(George) Orson Welles

Definition

Theater

  • (1915 - 85) US director, actor, writer, and producer. Wellesmade his acting debut at the age of 16 in Jew Süss (1931)at Dublin's Gate Theatre, after falsely telling the management thathe was a member of the Theatre Guild. He subsequently touredin plays by Shakespeare and Shaw before collaborating with John Houseman(1902 - 88) on the Federal Theatre Project. As part ofthe Project he directed a successful Macbeth (1936) with aBlack cast at Harlem's Lafayette Theatre (see Scottish Play).In 1937, when they devised a controversial 'labour opera' The CradleWill Rock, Project officials closed the theater two hours beforethe curtain was due to go up. Welles and Houseman simply moved theaudience to another theater and performed without scenery.

    That same year the two men opened their renowned Mercury Theatrewith an anti-fascist interpretation of Julius Caesar in moderndress, featuring Welles as Brutus. In 1938 the Mercury's radio versionof H. G. Wells's The War of the Worlds caused panic among listeners,who thought that Martians were genuinely invading New Jersey. In 1940Welles took several of the Mercury players to Hollywood, where hewrote, produced, directed, and starred in the film classic CitizenKane (1941).

    After a decade in Hollywood, Welles returned to the theaterin 1951, making his London debut in the title role of Othello;in 1955 he played Ahab in Moby Dick with "a voice ofbottled thunder" (in the words of Kenneth Tynan). He designedand directed a production of Ionesco's Rhinoceros at the RoyalCourt Theatre, London, in 1960.

    Welles, as a true showman, was never at a loss on stage. Whenhis false nose fell off during Moby Dick, he kicked the puttyappendage straight into the stalls. In 1956, when he broke one ankleand sprained the other playing King Lear in New York, he disguiseda wheelchair as a throne and rolled through the part.

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