Micheal MacLiammmoir on Orson Welles and ‘Hamlet’ in Woodstock, Illinois
September 4 The Chicago Tribune reported about "The Historic dorm for boys at the Todd school attended by Orson Welles, in Woodstock that faces demolition."
Going back nearly 75 years to the summer of 1934, we find that the Chicago Tribune was also reporting on Welles and the Todd School. They were there - to quote Mr. Bernstein - "before the beginning." Charles Collins, the Tribune's astute drama critic, wrote about the upcoming "First ever summer drama colony in Chicagoland."
Below is Charles Collins' report on the Todd Summer theater festival of 1934, followed by a long and fascinating excerpt from the noted Irish stage actor Micheal MacLiammmoir's autobiography, ALL FOR HECUBA. Mr. MacLiammoir starred in a memorable production of HAMLET on the stage of the Woodstock Opera House in 1934, directed by his longtime partner Hilton Edwards, in which Welles played King Claudius.
What I find especially interesting, is that both Mr. MacLiammmoir and Hilton Edwards were instrumental in starting Welles on his path as an actor when they first hired him to appear at their Gate Theater in Dublin. Then they remained, like Roger Hill, among Welles closest lifelong friends, providing the perfect bookend to the last act of Welles career, when they appeared to reminisce with him about the making of OTHELLO - for what would turn out to be Welles's last completed movie - FILMING OTHELLO. Sadly Welles's final "essay" film had it's world premiere at the Berlin Film Festival in 1978, shortly after Micheal MacLiammoir had passed away.
Like a wax flower under a bell of glass, in the paisley and gingham country of McHenry is Woodstock, grand capital of Victorianism in the Mid-West. Towering over a Square full of Civil War monuments, a bandstand and a spring house is the edifice in the picture. This very rustic and rusticated thing is a municipal office building, a public library, a fire department and, what is more to our purpose, an honest-to-horsehair Opera House.
--Orson Welles (with an assist from Thornton Wilder)
Publicity for the Todd Summer Theater program, held in Woodstock, Illinois
SUMMER DRAMA COMES TO LIFE IN WOODSTOCK FESTIVAL
Drama Festival in the Hinterland
By Charles Collins – The Chicago Tribune - July, 1934
Next Thursday night will bring a curious adventure to the dauntless few who follow the chase of the disappearing drama. The trail will talk us to the town of Woodstock in McHenry county, where a picturesque old opera house in the civil war style of architecture will become the headquarters of Chicagoland’s first summer drama colony.
There is an air of fantasy about this outcropping of the theatrical arts on the sun baked prairies of northern Illinois. It represents, chiefly, the conjurations of a 20 year old lad who appears to be a striking specimen of adolescent genius in the drama. His name is Orson Welles, and his story has often been told; in fact, I wrote a column about him on this page last fall.
Young Welles spent the past season playing leading roles in Katharine Cornell’s repertory company on a nation-wide tour which was, in the its implications, the most important thing that happened in connection with the legitimate theater during the year. This fact is a sound guarantee of his prowess on the stage. His years may be few, but his gift for footlights is already adult.
In addition to this seeming prodigy, a native son of the Chicago area, the Woodstock drama festival (as it is called by its sponsors) contains two men of prominence on the Irish stage, leading spirits of an art theater in Dublin which within a few years has risen to challenge the position of the famous Abbey. They are Micheal MacLiammoir and Hilton Edwards; new to American playgoers, they are actors, producers and scene designers of recognized gifts and rich experience.
Chance to see a Hamlet from Dublin.
MacLiammoir is said to be a fine Hamlet; in fact, Andrew E. Malone, able historian and critic of the Irish drama and a conservative, scholarly writer, recently pronounced the MacLiammoir Hamlet as ideal. Therefore Shakespeare’s and the world’s greatest tragedy is so billed on the program of the Woodstock drama festival; and the natives of McHenry county will have an opportunity to recapture a favorite imaginative experience of their forefathers.
The first production, however, will be “Trilby,” which is also in the picture of the theater that flourished when the Woodstock opera house was in regular use. Welles, who is adept in eccentric character and loves to drape his youthful face with beards, will be the Svengali. Louise Prussing, an accomplished actress of Chicago social background and wide experience in New York productions, will have the title role. Her last appearance on the Chicago stage was in a principal role in the brilliant cast of “Berkeley Square”
He Woodstock opera house is a reasonable objective for an evening’s motor car expedition. Performances will be given on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights for the next six weeks.
MICHEAL MacLIAMMOIR ON WOODSTOCK, ILLINOIS
from Michaeal MacLiammoir's ALL FOR HECUBA: An Irish Theatrical Autobiography (London, Methuen. 1946).
'Like a Victorian posy under a bell of glass' was how Orson had described Woodstock, Illinois, where the plays were to be given. To us it looked like any short screen comedy, new and glistening with white wooden houses and open lawns and barbecues and druggists and a procession of icemen and plumbers who always seemed on the brink of calamitous comedy. The Todd School, where Orson's education had been undertaken by Skipper Hill, Hortense, his wife, and a series of masters, was where we lived. Hilton and I were given a white cottage to ourselves and stayed happily there, sleeping on the porch through all those weeks of successive heat waves, and eating in the main schoolhouse; the company was a mingled assembly of professionals and students, all of them friendly and delightful, and rehearsals began. And that was where our early days together on the McMaster tour came back and hit us in the eye, for the play that Orson had chosen to open with was Trilby. I slipped with a sense of inevitability, against which it was useless to protest, into my old part of Little Billee, and Hilton, Orson decided, fixing him with a large brown eye, would be Taffy. So the conversation was almost the same as with Mac on the same subject in Enniscorthy seven years before.
'But look here, Orson, I can't! Why, damn it all, I ought to be six foot four and I'm five ten.’
'Never mind that, you're right for the part, you'll be swell!'
'But I say-look here, couldn't we juggle it round a bit? I'll even play Gecko. Let me play Gecko!’
Orson was eating pie a la mode; his eyes rolled thoughtfully to the ceiling.
' I think you'll be fine as Taffy.'
'But God in heaven, what shall I look like in Piccadilly weepers?’
'I don’t know-what are they?’
'Well, if you don't know, I shan't wear them.’
'You'll play it beautifully no matter what you wear.'
So Hilton played Taffy again and Orson, as well as playing Svengali, directed the production which was disappointingly vague and indefinite, but that was because, in spite of the swelling jungle, he had not yet found his true métier, which was a preoccupation with restless grandeur and intoxication, a view of life wholly American, welling up from the soil of that huge territory which had given him birth: he could know nothing of that period of love, of intimacy, of Paris; even his fakes were on the titanic scale, his Svengali lacked grace and humor, he was a lowering barbarian. But in the two succeeding productions which he put into Hilton's hands he was superb: his Count Pahlen in Merejkowski's Tsar Paul kept all the essentials of the part and extended the limitations of its framework, and his King in Hamlet was outrageously exciting. Had he kept control and given the performance he promised during rehearsal it would have been the finest Claudius I have seen but Orson in those days was a victim of stage intoxication: the presence of an audience caused him to lose his head; his horses panicked, and one was left with the impression of a man in the acute stages of delirium tremens.
Our Sybil had been right. One learned nothing of importance about the theatre at Woodstock; nothing from the new contacts or the charming and receptive middle-west audience; no fresh inspiration had come out of the stifling gold of the air. The experiment was successful; the Chicago critics had approved of us, we were flattered and pursued, and as is usual in America, whatever we did was chronicled. One night in the theatre I lost my braces and sent the man who helped me to dress to buy a new pair, and the incident was given headlines in the Tribune and some other papers: 'Irish Star Mislays Suspenders.’ ‘Frantic Manservant's Search in 5 & 10 Stores'. At another time in Ravinia, where we stayed with Dr. Moore and Orson's guardian, Dr. Bernstein, I dreamed, as well as I can remember, of a black dog who sat up and begged for pieces of cake, and a very beautiful woman whom I took to be Orson's mother and who said, 'I'm worried about the doctor,' and who then went on to speak about other things of which I had known nothing before! And when I told my dream at luncheon I was informed that all was correct, and next day the papers said, 'MacLiammoir dreams the truth: no wonder the Irish believe in fairies,' which seemed cryptic enough. But all this sort of thing passed the time pleasantly and I fell to wondering how our Irish newspapers, so full of abstract speculations and of priestly utterances on such weighty matters as mixed bathing and foreign dances, would have poured scorn on the idea of giving space to such small beer, and to realizing what a country this America was if one wished to be exhibited to the public, as an actor should, in a series of trivial and remarkable poses.
Chicago was seventy miles away but one thought nothing of driving there to spend an evening at the World's Fair or to dine and go to a show during the free time between our fortnightly runs. I close my eyes and I am back again with Louise Prussing and the others, riding swiftly through the burning afternoon towards the big city along nameless numbered roads straight as a fishing rod and Hilton is saying: 'Discontented with the theatre, discontented with acting especially, a coarse, limited medium, but what else can I do? I wish to God I could create. Production! Acting! I'm discontented, discontented.’
And Orson replies, 'Sure, it's coarse. Sure it's limited. It's good enough for me.’
And then for no reason they be-in to wrangle about Diaghileff, who is the most envied and admired of all Hilton's gods, and Louise, after an hour or two, says: 'They're missing all the beauty, just look at that.' And there sure enough are the towers of Chicago ahead and a russet summer moon as big as a bandbox rising slowly out of the prairie.
It was generally too hot to drink anything but orange juice, but one day Thorton Wilder appeared to stay at Woodstock for a few days and we all grew excited when, breaking through the delicate ice of his shyness, he began to talk, and highballs were ordered in an expectant proprietary manner. Presently he said that Hollywood had produced two people of genius, Garbo and Disney, and at first I was delighted with this discerning severity, but after a little I began to bum with rage that Chaplin had not completed the trinity, and then there seemed nothing to do but drink. One highball was enough to make me less acute, less painful to myself, and after a few more I thought: It is the sense of losing one's identity that makes intoxication so irresistible. Nothing is so restful to the ego as the suggestion that it may suddenly have ceased to exist.
I had not been long in America before I discovered why Washington was incapable of telling a lie. It is impossible to lie in or about America: everything there is fantastically true. Orson had told me of a woman from Kansas who had traveled; she said, five hundred miles to see some of Whistler's pictures because she was so fond of his portrait of Hitler's mother. I doubted him until one night a student of the theatre told me he wanted to take a course in production as he had been studying acting and had finished that up last week.'
Youthful Americans were always telling each other to relax, though no one seemed to take the advice, and I supposed that by relaxation they meant a slackening of the muscles and the will. But one night I saw a very old woman half-asleep at some Chicago concert, and I understood that as we grow in years to relax means often a tightening up of all the physical being, the hands clenched like yellow claws, the eyes and mouth screwed taut like a monkey's in the growing intensity of the search for eternity.
We were at a picture theatre on Michigan Avenue one night when we heard shots outside, and after a little wondering what they meant forgot about them. It was only when we left that we saw some smartly dressed women crying and were told that the body of Dillinger the gunman had been riddled with bullets.
In the languid icy rooms of the big hotels with their synthetic reminders of Pompeii or Japan the people looked half-asleep. It was in the mean streets one saw faces that were either dead or burning with urgent life. Poverty is only sacred because it makes a man conscious of all things. Riches dull the senses: poverty, when it does not utterly destroy, sharpens them.
We had found that Hilton's popularity in Tzar Paul outweighed Orson's in Trilby and my own in Hamlet. Yet he was in constant despair about life and cared little for acting in comparison to the arts that were beyond his reach. With all his full-blooded laughter, his passion for whole-heartedness, for absorption, for perfect precision, his nature is vacillating, fitful, and melancholy, like a nineteenth-century Russian. On those nights when he is not playing there descends on him as twilight falls an agony of restless unhappiness that he declares has nothing to do with the impulse to act. It is a neurosis I cannot remedy or share, growing as it does from some dark region of his mind that I have never discovered.
With me, when I am not working, it is different. I have merely the actor's inevitable nightmare of nostalgia as the light fades from the sky and there is no part to play, no drafty corridor to pass through, no stuffy burnished dressing-room to hide in until all is ready and the butterfly emerges from the chrysalis. Are we not all alike in this? When night has come we realize that life away from the theatre is like an uncooked vegetable-the smell of earth is there and all is well, but we cannot eat. How could we digest this crude and wholesome root unaided, we who have known it in so many succulent disguises? And is this really life, we wonder, this raw, unshapely mass, begrimed and seamed with wrinkles, all battered and stale and crowned with bitter leaves? This senseless chatter in the lounge, these businessmen, these tedious parties when the smile is glued to the lips, this appalling lack of production? No, no: away with the foul thing: the banquet of life begins for us when the half-hour is called and the face of which we have grown so tired is transformed under the steady lights, the powder-blurred reflections, the mysterious alchemical mirror, the race-horse champing in the stable among the faded flowers, the telegrams pinned to the curtains, the finery hanging against the calls. Quarter of an hour, please ...give me those tights, quick ...that's right; now the cloak, the wand, the mask... overture and beginners please. God! Hurry, hurry and one last look and thanks! Curtain up please? Curtain up please!
All else is kitchen work.
And so I told him at various intervals sitting on the roof-gardens of every club in Chicago with the inferno deluxe of white and emerald and scarlet and kingfisher-blue floodlit foreshortened oblongs far below us, and Orson thought so too. But Hilton said no, it was just bloody awful, and admittedly work could drug it to a stupor, but it was deeper than that, probably Freud or liver or reincarnation, and why waste the summer night?
Speeding homewards through the dark we would notice that while in Europe one came in the country upon little towns where there were no conveniences, in America one came upon conveniences and no little towns. Every few miles there would be a gas station, a dance hall, a restaurant, a bar, a beauty parlor, and a we. And there would be a blaze of light, a radio playing dance music, and a tired face that said, 'Hello, folks, what's it going to be? Highball, Old Fashioned, Gin Sling? Want to eat? Want to dance? Want to fix yourselves up?
And round him for miles and miles the ravenous parching lands of the Indian peoples.
Vivian Butler-Burke (one of the backers of the Gate Theater), turned up for Hamlet and departed full of ecstasies and warnings that she had not done with us. No: her People our People-were waiting for us. Taos, Santa Fe, and Mesa Verde, were waiting for us, and the Painted Desert and the sacred Kivas and all the rest of it. And she wasn't going to stay hanging around in Woodstock where she wasn't wanted, neither would Chicago hold her for long. Chicago meant death. It had always meant death. All that slaughter of those unfortunate animals. Chicago was evil. It would kill her one-day if she let it. She knew all about Chicago. So now Hamlet was over we'd best get through quickly with this trivial summer season and join her among her People. They were waiting for us all. Perhaps even for Hilton. Quijn sabia-quijn podria saber? (A wise person to know?) As the Spanish might have said but seldom did. (Spaniards were rigidly conventional in the matter of tense in their proverbs). Anyway we would all go. It just wasn't any good trying to escape. We trembled, caught in the Sybil’s net. She had never been, known to fail.
The heat is so great that we have rehearsed all the time in our bathing-suits, and in every wait. I and Blackie O'Neill, who plays Horatio, walk together through the dazzling gardens to the swimming pool and spend our time in the light-green water or under the cold
She died there in 1937, on her way back to Santa Fe.