Orson, We Hardly Knew Ye: A ‘Fabulous’ Life Revealed

Toward the end of Anne Bogart’s ambitious search for the real Orson Welles in War of the Worlds at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Welles’ friend, Webber, philosophizes about the nature of truth and all biography:

“What traces do you leave behind? What signs of life? What do you say before you go? At the end of the day, who will know you? Who will know what you really were? You see, I don’t think any one word can explain a man, all that he was. And facts, I think facts are less important than truth….”

Welles, the myth and master magician, might not have agreed. I can only imagine, of course, but he would have surely believed that it’s more or less true that there’s no such thing as truth. Besides, life and Rosebud theories are more imaginatively playful than literal, boring facts and “truth.” Do we care if Citizen Kane is meant to be about the life of William Randolph Hearst? Nah. It’s arguably the greatest film ever made-ever created -about someone like Hearst. Why reduce a masterpiece to the rules and dulling obligations of mere docudrama? I am for whopping lies told in great artistic causes.

Or, as the line goes in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance : “When the truth becomes legend, print the legend.” Ms. Bogart’s version of Orson Welles, however, is closer to “Print the mess.” That Welles’ life was a bloated, tragic mess, I’ve little doubt. But Ms. Bogart and her writer, Naomi Iizuka, are woolly about which Wellesian story they’re actually telling.

Let it pass that the title War of the Worlds -the production opens this season’s Next Wave Festival-misleads us into thinking the piece is about Welles’ renowned radio adaptation of the H.G. Wells novel. The 1938 broadcast astonishingly panicked America into believing the Martians had landed, and Ms. Bogart’s important question about the blurring of news and entertainment-or fiction and reality-results in a witty scene sparked by the original radio show. We might also assume the title implies Welles’ war of the worlds with Hollywood. But the piece is boldly based, with mixed results and amusing cheek, on Citizen Kane .

It’s the life and art of Orson Welles as Welles himself explored the life and megalomania of Hearst in the film. They’re doing to Welles what he did to Kane, mirroring re-created scenes from Citizen Kane along the way. Kane’s assistant, Mr. Bernstein, turns up again (in a brilliant impersonation by Will Bond); Welles’ estranged best friend here clearly echoes Kane’s betrayed friend Jedediah, originally played by Joseph Cotten. The concept itself isn’t new-the million articles and biographies of Welles in search of their own Rosebud!-but Ms. Bogart handles it well, until she drifts surprisingly into a conventional biopic decked out as avant garde.

“Excuse me, I’m looking for Mr. Orson Welles,” one of the characters announces breezily. “Has anyone seen Mr. Orson Welles? He’s come directly from New York, New York City. He’s a director, a writer, an actor as well, theater and radio. I’m sure you’ve heard of him. The voice behind Mercury Theatre, Mercury Playhouse, War of the Worlds . He’s come to Hollywood to make a movie, a motion picture. He’s a large man. Six-two, six-three. His weight-well, his weight, it’s hard to say with his weight…”

What was that about preferring monumental invention to prosaic facts? But Ms. Bogart somehow assumes that the legendary Welles is scarcely known here! She writes in a program note that “In America he is mostly remembered as a fat man on talk shows who also appeared for advertisements for wine.” She therefore rescues him from oblivion! But it’s an absurd claim to make about Welles. It conveniently suggests that he was a mystery, like Kane. And it saddles the stage with a landlocked march through familiar territory when it needs most to take creative Wellesian flight.

I’m not certain how clearly Ms. Bogart sees Welles. “He wasn’t a tragic character,” she told The New York Times . “He had a fantastic life, full of traveling and people and love and great restaurants.” Great restaurants, eh? Then he must have been happy! “Some people think he’s a tragic character,” she also told Newsday . “But I don’t. Here’s a guy who had a fabulous life-he traveled, he went to great restaurants…”

It so happens that I used to see Welles toward the end of his life paddling into an exclusive Hollywood restaurant named Ma Maison. It was briefly another life for me, and a friend of Welles’ would buy me lunch at the restaurant where the great man ate lunch every day. I was naturally fascinated to see him, and felt something approaching awe. He was badly overweight and moved slowly, in stately fashion, to his discreet table toward the back, carrying a miniature poodle under an arm. I think it was a poodle. It yapped at strangers, which seemed to amuse him. But my point is that he was invariably alone. In all the times I saw him, he was almost always keeping his own company.

I didn’t meet him, though I had the opportunity. For some insane reason, I preferred the myth to the reality. I was afraid to meet him and I’ve regretted it ever since.

It’s a cliché, I guess, that Welles was an American tragedy, a willful genius who self-destructed or was cast aside like some Falstaff of Hollywood. But some clichés are true. This much I know, anyway: Restaurants do not maketh the man. Ms. Bogart believes Welles wasn’t a tragic figure-yet that’s how she ends up presenting him onstage! The last image of him is of a dying man surrounded by the wreckage of the set, a rubbish-tip monument to a wasted life.

It’s not much of a monument. Not crates of Xanadu piled like a staggering city skyline. The pile of tables and chairs at the close of War of the Worlds is unavoidably a small-scale affair, as much of the piece lacks epic size and sweep. Ms. Bogart’s talented ensemble is only seven strong. When they try to re-create Citizen Kane ‘s intoxicating dancing-girls scene-”Here is a man. Here is a man “-two girls aren’t enough. Welles had about 40, or so it seems. The talky Hollywood scenes (accompanied, if you please, by “Hooray for Hollywood!”) are fuzzy and predictably vaudevillian. A later soundtrack of Albinoni and thunder must be ironic. The re-creation of the famous mirror sequence from The Lady from Shanghai is, I’d say, a particular impossibility.

Welles once said of Hamlet that he was impossible to play. His grounds were that Hamlet’s great poetry proved that he was a genius, and it takes a genius to play one. He had an original mind, you see! It’s hard on Ms. Bogart, but I tend to think it would take a genius like Welles to re-create his genius.

Then again, there are intimate moments in War of the Worlds when the evening takes on a spooky, echoing life of its own, beyond his enveloping shadow. Ms. Bogart and her team have invented a Rosebud for him, too, and it’s fun. They’re mixing fact and fiction, of course. Or Wellesian illusion with the grand illusion of theater.

His last word, apparently, was “Thorne.” The enigma of its meaning and the last seductive scenes are the best things in the piece, ending neatly on a rewind of its own narrative and the farewell of a fading Merlin: “My name was Orson Welles. Good night.”