Richard France’s Introduction to his play, OBEDIENTLY YOURS, ORSON WELLES
Richard Frances's play Obediently Yours, Orson Welles was published by Oberon Books earlier this year in a volume entitled Hollywood Legends: 'Live' on stage.
Besides the Welles show, it features two additional plays, one on Marlene Dietrich, the other about James Dean, along with an introduction by Simon Callow. Dr. France has graciously given his permission for Wellesnet to post his preface to the play here. In addition, Glenn Anders has alerted us to an audio interview with Richard France you can listen to Here. It includes comments about Richard France's two books on Welles, The Theatre of Orson Welles (sadly, still out of print) and Orson Welles on Shakespeare.
INTRODUCTION TO OBEDIENTLY YOURS, ORSON WELLES
By Richard France
Orson Welles was rightfully contemptuous of academics, refusing all the honorary degrees that he was offered and heaping scorn on those of his “learned “bee-ographers” who dared to base our writings about his life and accomplishments on anything other than the charming fairy-tales that he had so skillfully crafted over the years.
Frankly, it’s hard to fault him on either count. These, after all, were the same fairy-tales that sustained him long after the “pigeons” (as he called potential investors) stopped returning his phone calls. And had he lived long enough to witness the birth of nano-technology, there can be no doubt that he, too, would have recognized it as the only known substance on the face of this earth smaller than the mind of an academic.
I was living on a small farm in southern Maine at the time, annotating the third and final play-script – the enormous crazy-quilt known as “Five Kings” -- for “Orson Welles on Shakespeare,” when I received an offer from the University of Southern California to spend a year as visiting associate professor with their (so-called) Theatre Division, now even more pretentiously known as its School of Theatre. “Stay put,” I was told, especially by the very few academics whom I respected. “That place is known on campus as USC’s own little gulag..”
I’d been eking out a living by doing voice-overs in Boston, a two-hour drive from my home. And while debt-free, there were no wind-falls awaiting me in Maine. So, the opportunity to triple my average income for a year, plus a $2500 stipend to pay for the visuals and to index the “Welles on Shakespeare” book, plus a subsidized apartment above the smog line in Laurel Canyon proved irresistible. I was also able to convince myself that since we’d be parting company in such short order, even the vilest and most insecure of my colleagues would realize that I was no threat to them. Silly me !
Some years earlier, the Asian-American company, East West Players, had produced “Station J,” my epic about the evacuation and internment of our Japanese population during World War Two. So, when I alerted my good friend, Mako that I’d be in Los Angeles, he invited me to return to East West as his dramaturg. In addition, a number of my voice-over clients in Boston apprised me of a recording studio in L.A. where, through a process known as phone-patching, we could continue working together.
Did I say triple my income? Mako introduced me to an L. A. agent, and I was soon recording promos and commercials for clients out there, as well. From the outset, it was agreed to that none of these outside activities were to interfere with my primary responsibility, which was to my students. Even so, I soon found myself in the cross-hairs of a particularly venomous assistant professor.
“I don’t see how Dr. France can continue doing everything he’s doing,” she hissed at one of our faculty meetings, prompting two of the deadest of the department’s dead-wood to bob their hollowed-out heads in agreement.
“Eventually, something has to suffer.”
“Such as?” I asked.
“We hope it won’t be your classes, Richard,” the older, and even dumber, of the two dead-woods chimed in.
My assurances that I would never allow that to happen, and it never did, seemed to put the matter at rest. Or so I imagined. In fact, the poison has only just begun to spread. When the time came, and my student evaluations far surpassed my “bitch noir,” she merely dismissed these results as “gender distinction,” and intensified her campaign to discredit me.
Early in the second semester, I was in my office, with the door open, when one of my graduate students, an acting major from South Africa, appeared, crying hysterically. “My mother!” she blurted out. “She’s dead!” All I could think of was trying to comfort her as I guided her to a chair. We sat across from each other, holding hands, as she revealed what happened. Not only was her mother’s death completely unexpected, by the time word of it reached my student it was too late for her to return to South Africa for the funeral.
The following week, I found myself in the provost’s office, charged with sexually harassing the student whom I had simply tried to comfort. Also present was my dean, the very person who had persuaded me to spend that year at USC, looking even more sanctimonious than usual. “What would you have done” I asked him, making no attempt to disguise my anger, “let her fall on the floor?” (He didn’t know it at the time but his days at USC were also numbered.)
Confronting one’s accuser is (supposedly) a corner-stone of American justice. It wasn’t my student, that I was sure of. But when I asked who then (as if I couldn’t guess), I was denied that information on the grounds that I might also get it into my head to harass my accuser. And given my angry reaction to the disgusting charges I was facing, both my dean and the provost considered this a real possibility.
The air of hypocrisy in that room was stultifying. The gospel of political correctness has utterly emasculated these two pitiful creatures. Since they lacked the decency to do so, I took it upon myself to identify my accuser, adding a word of warning: “You guys better hope that sick cookie isn’t eyeing your scalps, as well.”
Thereafter, every pretense of professional civility was replaced by the true and abiding ugliness of academic life. My (so-called) colleagues were instructed to limit their inter-action with me to three syllables, “good morning” or “good evening,” and only then if such an encounter was absolutely unavoidable – and I initiated it. I was also made persona non grata at that monumental waste-of-time known as faculty meetings, which my dean began holding at secret locations off-campus so that I, and another colleague he had turned on, could be excluded.
Personally, I was delighted. So too were my Boston clients, who offered to fill these extra hours away from USC with even more recording opportunities.
The sound studio in L.A. that they had directed me to also turned out to be where Welles had done so much of his final work as a voice-over performer – most notably, the dozen or so short stories that he had been commissioned to read (in English) by a Japanese entrepreneur, who then marketed them to school children in his country as a teaching tool. Welles and his little dog, Kiki, would be driven into the basement parking lot, where he would be transferred to a wheel-chair and taken upstairs to record, with Kiki lying quietly on the same table as the microphone, a bowl of fresh water nearby should he become thirsty.
Immediately on entering this facility, you are confronted by a huge blow-up of Welles in his signature black cape and matching wide-brimmed fedora, replete with a glowing endorsement of how much he has enjoyed working there. Judging solely by the appearance of the place, such high praise could be dismissed as standard Hollyweed bullshit. In the opening scene of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” Edward Albee references the famous Bette Davis quote, “What a dump!” That, certainly, was my first impression. Then, I was passed along to the sound engineer who had recorded Welles before me. He, in turn, introduced me to the machines that made up his technical wizardry and explained how Welles had come to rely on them. First and foremost was an Aphex, or voice enhancer, which his apologists continue to insist that Welles had no need of, but which one has only to hear his hoarse and labored out-takes to know better. Another one of these machines was a time compressor, which made it possible to shave enough micro-seconds off a commercial so that his readings came in exactly on time – and without distorting them in the process.
The sad irony is that Orson Welles, who is characterized by his nearly preternatural mastery of the technology of the 1930s and 40s, in radio and the movies, would find himself, towards the end of his life, so hopelessly dependent on its latest incarnations.
As soon as my obligation to USC was over and done with, I loaded up my old Mazda wagon for the long drive back to Maine. I said my good-byes to Mako and was sharing a few last moments with friends in the lobby of the Los Angeles Theatre Center when I was asked if I’d be interested in writing a one-man Orson Welles play. “Welles on Shakespeare” had just appeared and, frankly, I was “Welles-ed out.”
“How about this?” someone volunteered. “The actor’s sitting in his dressing-room getting ready to play him.”
“Well, he’ll be talking, of course.
“You’re the writer; you tell me.”
The fellow proposing this was, of course, an actor – and a good one. His suggestion, on the other hand, was more on the order of a poetic notion rather than the basis of anything that could be developed into a plot.
Other than “Tru,” I couldn’t think of a single one-character play that had held my attention from start to finish. Most often, their reliance on the notoriety of the character – be it Mark Twain or Paul Robeson or Gertrude Stein, etc. – proved no substitute for that most basic of dramatic elements. Something to anticipate. An outcome worthy of the patience (and pocket-book) of its audience. (For me, the autobiographical collages by such performance artists as Anna Deveare Smith and the late Spaulding Gray are grist for an altogether different set of conceits.)
Despite the attraction of finally writing something about Welles in his voice – “Welles on Shakespeare” and “The Theatre of Orson Welles” having been written in mine – without a viable plot, however truncated, this was not a project that I could see myself taking on.
My last stop before leaving L.A. was the recording studio where my engineer had prepared a going-away present for me: two audio cassettes made up of Welles’ out-takes and open mike conversations (which, unbeknownst to Welles, he had also recorded). On the long drive back to Maine, I played and re-played these cassettes, literally dozens of times. Even the light-hearted moments, few and far between, were painful to listen to, as the voice coming over my speakers bore very little in common with the celebrated “Voice of God” sound that we associate with him.
Yes, the work that went into my two books had left me with a wealth of material from which to flesh out the character of Orson Welles: his (and my) loathing of the academic mentality; how everyone in Hollyweed is constantly pimping for the people higher up the food chain; a passionate commitment to civil liberties that was second only to Eleanor Roosevelt (until the House Un-American Activities Committee chased him out of this country in 1947); and so forth.
When I drive long distance, especially after midnight when there is usually no traffic to speak of, I focus more on some problem that I’m trying to solve rather than the road ahead. (Think of it as a kind of mental cruise control; and, no, I’ve never had an accident – knock wood!) I knew that no matter endlessly fascinating the character of Orson Welles could become, no matter that Welles himself was (arguably) the only humanist genius that America has ever produced, I was still confronted with the all-important question of what it was that set that particular day apart from the hundreds of other days that he spent in the shabby confines of that recording studio.
Until I could answer that question, I wouldn’t have even the semblance of a plot.
Whatever else he may have been, Welles considered himself a director, first and foremost. And by May 7th, 1985, the day after his 70th and last birthday, the opportunity to direct another film had eluded him for over a dozen years. But thanks to the largesse of Steven Spielberg, who claimed to idolize Welles, this was to be the day when his long wait would finally be over.
The appalling mess that Tim Robbins made of Welles’ 1937 stage triumph, “The Cradle Will Rock,” and, most notably, the apparent glee he derived from portraying Welles himself as a drunken buffoon, took that project off the table. So, instead of films that Welles had hoped to make (such as his own version of “Cradle,” to star Spielberg’s then-wife, Amy Irving), I turned my attention to those films of his that he had yet to complete – above all, his cherished “bambino,” "Don Quixote."
The opposite of a “Eureka!” moment has to be one that leaves you feeling like a damned fool for not having realized something before you finally did. In both practical and metaphorical terms, “Don Quixote” was the ideal project to focus on and, despite their obvious differences in size, Welles enjoyed every bit the spiritual kinship with Cervantes’ scrawny knight that he did with that other (and “thrice wider”) knight with whom he is so often identified – Falstaff.
Even Welles’ boast “How they’ll miss me when I’m gone!” echoes Quixote’s prophecy in the novel: “O happy age, when my glorious deeds will be revealed to the world, deeds worthy of being engraved in bronze, sculpted in marble and painted in pictures for future generations.” Knowing this book as well as I do, I felt confident that I could identify enough significant passages to use throughout my play as asides (preferably recorded) by Welles to under-score the parallels between him and his fictional counter-part.
I spent the next several days after arriving back in Maine (safely, thank you) re-reading “Don Quixote” – and found more such passages than I could possibly have imagined.
Ten years and thirteen re-writes later, this is the Orson Welles play that is being published and/or performed from Argentina to France, from Mexico to Germany, from Spain to India (in Hindi, yet!), from Belgium to the Balkans, from Poland to Japan, and now the U. K. – most everywhere, that is, but back here.
From the well he is buried in, on the front lawn of the Ordonez hacienda in Ronda, Spain, I can imagine Welles, ever the maverick, bellowing with laughter upon hearing this news – and giving the finger to this increasingly fucked-up country of ours.
OBEDIENTLY YOURS, ORSON WELLES
A play in two acts
By Richard France
May 7th, 1985, the day after Welles’ 70th and last birthday. The setting is a dingy recording studio in Hollywood. A shell of his former self, Welles is hoping that Steven Spielberg will restore his long-faded career by under-writing the final edit of his unfinished masterpiece, “Don Quixote.” (“Il mio bambino,” as Welles called it.) While waiting for his assistant to arrive with the money, Welles does voice-overs and reminisces about his illustrious past. Finally, he learns that Spielberg has declined to help his “idol,” thus ending any chance of a come-back. Lending his once-incomparable voice to other peoples’ products, in surroundings like these, is his only future.
Orson Welles - At age 70, he is frail and moves with difficulty. Even his legendary voice has begun to deteriorate.
Mel - His brash, young recording engineer.
NOTE: When he leaves the recording studio and comes down-stage onto the Memory Set, (a magician’s table down right and an old-fashioned standing microphone down left), he is, in effect, stepping into his glorious past to become the Orson Welles of legend: vigorous, spell-binding – and in full voice.
(All is in darkness. Finally, we hear Welles' voice. Gone is much of the flawless delivery and divine rumble we associate with his once-incomparable voice. Instead, he sounds raspy and labored.)
Build… repair… replenish. That’s… what you’ll be doing… when you feed your dog … the complete nutrition… that’s packed into a can… of Laddy Boy Premium Dog Food. This is Orson Welles… and I’m like… every other dog owner. Nothing… is too good… for my little Kiki. So… when my vet… assured me… that nothing went into… Laddy Boy… that we couldn’t eat… ourselves… I decided to give it… a try. Laddy Boy… is specially formulated… for every stage in a dog’s life. Like his master… Kiki… is getting along in years. So… I put him on Laddy Boy’s… special … senior maintenance formula… for aging dogs. How’s this… for a mouth… watering … choice of selections ? Apple meat-loaf. Tamale pie. Salmon soufflé. And Kiki’s… favorite… beef and bacon balls.
(a Frank Perdue type) There’s no difference between what’s on my table and what goes into every can of my dog food.
Laddy Boy… Premium… Dog Food. Your dog will love you… all the more… for it.
(A match is struck, revealing a fat bearded old man in a monk’s habit lighting a huge cigar. He begins speaking to someone off-stage.)
My name is George. Did you know that? True, it’s only one of my names. But people become their names. George Welles?
(He shudders at the thought. Lights up slowly as he blows out the match, revealing a recording studio: a chair and table, atop which is a phone, a reading stand and microphone. Welles has a cane and a small cloth bag. He takes a puff or two on his cigar before continuing.)
Shaw’s name was also George. Can you imagine “Saint Joan” or “Heartbreak House” or “Major Barbara” or any of those other marvelous plays being written by someone named George Shaw? (scoffs) Unthinkable! For that matter, can you imagine anyone named George being a producer and director on Broadway… an actor in motion pictures and on the legitimate stage… a writer and director of movies… a commentator on radio and television… a stage designer… a novelist …a cartoonist… a magician… a violinist… a pianist…
(He turns to the audience, a mischievous smile on his face.)