Orson Welles Sketchbook, Episode One is shown on BBC Four about Welles’s debut at the Gate Theater in Dublin; Plus Welles expert Christian McKay on why Welles should get a star for his TV work on the Hollywood walk of fame!
The recent BBC Four showing of the first episode from Orson Welles Sketchbook dovetails nicely into something Christian McKay and I recently discussed during dinner when Mr. McKay was in San Francisco to promote Me and Orson Welles.
Namely, how Welles work in television, which has probably remained the least celebrated aspect of his work, is also in many regards, quite as sensational as his work in film, theatre and radio.
What is amazing to me, is that it took my talk with Mr. McKay, along with a article by Ben Walters on Welles television work at Columbia University's website, to make me realize just how much Welles did for the artistry of television.
Ah, but therein lies the rub...
Because for me, at least just the mention of the words "artistry" and "television" makes me blanch. Yet there is no doubt Welles brought his artistic gifts to television, as can be attested by his TV shows such as Fountain of Youth, In The Land of Don Quixote, Orson's Bag, The Immortal Story, and even his many guest appearances on television shows like Dean Martin, Johnny Carson and Dick Cavett.
Christian McKay and I discussed Orson Welles and his work for television in this excerpt from our long talk, below, which is followed by a complete transcript of the first episode of Orson Welles Sketchbook.
I found this missing episode from the Sketchbook series especially entertaining, as it sets the tone and ideas that will be presented in the following five shows, and even if the events Welles talks about are not totally believable, they are certainly quite entertaining. I for one would love to hear Welles expound about the night "The police had to be called out to protect him from the wrath of an Irish audience. But that’s another story. Maybe I’ll tell that some other time..."
What I also found to be especially interesting, is that both Mr. Welles and Mr. McKay talk about the innocence they experienced when working as actors for the first time (albeit in different mediums.)
In Welles case, on the stage in Dublin in 1931, and Mr. McKay, his first major role in a movie shot at the Gaiety Theater, on the Isle of Man, just off the east coast of Ireland, over 75 years later.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: If you should get a Best Supporting Actor nomination for Me and Orson Welles, I’m sure you’d want to promote a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for Orson Welles work in the theatre.
CHRISTIAN McKAY: But I’ve already seen two of them for Welles.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Yes, but you can get three. Welles doesn’t have a star for theatre yet, and you can get one for television as well. Bob Hope actually has four stars, but I don’t think Welles will ever get a star for his work in American television.
CHRISTIAN McKAY: You don’t think so?
LAWRENCE FRENCH: No, not in this country, anyway.
CHRISTIAN McKAY: What about The Fountain of Youth?
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Oh, that’s right!
CHRISTIAN McKAY: That was astonishing!
LAWRENCE FRENCH: You’re absolutely right, and if you consider all the TV shows he did in Europe, he should have four stars. Wouldn’t that be terrific! Bob Hope and Orson Welles would each have four stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame! It's just that I don’t know if they would actually consider Welles for his television work in America.
CHRISTIAN McKAY: What about Around the World with Orson Welles, and Orson Welles Sketchbook?
LAWRENCE FRENCH: They are great, but I’m not sure if they would consider that work, because they were made in England. Here they remember Welles for his appearances on the Dean Martin Roasts and Johnny Carson.
CHRISTIAN McKAY: But what about all the skits he did? Putting on his make-up for Falstaff on The Dean Martin Show. That is absolutely brilliant.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: You're right! He also did a staggering version of Shylock on The Dean Martin Show. It was the best scene of Shylock I’ve ever seen. Stefan Drossler used it in his compilation of scenes from the various versions Welles made for The Merchant of Venice, and the version Welles did on Dean Martin is far and away the best reading of “Hath not a Jew eyes” he ever did.
CHRISTIAN McKAY: Orson was absolutely brilliant on those shows! And that was all television work.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: And one of the greatest speeches ever given on an awards show was Welles acceptance speech after he received the AFI Life Achievement Award in 1975. That was a television show broadcast on his old station, CBS.
CHRISTIAN McKAY: Where he talks about “My own particular contrariety.” That’s the title of my book, you know.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Yes, it's where Welles quotes Samuel Johnson.
CHRISTIAN McKAY: I love that speech and I wrote a book called My Own Particular Contrariety, which is about me playing Orson. I had a publisher in London who wanted to do it, but I suddenly got cold feet. I thought, “No, this is ridiculous this is one the first good roles I’ve ever had, so it’s silly." I wanted to share the experience, but it was brutally honest about other people, as well as myself. My own failings, and it talks at great length about preparing for the role and playing Welles, but I thought it was too early.
Orson Welles' Sketchbook
Episode One - April 24, 1955
On: Stage props, an earthquake in Hollywood and debuting at the Gate Theatre in Dublin
ORSON WELLES: I hope you haven’t gathered from the title of this that you are in for a televised art exhibit. The sketchbook part of it is frankly, just a prop. A prop is a stage term, it’s an abbreviation of the expression, stage property. Anything that you may see up on stage besides an actor and the scenery is likely to be a prop. For example Yorick’s skull is a prop, Romeo’s vial of poison and the telephone in Dial M For Murder, they’re all props. There are also props in real life -- when we are self-conscious we put our hands to our neckties and light a cigarette -- all that sort of thing. In other words a prop is just what it means in the dictionary. It is something to prop us with. It’s a crutch, something to lean on. So the sketchbook is exactly that, it’s a prop, something for me to turn to when I lose the thread of what I’m talking about and it’s something for you to look at besides my face which ought to come as a nice break in the horrid monotony.
I remember the first night I was ever in Hollywood, I would have been very grateful indeed for a prop like the sketchbook, because I did lose the thread. I was speaking after dinner. I had been introduced as a great after dinner speaker, I don’t know quite why, because I’m not, but I had been and this was a great Hollywood dinner with every star I’d ever seen in my life. I was tremendously impressed and there they all were with a lot of other grand people besides: Maharajahs and all kinds of titled folk. I had been called upon and of course, being very frightened and very eager to please I started a funny story which I heard that day. I had gone on for a while when it dawned on me that I had forgotten how it ended. I continued with the story and I hoped that somehow I would find an ending. Somehow find a way to invent one. The people were all looking at me very eagerly, waiting for the finish, because they knew that although the story was very boring, it must be boring for a purpose. Obviously it was boring because the end was going to be so tremendously amusing that they all looked up at me eagerly and I continued and continued and I thought “how in heavens name can I get of this thing? I could pretend to faint or drop dead, or rush out and yell “fire,” or continue to invent comical finishes that elicited no titters whatsoever -- quietly and secretly praying to myself to heaven -- and then my prayer was granted. Ever since then I’ve been a great believer in the efficacy of prayer because just as I’d given up hope, just as I was wondering how I could get out of the situation, the walls started to shake, the chandelier fell down from the ceiling onto the table, people jumped under the table – this was California, remember – it was an earthquake! So I was saved and my Hollywood career was saved by an earthquake. I can’t pretend my drawings are any sort of an earthquake, but they’ll have to stand in for that sort of distraction.
This is the Gate Theatre in Dublin. First night audiences are always an experience and in this theatre I faced the very first night audience of all in Dublin, that grand Capitol of eloquence and violent opinion. Where audiences enjoy and delight in the privilege of free speech and you can sometimes hear as much dialogue from the gallery as from the stage itself. Where first nights often end in literal riots and actors have been known to seek police protection from the public they are trying to entertain!
Here I am in Dublin on that very first of all my first nights. If you don’t recognize me that’s just as it should be. I’m heavily made up for the role of the profligate and depraved Archduke in Jew Süss by Feuchtwanger. As you can see from the drawing there is almost no sign at all of anything resembling first night nerves. Now there is a reason for this lofty calm. It’s the bliss of ignorance. Like a baby on a trapeze, or a drunk taking the Cresta Run on the seat of his trousers, I was happy because I didn’t know any better. For underneath all that make-up is a brash young amateur who hasn’t seen his sixteenth birthday, and there is no assurance like that of the utter greenhorn. Nobody, least of all an aspiring actor is scared of being hurt until he has fallen on his face. You’ve all seen Donald Duck and Pluto the pub in the Disney cartoons when they run off the edge of a roof, or off the ledge of a cliff and run quite a distance and then they happen to glance down and when they realize where they are, that there is nothing under them, they fall. Well, a beginner is rather like that. He goes tripping merrily out into space with no technique or no knowledge, or anything of that kind. Treading air as a swimmer treads water and then suddenly realizes where he is: in a theatre full of people. And he realizes what that means. Then the happy dream changes to a nightmare.
Here I am in Act Four in the same play. You may notice that I have aged somewhat, but this is only partly make-up. In the play I was supposed to be older, but I have aged a bit under the greasepaint as well. A terrible truth has just dawned on me. That an audience is not so much a compliment to an actor’s ego as a challenge to his capacities. I’ve just received my first challenge. You may have noticed the startled look; this was Ireland remember, where audiences take a sort of professional pride in unpredictability. It wasn’t until many years later, in fact only recently, that the police had to be called out to protect me from the wrath of an Irish audience, but that’s another story. Maybe I’ll tell that some other time. I had already received by Act Four of that very first night of all a pretty good intimation of what was in store for in the future. I remember the line that I had just spoken. I’ll never forget that line as long as I live. A pretty girl had just left the stage, Betty Chancellor, who was Dennis Chancellor’s wife. I was supposed to look after in my characterization as the wicked old Archduke, watch her go lecherously and chortle and say, “A bride fit for Solomon. He had a thousand wives did he not?” Now just at this moment, when I said, “He had a thousand wives did he not?” a voice somewhere in the audience, about the fifth row of the stalls spoke up and said, “That’s a dirty black protestant lie!” Well I’ve given that remark a good deal of serious thought. As a matter of fact I’ve been brooding over it for about twenty years. I still haven’t thought of an adequate reply. Anyway, that moment, the sound of that voice, was my first experience of feeling of somebody unfortunate like in Disney! That’s when it was borne in on me with frightful force that as an actor I wasn’t so much skating on thin ice as walking in thin air. When I realized where I was, I started to fall like Pluto the pup. That’s a long time ago. I’ve been falling ever since.
Speaking of falling, it was actually a fall that saved me in Act Five. I was supposed to die of apoplexy in Act Five. Actually, I was half dead from fright. I was supposed to draw my sword, shout wildly, “ring the bells and fire all the cannons,” and then slump lifelessly in my throne. But I had just made the terrible discovery that an audience is not necessarily a group of friendly well-wishers. An audience can be a pit full of ravening lions and besides there was the commentator in the fifth row. So I pulled at the sword and discovered that it was stuck in the scabbard. Well of course it was stuck in the scabbard. It was opening night. That always happens. There is a little invisible man who goes backstage on every opening night and glues the swords into all the scabbards and short-circuits the telephones and jams a few doors. That’s purely routine. But as I say, I was a beginner, I didn’t know about the invisible little man, so I pulled at the sword and pulled and pulled and after awhile I discovered I was left with nothing but my death speech. So in a voice which reverted to the warble of a boy soprano I cried shrilly, “ring the cannons and fire all the bells!” The effect of this was stupendous. Before anyone out front could volunteer another comment and in a mood of suicide, I flung myself down a whole flight of stairs. Made as it was in the full muscular flower of my boyhood, that was quite some dive. It was the only thing I could think of at the moment. I didn’t care whether it killed me or not. It almost did! But also it brought down the house. The Dubliners besides being very keen critics are also generous. I don’t suppose that anything like that back flip had been seen on the shores of the Liffey (river) before. Here was an actor who could fall on his head and really make you believe it. In all the long, striving years since my debut, I have never received such an ovation.
Here I am with my donkey and cart. You see I had come to Ireland not to act but to be a painter. I had always wanted to be a painter. In the spring of that year I had arrived, brought the donkey and cart, traveled around Connemara and found myself in Dublin in the autumn of that year, without what is technically referred to as financial resources. Oh, I had a few shillings, but I blew those on a good dinner and a ticket to the theatre. The theatre was The Gate and on the stage I recognized in a minor part, a young fellow that I had known in the west of Ireland for awhile. He was a folklorist, so I went backstage to say hello to him. He introduced me to the directors, Edwards and MacLiammoir and I heard myself introducing myself to them as a noted actor from the Broadway stage. Now what had possessed me? I don’t know why I told that whopper. The idea of earning my living as an actor was so preposterous that it seemed to me probably that a preposterous story was the only possible way of proposing it. For some reason they gave me the job. It was a very good part and I intimated I was willing to stay on in Ireland for a short season if sufficiently interesting roles could be found and the first interesting role was the Archduke and that’s how I started in the theatre. It was an easy start, but I must confess to you that nothing has been easy since then. Every year I learn how much I have yet to learn. But on that first night of all, I made an important discovery. I leaned that an audience can be a very fierce creature. It can turn suddenly, dangerous. That fierceness is generally in defense of the fragile miracle which is expected every evening in the theatre. The audience defends that miracle, the artist presides over it and nobody performs that miracle, everybody contributes to it. And above all, it must not be treated lightly. Respect in the presence of that miracle is a part of the normal respect of the professional for his job. I learned that job and learned to love the theatre and respect naturally followed. When I started, playing in a play was like playing a game. I didn’t care whether I won or not. Now, of course I do care very much and I often find myself on the losing side of things, but I wouldn’t trade my love for the theatre for all the hits on Broadway and the West End. I’m not proud of my start, I’m not proud of having begun in the theatre as an adventurer, but I am most sincerely grateful to the angry gentlemen in the fifth row who raised his voice in the darkness of that Dublin theatre and made me the precious gift of stage fright. It was the beginning of respect. Very shortly thereafter as I told you, I threw myself on my head. It seemed the only thing I could do. Falling on my head is probably what made me an actor. Certainly it’s what made me a professional.
While Welles account of his debut in Dublin is no doubt fascinating to hear, it also is quite probably not 100% accurate.
Here is Michael MacLiammoir's somewhat differing recollection taken from his autobiography, All For Hecuba, and he never mentions Welles dive on his head during the opening night of Jew Süss. He does, however, note that Welles received and enjoyed much opening night applause.
All For Hecuba
By Michael MacLiammoir
Jew Süss met with the copious success in Dublin it had found everywhere else, and people began to talk about Orson. 'Young Welles' they called him, with that curious bantering sense of self congratulation the public feels when its new idol has not reached the age of twenty; and many Dublin matrons bad a proprietary look in their eyes when they praised him as though they had given him birth and were vaguely responsible for the wayward and unexpected qualities of his talent. Hilton (Edward’s) beautiful performance of Süss with its suffering pallor, its agonized repression, the slow-mounting horror of its martyrdom and pain was approved and taken for granted, and so was Betty (Chancellor's) exquisite Naomi, all amber and carved ivory. Dublin had seen these two before, sure of course! They’re always good. But when Orson came padding on to the stage with his lopsided grace, his laughter, his softly thunderous voice, there was a flutter of astonishment and alarm, a hush, and a volley of applause. That, of course, was at the end of each act, and when the play was over and Hilton and he took their curtains together, and Hilton said some words of praise and introduction, Orson swelled visibly. I have heard of people swelling visibly before, but Orson is one of those who really do it. The chest expands, the head, thrown back upon the round, boyish neck, seems to broaden, the features swell and burn, the lips, curling back from the teeth like dark tropical plants, thicken into a smile. Then the hands extend, palms open to the crowd, the shoulders thrust upwards, the feet at last are satisfied: they remain a little apart, at peace, set firmly on the stage. Then he bows slowly, sedately; that they should realize him like this merits a bow, so slow and sedate the head goes down and quickly up again, up higher than ever, for maybe this is all a dream, and if the eyes are on the boots, blood rushing to the ears, who knows that sight and sound may not double-cross and vanish like a flame blown out, and Orson be back at school again, hungry, unsatisfied, not ready yet for the world? No, the people are still there, still applauding, more and more and more, and back goes the big head, and the laugh breaks out like fire in the jungle, a white lightning slits open across the sweating chubby cheeks, the brows knit in perplexity like a coolie's, the hands shoot widely out to either side, one to the right at Hilton, the other to the left at Betty, for you don't mean to say that all this racket is for Orson? What about Hilton and Betty? And anyway there's Ashley Dukes, and there's a man called Feuchtwanger, isn't there? But whoever it's all about it goes on and on, then trickles back a little like a sea slowly receding, receding, curling away like a fire burning out, fading inexorably, emptying itself hollow; and God damn that stage-manager anyway. Couldn't he easily steal a couple more of them before the thing dies down? Take that curtain up again, you silly son of a bitch; to taste the last, to drain it dry, no meat left clinging to the bone: no, no! Listen! Three pairs of hands keep on, then two, then six, then sixty, and then -- ah! -- then the whole house again, and up goes the curtain once more and the light shoots like a rainbow through the eves and the unappeasable head rears up round as a cannon ball: no bowing now, no boot-licking booby tricks, let them have me as I am and so. And so. And the jaws snap, crunch, and then the foolish curtain closes down. For the last time. The last time.
'You know what it is,' Chris Kiely, the wardrobe mistress said, 'Orson's a great actor. Ah, he's massive. Did you ever see him taking his call? Such a playboy! God, he looked twice as big as life. Upon my soul. Oh yes, indeed. Such gas! Standing there as bold as brass and them lads out there in the front roaring for him, and him as stiff as a bloody robot.' (Chris has made all the robot's uniforms for our production of Karl Capek's R.U.R. [Rossum's Universal Robots] years ago and she had never forgotten it.)
So that was Orson's first night with us, and although of course it was said in Dublin that he never did anything half as good as the Duke again, it was, I think, untrue. Everything he touched took on a queer and gruesome magic, a misshapen and indescribable grace; and he himself, though no one could describe him as a clinging sentimentalist, has remained through all these years one of the loyalist men I have known, the kindest and most un-forgetting of friends; and somewhere through the turbulent vapors of his temperament there flows a broad river full of stars.