Orson Welles' life was so encrusted with fabrication and myth that by the end, in 1985, you wonder if he knew what was true. Welles didn't much care, and given a choice, he preferred imagination. Or as he put it in the mischievous title of one of the best of his uncompleted movies, "It's All True."
Simon Callow is an English actor and director. He was prominent in "Four Weddings and a Funeral," and he wrote a fine life of Charles Laughton (Grove Press, 1988). One of the pleasures of his rich biography of Welles is that he is able to evaluate the fibs and the facts without leaving out the charm. There's already a shelf of books about Welles, including several biographies; David Thomson's awaited "Rosebud" will be published later this year by Alfred A. Knopf. Callow's formidable contribution is his insight into Welles' theatrical work.
"The Road to Xanadu," the first of two volumes, is an intimate look at Welles from his childhood through his early triumphs. First published in the U.K., this edition was printed from the British plates, which gives us British usage for this most American subject. Minor errors have gone uncorrected (a forward is not a baseball position). Callow began his research after Welles' death. The master's voice is more effectively rendered in Peter Bogdanovich's "This Is Orson Welles" (HarperCollins, 1992). Still, Callow is comprehensive without becoming archival and this book is unlikely to be surpassed.
George Orson Welles was born in Kenosha, Wis., in 1915. When he was not yet 2, he told a visiting physician, "The desire to take medicine is one of the greatest features which distinguishes men from animals." Thirty years later, the doctor was still talking about it.
Welles' father, Richard Welles, was a businessman and, in a small way, an inventor. He designed an improved automobile jack, but his son romanticized him as the true inventor of the automobile. Orson's mother died when he was 9, and Richard, always a heavy drinker, became a sort of Champagne Charlie, a man of nightclubs and of the flesh.
When Welles was 11, he entered the Todd School in Woodstock, Ill. The headmaster, Roger "Skipper" Hill, and his wife became substitute parents. "Roger Hill's Todd School provided the hothouse in which Orson Welles' exotic talents bloomed," Callow writes. "It was a stroke of destiny that put the boy into that school at that moment."
At Todd, Welles discovered directing. Other schoolboys had staged plays, but not on this scale. At age 12, "[Welles] had a clear conception of the unifying role of the director, an idea which had not yet taken root in America," Callow writes.
At 16, Welles went to Europe to pursue painting. Atop a donkey, with sketchbook and palette, he wandered the Irish countryside, stopping in Dublin, where he talked himself into leading roles at the Gate Theatre. Two years later, he was touring with Katherine Cornell.
Despite his heady accomplishments, Welles continued his wild fibs, claiming that in Morocco he spent a few weeks in the Atlas Mountains as a guest of Thami el Glaoui, the pasha of Karrakesh. Roger Hill called Welles "a magnificent Munchhausen."
Welles had announced himself a prodigy at such an early age that at 19, he seemed late delivering on his promise. Then John Houseman entered his life. Born Jacques Haussmann, a Romanian-Anglo Jew raised largely in Paris, he was educated in England and retained a public school accent all his life.
Although he was less happy at Clifton than Welles was at Todd (neither went to university) both men were marked for life by their schools. As a young man, Houseman had been an international grain dealer. The Depression put an end to that, sending him into the theater. Callow traces the personal nature of the partnership, drawing on interviews with Houseman, who died in 1988, and on "Run Through," the first volume of his memoirs.
Their first great success, for the Federal Theatre Project, was Welles' adaptation of what was called the voodoo "Macbeth." Set in Haiti, it was performed in Harlem by a black cast to great acclaim. It was clear that a director like no other had arrived.
On the heels of their success, Welles and Houseman formed the Mercury Theatre, which Houseman called "our mad plan to start a classical repertory theater in the heart of Manhattan's commercial theater district." A challenge in all theatrical biography is evoking stage productions of the past. Callow manages to apprehend Welles' and the Mercury's spirit and style.
From his earliest days, Welles didn't hesitate to shape and orchestrate classic texts. He valued theatricality and magic over psychological subtlety, always more Max Reinhardt than Stanislavsky. The most influential Mercury production, the modern dress "Julius Caesar," was set in fascist Europe with lighting that evoked the Nuremberg rally. Such dazzling ideas were not always at home on Broadway, and the Mercury's finances were precarious.