Reading with Orson Welles
Orson Welles’ present reputation as a filmmaker and innovator in many aesthetic forms seems unassailable; but in his own day he consistently provoked choruses of critical outrage, and these largely because so much of his oeuvre consisted of readings of the great “classics” that ran against the grain of prevailing thought. No less scandalous seemed to be the respect he accorded what was then taken to be the work of minor writers. Throughout a long and embattled career, his tastes remained omnivorous and, as it turns out, transformative.
So it is that while many film directors have been influenced by individual books or by their occasional reading, only a handful immersed themselves in literary works with such consequential voraciousness. By the time he was in his teens, Welles had decided on a career as a painter and amateur magician, but knew entire Shakespeare plays by heart and was co-editing a series of them intended for informal stagings. More than half a century later he was found dead at his typewriter, still striving to put his version of King Lear onto the screen. Between youth and old age Welles’ interpretations of texts transformed the American cultural landscape as they did theories of media. The first major studies of the social impact of radio emerged after the sensational 1938 broadcast of his adaptation of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. In the same period he pioneered the use of avant-garde staging practices to infuse a new social relevance into the canonical classics of the stage. Still in his twenties when he broke with the RKO film studios over the handling of Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons and It’s All True, the epic battles he waged over the next two decades to retain the integrity of his artistic vision helped shape the politique des auteurs as it emerged in French critical theory in the 1950s and 1960s.
As has seldom happened with a filmmaker, Welles’ approach to the texts he translated and reinvigorated has permanently influenced subsequent interpretations and theatrical practice. Even when he was acting a pre-scripted role in The Third Man, the tension between his reading of Graham Greene and that of director Carol Reed heralded a new phase of British post-World War II filmmaking. With Welles, Kafka became and has remained “our contemporary,” as Jan Kott once said of Shakespeare. Nowadays no staging of a Shakespeare history play fails to acknowledge it as part of a larger cycle, whether drawn from Plutarch or, as was Welles’ pioneering and then controversial Chimes at Midnight, Holinshed. Welles’ reading endures.