Horse Eats Hat
|September 26-December 5, 1936 (Maxine Elliot Theatre, New York|
|Director/Co-Adaptor: Orson Welles|
|Co-Adaptor: Edwin Denby|
|Music: Paul Bowles|
|Setting/Costumes: Nat Karson|
|Lighting: Abe Feder|
|Producer: John Houseman|
|Joseph Cotten: Freddy|
|Edgerton Paul/Orson Welles: Mugglethorp|
|Virginia Welles: Myrtle Mugglethorp|
|Arlene Francis: Tillie|
|Dana Stevens: Queeper|
|Donald McMillian: Uncle Adophe|
|Hiram Sherman: Bobbin|
|Bil Baird: Augustus|
|Sarah Burton: The Countess|
|Henriette Kaye: Daisy|
|Paula Laurence: Agatha Entwistle|
|Sidney Smith: Grimshot|
After the splash of the "voodoo" Macbeth, John Houseman asked Hallie Flanagan, head of the Federal Theater Project, if he and Welles could establish a Classical Project to allow the two to put on a repertory of great plays in modern productions. Project 891, as it was known, began with an adaptation of the French farce Un chapeau de paille d'Italie by Eugene Labiche and Marc-Michel, hardly the first choice that would spring to mind when beginning a theater company.
Virgil Thomson not only suggested the play, but also suggested Edwin Denby as the adaptor, and Paul Bowles as composer. Denby, a poet, dancer, choreographer, and critic who had just returned from France, immediately began preparing a translation, but for Welles it was too close to the original. The two men then worked on revisions that eventually left only the original setting of Paris standing. What the two had crafted was a raucous, occasionally racy, but always chaotic farce. Only moderately successful with critics, Welles had hoped the production would make his artistic growth more visible, considering the difficulty in mounting a successful farce.
Welles' theatrical career is known for its powerful and engaging stagecraft, and Horse Eats Hat took this to the limit; Welles made the actors, props, and scenery fully engage with the audience, who were not to forget that they were watching a play. Actors would speak to the audience and make purposefully wrong entrances, scenery would crash down at inopportune times, props would malfunction, and even the intermission became an opportunity to keep the action going, as Welles employed distractions then as well.
Named Horse Eats Hat in order to distance it from the film version made in the 1920s by Rene Clair, as well as to make a point of it being a new production, Welles made sure to point out that the content of the play was not indicative of the government's views, and that it had been studied in schools since its debut, thus giving the play some academic cachet as well. Those attempts to cover the play didn't work, as several critics lambasted Welles and Denby for the perceived excessive crudity of the action. Illinois Senator Everett Dirksen's wife viewed the play, and complained to her husband, who publicly labelled it "salacious tripe," which certainly wasn't going to hurt the box office.
Representatives from the government also viewed the play, and handed in a list of 30 items that they felt required changes, ranging from offenses such as a hand being placed on a woman's leg to the removal/alteration of the line "it's nice to see a pretty little pussy," but whether the changes were actually undertaken is another matter. Welles had intended the play to be racy and shocking, feeling that audiences, kept from seeing any number of "salacious" things onscreen by the motion picture code, would lap up some of the same forbidden fruit if it were presented onstage.
The play ran for just over two months before closing, and for the final performance, only audience members who had seen the play at least twice were admitted. From there, it was on to Doctor Faustus.
Sources: The Theater of Orson Welles (France); Road to Xanadu (Callow); Citizen Welles (Brady)