I am sitting at the window of my hotel in the Loop, looking down at sheets of ice shuffling and reshuffling themselves like cards in the Chicago River as I work on Orson Rehearsed, the opera I'm developing with the Fifth House Ensemble and my own New Mercury Collective at the Chicago College of Performing Arts. Tomorrow I'll conduct Fifth House for the first time in sections of the work; Mercury performer-gladiators Robert Orth and Robert Frankenberry will sing multiple manifestation of Orson Welles' enormous inner self. (To learn more about the show, click here.)
I diarized obsessively for decades, but stopped when my sons were born. They're my narrative, now. I "moved up one," grew impatient examining the contours of my own navel, and took on the truth that Art played the role of MacGuffin in my Life. I write with some trepidation, because my comments here are poetic in nature, not polemical. I'm not engaging in disputation or Academic debate. These are the thoughts of a working artist—or, more precisely, a father whose sons are enjoying a snow day back in Upstate New York while he finds himself, unaccustomedly, with a free hour in his hotel room on the road, working in this, a city that his father worked in when he was a child.
Allow me to deal this round of Solitaire, as my Father did the night my mother died.
1. One of Spades
Oh, how we enjoy cutting our heroes down to size. Type "drunk Orson" into a search engine and an awful video of an aged, bloated, wounded-bear of an Orson Welles, three sheets to the wind, seated at a table gripping a wine glass, slurring advertising pabulum about a mediocre table wine comes up. We laugh. He's ridiculous, worthy of our contempt. Yet, at 29, in 1944, Welles was still beautiful, stumping for weeks on end for Franklin Delano Roosevelt, then seeking an unprecedented fourth term. Welles is said to have coached FDR in public speaking; he wrote speeches for him. Only three years after he and Herman J. Mankiewicz had taken on William Randolph Hearst, the Rupert Murdoch of his time, a gigantic Authority and Power figure, in Citizen Kane, Welles replied to a "get well" telegram from the president (Welles had made himself ill campaigning for FDR) by pledging that, "this is the most important work I could ever engage in."
2. Two of Diamonds
Welles' greatest success as an actor and director in the theater was probably his legendary "modern dress" Caesar, a bare-stage, poor theater reinterpretation of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar that debuted in November 1937 as the Mercury Theater's first production. Born of necessity—there was little budget, and street clothes were free—the genius was in the decontextualization of the play as a critique of Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany.
Theatrical lighting pioneer Jean Rosenthal and Welles collaborated on Caesar's lighting, which—since there was no set—shouldered the majority of the emotional and psychological storytelling. A gifted visual artist, Welles knew the importance of not illuminating the most important thing on the stage, as well as light's ability to shape and define physical space with filmic fluidity. That Leni Riefenstahl’s agitprop Triumph of the Will had already thrown up "cathedrals of light" was known—it also happened to be financially prudent, and in step with the flowering of an emergent theatrical technology. Deftly fusing the iconography of religion and politics, he used electric light to take the place of "Divine Radiance" like Prometheus stealing fire. Light, however evocative, is in itself soulless, and he knew that. The result was that he evoked the gestalt of Auden's Age of Anxiety, and the Quartet for the End of Time existential ennui of the characters in Sartre's Paths to Freedom. That's a lot of illumination to pile on an Everyman Brutus' shoulders.
3. Three of Clubs
The first scene of Kane after the newsreel is triply reflective: In a movie called Citizen Kane, actors portraying Reporters (observers of life; supposedly seekers of truth) watch a newsreel (photographs of a life edited together—"fake" news?) in the dark. They're aware that they are missing something, and set out on a search for the meaning of "Rosebud." The Mob in Caesar is transformed into secret police: they're looking for safety in the wrong place. The reporters return empty-handed; the Mob gets exactly the sort of politicians it deserves.
Welles believed in FDR the way Beethoven believed in Napoleon. Albert Einstein, the first publicly intellectual scientist, famously spoke out against nuclear weapons; but it was the popularizer, Carl Sagan, who really captured peoples' imaginations with Cosmos. He did so by traversing the liminal zone between advanced scientific study and poetry. Welles sought truth, too; but, rather than looking out into the cosmos, or taking to the political bully pulpit, he looked inward, choosing as his vessel of exploration the plays of Shakespeare. He repurposed Polonius' advice, "to thine own self be true" to read, "to love, Jedidiah, on our own terms" in Kane.
Welles did want to be loved, and he knew how to arrange that. (Leonard Bernstein to Ned Rorem: "Our problem is not that we want everyone to love us; its that we'll never meet everyone.") Welles seems to have believed that he'd make a fine politician (he contemplated a run against McCarthy in '43), but he was self-aware enough to have the corrupt politician point out to Kane that looking for love from the Mob will get you nowhere. There's plenty of commentary about Welles' search for the "Rosebud" of love. Most of it limns a narrative which describes a much-caressed genius-boy of nine who lost his mother prematurely, and his charismatic father soon after. It's easy to pigeon-hole Welles the way Harold C. Schonberg, and even friends like Oscar Levant viewed Bernstein—as the "great popularizer of commonly accepted truths as insights." But Welles saw past the transaction to what lies beyond acceptance, even admiration.
Throughout his work, Welles asked whether love is true, or if Love is Truth, and the other way around. We do get the politicians we deserve: obviously the current occupant of the White House wants to be loved, but, paraphrasing Robert Bolt's screenplay to Lawrence of Arabia, "some men lie to others; they conceal the truth. Other men lie to themselves; they forget where they hid it." True, one cannot write about love with tears in one's eyes, but Welles was a romantic who did not lie to himself. He spent an awful lot of time thinking about crafting the illusion of love, as manifest in his fascination with magic tricks, for example, his documentary essay F for Fake, and so forth. Isn't it all a Muppet show?
Welles points out, through the character of Jedidiah in Kane, "That's all [Kane] wanted out of life ... was love. That's the tragedy of Charles Foster Kane. You see, he just didn't have any to give." Like Bernstein, Welles had an enormous capacity to give and to get love; that capacity made them both great popularizers and artists. But Welles could have settled into a senate seat about as comfortably as Bernstein the executive directorship of an orchestra.
4. Four of Diamonds
Welles' dramaturgical chops were those of one who, like Bernstein, intuitively knew exactly what the emotional and psychological nuclear reactors powering a scene were, what each relationship sparked from, what powered each work as a whole. If Bernstein had Mahler, Welles had Shakespeare, and both did their finest work in the theater when editing and reinterpreting the Bard—Bernstein with West Side Story and Welles with Caesar.
He sought artistic freedom (as opposed to simple self-actualization, which is easier, because it requires only selfishness and singleness of mind to achieve), of course, and achieved it. While to the outside world Welles lamented that he spent ninety percent of his time raising money, he wisely had Kane lament, "If I hadn't been rich, I'd have been a truly great man." I believe that Welles' masterpiece was not Kane, or Chimes, but Moby Dick Rehearsed, for thirty years after having noted that RKO had given him the "world's biggest train set," he was able to create a theatrical sandbox in which every performance was different, every evening like a page from Joyce's Ulysses, disconnected from other performances, but connected because the ideas flow from one place to the next like water. He found a way to be paid to do as he pleased.
The enormous self-restraint required to cope with complete artistic freedom (and to therefore not deserve the slings and arrows of every critic who lays it on with the "self-indulgence" rap because its easy, and because they can) prompted Stravinsky to point out at the start of the 20th century that, "now that we can do whatever we want to do, we must first decide what we do not want to do." Welles understood that people resent being preached to—hence the Bible's parables, which really are ripping yarns. He understood that, for every Poetics of Music (whether ghost-written by a Robert Kraft or not), Carl Sagan Cosmos, Joseph Campbell Hero With a Thousand Faces, or Bernstein Harvard lecture, there will always be a host of intellectuals smarter, more insightful, more adept at argument, poised to envelop the scene in the smoke of argument, the entanglements of nomenclature, the rules of rhetoric, so that, in a couple of beats, we're all back on “safe” ground, mundanely talking about talking about the thing rather than doing the scary work of, as Wallace Stevens pointed out, grappling with "not ideas of the thing but the thing itself."
It takes a poet running at full bore to conjoin, as Welles did in Midnight, Shakespeare's "nimbus floods" with Melville's allegorical mists, and the moral haze hanging over Walt Whitman's descriptions in Specimen Days with a healthy, Midwestern dollop of 1 Corinthians on top, reminding us, like the angels in Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire, that "we see through a glass, darkly."
Which brings us back to those reporters sitting in the dark at the beginning of Kane, seeking truth in fiction. Manifesting the Aristotelian admonition to grapple with the Art and Life paradigm, Welles staged them as denizens of Socrates' Cave. Behind the fire, the javelin of light stabbing down from the projection booth, is a stage / screen. We're all puppeteers, he reminds us, vying with one another to construct the most viable reality. Remember high school classics class? If you skipped it, or didn't do your homework; or of you did do your homework and you fall for the appeal of the Big Lie, then you call what you see and don't agree with nowadays "fake news."
One person escapes the Cave. He emerges into the sunlight, sees the Cave for the prison and illusion that it is, re-examines his former existence, and determines to return to the Cave to spread the Good News. Naturally, they crucify him. (Look at him! He doesn't work out; he's obviously not disciplined or in control of himself! He's fat, drunk, doing a wine commercial. He's the object of ridicule who seems to have learned nothing from Falstaff, for there he is, looking and acting just like him! Why should we believe anything he says?) As Andre points out so wittily to Wally in My Dinner With Andre, New York City may in fact be a prototype of the concentration camp of the 21st century, built by the inmates who take a perverse pride in what they've created. "Aren't we schizophrenics?" he asks. "Are these flickering shadows Reality?" asks the returning escapee, the reporters, the audience, the artist.
5. Five of Hearts
"Rosebud" is anything you've loved and lost. Lost childhood, lost parents, lost lovers, lost youth, lost dreams, loss, loss, loss. Welles allowed that Kane, the ultimate narcissist, must "at least have loved his mother." Maybe Rosebud wasn't a sled; maybe Rosebud was Light.
Jedidiah pans Kane's wife's performance. She, of course, has little talent, and Jedidiah has a choice: he can go easy on her out of compassion and pity, or he can assess her as an extension of her husband’s ego. She's "nothing special," but she's special to Kane. ("When everyone's special, nobody is.") Rilke reminds us that Art is never understood by criticism; beauty's in the eye of the Beholder, etc., but Kane's inability to see his wife as separate from himself is what motivates him. He demands she be perceived as gifted the way that our current president feels that he's a genius because "fate is what happened." Jedidiah hits the nail on the head. ("Never," my Uncle Clifford once admonished me, "rub a man's rhubarb.") Kane must fire him just as surely as the denizens of the Cave must, upon the Hero’s return, reject the bringer of news of the blazing, brilliant, brightly-lit outside world.
I believe that Welles, upon his return to the Cave, calmly elected to order lunch. Lucas, Spielberg, and other more “commercially viable” great filmmakers sugar-coated Truth better, so they made more money and acquired more Power; but Welles' Authority has never been questioned. When Welles tried to play the game of life their way, he couldn't help leaving the results on the cutting room floor because he was constitutionally unsuited to "selling out"—even Touch of Evil is an art film flying under the radar as a potboiler with the hysterically miscast Charlton Heston serving as Hollywood's canary in the cinematic coal mine. Welles had heard the Chimes at Midnight. He had learned that it is more important to be understood, in the end, than it is to be loved.
The night my mother died in my arms, my father, who had been playing Solitaire downstairs, quoted Joseph Cotton's line to me by way of explaining himself and why his wife hadn't died in his arms. When my own personal Jedidiah writes his review and hands it to me, I hope that I am wise enough not to hand him his pink slip.
This essay served as working notes for a public address at the Chicago College of Performing Arts Center for Arts Leadership delivered on 18 January 2018 and on 5 March 2018 at the Center for Humanistic Inquiry at Amherst College.