Orson’s Shadow

Steppenwolf Theatre Company

By Albert Williams

Orson Welles is a self-made man and how he loves his Maker….He is a producer of plays in kingly fashion, independent as a signpost in all he does….One perquisite of greatness he lacks: artistic integrity. Perhaps he has burgeoned too early and too wildly….But it will come with praise and age.

–Kenneth Tynan on Orson Welles

He’s like a blank page and he’ll be whatever you want him to be. He’ll wait for you to give him a cue, and then he’ll try to be that sort of person.

–Kenneth Tynan on Laurence Olivier

I like you…but you can be too fucking tactless for words.

–Laurence Olivier to Kenneth Tynan

It’s the spring of 1960, and British drama critic and would-be impresario Kenneth Tynan has an idea. He’ll arrange for his friend Orson Welles to stage the London premiere of Eugene Ionesco’s Paris hit Rhinoceros as a vehicle for Sir Laurence Olivier. America’s most innovative and controversial director and England’s greatest and most famous actor working together for the first time–what could possibly go wrong?

Almost everything, as it turns out in Orson’s Shadow, Austin Pendleton’s astute, often moving, deliciously dishy new play, receiving its world premiere in a marvelously acted bare-bones production at Steppenwolf Theatre’s garage. In Pendleton’s portrait Welles and Olivier admire each other’s work greatly, but each has an oversize ego and a bottomless well of insecurity to match his titanic talent. There’s rivalry as well as respect between Orson and “Sir Larry.” Welles–who’ll take almost any job to finance his forthcoming movie Chimes at Midnight, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays in which he will star as Falstaff–is all too keenly aware that the stark, raw vision of Shakespeare he displayed in his 1948 Othello and 1952 Macbeth is far less commercially viable than the glossier style Olivier established in his 1945 Henry V. And Olivier, as petty and profane in private as he is lordly in public, still nurses a grudge against Welles for being Hollywood’s wunderkind in the late 30s, when Olivier was still struggling for movie-industry acceptance. He’s also appalled by the way Welles has squandered his youthful promise in personal self-indulgence and willful independence.

Yet Olivier agrees to the project proposed by Tynan, who’s anxious not only to help Welles but to win the post of dramaturge at Olivier’s soon-to-open National Theatre. Olivier is a superstar, but he knows he can’t rest on his laurels. His Henry V may have been the cinematic equivalent of Winston Churchill’s morale-boosting radio speeches during World War II, but after all Churchill won the war and lost the next election. Postwar audiences are flocking to a new kind of theater that Olivier barely understands–the kitchen-sink realism of John Osborne and Arnold Wesker and the existentialist absurdism of Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco. Rhinoceros, he thinks, might be a perfect follow-up to his successful appearance in Osborne’s The Entertainer. Even more enticing, Rhinoceros will feature Joan Plowright, Olivier’s costar in The Entertainer–and his lover, whom he hopes to marry as soon as he can divorce his manic-depressive wife, Vivien Leigh. (Plowright and Welles are old friends, it turns out: she played a black cabin boy in Welles’s otherwise all-male London stage version of Moby Dick.) So what if Welles has a troublesome reputation for unreliability and a penchant for gimmicky productions whose technical effects overshadow the actors? (The title Orson’s Shadow refers to a lighting effect in Moby Dick in which Welles’s shadow loomed on a scrim.) If Welles doesn’t work out, Olivier can always fire him.

There’s no business like show business, as they say. If Pendleton’s byzantine story sounds a little improbable, it’s nevertheless mostly true. Welles did direct Rhinoceros at the Royal Court–or rather tried to, until Olivier began redirecting the show and finally banned Welles from the theater. (Welles made a showy appearance on opening night, noisily dictating lighting and sound cues via microphone from the audience, but everyone knew it was Olivier’s staging.) The show was a hit partly because of the scandal that erupted when Leigh, then in New York with the Broadway play Duel of Angels, announced to the press that Olivier was in love with Plowright and that she would give him a divorce. (Ironically, Plowright quickly dropped out of Rhinoceros to avoid the glare of publicity; Maggie Smith took over her role.)

Only in one crucial detail does Pendleton depart from the historical record: Tynan never had anything to do with the Rhinoceros project. Welles didn’t need Tynan to bring him together with Olivier, who in fact had produced Welles’s Othello in London several years earlier. Nor did Tynan need Welles to help him meet Olivier, as Pendleton suggests; they’d already met at a party at Noel Coward’s, where Olivier was unfailingly gracious to the young critic despite resenting Tynan’s negative review of A Streetcar Named Desire, whose London production Olivier had directed with Vivien Leigh in the lead. In fact, Tynan almost certainly would never have proposed Rhinoceros to Welles or Olivier: he’d made his dislike of Ionesco’s work well known in a London Observer essay that prompted a raging debate in the newspaper’s letters pages, with correspondence pouring in from, among others, Welles.

But if Tynan’s role in the story is historically inaccurate, it nonetheless has the ring of poetic truth. Tynan was a close friend of Welles, whom he considered a sort of father figure (to Welles’s disconcertment), and of course he was an adviser to Olivier, who did appoint him dramaturge for the National Theatre when it opened in 1963. Moreover, Pendleton’s portrayal of Tynan as sickly and stuttering, impudent and passionate, starry-eyed and deviously manipulative is right on the mark. For the first act and a half of Orson’s Shadow, Tynan makes an apt narrator-observer of the Olivier-Welles conflict. He’s our onstage surrogate, the little man holding his own in the company of quarreling giants: “everybody’s adviser…and nobody’s boss, not even my own,” as Tynan once described himself. Only he’s more articulate than we could ever be, which makes him a perfect storyteller. “I thought if they’re capable of greatness they should bloody well achieve it,” he says in Pendleton’s play about his famous friends. “What I see now is that they’ve done anything of any worth at all is a miraculous achievement, because they are, in fact, insane.”

Tynan also establishes the tone of light absurdity in Orson’s Shadow, breaking the fourth wall to tell the audience important background information even as he ruminates on how problematic it is for playwrights to convey such information. Take his description of his friendship with Welles: “I followed him for years all over Europe, like a yapping hound pursuing a large, drifting air balloon, as he floated about after his exile from Hollywood in 1948, trying to raise money for his films himself.” We get what we need to know imparted by a narrator ironically aware of just how contrived such a speech is. It’s an ingenious stroke, and no character but Tynan could pull it off. Olivier, Welles, Plowright, and the unstable Leigh–who, in the play’s most pyrotechnic scene, barges into a Rhinoceros rehearsal and turns before our eyes from a mischievously genteel kitten into a savage, tormented tigress–are all too obsessed with their own problems to act as a detached but well-informed narrator. The play’s only other character, Welles’s devoted, handsome, naive young Irish assistant Sean, is charmingly clueless about who these temperamental eccentrics are–even Welles himself. “I heard he knows Rita Hayworth,” Sean says to Tynan about his boss. “Well, he was married to her,” Tynan replies, astonished at the lad’s ignorance. “Oh,” says Sean in wide-eyed admiration. “So he fucked her then?”

Tynan is the play’s most ingenious contrivance and potentially its most interesting character. But he’s also its biggest problem. His presence is misleading, for one thing. It’s all too easy for audiences–and even critics who don’t check their facts (the Sun-Times’s Hedy Weiss wrote that the project was “instigated by Tynan”)–to assume Pendleton is being truthful about Tynan’s participation in the Rhinoceros production. Reportedly an earlier draft of the script had a section in which Tynan admits he never had anything to do with the show, but the passage was cut by opening night.

A more fundamental flaw is the way Tynan retreats in the last half of the play, supposedly forced offstage by a cough that turns out to be an early symptom of the emphysema that killed him. Having established Tynan as the play’s narrator at the beginning, Pendleton should have stuck with him; instead he transfers narrative duties to Plowright, on the rationalization that she’s the only character still alive today. That’s patently illogical: we’ve already become accustomed to Tynan speaking from the grave. Much more important is the fact that Tynan is a character we can care about. Olivier and Welles are fascinating but too removed from our sphere to engage our emotions. Watching them wrangle is a little like watching the Ray Harryhausen movie Clash of the Titans, in which the aged Olivier–as the Greek god Zeus, no less–bickers with his fellow deities (played by the likes of Maggie Smith and Claire Bloom) while turning his human enemies into stop-motion animation figures. And while Olivier’s turbulent relationship with Leigh is compelling and moving, it’s a subplot here. Tynan–of whom we have a much less vivid impression from real life than we do of Olivier, Welles, Plowright, or Leigh–is more accessible, more on our level as a chronicler of this petulant pantheon. And if we’d been drawn into his emotional conflict–his guilt at setting into motion a disaster that further besmirches his friend Orson’s tarnished reputation–Orson’s Shadow would have had a greater impact.

Still, there’s no denying the fascination of Orson’s Shadow as a sort of modern showbiz version of Henry IV, Part 2–or of Welles’s Chimes at Midnight, which despite piss-poor sound and other technical deficiencies has proved to be one of the greatest of all Shakespearean films. As Olivier caustically reminds Welles, Henry IV, Part 2 is about “an old drunk who seriously thinks he has the right to the attentions of a king”; and by the end of Orson’s Shadow, Welles has become the fat, foolish Falstaff to Olivier’s Henry V, the ribald prince turned ruthless ruler. Pendleton shrewdly connects the two celebrities’ offstage personalities and on-screen roles, also reflecting more generally on the mad, messy world of the theater in all its hothouse insularity. He understands well the arrogance and insecurity of those in the theater–their shyness and vanity, their dedication to craft and personal self-indulgence (the tubercular Leigh and emphysemic Tynan smoke cigarettes, while Welles frantically pops diet pills before gorging on rare steaks and red wine), their need to experiment and their fear of failure, their sophistication and superstitiousness (a running gag involves Welles and Olivier’s terror at hearing the name “Macbeth” spoken in a theater–it’s notoriously bad luck to refer to Shakespeare’s tragedy as anything other than “the Scottish play”), their compassion and cruelty, their camaraderie and competitiveness. On a more universal level, Orson’s Shadow is concerned with the anxieties of middle age, as Olivier and Welles find themselves facing uncertain futures, simultaneously lionized for and haunted by past triumphs–in Olivier’s case the wartime success of Henry V and That Hamilton Woman (Churchill’s favorite film), in Welles’s his teenage triumphs at the Todd School in Woodstock, Illinois, and of course the never-to-be-equaled brilliance of Citizen Kane.

The success of Orson’s Shadow depends in large part on the leading actors, who must convincingly re-create characters familiar from innumerable film and TV appearances. Director David Cromer has cast the show brilliantly, then guided the players skillfully through performances that transcend mere impersonation. John Judd (the ferocious Roy Cohn of Cromer’s Angels in America a couple of seasons back) is an uncanny Olivier: with his grayed hair and graceful, slightly oblique deportment, he perfectly captures the elegance, self-dramatizing insecurity, animal alertness, and pervasive sense of guilt that characterized the minister’s son who became England’s greatest classical actor. Jeff Still, heavily padded under his high-collared black shirt and suit jacket, is too short for the towering Welles, and his voice (except for an offstage voice-over at the top of the show) lacks Welles’s ripe, booming resonance; but he effectively suggests the man’s piercing intelligence and nagging frustration. Lee Roy Rogers is beautiful and terrifying as Leigh, not the fiery beauty of Gone With the Wind but the slightly faded yet still lovely Leigh of Ship of Fools–“as feminine as magnolia blossoms, as dangerous as a viper, as complacent as a cat, and as richly stunning as a Sargent portrait,” as Chicago Sun-Times critic Eleanor Keen described Leigh when she brought Duel of Angels to the Blackstone (now the Merle Reskin) in the fall of 1960. Sarah Wellington’s pert, girlish Joan is a vivid reminder of the smart, sexy youngster Plowright once was. Dominic Conti is excellent as Sean, the outsider who finds himself dragged into his elders’ power struggles. And David Warren’s sickly, stuttering Tynan strikes just the right balance between bossiness, obsequiousness, curiosity, and distress as he watches his pet project spin out of control. Jennifer Keller’s period-perfect costumes enhance the actors’ extraordinary performances, while Mark Loman’s minimalist set and J.R. Lederle’s shadowy lighting aptly suggest the bare spaces of a backstage tragicomedy as theatrical as anything put before a paying audience.

Speaking of paying audiences, it’s worth noting that Orson’s Shadow is only $10 a ticket, a bargain-basement price for a play as interesting and acting as excellent as anything you’d find on the higher-priced main stage of Steppenwolf (or Goodman or Court, for that matter, not to mention the extravagantly expensive Loop venues). Even with its flaws, Orson’s Shadow is must-see entertainment for anyone drawn by the lure and lore of the theater.