The lonely boy who landed on our shore

Week IV

The young Orson Welles: slept by turf fires in Connemara.

The young Orson Welles: slept by turf fires in Connemara.

It is possible that when the 16 years-old Orson Welles embarked from the SS Baltic in Galway Bay in August 1931, he visited the Taibhdhearc theatre. In any event, he struck up a friendship with a Galway actor. Two months later he visited the Gate Theatre in Dublin, and went backstage to see his friend. Clearly impressed by what he saw, he left a note for its founding partners, Mícheál MacLiammóir and Hilton Edwards, boldly proclaiming ‘Orson Welles, star of the New York Theatre Guild, would consider appearing in one of your productions, and hopes you will see him for an appointment.’

The only thing Orson was the star of at the time, was his absolute self confidence. He had never stood on a stage in his life up to that moment. But Mícheál and Hilton were captivated. Hilton saw a great actor in the making; Mícheál, however, fell in love with him. He described the effect of Orson’s voice: ‘A very tall young man with a chubby face, full powerful lips, and disconcerting Chinese eyes...But the voice, with its brazen, transatlantic sonority, was already that of a preacher, a leader, a man of power; it boomed and boomed its way through the dusty scene -dock as if it would crush down the little Georgian walls and rip up the floor.’

Orson was hired. Hilton was excited as he had been looking for an actor charismatic enough to play the key role of Duke Karl Aleander in his forthcoming production of Jew Suss. Rehearsals began. It was immediately obvious that Orson was born for the part. Mícheál, however, became increasingly jealous. He resented

Hilton’s fussing over Orson, and Orson’s obvious talent. About his lover Hilton need not have worried. Orson was, and would always remain, enthusiastically heterosexual. But Mícheál’s other great fear, that he would be upstaged by this newcomer, was confirmed when Orson received a standing ovation for his performance on the play’s opening night.

Orson was probably the only one in the house who knew it was his professional debut, but the response of the Dublin audience that night stayed with him for ever. “ It was thunderous and totally unexpected,” he told his biographer Barbara Leaming many years later. “ I got more acclaim for that than for anything I’ve done since!”

Bought a donkey

Orson Welles’ time in Ireland was to impact on him for the rest of his, largely unfulfilled, creative life. He arrived here in rather unusual circumstances. Born in Wisconsin in 1915, Orson’s mother died when he was nine years of age; his father died from an alcohol-related illness six years later. Thereafter he fell under the guardianship of Maurice Bernstein, a Jewish doctor in Chicago. When the precocious Orson announced that he was leaving school at 16 years of age, it was impossible to stop him. He agreed that he might consider a university education later, but first he wanted to make a cultural tour of Europe. This was agreed. Orson, however, spent his entire time in Ireland.

While in Galway, he must have heard of Pádraic Ó Conaire’s M’Asal Beag Dubh* because he bought a donkey, called him Sheeog, and set out for

Connemara. The young Orson had ideas of being an artist. He spent the day painting (he later threw away all his paintings ), and the evenings, if the weather allowed, sleeping in the open by turf fires. He had to be a lonely boy at times, but his time of wandering through the mountains seemed to heal a lot of his hurt. He sold Sheeog, and headed for Inisheer, where he learned Irish dancing, and probably enjoyed himself sufficiently to want more company. He returned to Galway in October, and took the train to Dublin.

Genuine affection

Mícheál MacLiammóir always thought himself as the great lead actor of the Gate Theatre, which had been put on a sound financial footing by Lord Edward and Christine Longford in 1930, giving it the freedom to offer Dublin audiences modern European plays. Even though he loved Orson, Mícheál was determined not to be overshadowed by his undoubted talent. He succeeded in keeping the young American tied to relatively minor roles, and legend has it that props would mysteriously disappear just as Orson reached for them, or scenery would block the audience’s view of him.

Nevertheless when Orson returned to New York in 1932 his mind was firmly made up. He now had a passion for the theatre, and he was determined to become an actor/director. He would take Hollywood by storm! In 1937 he set up the Mercury Theatre (which would create mayhem with its radio production of War of the Worlds ), and he stunned the world by making his masterpiece Citizen Kane, at only 25 years of age.** But that was all he really achieved. He became a peripheral figure in Hollywood, wandering the world gaining weight, and appearing in mediocre films in order to fund his grandiose, and sometimes doomed, movie projects.

And despite MacLiammóir’s attempts to scupper his career, Orson remained indebted to the two men who believed in him all those years before. He regarded them with genuine affection. He invited both men to be the principal guest artists at his summer school at Woodstock, Illinois, in 1934. In the early 1950s Orson, recognising MacLiammóir’s acting talents, and clearly forgiving him his little jealousies, asked him to play the major part of Iago in his Othello; and came back to Dublin to make a short film with the partners called Return to Glennascaul, a sort of ghost story set in the Phoenix Park. MacLiammóir also starred in a later TV production of King Lear in 1954.

Orson Welles never made money from his films. He died, alone and broke, in a cottage in the Hollywood hills on October 10 1985. In 1966, while filming Chimes At Midnight, where the Shakespearean character Falstaff was played by an immense Orson Welles, MacLiammóir told Simon Callow, with sadness in his voice, that Orson “was one of the three deep loves of my life.”

NOTES: *Prehaps Pádraic Ó Conaire ( February 28 1882- October 6 1928 ) is due for a reappraisal. Born in Galway Pádraic was orphaned at a young age, and spent most of his childhood living with his uncle at Ros Muc. He emigrated to London to work in the civil service, became involved with the Gaelic League, and wrote short stories in Irish. He returned to Galway in 1914, leaving his wife Molly Ní Mhanais and their four children, behind. He survived on meagre earnings gleaned from teaching at Gaeltacht summer schools, organising Gaelic League events, and writing. The story M’Asal Beag Dudh describes his amusing attempt to buy a donkey at the Galway market for company on his wanderings. He died at 46 years of age in poverty having written 26 books, 473 stories and six plays.

** It has often been suggested that the lonely childhood of Charles Foster Kane had echoes of Welles’ own earlier life.

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