Hi-Ho The Glamorous Life: We & Orson Welles

Marissa Skudlarek ponders a quarter life crisis in prestigious company.

The fact that Orson Welles was 25 years old when he wrote, directed, and starred in the most acclaimed movie of all time is enough to give anyone a quarter-life crisis. I turned 25 this year, and am curious to know how Welles achieved so much at such a young age (while keeping in mind that the remainder of his life is a cautionary tale about early success). Plus, I have a major weakness for ‘30s theater and ‘40s cinema. So I’m currently in the midst of reading Simon Callow’s biography of the young Welles, Orson Welles: The Road to Xanadu.

Though people are inclined to consider Welles a filmmaker foremost, he achieved his earliest successes and learned most of what he knew from working in the theater. (Citizen Kane was his first movie, the bastard.) Reading this biography, I can’t help comparing the theater of Welles’ time to that of our own, wondering if such a meteoric rise to fame could happen nowadays, and seeing if his story has any lessons for young theater-makers of the 21st century.

Well, in terms of Welles’ rise, it certainly helped that he was a tall, striking, charismatic young man with a beautiful speaking voice. At the age of 17, he traveled to Ireland, finagled his way into an audition at the Gate Theatre, and won the second-biggest role in their current production, portraying a character over twice his age. While it’s hard to imagine any theater today hiring a teenager to play a dissipated 40-year-old Grand Duke, I can easily picture a contemporary theater having trouble filling that role. In 2012, we’re always complaining that the pool of “leading man”-type actors is too small, and it seems that in the 1930s, the same problem existed. If the teenage Orson Welles showed up on the scene today and auditioned for one of our shows, we’d probably still go crazy for him.

In the ‘30s, people really did go crazy for Welles – such a talented actor and director, so hugely ambitious, so skilled at self-promotion and creating a stir. (His penchant for rehearsing at odd hours and the tough demands he placed on his design team, meanwhile, drove people crazy in a different way.) Again, it’s hard to imagine anyone following Welles’ trajectory today: directing large-cast plays in New York at 20, starting a repertory-theater company on Broadway at 22, making a Hollywood movie at 24. Things take longer these days; the theater places more of an emphasis on professional credentials and is wary of entrusting a big job to a newcomer. Our attitude toward the theater has subtly shifted – while it has gained some dignity and respectability as a profession, it’s lost the sense of being a playground for eccentrics and visionaries.

Yet even in the ‘30s, it wasn’t like just anyone could have achieved what Orson Welles did. Most obviously, Welles was a white male in an era far more racist and sexist than our own. In 1941, the 26-year-old Orson Welles got four Oscar nominations for writing, directing, starring in, and producing Citizen Kane; in 2012, the 26-year-old Lena Dunham has four Emmy nominations for writing, directing, starring in, and producing Girls. I’m not claiming that the playing field is completely level these days, but I am saying that blanket statements like “The barriers to entry in the arts were much lower in the ’30s” ignore the reality that, for the majority of the population, the barriers to entry are lower now.

Welles also had many other advantages in his youth: he came from an upper-middle-class, arts-loving Chicago family; he traveled extensively before he was out of his teens; he went to a liberal private school whose headmaster basically let him take over the school theater and do whatever he wanted. It’s a good reminder that a lot of success is due to one’s external circumstances, or to being in the right place at the right time. (Similar points can, and have, been made about Dunham’s privileged background.)

Even so, the crucial reasons for Welles’ success came from within: his chutzpah, his energy, his ruthless drive. Simon Callow’s biography of Welles makes some guesses as to the psychological factors behind Welles’ enormous ambition, but in truth we will never really know what lit the fire in his belly. This book is never going to teach me how to replicate Welles’ success and become a 25-year-old world-famous genius; if a book could teach that, we’d all be famous already. Instead, this detailed exploration of Welles’ high-flying early career is actually a cautionary tale for any theater artist. I’d heard of Welles’ groundbreaking work at the helm of the Mercury Theatre — a classical-repertory company that enjoyed astounding critical and popular success from the get-go — but what I hadn’t realized is that the Mercury nearly fell apart within 12 months of its founding, due to Welles’ egotism, disorganization, and lack of consideration for his fellow artists. Welles’ motivations for becoming a quadruple-threat writer-actor-director-producer may still be mysterious; the reasons for his quick flameout, though, are depressingly obvious. And while the American theater could use a jolt of Wellesian ambition and energy, I’m not sure that we need all of the other, less positive qualities that often accompany those virtues.

Marissa Skudlarek is a journeyman playwright toiling in obscurity at the age of 25.

One comment on “Hi-Ho The Glamorous Life: We & Orson Welles

  1. While the actor is me is offended by the implication of there being too few “leading man”-types, it would just open a whole other pack of seamonkies that I’m not ready to go into right now.

    I will say that this reminded me of one of my favourite episodes of “The Simpsons”, the one where Homer becomes obsessed with Thomas Edison and is unable to appreciate his own accomplishments because he’s constantly comparing them to those of his hero. He then visits the Edison Museum and discovers that Edison was equally enamored of Da Vinci. One can only wonder whose shadow Welles thought himself unable to escape (probably Shakespeare or Terence)?

    It’s fine to have hero(ine)s to whom you look up, admire, and wish to emulate – one can hope that attempting to recreate their high standards will raise your standards. (Like the song says: “Reach for the stars/ So if you fall, you’ll land on a cloud”) But one must temper the humility of realising that they will never be their hero(ine)s with the knowledge that it gives you freedom to create something of your own.

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