I believe there was a monument missing on my recent trip to the glorious ancient city of Rome: a great orator statue of the Orson Welles. Yes, a bronze cast of the bearded bard with a benevolent grin and his right arm would be purposefully lifted in the air. Many ancient Roman rulers, such as Marcus Aurelius, requested the sculptor to depict their right arm raised on their propaganda statues as the symbol of a great orator who has the approval of the people. Orson Welles won over audiences early on in his storied career as the booming voice on the radio programs March of Time (1935) and The Mercury Theatre on Air (1938). His mastery of storytelling achieved celebrity status, which was uncommon at the time for radio personalities.
Of course Orson is best known for his magnum opus, or should I say magnum Orson, Citizen Kane (1941). Orson was an incredibly prolific powerhouse, always evolving creatively. Of the many Shakespearean adaptions sprinkled throughout his career (ten of which were on the radio), John Falstaff in Chimes at Midnight (1965) is perhaps the most daring portrayal of all.
I must admit I tend to zone out when reading and even listening to anything Shakespeare. The heaviness of the prose and verse is difficult to master. In the various Hollywood adaptions of Shakespeare, actors gravitate towards a commonplace delivery of the lines. There seems to be a misunderstanding of poetry necessarily having to be delivered poetically in an exalted fashion. After all, Shakespeare’s work deals with the whole range of human emotion in extremes. Orson Welles demonstrates through his acting that giving proper due to the disgruntled, grotesque or even condescending aspects of Shakespeare’s work is inherently necessary.
Orson’s finely tuned instrument, his voice, is the most effective medium for producing a rousing adaption of Chimes at Midnight.
Let’s take a look at the following lines:
When thou art king, let not us that are squires of the night’s body be called thieves of the day’s beauty. Let us be Diana’s Foresters, Gentlemen of the Shade, Minions of the Moon; and let men say we be men of good government, being governed by the sea is, by our noble and chaste mistress of the moon, under whose countenance we steal.
For only the span of sixty four words, Orson Welles creates a miniature masterpiece of a complete narrative arc. It is quite a remarkable feat for someone to give such specialized treatment to a piece of dialogue that is not even the climax of the entire story.
He begins by tickling the words out, amused at his own advice that he gives, not seeming to care who takes it. He invites Prince Henry and the audience to partake in his amusement. He is defending his distasteful actions to Prince Henry by at first engaging in insincere mockery and then unsuspectingly shifting into a more serious defense of his actions.
Orson raises his voice when he delivers the line “let us be Diana’s Foresters,” exalting his position. He adds a whoosh noise to “gentlemen,” mimicking the sound of the letter “h” to balance with the “h” in the corresponding word, “shade.” This is where I find the genius of Orson. He personifies the word “gentlemen” by giving it a gentlemanly quality of quietly yielding to the other phrases in the sentence by whispering. Rounding out the trio is his treatment of “Minions of the Moon.” Orson carefully annunciates every letter of “minions” as if they truly are obeying “the moon.”
Orson gives his typical lower register of importance to the phrase “men of good government” which peaks the attention of the audience. This is the most important line because it is the crux of his cautionary advice to Prince Henry. After all, Prince Henry is in power and Orson acts as a surrogate father figure.
Another facet that is rather audacious is Orson’s lack of interest in having the polished appearance of a traditional leading man. Despite literally looking like he rolled out of bed and onto the set, Orson’s appearance does not illicit a reaction of disgust. Keep in mind that Orson Welles directed this film. The unflattering camera angles and lighting serve the purpose of driving the story, not his vanity.
The willingness of being vulnerable is what allows Orson Welles to physically and emotionally embody his character in Chimes at Midnight. It is astonishing how he transcends primarily through his voice. When I saw Chimes at Midnight at the Harvard Film Archive a year ago, his shadow loomed large on the walls of the theatre and his voice, his voice dominated it all. It came up under the seats and out from behind the screen. It was so unexpectedly ethereal, it shocked me. Why was I so drawn to Orson when was doing everything physically in his power to drive me away? I don’t think I’ll call it genius, that’s art.