In the shadow of greatness: Play depicts Welles, Olivier facing the terror of theatrical accomplishment
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 15 November 2005)

The year 1960 wasn't good for Orson Welles, but then most of his time on earth was less than enchanted. During the seven decades he lived, 1915-1985, things went his way for, at most, 10 years. Beginning around 1937, when he was 22, he demonstrated prodigious talent in three art forms: theatre, radio and film, the last of which he revolutionized with Citizen Kane. After that, the world anticipated his next masterpiece.

But something was eating at him, perhaps the thought that he wasn't as great as everyone imagined. For whatever reason, he went into a cruel decline that lasted till his death. He gave brilliant performances as an actor, but he seemed unable to practice the art he liked most, directing. Austin Pendleton's remarkable play, Orson's Shadow, finds Welles at 50 facing fresh failures and complaining that people think Citizen Kane is his only accomplishment: "Am I to be remembered for one movie, which I directed from my highchair?"

Orson's Shadow reveals a shrewd but sympathetic side to a familiar figure: Pendleton. Since the 1960s, his sly ability to twist almost any idea into interesting shape has made him an effective actor, director, and writer for Steppenwolf in Chicago and the Williamstown Festival in Massachusetts. In his twenties, he originated the part of Motel in Fiddler on the Roof and directed Elizabeth Taylor in The Little Foxes on Broadway.

As an actor, he carries comedy with him wherever he goes, as if he kept it in a briefcase. His ferret-like expression and his air of baffled earnestness have brought many an ordinary scene to life. In the movies, he demonstrated an early knack for being noticed by good directors. He was the eccentric philanthropist in Barbra Streisand's funniest movie, What's Up, Doc?, directed by Peter Bogdanovich, and later the condemned criminal hiding in the rolltop desk in Billy Wilder's version of The Front Page.

He worked for Mike Nichols in Catch-22 and for Otto Preminger in Skidoo. TV fans noticed him as a petulant medical examiner on Homicide: Life on the Street a few years ago. He pops up often in our living rooms on Law & Order, The West Wing and many other series.

A play about players and about the peculiar neuroses that blossom in the rich loam of the theatre, Orson's Shadow has already been produced by several U.S. theatres and this year has had a long run at the Barrow Street Theatre in Greenwich Village. It's an anthology of theatrical angst, a clever and thoughtful historical play about show business and celebrity in the mid-20th century.

Aside from Welles, the main characters are Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, Joan Plowright, and Kenneth Tynan, the last a great drama critic who was also renowned as a celebrity-worshipper. Pendleton has painstakingly trolled through the memoirs, letters and biographies of these people, put together a rather thin plot and recreated his chosen stars as comic figures drenched in pathos.

The plot turns on an actual event of 1960, the London production of Eugene Ionesco's Rhinoceros, directed by Welles with Olivier in the central role and Plowright as a secondary character. Pendleton puts Tynan in the middle of it, as a would-be impresario who believes that if he can draw Welles into this project he'll win Olivier's confidence and become the literary manager of the soon-to-be-created National Theatre. In truth Tynan did end up with that job, though not in this way. Pendleton has slightly altered history, but in a good cause: He wants to depict not only these great figures but also the insecurity and terror that go with accomplishment in the theatre.

He presents Welles as genius red in tooth and claw, capable of describing Olivier as the man who made "Hamlet look like a bad Joan Crawford movie." Pendleton's Welles has to live simultaneously with his towering stature in cinema (and all that was expected of him), his sense of persistent failure and his jealousy of those who manage their careers better. Pendleton makes us love the conceited old blowhard, even as his greatest fan, Tynan, demonstrates that the slow-motion collapse of his career was due not to vicious Hollywood executives or insensitive audiences but to Welles himself and his chronic inability to finish his films. Welles always claimed that those who considered him unreliable were either mistaken or malicious; but only a few of his friends even pretended to agree with him.

We hear nothing particularly bleak about Plowright (the only one of the five still living) but each of the others seems wounded, three of them from childhood. All of the men, not content with being star professionals, want to be star victims as well. At one point Olivier remarks, "My mother died when I was 12." Welles: "My mother died when I was nine." Tynan: "My mother died insane."

But Vivien Leigh seems the most obvious victim in this collection of heavyhearted celebrities. A great star in America after Gone with the Wind, she went to England with her husband and ended up playing Lady Olivier. She's fragile, frightened and self-despising, with schizophrenia and manic-depression just around the corner. As Olivier mentions, she went off to do a movie in Asia and came home in a straitjacket. Like everyone else she's working through a crisis in 1960. It's becoming clear that Olivier (though he still loves her) is edging her out of his life so that he can marry the wholesome, confident Plowright.

As in his own memoirs, Olivier seems the most insecure and resentful of the lot. If the story of Welles seems more poignant in personal terms, Olivier's twists and turns neatly embody the history of that long-ago period. When he turned out to be the world's most admired actor, no one was more surprised than he. He always feared being out of date, and he learned how to court the new English theatre by brilliantly playing a broken-down music-hall singer in John Osborne's The Entertainer.

In this context, Plowright represents youth and strength, the vitality and seriousness that seemed to matter more, in the new theatrical age, than glamour; Vivien Leigh appears imprisoned in the faded old theatre Olivier yearns to escape. As in the best historical plays, private life and public events move on parallel tracks and enrich each other.

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