ORSON WELLES writes the introduction to EVERYBODY’S SHAKESPEARE in the North Atlantic
Shortly before his 18th birthday, in the spring of 1933, Orson Welles booked second class passage on a tramp steamer, The Exermont bound for Morocco, where Welles would stay as the guest of the Arab Sheik, Thami el-Glaoui in the Atlas mountains surrounding Tangier.
While onboard ship, Welles worked on his introduction for the books on Shakespeare he was preparing with Roger Hill for the Todd Press. One of the letters Welles wrote to Roger Hill contains a rare example of Welles poetry.
It's also interesting to imagine Welles long sea voyage by comparing it, as Welles does, to Eugene O' Neill, as well as to an early RKO movie featuring a sea voyage on a tramp steamer that had just opened in New York, King Kong.
At sea, aboard the “Exermont”
To Roger Hill:
You'll find grotesqueries in my stage directions, repetitions and misfirings. You'll have to do a clean-up job. I'll be relieved when I can get this off in the mails. The mere presence of Shakespeare's script worries me. What right have I to give credulous and believing innocents an inflection for his mighty lines? Who am I to say that this one is "tender" and this one is said "angrily" and this "with a smile"? There are as many interpretations for characters in CAESAR as there are in God's spacious firmament. What nerve I have to pick out one of them and cram it down any child's throat, coloring, perhaps permanently, his whole conception of the play? I wish to high heaven you were here to reassure me.
Mainly I just wish you were here. You'd love it! Everyone from the captain down is a real character and I can't tell you how out-on-the-ocean it seems in a tiny freighter wallowing in the wild Atlantic. Here's a crossing that's rare fun chasing the plates and cups around the mess and trying to keep chair and self within the shifting scene of the table. I tried to put some of it into verse:
Days now numberless it seems to me
We've lolled and wallowed in a lusty sea.
Time is a thing that used to be.
The order and ascent of days is nothing now
A March-blown ocean mauls our plunging prow,
An acreage hysterical for us to plow
Crash in the galley. Crashes are constant now
Shiver the empty "Exermont" from screw to prow.
Time is a thing that used to be.
The order and ascent of days is nothing now.
Today for the first time it is fairly calm. There is only one other passenger beside myself. The radio won't work which is another blessing. It's all very Eugene O'Neill and salty. Quite the crossing of my experience.
ON STAGING SHAKESPEARE AND ON SHAKESPEARE'S STAGE
By Orson Welles
Director of the Mercury Theater
Shakespeare said everything. Brain to belly; every mood and minute of a man's season. His language is starlight and fireflies and the sun and moon. He wrote it with tears and blood and beer, and his words march like heartbeats. He speaks to everyone and we all claim him but it's wise to remember, if we would really appreciate him, that he doesn't properly belong to us but to another world; a florid and entirely remarkable world that smelled assertively of columbine and gun powder and printer's ink, and was vigorously dominated by Elisabeth.
Shakespeare speaks everybody's language, but with an Elizabethan accent. When he came squawking and red faced into it, England could carry a tune and was learning to talk. It was a kid of a country, waking up noisily and too suddenly into adolescence and bounding blithely into the sunny, early morning of modern times.
About sixty years earlier, Columbus had bumped into a couple of new continents and the Conquistadors were busy opening them up and exploiting them. Down in Italy things had been happening. Men had taken the hoods of the dusty, dusky old Middle Ages off their heads and had begun to look around. Questions were being asked; books were being written instead of copied; people had stopped taking Aristotle's word for it and were nosing about the world, taking it apart to see what made it run. All kinds of old established convictions were being questioned and money in huge sums was being made. By the time Shakespeare was a butcher's boy in Stratford, all of this bustle and uncertainty and excitement had gotten across the channel and into the moist English air. An extraordinary woman was in charge and she was gathering about her throne still more extraordinary men. England was getting up on its hind legs.
The touring companies of actors that came to Stratford still played rusty things that smacked of the old Moralities and the Miracle plays, but down in London real shows were being put on in place of masques and roustabouts and these plays were about real people instead of virtues and vices and other symbolic figures that never actually lived. By the time Shakespeare was married and teaching school, the Theatre, already the most complete expression of the times, was well started on a golden age. Peele and Greene and Lodge and Nash were turning out smash-hits. Kyd was busy with blood-and-thunder shockers like The Spanish Tragedy. Lyly was discovering that good plays could be written in prose and Marlowe was making dramatic poetry worth writing. The Theatre, along with a lot of other high doings, was in the air. So Shakespeare kissed his wife goodbye and went to London.
London and the wide world are very lucky that he did. It was almost as though America was discovered, Elizabeth made Queen, and pirates and poets and other valorous people congregated in one age just so the young schoolteacher would come to London and we could have William Shakespeare.
To know something about Shakespeare we must know something about that England in which he was born; still more important we must know something of that peculiarly pure theatre he found in London and for which he wrote. It was neither new nor clumsy. It was not a rude thing but rather, like the classic theatres and the theatres of high convention in China and Japan, a refinement. England's stage came out of the church when the actors got too entertaining. It lingered for a couple of hundred years in front of it in the marketplace and then moved into the inn yard where it stayed until it got over being a holiday treat and became an institution and they built the first theatre. This was simply an inn yard fixed up for a play but without the inn. The stage platform was made permanent with a roof over it to protect the actors but the rabblement still had to stand around this platform in the rain or sun. An inner stage with a curtain and a level above it like a gallery was added inside. Benches were built in the spectators' galleries where you sat if you had money and in veils if you were a lady, and there, with only slight elaboration over its daddy, the hotel courtyard, was the Elizabethan playhouse.