both worth fighting and winnable. Having demonstrated at the Lafayette Theatre that African Americans could act Shakespeare, he brought his leading man downtown to play Mephistopheles in Dr. Faustus, bolstering his presence with black-light effects and Bil Baird's puppets. Feydeau's Italian Straw Hat had been brushed with surrealism in René Clair's silent film version; Welles Americanized it into a vaudevillean madhouse. By the time War of the Worlds came up on his broadcast roster, he had worked, or almost worked, similar transformations on Shoemakers' Holiday, Danton's Death, and the famous "anti-Fascist" Julius Caesar. The combination of great plays and vivid productions gave New York its first real vision of what a national theater might mean.

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