King Lear was a project that interested Orson Welles for his entire career; he staged it as a schoolboy, tried to stage it three further times, once in 1937, and again in 1945 before mounting a production in 1956; he adapted it for radio in 1945, played the role in Peter Brook's 1953 televised adaptation, and was trying to mount a film version at the time of his death in 1985. Welles' 1956 theatrical production was his final American theater appearance, and it was by many accounts a total disaster, running only 21 performances while failing to help Welles establish a classical repertory company in New York, as he had envisioned doing with the Mercury Theater in the late 30s. (continued below)
|January 12-29, 1956; 21 perfs.|
|Directed by Orson Welles|
|Associate Director: Emerson Crocker|
|Costumes: Robert Fletcher|
|Stage Settings: Theodore Cooper|
|Music: Marc Blitzstein|
|Tape Recorder Score: Otto Luening & Vladimir Ussachevsky|
|Lear: Orson Welles|
|Goneril: Geraldine Fitzgerald|
|Regan: Sylvia Short|
|Cordelia: Viveca Lindfors|
|Kent: Roy Dean|
|Gloucester: Lester Rawlins|
|Edgar: Robert Fletcher|
|Edmund: John Colicos|
|Albany: Sorrell Booke|
|Lear's Fool: Alvin Epstein|
Welles as Lear
Welles was asked by Jean Dalrymple, director of the City Center of New York, to produce a play for the Center. Having turned down various offers from Dalrymple over the years prior, he agreed to work with the Center in producing Moby Dick Rehearsed and King Lear. Moby Dick's producers, Martin Gabel and Henry Margolis, balked at Welles' desire to produce the play off Broadway however, and Welles consequently refused to produce it at all. He moved on to Lear, and stated in interviews that he felt the play should be performed, despite the rarity of productions within America.
Welles' production allowed him to get back into the spotlight in the theater world, where he had been without a success, major or minor, since Native Son in 1941. Around the World in 80 Days, despite good reception from audiences and a handful of critics, had been a financial disaster, and his 1948 Macbeth functioned largely as a rehearsal for the film that followed shortly thereafter. With the glory days of the Mercury nearly 20 years behind him, Welles surely longed for a hit, both critical and financial, that would propel him back to the forefront of the theater world. Whether his heart would truly have been in it for the long run is another matter; the stories of Welles quickly losing interest in a project are legion, and he didn't have someone like John Houseman to run the business side of things, which was a vital element for someone like Welles whose business acumen was virtually nil.
Further, more stringent union rules would have forbade Welles to drill actors through the night, as he had done in the days of the Mercury and had done in London with Moby Dick. For someone whose interest in making the show a success was obvious, Welles' actions during the rehearsal time are questionable. The two most questionable actions Welles took were his own lack of rehearsal, and the complexity of the staging. Both of these made a smooth production difficult. The first was occasioned by Welles' desire to see and critique the other actors in their performances; watching the rehearsals from the seats instead of the stage, Welles could conduct the actors in a way that being with them onstage would not allow. The drawback was that his own performance as the lead suffered, since he wasn't rehearsing with the cast or the scenery.
The scenery was composed of platforms of varying heights and sizes, which could be moved throughout the performance. Welles' desire to use a minimum of lighting made safety an issue, and indeed, Welles' own sprained ankle came from falling off one of these platforms the night before the opening, requiring him to perform opening night with a cast, during which he injured his other ankle. This second injury caused Welles to cancel the second night performance and perform in a wheelchair the rest of the run.
The second night's cancellation turned what could have been a disaster into a small triumph for Welles; coming on stage, dressed in a suit and seated in a wheelchair, Welles explained his injuries to the audience and offered to perform speeches from the play and answer audience questions. Those who wished for a refund could get one; reports said that only a few hundred of the sellout crowd of nearly 2,800 took refunds. The play resumed the next night.
Reviews were largely negative, and the production struggled through 21 performances before closing. A couple cast members wondered if Welles' inuuries were faked in order to mask his own lack of preparation; Viveca Lindfors, who clashed with Welles during the production (resulting in Welles reducing their scenes together), wrote in her autobiography that at the cast farewell party, Welles, who had been coming and going in his wheelchair, got up and walked out on his own. There are reports of Welles drinking heavily during performances as well. All in all, between Welles' injuries, the middling to poor reviews, performance problems, and Welles' lack of coherence with the cast, King Lear was a disaster all around, and would mark the end of his American theatrical career. What had begun as the hopeful first step in a new era for the Mercury ended as the exact opposite.
(Information for this page came from The Theater of Orson Welles, 1946-60, an unpublished dissertation by Aleksandra Jovicevic , and Citizen Welles by Frank Brady.)