Open Seas: Welles on the March!

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Marching Song: A Play by Orson Welles with Roger Hill; edited by Todd Tarbox. 178 pp. Rowman & Littlefield, 2019.

Like a few other American giants—Mark Twain and Duke Ellington come to mind—Orson Welles left behind vast archives of unreleased work in varying states of completion. He’s been dead for thirty-five years but we’re still catching up with his oceanically ambitious—albeit frequently frustrated—creative life.

The latest rediscovered Welles work is Marching Song. This play about the radical abolitionist John Brown was written in 1932 with some help from Welles’s teacher and lifelong friend Roger Hill. It was only staged twice in 1950 by the amateur drama club at Welles’s alma mater, the Todd School for Boys. Its publication caps a decade’s worth of posthumous treats including the Too Much Johnson workprint (amusing silent comedy sequences filmed in 1938), the half-hour Merchant of Venice intended for TV (1969), and, most prominently, the Netflix reconstruction and completion of his feature The Other Side of the Wind (1970-76). Meanwhile, paintings and drawings from Beatrice Welles’s personal collection have been exhibited and published by Titan Books as Orson Welles Portfolio, and two books of transcribed conversations remind us that Welles was one of the world’s great talkers. Not a bad haul for Welles fans—and more pieces to fit into an unfinishable jigsaw puzzle.

One of those books of conversation, Orson Welles and Roger Hill: A Friendship in Three Acts (2013), was edited by Hill’s grandson Todd Tarbox. Now returning with his edition of Marching Song, Tarbox argues for a better recognition of Welles the writer, and wishes that Welles’s “newspaper and magazine articles, radio and print essays, movie scripts, speeches, and letters were bound between the covers of a book.” Welles certainly deserves a Heminges and Condell to compile this notional Orsonian First Folio, although it’s certain to be thick as a telephone book. In the meantime Tarbox has made a laudable gesture towards that ambition with this slim volume, a very good quarto indeed.

Writing was an essential first step of the creative process for almost everything Welles made for film, television, radio, or stage, but he only occasionally wrote specifically for publication. This is why despite a scattering of published books in various languages—plays, screenplays, dubiously-credited novelizations—Welles’s writing exists in relative obscurity. Perhaps inspired by Shakespeare’s example, he seemed not very concerned with his writerly legacy. Only a few of his plays were actually published, namely Moby Dick–Rehearsed in 1956 and a volume bundling two short plays (The Unthinking Lobster and Fair Warning) in French translation in 1952. Others, such as Time Runs… (1950), were performed but never published. A number of additional plays await both premiere staging and publication, an opportunity for enterprising theatre directors. (I examined the late 1950s cold war comedy Brittle Glory at the Museo Nazionale Del Cinema in Turin a few summers ago.)

Written by a seventeen-year-old, Marching Song is by definition juvenilia, although that might not mean very much when speaking of the precocious Orson Welles. Tarbox’s volume contains the complete play accompanied by reproductions of Welles’s set sketches and photographs from the 1950 Todd Troupers production (directed by Tarbox’s father, Hascy). There is also a long and engaging introduction by Tarbox that explores Welles’s crucial relationship with Hill. It quotes in full poems Welles wrote for school publications as well as generous passages from the Highland Park News column he wrote as a teenager—including a lively dispatch from Japan. Most valuable of all are the letters Welles wrote to both Hill and his guardian Maurice Bernstein on a painting tour of Ireland in 1931. We encounter the boy in thrall to Irish culture and on the verge of his first professional experience on the stage (“Scores” of additional letters from Welles’s youth, once in the collection of Beatrice Welles, are now archived at the University of Michigan.)

Marching Song‘s 1857-59 setting predates the action of Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Welles’s back-to-back recreations of post-Lincoln America. The play is unsurprisingly ambitious. Welles’s sketches illustrate his plans for innovative sets and lighting. Keeping in mind the preliminary condition of all of Welles’s scripts, certain to be transformed by the happy “accidents” of production, this extant draft is a tad talky and expositional, with a swollen dramatis personae. It is no apparent lost masterpiece, although with its speculations by journalists on the true nature of John Brown, a charismatic and dangerous ‘great man’, it certainly seems like a model for future Welles dramas.

Tarbox’s epilogue, ‘The Social Conscience of Orson Welles,’ helps contextualize Marching Song as an early entry in Welles’s long agitation for racial justice. He includes fifteen pages of transcripts from Welles’s 1946 radio commentaries on the scandal surrounding Isaac Woodard, a black World War II veteran brutally blinded by a policeman in South Carolina. It is valuable to have these stirring texts in book form for the first time. The epilogue makes a helpful supplement to Michael Denning’s study of Welles as a radical political artist in The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century (1996).

Edinburgh, April 2020

Originally published at Wellesnet: The Orson Welles Web Resource on April 6, 2020.

Header image is a detail from The Last Moments of John Brown (1882–84) by Thomas Hovenden at The Met. Public domain.

Publication: Essay on Welles’s Conrad Adaptations

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My new article at Bright Lights Film Journal, based on archival research at the University of Michigan and the Museo Nazionale Del Cinema in Turin: At Sea, In Port, Up the River: Orson Welles’s Conrad Adaptations

See also a related interview with Ray Kelly at Wellesnet: Orson Welles’ fascination with the works of Joseph Conrad

Part of this work was presented at the Joseph Conrad Society conference in London in July 2019. See a report at Unproduced Orson Welles ‘Surinam’ script to be detailed by Matthew Asprey Gear at literary conference

Publication: Orson Welles, ‘V.I.P.’, and other discoveries in Turin

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My report for Wellesnet on my recent Welles research in Turin.

VIVA ITALIA! – REPORT ON ARCHIVAL DISCOVERIES IN TURIN

by Matthew Asprey Gear

“A few weeks ago I visited Italy’s Museo Nazionale Del Cinema in Turin on a research project under the sponsorship of the Ernest Hemingway Society. While there I not only made significant discoveries to aid my project, but also had the chance to survey the highlights of a largely unexplored archive that should excite all Wellesians….”

Read more

Ray Kelly of Wellesnet also writes on another discovery of mine:

LOST NOVEL CREDITED TO ORSON WELLES UNEARTHED IN TURIN

“A previously unknown English-language novel credited to Orson Welles has been discovered in the archives of the National Museum of Cinema in Turin.

“The bound hardcover typescript of V.I.P. ― mistakenly cataloged at one point by the museum as a treatment for the movie The V.I.P.’s  or V.I.P ― is an English version of Welles’ French novel Une Grosse Legume (A Big Shot), translated by Maurice Bessy and published by Gallimard Editions of Paris in 1953, according to Matthew Asprey Gear, author of At The End of the Street in the Shadow: Orson Welles and the City.”

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Recent Publications & Appearances

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EVAN HUNTER’S JUNGLE KIDS and AN INTERVIEW WITH FLOYD SALAS

I have made two contributions to a beautifully illustrated book edited by Andrew Nette & Iain McIntyre called Girl Gangs, Biker Boys, and Real Cool Cats: Pulp Fiction and Youth Culture, 1950 to 1980 (Oakland: PM Press, 2017). 

The first is a long essay on Evan Hunter’s contributions to the juvenile deliquency genre including The Blackboard Jungle (1954), A Matter of Conviction (1959) and The Jungle Kids (1956).

The other is an interview with the fascinating and under-appreciated American writer Floyd Salas, conducted in collaboration with Andrew Nette: ‘Whoever Was In Control Was The One To Watch‘.

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ORSON WELLES’S THE TRIAL

A study of Orson Welles’s screen adaptation of The Trial in Jim Craddock (ed.), Books to Film: Cinematic Adaptations of Literary Works, Volume 1 (Boston: Gale Cengage Learning, 2017).

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ANTHONY BURGESS AND ORSON WELLES: HACKWORK AND BRICOLAGE

A paper presented at the Anthony Burgess: Life, Work, Reputation conference at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation, Manchester (3-5 July 2017).

Publication forthcoming.

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ADRIAN MARTIN looks at CONTRAPPASSO: WRITERS AT THE MOVIES

Adrian Martin’s article ‘What is Literary Cinephilia?’, which discusses the special ‘Writers at the Movies’ issue of Contrappasso Magazine (2015) edited by Noel King and Matthew Asprey Gear, appeared in the May 2017 issue of Sight and Sound, pp. 56-57.

Open Seas: The Interpretive Impulse

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As a writer of fiction, the act of filling the blank page gives me an exhilarating sense of imaginative freedom. The horizons seem endless. The same must be true for composers and painters.

Yet sometimes I envy the interpretive artist.

Maybe these thoughts have been prompted by listening to András Schiff’s humane and amusing lectures on each of Beethoven’s thirty-two piano sonatas, an open invitation into a great musician’s workshop. They reveal the mad ambition necessary to record the whole cycle. Beyond mere technical virtuosity and interpretive artistry, the task requires total immersion in the works, years of study and research. But what could be a higher calling than anchoring your creativity to a master?

I think that’s why writers are frequently drawn to the supposedly subservient roles of translator, adaptor, or critic. The impulse to interpret an existing text — in another language, in another medium, or in an essay — represents the desire to be the best kind of reader, to grasp the intimacies of a book’s structure, to know the contours of its sentences. Ray Bradbury showed that impulse at a fantastical extreme in Fahrenheit 451 — the reader who memorises and in essence becomes a book in order to preserve it.

Of course, the Fahrenheit 451 approach is too selfless and too much like religious worship for any kind of creative, critical reader. It is not enough merely to absorb a work of art. The ultimate homage is to re-express the work by filtering it through the self — personalised, recontextualised, embellished, contested. See, for example, Picasso’s obsessive studies of Velázquez’s Las Meninas. This week I visited the Museu Picasso in Barcelona to look again at his forty-five canvases from 1957 that comprehensively analyse, break apart, and remake the forms, motifs, and characters of the original in his own style. Picasso wound up with what he acknowledged would be “a detestable Meninas for a traditional painter.” Nevertheless, it had become Picasso’s Meninas.

Fortunately Velázquez was by then safely in the public domain and available to Picasso’s appropriation and sacrilege. Pablo Katchadjian, a contemporary Argentinean author, has not been so lucky. He has been weighed down with outrageous legal problems since he self-published a chapbook called El Aleph engordado in 2009. He had taken Borges’ classic 1945 story ‘El Aleph’ and, as an experiment, “fattened” it to twice its original length. Borges’s widow, exercising her powers as heir to the copyright, has unrelentingly pursued Katchadjian for his supposed criminal “plagiarism.” Apart from the basic wrongness of the charge and staggering disproportion — the chapbook was published in a mere 200 copies — the legal action ironically demonstrates an indifference to Borges’s influence on successive generations of authors. In effect it advocates banning certain types of critical and creative reading.

It is as absurd to prohibit writers from creatively wrestling with great books as to silence pianists exploring Beethoven. Most writers discover a few crucial books early on that help them understand aspects of worldly experience, furnish them with powerful myths and metaphors, introduce them to characters they come to know as intimately as friends. Consider Orson Welles as a reader. Throughout his career, he returned repeatedly to the same books and, perhaps more importantly, to the same characters as source material for his films, theatre, and radio dramas. He never seemed to want to give up reinterpreting Don Quixote and Falstaff, Moby Dick and The Merchant of Venice, Joseph Conrad and Isak Dinesen.

As a film critic and historian, I’ve come to specialise in adaptation studies. I’ve spent a lot of time analysing the hand-annotated manuscripts of Welles’s screenplays, many of which were never produced. It has been intimately illuminating hanging out with Welles at the point of his pen, being able to relive his thought processes as a writer. Comparing an original novel or play to its adapted screenplay, I attempt to fathom the reasons behind Welles’s choices. Why this specific change? Why this cut? Why this new and original scene?

Most of Welles’s interpretative choices were designed to re-tell a story cinematically rather than with words. On this point, Welles was a formidable translator. Sometimes Welles argued against the original author’s worldview, as in his 1962 version of Kafka’s Trial. He refused to allow Josef K. to submit meekly to execution “like a dog” because he found it unbearable after the Holocaust. Welles also personalised his source material, incorporated autobiographical elements, and even synthesised different literary touchstones. Welles’s and Oja Kodar’s late 1970s screenplay The Dreamers, for example, adapts two stories by Isak Dinesen about an opera singer named Pellegrina Leoni. Several settings are relocated to places of autobiographical significance to Welles. This includes the Triana neighbourhood of Seville, where Welles had lived as a teenager amid the brothels and the bars. In Triana, Pellegrina briefly becomes an unacknowledged incarnation of Prosper Mérimée’s Carmen, another of Welles’s favourite books which he had attempted to adapt directly for screen and which fed into The Lady From Shanghai (1947).

Radically reinventing his beloved books, Welles’s adaptations wound up more personally expressive than his own original stories. Certain books become part of a writer’s inner life. Heirs may own the copyright, but these books belong to us. In turn, we belong to these books. They call for our interpretation.

Edinburgh, December 2017

At the End of the Street in the Shadow: Review by the Times Literary Supplement

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Sarah Jilani’s review of At the End of the Street in the Shadow: Orson Welles and the City appeared in the March 10, 2017 issue of the Times Literary Supplement. She writes that the book “offers enjoyable revelations for anyone familiar with Welles’s work.”

Read more HERE

 

At the End of the Street in the Shadow: Review by Film International

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Tony William’s long review of At the End of the Street in the Shadow: Orson Welles and the City, appeared in Film International (vol. 14, no. 2).

He writes:

Amazingly, the author has not only brought a new positive slant to those frequent academic cityscape studies that now flood the critical landscape, but has also added some relevant aesthetic, cultural and political innovations to the field of Welles studies that distinguish this treatment in its own right as well as provoke insightful readings of neglected films, such as The Trial (1962)…. Far more modest in scope in comparison to recent mega-page studies of Welles, it nevertheless supplies some very important innovations to understanding the director’s work that will make it yet another additional ‘essential reading’ in the critical canon….the book provides both a wealth of new information and fascinating evaluations and
interpretations… a work that is both innovative and original.

At the End of the Street in the Shadow: Review by Afterimage

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Matthew Moore’s review of At the End of the Street in the Shadow: Orson Welles and the City appeared in the latest issue of the US journal Afterimage (issue 44.3, 2016). Moore writes:

“If one beholds Welles’s oeuvre as one of the most multifaceted sets of modern artistic expressions, then surely one will find this newest book an enjoyable and stimulating read….  A generous number of stills, some diagrams, and a short dialogue excerpt enhance the study, fleshing out the idea that Welles’s modern cinematic vision was urban and cosmopolitan par excellence.”

For more, see HERE.

At the End of the Street in the Shadow: Review by Mediapolis

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Amy Corbin’s review of At the End of the Street in the Shadow: Orson Welles and the City appeared in the fourth issue of Mediapolis: A Journal of Cities and Culture.

Corbin calls the book “an impressive work of archival research and film analysis, documenting the director’s use of locations in both his finished work and a vast array of unfinished projects, from scripts to unedited footage.”

Read the entire review HERE.

 

Now available: At the End of the Street in the Shadow: Orson Welles and the City

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The films of Orson Welles inhabit the spaces of cities – from America’s industrializing midland to its noirish borderlands, from Europe’s medieval fortresses to its Kafkaesque labyrinths and postwar rubblescapes. His movies take us through dark streets to confront nightmarish struggles for power, the carnivalesque and bizarre, and the shadows and light of human character.

This ambitious new study explores Welles’s vision of cities by following recurring themes across his work including urban transformation, race relations and fascism, the utopian promise of cosmopolitanism, and romantic nostalgia for archaic forms of urban culture. It focuses on the personal and political foundation of Welles’s cinematic cities – the way he invented urban spaces on film to serve his dramatic, thematic, and ideological purposes.

The critical scope goes beyond Welles’ thirteen commercially-released feature films by drawing on extensive research in international archives and building on the work of previous scholars. Viewing Welles as a radical filmmaker whose innovative methods were only occasionally compatible with the commercial film industry, this volume examines Welles’s original visions for butchered films such as The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) and Mr. Arkadin (1955), and also considers many projects the filmmaker never completed – an immense ‘shadow oeuvre’ ranging from unfinished and unreleased films to unrealized treatments and screenplays.

Touch of Evil (1958) Directed by Orson Welles Shown: Orson Welles

“A timely book that pushes past many debates dotting the beaten path of Welles criticism to consider the representation of the city, both as a physical location and an imaginary social space, in his film oeuvre. It considers incomplete and overlooked as well as unproduced works that have survived in script form; the result is a historically grounded, globally conscious study that urges us to consider the importance of the built environment in Welles’s mises-en-scène, as well as his abiding concern with the politics of modernization.”– Catherine L. Benamou, University of California-Irvine, author of It’s All True: Orson Welles’s Pan-American Odyssey

“A valuable contribution to Welles studies – well researched, highly readable, and full of fresh insights.” – Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Reader film critic, author of Discovering Orson Welles

“Well researched, informative, and enjoyable to read – an original, thoughtful commentary on Welles and modernity.” – James Naremore, Indiana University, author of The Magic World of Orson Welles

From Wallflower Press/Columbia University Press.

PRESS:

Five Questions for Matthew Asprey Gear at Wellesnet

‘Lost Script Reveals What Orson Welles Really Thought About Ernest Hemingway’ at The Observer (UK)

‘Welles contra la España de Hemingway’ at Clarín (Argentina)