Orson Welles, Shakespeare, and Popular Culture

Orson Welles, Shakespeare, and Popular Culture

Orson Welles, Shakespeare, and Popular Culture

Orson Welles, Shakespeare, and Popular Culture

Synopsis

From the earliest days of radio to the golden age of television and beyond, Orson Welles has occupied a unique place in American culture. In Orson Welles, Shakespeare, and Popular Culture, Michael Anderegg considers Welles's influence as an interpreter of Shakespeare for twentieth-century American popular audiences. Exploring his works on stage, radio, and in film, Anderegg reveals Welles's unique position as an artist of both high and popular culture. At once intellectually respected and commercially viable, the Shakespeare Welles gave the American public reflects his unique genius as a writer, director, and actor.

From early plays in school to the Everybody's Shakespeare books and the Mercury Text Records adaptations, Anderegg illustrates how Welles tried to transcend the barriers between the classical and the popular. He argues that "Welles the Shakespearean" sought to be a restorer as well as an innovator by drawing on his knowledge of the abundant, lowbrow popularity of Shakespeare in nineteenth-century America. Welles's three film adaptations of Shakespeare, Macbeth, Othello, and Chimes at Midnight, are examined. From his peculiarly "Scottish" version of Macbeth, to his postmodern reading of the history plays in Chimes at Midnight, Welles's interpretive strategies--and the public's reception of them--are considered. In the final chapter, Anderegg surveys Welles's work as an actor--his legacy and myth--and reexamines the common view that he squandered his talents in the era after Citizen Kane. Taking into account his non-Shakespearean roles, Anderegg shows Welles to have been a markedly "Shakespearean" actor and, in his versions of the Bard's plays, a key arbiter of culture.

Excerpt

I feel obliged to begin by paraphrasing the kind of sentence that inaugurates many a study of Shakespeare's plays: “Why,” a reader may ask, “do we need another book on Orson Welles?” a great deal has been written, particularly in recent years, on Welles. in the last decade or so, from around the time of his death in 1985, five long biographies (one of which is the first volume of a projected two), totaling some 2,500 printed pages, have been published. What more is there to say? One answer to that question could be that what the world now needs is a short book on Orson Welles. This, at least, I feel confident of having provided—and something more as well. Neither a biography, on the one hand, nor a study of Welles as film auteur (of which several excellent examples already exist), on the other, my study of Welles adopts an approach that might be thought analogous to the activity of a geologist who, unable to examine the earth's crust as a totality, drills a hole in the ground and extracts a core sample for closer study. My core sample has as its focus Welles as popularizer of Shakespeare, and my thesis is that Welles holds an unparalleled place in American life as a mediator between high and low culture, between the culture of the printed word and the electronic culture of the modern era. Welles, I will argue, was at once a classicist, a modernist, and a postmodernist, and in attempting to work out the tensions among these modes and cultural stances, he, perhaps inevitably, fashioned a body of work that intensified as much as it resolved those tensions.

Employing archival materials of various kinds, I consider selected aspects of Welles's activities as actor, producer, director, and writer in theater, radio, film, television, and sound recordings. I place particular empha-

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