A new documentary Enough To Live On: The Arts of The WPA, which will be released later this year, tells the remarkable story of how a US Federal Government WPA programme, launched at the height of the Great Depression, gave a kick-start to the careers of some of America’s greatest artists, writers and directors of the 20th century including Jackson Pollock, Langston Hughes and the inimitable Orson Welles. Welles’s contribution to the programme was his so-called Voodoo Macbeth, a remarkable reimagining of the Scottish play set not in medieval Scotland but in 19th century Haiti. It was to be the first of the great triumphs with which he would conquer the artistic world by the time he was 26. More than a decade later Welles created a film version of Macbeth, which was a commercial and artistic disaster, which signalled the end of his “golden age” as a writer, producer and director of triumphant stage, radio and screen productions.
Orson Welles’s life story is so incredible that it is almost unbelievable that Hollywood has never filmed it. There have been attempts to film particular periods of his life, notably RKO 281, about the making of Citizen Kane, and Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles, about Welles’s 1937 staging of Julius Caesar, the first successful production of a Shakespeare play on Broadway and an updating of the Caesar story to contemporary Fascist Europe. However, to date there has been no full Welles biopic. Perhaps the reason is that it would have taken Welles himself to tell such a seemingly fanciful tale.
If Welles had ever made a film of his life, after a brief opening montage showing his itinerant childhood with his alcoholic father (which was only made bearable by his burgeoning love of drama and of Shakespeare in particular), Welles might well have begun his story in earnest with his Voodoo, or Harlem Macbeth. He certainly remained inordinately proud of it all his life, saying in a BBC interview in 1982 (just three years before his death), “By all odds, my great success in my life was that play.”
“Enough To Live On: The Arts of the WPA” is directed by Michael Maglaras and will be released in May. It shows how Welles came to direct Macbeth as part of the groundbreaking Works Progress Administration, which was part of FDR’s New Deal. It paid artists, writers and performers like Welles a basic $42 a week to create murals, sculptures and other art works for public buildings, and in some cases to stage plays. Unlike some of the other artists employed by the programme, particularly black artists and writers such as the poet Langston Hughes, and indeed much of the American workforce in general, Welles was not exactly starving: even in the tough economic times of the early 1930s, he found regular stage and radio work as an actor. However, the WPA gave him the chance to do what he had always wanted to do (perhaps as a result of his directionless childhood), which was to direct.
As Maglaras explains in his documentary, the WPA was a deliberate attempt by the US Government to provide an economic stimulus package to try and restart the economy after the Great Crash of 1929, which led to millions of workers being laid off across America and eventually across the world. What a contrast to our own times, the most difficult economically since the thirties, when all the talk of most Western Governments is of austerity and cutbacks, and the idea of trying to regenerate the economy, including through the arts, is positively anathema. And yet, under the WPA Welles was hired to helm a stage production by the Negro Theater Unit.
One of the guiding forces of the unit was, like Welles himself, a white man, John Houseman, who was really the great discoverer of Orson. Houseman had encountered Welles while they were acting together in Broadway and when the chance came for Houseman to hire a director for an all-black production of a classic play, he immediately thought of the young man whose ambition and energy had so completely captivated him.
Consequently, Welles began work in 1935 for the programme and soon hit on the idea of performing Macbeth but relocating it to Haiti in the 1800s. This was for two main reasons: one, it perfectly justified the use of an all-black cast; and, two, Welles felt that by substituting Haitian voodoo for medieval witchcraft he could successfully update the play’s magic, which is so central to the story. Thus, the seeds of what became the famous Voodoo Macbeth were sown.
Welles’s experience in Harlem was not without controversy. For one thing, several senior black actors and directors actively opposed, and then resented, the employment of a young white man to oversee what was supposed to be a specifically “negro” project. For another, at a time of immense economic and political polarisation in the US, when it was genuinely feared that the Communist Party might become a major electoral force, a group calling themselves the Harlem Communists tried to mobilise the local community against the production, claiming that Welles was patronising his black actors and even mocking them by casting them in a classical drama. Legend has it that the Lafayette Theatre, where the play was being staged, was picketed while rehearsals were taking place and that one of the Communist agitators tried to scar Welles by cutting him with a razor, until the actor playing Banquo, Canada Lee, who was a former boxer, stepped in to save him.
Despite these early difficulties and controversies, ultimately Welles’s Harlem or Voodoo Macbeth was a huge success – the first of what would be a succession of triumphs across the next six or seven years in three different media (stage, radio and film), which would, at least for a brief time, make Welles not only the greatest film and theatre director in the world but one of its most famous men.
Welles’s WPA Macbeth premiered on April 14, 1936 and became a traffic-stopping, sensation. As he himself said much later in life, “The opening night, there were five blocks in which all traffic was stopped. You couldn’t get near the theater in Harlem.” Macbeth ran in Harlem for 10 weeks before going on a nationwide tour, during which Welles himself allegedly played the title-role (presumably, “blacked-up” with face paint) on one occasion when the actor playing Macbeth fell ill.
Such was the success of Welles and Houseman’s Macbeth that they were eventually able to end their association with the federally-financed project and strike out on their own, forming the famous Mercury Theatre which enjoyed huge success both on Broadway (including the aforementioned Fascist Julius Caesar) and on radio, including the legendary adaptation of The War of the Worlds, by Welles’s near-namesake H.G. Wells, on October 30, 1938. With its “radio vérité” (opening the story of the supposed Martian invasion with what audiences thought was a real news report), The War of the Worlds scared much of the East Coast of America to death and brought Welles to the attention of Hollywood, where he would complete his domination of a third art-form with his greatest achievement Citizen Kane, which was ground-breaking in its time and still regarded as one of the greatest films, if not the greatest film, ever made.
Welles was only 26 when Kane came out; arguably, not since Alexander the Great more than 2,000 years before had one man conquered the world (or at least the world of the arts) at such a young age. Unfortunately, of course, like Alexander, it was all, or at least largely, downhill from there. Welles’s second film, The Magnificent Ambersons, was magnificent, but because Welles failed to complete post-production himself (partly because he was filming a propaganda film for the US Government in South America), the film was taken out of his hands by the studio, RKO, and effectively butchered, including the addition of a supposed “happy ending” that was utterly implausible after the tragedy that had preceded it.
It was the beginning of the end for Welles – or at least the beginning of the end of what might be called his imperial phase, to use the term coined by the great songwriter and Pet Shop Boy Neil Tennant to describe that period in an artist’s life when they can seemingly do no wrong. Welles continued to make films, The Stranger (a thriller) and The Lady From Shanghai (a flawed but fascinating film noir), but they paled in comparison with Kane and even the brutally-edited Ambersons.
And so in 1948, more than a decade after he had first produced it in Harlem, Welles returned to “the Scottish play,” and indeed returned it to its original setting of Scotland in the Middle Ages, with himself as the lead. In doing so, however, he seemed to lose much of the energy, ideas and (if you will excuse the phrase) the “black magic” that had so animated his Voodoo Macbeth. Only traces of that seminal production remained, especially in the depiction of the witches, including Hecate: for example, both Welles’s stage production and screen production of the play ended with Hecate’s line, “The charm is wound up.” It was not enough to save the film, or Welles, from the critical savaging and commercial failure that followed.
Welles’s film of Macbeth is memorably described on Wikipedia as “an attempt to make an epic film from B-movie resources.” After his post-Kane failures, Welles had moved from RKO to Republic Pictures, but Republic lacked the financial resources to support his dream of a great screen adaptation of the play. The result was one of Welles’s least successful movies, and certainly the least successful of his trilogy of Shakespeare movies (the other two being Othello, released in 1952, and Chimes At Midnight, essentially “the Falstaff story,” released in 1965). Welles himself is underwhelming as Macbeth (his Scottish accent is hardly masterful – indeed, it falters at times); some of the costumes, particularly the headwear, were ridiculous, as if they were cast-offs from a sci-fi movie; and for parts of the film Welles’s sheer cinematic, indeed artistic, flair seems to desert him completely. The “Tomorrow” soliloquy, for example, is particularly unimpressive, consisting solely of Welles narrating it in voice-over while the camera just shows…well, fog. Truly, tragically, this is a case of “signifying nothing”.
Welles’s second Macbeth, his film of the play, was ultimately as much of a failure as his first Macbeth, on stage, had been a triumph. The film failed to recoup even its low budget and Welles’s career as a director in Hollywood, less than seven years after making “the greatest film ever,” was effectively over.
Welles being Welles, of course, his so-called “fall” was greater than most artists’ “rise”. He continued to make films for the rest of his life (even if it was always a struggle to finance them), including Othello and Chimes at Midnight, which showed that, if nothing else, he had learned from filming Macbeth how not to film Shakespeare. Both Othello and Chimes are masterpieces of Shakespearean cinema, among the finest screen adaptations of Shakespeare plays, and contain much of the sheer cinematic energy and inventiveness that had seemingly deserted him while filming Macbeth.
Nevertheless, Welles never again scaled the artistic heights that he had so effortlessly conquered in his youth and early life, all of which began with a superbly imaginative updating of a Shakespeare play, which itself was made possible by one of the most generous and most successful examples of artistic patronage ever made.
“Enough To Live On: The Arts of The WPA”, by Michael Maglaras, which features previously unseen rehearsal footage from Welles’s Harlem Macbeth will be released May 2015. Another source worth looking at is Internet Archive, the film We Work Again made in 1937 to celebrate the WPA programme features footage from Welles’s Harlem Macbeth and on OvGuide is a free online version of Welles’s film of Macbeth.