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.
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.
Welles did not do all this alone. He tapped a wide and remarkable array of mostly young talents, many of whom went on to important careers inspired by his example. (The producer Richard Barr, for one, a major influence on contemporary playwriting, started as a Mercury bit player.) Unlike those who came and went in the later chaos of half-financed film projects, his theater colleagues worked with him time and again. Granted, Welles’s artistry never precluded bouts of gross self-indulgence and grosser self-destructiveness. Rehearsing King Lear in 1955, he tripped and broke his ankle; resuming rehearsals with his foot in a cast, he tripped again and broke the other one, ultimately playing the role in a wheelchair. (“If he had three legs,” Eric Bentley wrote in irritation, “he would have tripped three times.”) But the people who saw Macbeth, Faustus, Caesar, and to some extent even Lear, saw the drama Welles animated, not the backstage craziness that animated him. No charlatanry there.
My point in stating all this is to affirm that, his flaws notwithstanding, Welles left something exemplary behind him in memory, in archive, on celluloid. He worked publicly and unhermetically, his art interacting with his time in a very different way from the work of Andy Warhol or Robert Wilson, those masters of solipsism and marketing who were the focus of Bogart’s two previous pieces. Yet she depicts Welles’s highly collaborative process as analogous to their essentially solo procedures. Even at his most intimate, her Welles is literally talking to himself: He’s played by the actor Stephen Webber; the closer of his two confidants in the piece, played by Barney O’Hanlon, is named “Stephen Webber.”
Never confronting the substance of Welles’s work, the evening tends to fill up with stage waits and vaudeville turns. The best of the latter involves Will Bond, as the other confidant (named “Bernstein” after Everett Sloane’s role in Citizen Kane), in a dizzying series of runs and pratfalls while catching bundles of newspaper. Bond does the evening’s best work, seconded by Tom Nelis as a compassionate nemesis figure and Ellen Lauren as a parade of Wellesian women; Webber’s Welles, seemingly pitched to his bloated later image, is sluggish and uncharismatic. But then, isolated onstage without supporting data, his prospects are limited.
When War of the Worlds gets to the box-office failure of Kane, it doesn’t even mention William Randolph Hearst—the perfect key, one might think, to Welles’s inner life. A young artist, given by Hollywood the largest mass-market opportunity of his career, chooses for his subject an American magnate both heroic and pathetic (and not unlike a Shakespearean king in that respect). He chooses knowing in advance that the magnate’s newspapers can destroy his chance of success, and that Hollywood hates failure. He identifies with the magnate sufficiently to play the role himself, creating a film masterpiece that wins eight nominations and a Best Screenplay Oscar despite Hollywood’s fear of Hearst. And he gets most of another masterpiece past the studio mill before his career is wrecked. Whatever this story is, it’s neither an eccentricity nor a flimflam act. It’s a story Bogart might be capable of telling powerfully. I wish it interested her.