Orson Welles on KING LEAR
One of Orson Welles last Shakepearian projects was his planned screen adaptation of King Lear. As usual, Welles wrote a complete script, made many sketches for the project and even shot a short film detailing his approach to the subject. Here are some of Welles fascinating comments about what he planned to do with his version of King Lear.
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A proposed film
The tentative interest by Welles about making a film of King Lear subsequently grew into a full-fledged project in the 1980s, which Welles wanted to shoot in black-and-white and chiefly in close-ups, with himself as Lear, Oja Kodar as Cordelia, and magician Abb Dickson (or, at an earlier stage, Mickey Rooney) as the Fool. Welles taped a six-minute proposal for prospective producers in the living room of his home in Hollywood, explaining directly to the camera how he wanted to adapt the play, which is quoted in full below (the punctuation and paragraphing are my own). It's worth bearing in mind that the apparent flippancy of Welles' throwaway remark in the interview about filming another Shakespeare play ("The truth is, I'm more interested these days in ... well, in these days") actually points to a renewed interest in the present, probably stimulated by his current work on The Other Side of the Wind, which his Lear film, to judge from his proposal, would undoubtedly have reflected.
ORSON WELLES: King Lear is Shakespeare's masterpiece and, stripped of its classical or stage trappings, it's as strong now and as simple and as timeless as any story ever told. And what is simple for the story of King Learwhat is truly importantis not that the tragic hero is an old king, but that he's an old man. Just such an amiable, egocentric family tyrant as holds sway in the domestic scene even nowadays. Of course, we've been so famously liberated from the spice of the forbidden that nothing can be counted as truly obscene. But there is one exception: death.
"Death" is our only dirty word. And King Lear is about death and the approach of death, and about power and the loss of power, and about love. In our consumer society we are encouraged to forget that we will ever die, and old age can be postponed by the right face cream. And when it finally does come, we're encouraged to look forward to a long and lovely sunset.
"Old age," said Charles de Gaulle, "old age is a ship wreck"and he knew whereof he spoke. The elderly are even more self-regarding than the young. To their dependents the elderly call out for love, for more love than they can possibly receive, and for more than they are likelyor capableof giving back. When old age tempts or forces a man to give away the very source of his ascendancy over the younghis powerit's they, the young, who are the tyrants, and he, who was all-powerful, becomes a pensioner.
Of all the aches of the elderly, the loss of power is the most terrible to bear. The strong old man, the leader of the tribethe city, the church, the state, the political party, or corporationdemands love as a tyrant demands tribute; and, bereft of power, he must, like Lear, plead for it like a beggar. When, by self-abdication or forced retirement, such a one is suddenly deprived of his own life-sustaining tyranny, he can only flounder to the grave, struggling vainly to exact from those who have been the subjects of his whim some portion of that suffocating pity he now feels for himself. Impotent, from side to side he swings like the clapper in a bell, ringing soundlessly. He is then a castaway, banished to the desert island of his loneliness, cast out indeed from his own personal identity. "Who is it?" cries the old King Lear. "Who is it that can tell me who I am?" He has given up not only his crown; he has given up himself.
Well, you must forgive me if I've been telling you what our film will be about. To tell you what it'll be like won't be so easy. I can't really describe something which just at the moment is only in my mind. Even with a movie already on the screen, words don't get us very far. What I can tell you, though, is what this movie will not be. In any sense of the word, it will not be what is called a "costume movie."
That doesn't mean that the characters are going to wear blue jeans; it does mean that a story so sharply modern in its relevancy, so universal in its simple, rock-bottom humanity, will not be burdened with the timeworn baggage of theatrical tradition. It will be just as free from the various forms of cinematic rhetoricmy own as well as the otherswhich have already accumulated in the history of these translations of Shakespeare into film. What we'll be giving you, then, is something new: Shakespeare addressed directly and uniquely to the sensibility of our own particular day.
The camera language will be intimate, extremely intimate, rather than grandiose. The tone will be at once epic in its stark simplicity and almost ferociously down-to-earth. In a word, not only a new kind of Shakespeare, but a new kind of film. I intend to keep the promise, and there's some basis for some optimism in the fact that I've invested so much time and energy and love in its preparation. Most importantly, the material from which this project will be realized is quite simply the greatest drama ever written.
Please forgive my outrageous lack of modesty, and thank you for giving me so much of your kind attention.
As always, I remain your obedient servant,
Orson Welles Interview on KING LEAR
By Bill Krohn
BILL KROHN: Can you tell us about your plans to do King Lear as a film?
ORSON WELLES: I don't want to go into it at length, because the more I talk about a picture before I make it, the more I steal from it. But the idea is that it's going to be done for the small screen, but not as a TV movie. It's cassettes as much as small screens, but it will work in a big theatre. It's going to be a very intimate, interior version of the tragedy, rather than an operatic one.
BILL KROHN: That's interesting, because it's often referred to as a closet drama.
ORSON WELLES: I've done King Lear four times now in various forms, and you always think you have to be louder than the storm. This will be just the opposite. And very much more a study of old age than I've ever done it before.
BILL KROHN: It's often called an "un-performable play".
ORSON WELLES: I know, and that's nonsense, I've seen it work very well, and I think it worked very well for me once. I saw it marvelously done once, by quite a bad actor.
BILL KROHN: Who was that?
ORSON WELLES: Fritz Weaver.
BILL KROHN: You're kidding.
ORSON WELLES: And he did it without any idea of directorial line or anything. They simply spoke the words out loud and clear and it thrilled me to my bones.
BILL KROHN: And without any idea that they were performing an un-performable play?
ORSON WELLES: That's right! It never crossed their minds that it was King Lear that night. I think that's what we must erase from our minds, that it's un-performable.
BILL KROHN: And all the ideas of the orthodox Shakespeareans.
ORSON WELLES: Yes, the orthodox Shakespeareans and teachers more than anybody else. Actors don't fail in it as regularly as they do in Macbeth, you know; but they fail in it. One of the great problems of course is that it's not a star part like Hamlet is. It requires five star actors. There's just no way of having a supporting cast. There are tremendous parts in it, you know. They have to be played not just well, they have to be played marvelously. It will be very intimate without a tiny piece of detail, absolutely without any detail whatever. In other words it will be more bare than an Elizabethan production, because you would have seen the Globe Theater behind (in a Elizabethan staging). I'm very fond of silhouettes I've always been mad about them. So it's on a small screen and a lot of the mise-en-scene will have the people that don't count in silhouette, And no scenery at all. That doesn't mean a TV soundstage with a spotlight on somebody, either. It's a little hard to explain: An intimate, domestic tragedy, rather than an epic. The epic quality has to be in its poetry and in the minds of the audience; it's the only way to reach people today with that play. I don't think people have the ear or the taste for the operatic approach to it.
BILL KROHN: That's interesting, because we happen to be in a time of incredible spectacles in film, and I was wondering...
ORSON WELLES: Yes, and this will be the anti-spectacle. Much more severe than anything I've ever done before. It will just be the actors, and that's all, absolutely all.
GARY GRAVER on KING LEAR
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Did you do any shooting on Orson Welles' proposed version of King Lear?
GARY GRAVER: Yes, we shot some silent tests for King Lear, with Orson as Lear, which was going to be made with backing from the French ministry of culture, but they reneged on their agreement. Orson was planning to shoot all the close-ups of the actors in King Lear on videotape, so he could do many, many takes. All the wide shots, the big massive scenes, and all the pageantry would be done in 35mm black & white. We did tests on three-quarter inch color videotape, and transferred it to 35mm black and white, and it came out gorgeous. We just used two lights for the close-ups, and Image Transfer over here on Lankershim Blvd. thought it was the best tape to film transfer that they'd ever seen. But for some reason, we never picked up that footage, so the lab just kept it. I remember after we had watched it, Orson said, "okay, lets go Gary," and we left, and I didn't take it with me. That was in the early eighties, and the lab has long since gone out of business. It wasn't very long, only about five or six minutes. It was just Orson playing Lear, but back in those days, videotape was only in color, so they printed it for us on 35mm black and white film. Now, all that I have left from King Lear are some stills from that test. A few of those stills are on my DVD, Working With Orson Welles.