Academic journal article Multicultural Shakespeare

"All's Well That Ends Welles": Orson Welles and the "Voodoo" Macbeth

Academic journal article Multicultural Shakespeare

"All's Well That Ends Welles": Orson Welles and the "Voodoo" Macbeth

Article excerpt

The quotation in my title was voiced by a frustrated official at RKO Studios, which, in late 1942, hoped to rid itself of Welles in order to release the company from any further financial obligation to the director. Following the success of Citizen Kane (1941) and during the editing of The Magnificent Amber sons (1942), Welles had been more or less AWOL in Brazil working on a never-completed film project, tentatively titled It's All True, which was over budget as well as overdue. But I would suggest that the quote might also be an apt one when considering Welles's attempts at re-interpreting Shakespeare throughout his career, for not only does it turn Welles's beloved Bard's own words against him, but it also suggests the complex and vexed connection between Welles and Shakespeare. While the "Voodoo" Macbeth did not ultimately end Welles or his career (and in hindsight may have done just the opposite), there was enough toil and trouble leading up to the debut of the play that many thought, and others vehemently wished, that the curse of the Scottish play had traversed the ocean to find a new home at the Lafayette Theatre in Harlem, the renovated auditorium where the production premiered in 1936. Although funded under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration's (WPA) Federal Theatre Project centered in Washington D.C., the program was locally administrated by John Houseman for the Negro Theatre unit of the FTP.

The essay focuses on three aspects of Welles's production of the "Voodoo" Macbeth. After looking first at Welles's engagement with Shakespeare in general, I turn my attention to his adaptation of the tragedy, including his relocating of the play from Scotland to Haiti, as well as his supplanting of the wayward sisters with Voodoo priestess. The third section considers Welles and race more generally in the five years following the 1936 performance in order to show that the all-black production may have influenced Welles both professionally and personally at a pivotal point in the twenty-year old's life.

Welles and Shakespeare

Welles's early exposure and interest in Shakespeare formed the foundation on which his lifelong devotion to the Bard was staged. "At the age of two he spoke fluent and considered English," claims the noted English theatre critic Kenneth Tynan (13), and before he was three, he "was familiar with the plays of Shakespeare from his mother's readings." One story even features Welles throwing a fit when he realized his mother was reading to him from Lamb's version of the tales condensed for children; he preferred the genuine text it seemed, and he was savvy enough to detect the difference. Welles's mother died when he was only nine, unfortunately, and his father passed away six years later, leaving Welles to his own devices as well as in charge of his own education. In a provocative portrayal from The Saturday Evening Post, published in three installments in 1940 (entitled "How to Raise a Child: The Education of Orson Welles, Who Didn't Need It"), Alva Johnston and Fred Smith (Jan. 20: 94) continue the child-prodigy and Shakespeare connection when they allege that Welles "was presenting his own versions of Shakespeare before he knew his A. B. Cs". We learn in the next installment that at a very young age, Welles's guardian, "angered at discovering a light on in the boy's room at three A.M.," crept up the stairs and "entered to find a little old man with flowing white hair and beard"; the guardian soon realized, according to numerous versions of the account, that Orson was merely "practicing King Lear" (Jan 27: 25). I cite these examples not to suggest they are free from hyperbole, but instead to show the numerous times Shakespeare is invoked in life or in legend as an early and important influence on Welles, the child prodigy par excellence.

When he was finally sent off to grade school in 1926, a fate Welles had avoided till the age of eleven, he entered the Todd School in Woodstock, Illinois, where he remained until his graduation in 1931. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.