A Book Review Essay by Tony Williams.
As we move further into the new millennium, we appear to benefit not only from development of new technologies enabling access to visual material previously unavailable, but also the emergence of important documents sometimes referred to but usually inaccessible to the general reader outside archives. Print appears in retreat before the internet with academic and mainstream companies reluctant to publish important material due to fallacious supposed “market value” concerns that should not tip the scales in a certain direction. So it is gratifying to see smaller non-university/mainstream presses such as Bear Manor, McFarland & Co, and Rowman & Littlefield disseminating informative works that would not otherwise see the light of day, due to “market” concerns of producing ephemeral material, no matter how bad its quality is. I emphasize this hideous term deliberately in quotation marks remembering the reverent tones of a former (thankfully short-lived) Chair of the English Department pronouncing in a manner reminiscent of a priest subserviently uttering the name of an unseen deity like a force whose presence and rule remained unquestioned. Such are the traits of those in institutions of higher education today who deny the critical functions in which they should engage. So much for F.R. Leavis’s “Nor Shall my Sword”!
Marching Song, a collaborative non-commercially performed theatrical production written by Orson Welles and his former headmaster Roger “Skipper Hill” of the Woodstock Illinois Todd School for Boys (a place where the future director received his formative education), owes much to the present role of an independent press such as Rowman & Littlefield. Despite its being a play and not a film, it is, nevertheless, an important historical document that has a multi-media ripple effect in view of the actor-director’s succeeding work in theatre, radio, and eventually cinema. Those who have heard many of Welles’s Mercury Theatre on the Air radio adaptations immediately recognize anticipations of cinematic effect in productions such as the 1938 Dracula whose sound effects and the collaborative score of Bernard Hermann offer a tempting foretaste of “The Shape of Things to Come.” This early play reveals the emergence of a talent owing much to the creative environment of the Todd School. It was an establishment unthinkable in today’s stifling Benthamite “Brave New World” educational environment of schools and universities increasingly subjected to mechanized impositions of metric and rubric statistical modes of arbitrary assessment – to say nothing of recent idiotic imposition of new compulsory questionnaires involving exports to foreign countries that have nothing to do with the Arts and Humanities. No wonder Orson expressed skepticism over Cybill Shepherd’s university education when he asked about her background on first meeting her!
At its most creative, cinema should not be seen in isolation from the other Arts. Theatre is no exception, whether it occurs in the pre-Revolutionary Tsarist era work of Yakov Protazanoz (1881-1845), the films of Joseph L. Manciewicz (1909-1993), or the theatrical achievements of Larry Cohen (1936-2019), an area that Steve Mitchell’s King Cohen (2018) had no space to cover.(1) Marching Song is no exception. Although John Brown does appear intermittently in the play, he is not its focus. Rather the attention rests upon different perspectives of those who know him and evaluate positive and negative aspects of his present and future historical significance. Similarly, Citizen Kane sees its central character through the eyes and perspectives of those who thought they knew him closely. Both productions supply no conveniently comforting resolutions for their respective audiences but leave the material ambiguous and open to interpretation. Critics such as David Walsh note that the epic nature of this play owes much not just to Shakespeare but also to influences of German playwrights, such as Max Reinhardt and Georg Buchner, which Welles must certainly have been aware of since he followed reports of European dramatic developments with keen interest. Buchner penned Danton’s Death, which Welles directed and produced for the New York stage in 1938. Welles possibly knew about the Max Reinhardt 1916 German stage version. Welles and Hill wrote a more complex and mature production about Brown far superior to that Warner Bros’s studio version Santa Fe Trail (1940) featuring Raymond Massey as a demented Brown with Errol Flynn as Jeb Stuart and the future Gipper as George Armstrong Custer! (2) (David Walsh has already reviewed the publication and interviewed its editor on World Socialist Web Site, to which I direct the reader.)
Marching Song is an exemplary publication in many ways. Opening with Welles’s touching 1982 eulogy to the editor’s grandmother, the book contains a magnificent preface by Simon Callow emphasizing how important Hill’s mentorship of the young Welles was in that very creative environment that the Todd school represented, one that puts many traditional establishments past, present, and futire, to shame. Without the encouragement of Hill, it is doubtful whether the future director would have gone on to contribute to the artistic glory of innovative cinema. Hill suggested the idea for the play to the young seventeen-year-old and both collaborated positively in a common enterprise that they both fully understood in beginning the first of Welles’s interrogation of “the notion of greatness.” (xi) Following preface and acknowledgements in this new edition from Rowman & Littlefield (2019), Tarbox supplies an informative essay “The Gestation of Genius: Orson Welles, Roger Hill, and the Road to Marching Song.” Illustrated by archive material and photos, it sets the stage (excuse the pun!) by presenting not Larry Cohen’s once Website featured “Screenplays for your Imagination” but a play capturing one’s cognitive theatrical historically informed intelligence. This occurs not just by its deep understanding as to what theater can really do, but also in revealing a complexity of character caught in changing historical circumstances that have relevance for the future. Relevance extends not just to the world of the 1930s that refused the opportunity of commercial production (4) but also to our present era, as current events obviously reveal.
Despite early and enthusiastic flaws that can easily receive forgiveness when one reads the work in its entirely, the reader feels a sense of complexity and contradiction aiming to challenge audiences in a manner most theatrical and cinematic mainstream productions avoid. Like Citizen Kane, no real convenient audience-friendly resolution occurs. Instead, competing issues concerning the personal, the political, and the historical appear (and I’ll leave more details of the plot for the reader to discover). They also include questioning of the necessity for violence even in a good cause (that appears in Alan Moore’s original version of V for Vendetta but noticeably absent from the film). In Santa Fe Trail, Massey’s Brown is a one-dimensionally depicted fanatic who may have posthumously won the battle but lost the ideological war for those below the Mason-Dixon Line revering the “Lost Cause” and seeing defeat as due to the dangerous inspiration of a solitary fanatic. Seen in the perspective of Marching Song, Santa Fe Trail is another version of Hollywood having its cake and eating it. North (Ronald Regan’s Custer) and South (Flynn’s Jeb Stuart) unite for what may be the last positive time in pre-Civil War America by arresting a dangerous fanatic (whose liberated slaves do not seem at all happy to be freed) who threatens the State of the Union and whose influence will posthumously achieve that effect a few years hence. Despite the notable absence of Colonel Robert E. Lee as one of the historical participants, Southern audiences would find little offense in Santa Fe Trail since Jim Crow had licked some of the wounds of defeat. Hill and Welles present a more complex depiction noting the conflicting sides of a person who will soon become a legend as Anderson does in his line describing Brown’s son in terms familiar to descriptions of William Blake (1857-1927), that also apply to his father.
“God in his wisdom has hung only a thin veil between his world and ours – between lunacy and inspiration there isn’t anything at all.” (66)
Later, young John defines the nature of inspiration in a long and poignant speech.
Inspiration is a kind of happy song, it’s like a spring rain shower falling soft and stricken on young leaves, it’s like a ray of dawn sunshine, smiling and pointing at the mountain-tops…It’s the footsteps of a whole nation, marching in the chains they was born in! That’s what it is! You don’t have to be simple to hear that echoing and marching in your heart, do you? John Brown hears it, and knows what it means. (79)
The play continues to reveal that this poetic inspiration is not individual but historical and collective. One key figure may die but his vision will become collective.
Yet, as we know today, the promise remains unfilled in its wider reverberations.
Tarbox recognizes and, to his credit, adds an epilogue – “The Social Conscience of Orson Welles” – demonstrating that his beliefs were not opportunistic but permanent and continued to the end of his life. Mentioning the 1936 Harlem Macbeth and casting of Jack Carter as Mephistopheles in his Dr. Faustus production, Tarbox also refers to Welles’ 1941 stage version of Richard Wright’s Native Son, featuring his former Banquo, Canada Lee, in the leading role. Then follow transcripts of Welles’s five 1946-radio broadcasts condemning the blinding of returning veteran Isaac Woodard Jr. returning to Jim Crow territory whose inhabitants remained oblivious to the real issues, consequences of a War designed to end the type of treatment he received. Welles’s commentaries represent his version of Zola’s J ’Accuse designed not just to name and shame those responsible but also to espouse beliefs he sincerely held. Welles was no opportunistic “Winter Soldier” in the cause of racial justice. His sympathy towards minority characters in the original screenplays of The Lady from Shanghai reveal this but times were again changing for the worst and the acquittal of the guilty party in the Woodard case revealed once more an America turning once again towards the negative sides of its character as it would do constantly in future decades. The Red Scare reaction and accompanying assault on proponents of Civil Rights probably represented other influences for Welles to go to Europe, while others having similar radical ideas would soon pay the price.
Yet he never recanted and a 1983 speech at an anti-nuclear rally condemning hate (reproduced by Tarbox) again reveals where Welles really stood, despite the humiliations he endured for the rest of his life. The final paragraphs reveal the relevance of Marching Song today with citation of polls from 2018 revealing that 64% of Americans realized the dangers of continuing racism and 30% denying it to be a “major problem.” (166)
Significant works contain a relevance not just to their period of origin but also beyond. In his astute editing, Todd Tarbox recognizes the validity of this important axiom making his edition of Marching Song all the more relevant today.
I hope that the reception of this play should lead to the publication of Bright Lucifer and the reprinting of another important Hills-Wells collaboration Everybody’s Shakespeare.
- Thanks to McFarland, I devoted an entire chapter to this special activity of the director in both editions of my Larry Cohen: The Radical Allegories of an American Filmmaker (1997/2014). I since learned that his great, unproduced screenplay about Charles Lindbergh, Fallen Eagle, was originally performed theatrically as was Captivity ruined by the producers.
- For completists, here is the link to the film itself. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JsFvyYZ4ZP0. As for the later racial sensibilities of “The Gipper” as Governor of California in 1971 and future President, see also https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/31/us/politics/ronald-reagan-richard-nixon-racist.html.
- See David Walsh, “Marching Song, play co-written by Orson Welles about abolitionist John Brown, to be published after 85 years”, 20 July 2019. https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2019/07/02/marc-j02.html; Walsh, “A conversation with Todd Tarbox, editor of Marching Song” 2 July 2019. https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2019/07/02/tarb-j02.html.
- Despite Broadway lack of interest, the play did receive a world premiere at the Woodstock Opera House on June 7th-8th directed by the author’s father. (41-42). Significantly, Norman Rodway (1929-2001),who played Hotspur in Chimes at Midnight, would later appear in the title role of a BBC 1978 television version of Danton’s Death. Thanks to Ray Kelly of wellesnet.com. who has tracked this surviving copy for me. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=akTm2AmTEZs&fbclid=IwAR0l672EFVWQNylBedhuvfZH71HD8y739aWPu9yqNxH5BRs183VIz7WpZpE In 1963, Rodway played Stephen Dedalus in a BBC TV version of James Joyce’s early novels, Stephen D. Those belonged to the time when BBC TV was known for quality dramas.
Tony Williams is Professor and Area Head of Film studies in the Department of English, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. He is also a Contributing Editor to Film International.