Orson Welles' Sketchbook: Transcripts
Episode 2: April 30, 1955
You may have wondered why I look so peculiar on the television. And it's partly, I must confess to you, the fact that you see my nose as it is. In most of the films that I appear in, I put on a false nose. Usually as large as I can find. And, one night in Dublin, right at the start of my career as an actor, I was playing in a play called "Mogu of the Desert," which was in blank verse, and I was playing the role of Chosroes, king of the Persians. And he had an enormous nose, like one of those, Persian miniatures that you see, I put it on, began here and ended there, beard and so on, and that's the way it looked. And in the second act I had to come out with a young lady, a very pretty young lady, and a gentleman had to attempt to assassinate me. Another gentleman, Mogu, the title role, whipped the dagger out of the would-be assassin's hand. Now on the opening night, the first night of this play, instead of whipping the dagger out of the assassin's hand he whipped the nose off my face. And I was revealed…as you see me now. 1
And of course I was very embarrassed, didn't look very Persian, so I put my hand in front of my face, and I had a long love scene to play, with the young lady, in blank verse. You can imagine how well that went down, on the first night in Dublin. "You are as beautiful as the desert," and I don't know what all, finally, I had to say a line, at the end of the scene, at the climactic point, I had to say to Mogu, "Had you not brought me into the temple at the time you did, Lord Mogu, I might have lost my throne." And instead of which I said, [puts hand in front of face] "Had you not brought me into the temple at the time you did Lord Mogu, I might have lost my nose." [removes hand] At which point everyone burst into derisive laughter, and the curtain slowly fell. [chuckles] That of course is a first night I'll never forget.
Speaking of first nights, I suppose the worst thing about any first night are the critics. For us, a critic at a first night is rather like a fairy godmother at a christening. For my point of view, it would be so much nicer if critics would only come on last nights. And then they could exercise their undoubted flair for funeral orations. I remember one first night, in Boston it was, Henry V, we were doing the show on a revolving stage, that is a turntable, big circular stage that turns, and when it came to the great moment of the charge, "I see you stand like greyhounds at the slips," and so on, I had devised a plan which involved real bows and real arrows. This was, uh, folly on my part as it later turned out, and I had a large target made of cork, just in the wings, and 40 of the English soldiery played by Harvard men, students from the University of Harvard, this was in Boston. 40 of these stalwart fellows were to shoot their arrows into the wings and into the cork target. However, the revolving stage started to turn, a little bit too soon. There I was, saying "Cry God, for Harry, England and St George," and as I said it, the turntable slowly moved so that instead of looking off stage left, we were looking straight into the audience, and 40 bows and arrows were pointed right into the theater. And I thought to myself, as I came to the tag, Well, they're university fellows, they're not going to just shoot into the audience. And so, with a certain amount of confidence, I launched into the great line, "Cry God, for Harry, England and St George," there was a tremendous roar, and I noticed with horror that the roar was from the audience, because indeed they had shot the arrows into the audience. 40 of them. We even scored a direct hit on the dean of critics. 2
Thought of the story because of what can sometimes happen to a critic on the first night. Critics really ought to be more careful. Now I hear that there are television critics, I 'd like to dedicate a little story about a critic and a show of ours to this new profession. It's a murder story. It's about a critic who didn't like our shows, name was Percy Hammond. Poor fellow. Dead now, I told you it's a murder story. The play was Macbeth, not the motion picture of Macbeth, which nobody seemed to like, but the Negro Macbeth. And in case you think this is a little too crazy to be believed, let me assure you that there was a Negro Macbeth, that is, a production with Negroes, of Macbeth, that we did in Harlem, some years ago, in a government sponsored theater, a Negro theater.
And our purpose was not as capricious and foolish as it may sound, because we were anxious to give to Negro artists who are so very talented, an opportunity to play in the sort of thing that's usually denied them. As you know, the parts that fall to Negroes are too often old mammies with bandannas and watermelon eating pickaninnies and Uncle Rastuses and so on, so we did quite a number of shows from classical repertory. We began with a Gilbert and Sullivan…Hot Mikado we called it. And encouraged by that success, we went on to Shaw and then backwards into literature, and finally dared a production of Macbeth.
Which was laid in a West Indian island suggestive of Haiti at the time of the Black Emperor, Jean Christoph, and it worked surprisingly well. Cause the actors were very good, and changing the blasted heath to the fetid jungle wasn't as ridiculous as you might think. Cause there was all that vitality on the stage and the actors were so good, and of course above all the witches, translated terribly well into witch doctors. Voodoo witch doctors. And these witch doctors were specially imported from Africa because the governments in the West Indies took the view that there was no such thing as voodoo. So we had to go all the way to the Gold Coast and import a troop. And they were quite a troop, headed by a fellow who name was Asodata Da Foru. [see sketch below]
The only other member of the coven who had any English was a dwarf with gold teeth by the name of Jazzbo. At least we called him Jazzbo up in Harlem, I don't know what his African name was. He had a diamond in each one of those gold teeth. He was quite a character. Fairly terrifying. The other members of the troop not only spoke no English, but didn't seem to want to speak at all. They confined their communications to drumming. I suppose that in the entire history of Shakespeare in the theater, there has never been a request on the first day of rehearsal for twelve live goats. Part of the cast, we said "What?" and Asadota said [heavy accent] "Goats. Black goats. For make devil drums." Well, we couldn't just go out and look for twelve live goats, we had to requisition them, this being a government project. We had to file the requisitions in triplicate, you can imagine what went on in Washington, when they heard about that, but the goats were finally provided. The sacrificial knives were sharpened. And with the accompaniment of wild shrieks from the voodoo priests, the poor beasts were sacrificed. You can imagine the effect it had in the community of Harlem. When the whole of the Lafayette Theater was reeking suggestively with the odor of blood.
Finally the drums were ready, and the drumming began, the legend grew backstage, and indeed all over the community of Harlem, that to touch the drums, was to die. And indeed, one poor stagehand did touch a drum and did fall from a high place and break his neck. And after that, Asadota and his rhythm boys were treated with a little respect.
And then we opened, with Macbeth, and the drummers were fine, and the voodoo sequences, that is the witch scenes, went very well indeed, and everybody seemed to like the show, critics were very kind to us, except…for Mr. Percy Hammond. Was a very good critic. And, I don't want to speak disrespectfully of the dead, but he did write a notice in which he said that Negroes should never be allowed to play anything except Negro subjects. Which went down of course very badly, in Harlem, and was taken to be an unfair attack on the Negro race. And, at the height of discussion on the subject, I was approached by Jazzbo, who said to me, [heavy accent] "This critic bad man." And I said, [offhandedly] "Yes, he's a bad man." [Jazzbo] "You want we make beri-beri on this bad man?" All this dialogue's very much like the native bearers in Tarzan and so on, I apologize for it, but it's really what went on. I said, "Yes, go right ahead and make all the beri-beri you want to." He said "We start drums now." I said, "You go ahead and the start the drums, just be ready for the show tonight." He said "Drums begin now. He die--23 hours from now." Drumming began, fine, show went on, I went home. Woke up next morning, proceeded on ordinary course of work, and bought the afternoon paper to discover that Mr. Percy Hammond for unknown causes, had dropped dead in his apartment. I know this story is a little hard to believe, (slight chuckle) but it is circumstantially true. And I thought it might be interesting, some of our critics, to hear what can happen. 3
Now this is another voodoo witch doctor [see sketch], I don't know the name, he's a Brazilian. I ran into him in Brazil, in Rio de Janiero, a few years ago. I'll tell you the story, but before I do, I want to assure you that I don't advocate voodoo, I don't even believe in it. And that last story about the critic, well, he died, we all do die, and I'm sure that Percy Hammond, who had a wonderful sense of humor, would like to know that the story of his passing has been woven into a Broadway legend.
In the case of Brazil, we were down there making a documentary film, partly for the government, but mostly for a Hollywood studio, this was at the time of the Good Neighbor Policy and it was my task to make a large, Technicolor documentary on the subject of the carnival. And so we took up the whole question of samba, and the samba orchestra, and when I'd nearly finished the film, it occurred to me that the origins of samba lay in voodoo ceremonies, particularly in shangu (?) which are practiced up in the favelas, those strange native settlements on the mountains which are right the midst of the city of Rio. And so I arranged with a good deal of difficulty to film a voodoo ceremony. And, we had protracted conversations with the head of the group, this doctor whose sketch I've shown you, and an advanced payment was arranged for, and he came to my office in Rio to discuss it.
And it was my unhappy lot to have to tell him that the filming was off because I had just received word, from Hollywood, that the president of the film studio had been removed, (that sort of thing happens not only in South American governments, but also in film studios [chuckling]) had been rather abruptly removed, a new president was in his place, and the entire project was off, there was no more money to spend on voodoo ceremonies.
And the witch doctor assured me that this was deeply offensive, and that he and his group took it very badly, and I said I was most sorry about it myself, and I did want to finish the film, I did hope he understood. Ah, but he said, we have spent money. We have bought entirely new costumes. And I said, well I'm awfully sorry, but there just isn't any money from Hollywood to pay you. And I don't know how I can explain to this new administration that the voodoo ceremony must continue. Certainly not in the time already agreed on. And I was called away to the telephone again, and left the doctor in my office. Had a long conversation on the phone, begging and pleading to be allowed to finish this picture, which we rather liked, the material was very interesting, and I thought it would be good thing to finish, since so much effort had gone into it, and I was pleading my cause for some time, praying that we would be able to, and I came back to the office to find that the doctor had gone, having been told that the deal was completely off, and on my desk…in a script of the film…was a long steel needle. It had been driven entirely through the script. And to the needle was attached a length of red wool. This was the mark of the voodoo. And the end of that story is that it was the end of the film. We were never allowed to finish it. There are things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamed of in your philosophy…
1 : Mogu, by Padraic Colum, was the fourth play Welles acted in during his days in Dublin at the Gate Theater.
2: Welles is describing Five Kings, in which he played Falstaff, not King Henry V, who was instead played by Burgess Meredith.
3: Percy Hammond, did indeed, die shortly after his bad review of Macbeth, but it was in fact several days later, after a brief illness. Welles has no doubt shortened the time span for effect.