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Scenes from Show Biz

Run-Through: A Memoir

by John Houseman
Simon & Schuster, 507 pp., $9.95

John Houseman ( Jacques Haussmann of Anglo-French parentage) was born, 1902, into a world of international speculation (chiefly wheat futures), brought up in its life style of palace-hotels, chic spas, plushy motor cars, and Swiss scenery, trained to its practice in Buenos Aires and London, glorified by success as an operator moving through Kansas City, Detroit, and Seattle and then bankrupted in New York in 1929, this also quite successfully, since the sum of his liabilities was for that year modest, a meager $300,000.

Having long cherished literary hopes from his schoolboy and youthful successes in England, and having married the beautiful actress Zita Johann, he retired into letters cushioned by her earning capacity, her loyalties, and the hospitality of a Welsh aunt who owned a small house in Rockland County. Eventually, however, in spite of a few early stories published and a couple of plays produced, the literary career faded, as did also the marriage. Engaged in 1934 by the Friends and Enemies of Modern Music to direct and produce at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, an opera entitled Four Saints in Three Acts, (by Gertrude Stein and yr. serv. V.T.), which he codirected with Sir Frederick Ashton, he knew from this his first backstage involvement that the theater was to be from then on his mistress.

Houseman’s memoir takes it for granted that his readers understand the producer’s role in mounting any spectacle, but for those to whom the function is unfamiliar it may be suggested that it resembles in many ways that of a magazine editor. And though in an established situation editors and producers rarely use their own money (since its loss can be quick, huge, and therefore definitive), in an earlier or experimental stage they may find backing among friends and even risk their own slight resources. In all cases they use their own taste, which in the theater is likely to be centered at the beginning of any producer’s career on one playwright, one stage director, or one actor. Guthrie McClintic with Katharine Cornell and Richard Barr with Edward Albee, John Houseman with Orson Welles are examples.

The choice of collaborating artists—actors, scenery and costume designers, lighting specialists, a composer if needed—is only administratively the producer’s right. For the best result a joint decision with the playwright, the director, or the acting star is mandatory. Actually any dominant artist is likely to originate such choices and pass them on to the producer. The producer cannot be by-passed; nor can he in general be depended on for deep originality. Therefore one with brains, taste, and courage is the ideal—exactly the Houseman case.

The Four Saints experience had given Houseman affection and respect for black actors and confidence in his knack for summoning their qualities. And along with this his British rather wonderfully cool warmth, his considerate good manners, also British, and his elaborate cultural background in foreign letters and languages all went to make up a hand that he knew he could bid on. There was also his experience through wheat gambling in taking risks, the essence of any career in show business.

His trump card was an ace in the form of Orson Welles, aged nineteen. This association brought to both of them a phenomenal success in theater, radio, recording, and films, of which the details are history, many of these put down for the first time in Houseman’s book. They opened in the spring of 1936 at the Lafayette Theater in Harlem for the Works Progress Administration their famous black Macbeth and later that year Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus at Maxine Elliott’s on Forty-first Street, also preparing for production Marc Blitzstein’s labor movement opera, The Cradle Will Rock.

The latter, when forbidden by Washington to open at all, they transported to another theater. And thus began the Mercury Theatre, a repertory operation chiefly known for Welles’s stagings of classical plays. The Mercury made money on Blitzstein’s Cradle, on a modern-dress Julius Caesar, and on the Elizabethan Thomas Dekker’s The Shoemaker’s Holiday. They lost on Danton’s Death by Büchner and on Shaw’s Heartbreak House, ruined themselves on Five Kings, and closed.

The Mercury’s first season had for capital $10,500 contributed by friends and by an unknown who without solicitation had sent $4,500. The second season used $17,000, most of it from habitual Broadway investors. The losses on Five Kings, quite large, were shared with the Theatre Guild. Neither Houseman nor Welles had a personal fortune, though Welles was anticipating at twenty-five a bit of inheritance. This he at one point in the Mercury’s life tried unsuccessfully to sell. Sizable fees, however, from broadcasts and recordings did help out. For the team was employed by CBS as Mercury Theatre of the Air and later as the Campbell [Soup] Playhouse. It was in fact under the latter sponsorship that an over-realistic broadcast based on H. G. Wells’s War of the Worlds created a twenty-four-hour national emergency. In spite of this blunder, these weekly broadcasts went on for another year or more, with Houseman writing the scripts and Welles commuting by sleeper-plane from Hollywood. For by that time, 1939, he was engaged in a cinematic apotheosis that was to culminate in Citizen Kane.

Their cooperation had been from the beginning one of constant good will and of minimal frictions, though Welles did occasionally stage a tantrum, in one case accusing Houseman of trying to poison him. But that was late in the association and so obviously designed to avoid rehearsing something Welles was not sure about that neither mentioned it next day. Welles was full of striking production ideas, designed the layout of his own stage sets, discovered many an unknown actor and made him famous—Joseph Cotten, for instance, and Hiram Sherman—directed all the plays, and often acted in them. Houseman ran the office, paid the help when there was money, and negotiated every script and every production idea with the Communist Party’s culture commissar, a man named Jerome (for Orson under Marc Blitzstein’s guidance had become a fellow traveler).

Houseman also worked on scripts, especially for the broadcasts, matching Welles’s almost nonexistent fatigue threshold, while Augusta Weissberger, a secretary who could neither type nor take dictation, but who, like their lighting girl Jean Rosenthal, could rustle up practically anything at any time, catered to Welles’s every whim about food and drink at impossible hours. And they were impossible, for Welles loved rehearsing all night. He was often in fact obliged to, the theaters he worked in being generally in use at other times, evenings and matinees by his own performances, during the day by crews of carpenters building things backstage for the next play.

Houseman during this time lived in casual lodgings or in furnished flats shared with yr. serv., where I rarely encountered him save at breakfast, which we regularly took in French. Welles also moved frequently, married for the first time, took a house at Sneeden’s Landing, had a baby, rode to work in an aged Rolls-Royce, moved to the St. Regis, where an air-conditioned room (they were few in those days) mollified his hay fever. He managed, even early, to spend money like a star. Later, with record royalties coming in and with huge radio fees, his profligacy impressed even Hollywood. Much later, in the middle and late 1940s, with earnings very large and unpaid federal taxes no less so (by 1950 easily $200,000 and growing at compound interest) he went to live and work abroad, where he still resides.

But all that makes a third period, not covered in Houseman’s volume. His first was in New York theater and New York radio. His second began in Hollywood with Citizen Kane. And before this film was completed in 1940 Houseman had resigned from the team. A restless man who cannot bear not working, he became furiously impatient with Welles’s having loafed in Hollywood for upwards of a year, under a contract phenomenal for its generosity about both money and working conditions. Welles himself, engaged to write, direct, produce, and act in an original film on any subject he might choose, had very slowly come to the idea of using as his theme the life and career of William Randolph Hearst. Pressed for help on the script, Houseman rendered a final service to the film career by taking Herman Mankiewicz up to a mountain top and squeezing it out of him. Then he wrote to me, back in Paris, a historic letter about the break. This has been printed in my own memoirs, but is included in Run-through for its remarkably straightforward analysis of a professional partnership worn through and a friendship no longer tenable. Returned to New York, Houseman, worked with Welles once more, presenting on Broadway in 1941 Richard Wright’s Native Son.

The over-all time covered by the Welles-Houseman collaboration, begun in 1935 with Archibald MacLeish’s verse play Panic, was therefore six years. But their intense production period, which included Federal Theatre shows beginning in the spring of 1936, the Mercury Theatre of 1938 (along with records issued, mainly of readings by Welles), and the CBS broadcasts, for which Houseman wrote scripts till the fall of 1939, their continuous association before the public lasted for just three and a half years. The Mercury Theatre itself actually existed in New York for only fourteen months, another four being occupied by Five Kings, a montage of Shakespeare’s Falstaff plays, which closed out of town.

Welles created after Citizen Kane, his film about William Randolph Hearst, one other film approaching the excellence of that, The Magnificent Ambersons, after the novel by Booth Tarkington. His career, both here and in Europe, has remained big-time; but it has given to the world no such electricity as he furnished in America between the ages of twenty and twenty-six when teamed up with Houseman’s practical intelligence and ready-for-anything executive abilities. Nor has Houseman since their separation ever found another genius needing that badly his incomparable services or able to call on them so urgently.

Houseman himself has served as producer for many films of distinction—Julius Caesar, for instance, Executive Suite, Lust for Life—but he has never actually directed one. He has, however, directed stage shows as memorable as Lute Song, a musical, and the Leslie Howard Hamlet. There have also been TV programs (the CBS Lively Arts series), several sound-and-light spectacles, two documentary films, and from 1960 to 1965 forty remarkably well-acted plays produced at UCLA, in most cases directed by him. (Through those years Hollywood had maintained a pool of actors.)

His most brilliant recent operation has been the organization, aided by the late Michel Saint-Denis, of a drama division at the Juilliard School, planned after the model of similar schools set up by the French director in Strasbourg and London. Houseman’s long experience in films and theater, in handling actors and other artists, in every sort of dramatic enterprise (and one must not forget the Office of War Information with its multilingual overseas radio broadcasts, which he directed in 1942 and 1943), and his passion for high quality theater (rather than for theories of direction and methods of acting) have in three years turned his Juilliard classes into an acting instrument approaching that excellent instrument of music the Juilliard Orchestra. He has also established at Juilliard, through directing a half-dozen works of musical theater for their American Opera Project, a standard of operatic stage direction that has brought him the respect of all stage people and the unalloyed gratitude of musicians. For the staging of opera (using singers, not actors, and these normally chosen for musical reasons only) has become in recent years a matter of general concern. Not every director succeeds with it as Houseman seems to have done.

The present memoir ends with him shouting orders (he is not shown quite that literally in the book, but vividly so I do remember him) to a polyglot vast floorful of desk workers at the wartime propaganda center on West 57th Street (now the offices of The New York Review). An English publisher might have brought out more, say two volumes. Perhaps another may yet appear. It will be needed for the full story of Houseman’s career in show biz, top show biz indeed from the start, and for the extended report that only he can offer on the school for acting at Juilliard. This is important, since America has not previously had so serious a conservatory for that, both Yale and Carnegie-Mellon being chiefly known for training directors and electricians, Harvard in Professor Baker’s day for its playwrights.

In writing about this memoir, therefore, I simply cannot accept its convention that Houseman’s meaningful life ended in the middle of World War II. What ended with that war was the partnership with Orson Welles. But since Welles was only one of his two formative theater associates (the other, according to the text, being yr. serv. V.T.) and since that earlier association has never ceased, is indeed operative at this moment regarding another opera by V.T. (Lord Byron with libretto by Jack Larson), there may be expected eventually a report on the V.T. approach to opera (his choice of themes, his choice of poets, all texts to be clearly enunciated, a completely choreographed stage, and NO ACTING).

I never liked Welles much, nor he me, though we respected each other’s abilities and we collaborated loyally on two productions, the black Macbeth and a French farce for which music by Paul Bowles was used, orchestrated by me (Un Chapeau de paille d’Italie by Labiche, renamed for the occasion Horse Eats Hat), which we both were proud of; also on a 1956 TV spectacular of King Lear directed nominally by Peter Brook. And I was instrumental in persuading him to direct in 1937 Aaron Copland’s The Second Hurricane and to undertake with Houseman that same year Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock. He later came to my aid in Paris in 1952 when the American troupe of my Four Saints needed help in adapting their stage movements to the recessed curtain line of the Théatre des Champs-Elysées.

But Houseman needed him as a wet nurse needs a baby. Both were naturals of the speaking stage, not the operatic or the choreographic; and with the speaking stage I include TV and films, where both men are well known to have done quality work. Both were tall men, too, and on the portly side (Welles at twenty very thin, at twenty-one a bit of a monster, at thirty growing toward 300 pounds). Both were sons too of glamorously spendthrift fathers. Both were sexually excitable by overwork, and both needed overwork. Houseman to this day when doing one job at a time can lose interest, when doing two at once (or even three) is a dynamo of relentless care for everything.

Both as well were classically educated and traveled, also intruders on the New York scene, where the rich private producers, the solidly subscribed Theatre Guild, and even the young Group Theatre resented them, for Welles was too gifted and Houseman too able to be easily taken over. If it had not been for the newly created Federal Theatre and its torrents-of-energy head Hallie Flanagan, a professor from Vassar, their partnership might have died with its first effort, MacLeish’s Panic. Houseman with his sturdy qualities would have got on eventually. But Orson, with so full a temperament and (no question) a genius for directing, as well as the finest bass speaking voice ever heard, restless too, and with a real presence, for sure he would have had his breakthrough early.

But the duumvir, having assembled a team of invincible technicians and inspired actors (for Orson they would surpass themselves), went forward in so short a time to light up America (press and professionals, quoted in the book, attest to this) that it is hard to imagine them separately, or as putting out separately anything comparable to the effulgence with which their joint work shone during the years from 1936 to 1940. Welles has heretofore accepted full credit for that radiance. Houseman’s documented story hogs no stage, but it does tell how the Welles career began. He tells it modestly enough and not without wit and humor, but henceforth the fact is clear that in his great first half-decade Orson was a team of two—a front man with genius and an office man with brains. Every star actor or director has had such a one making his career possible, even in some cases guiding it toward compromise and commercial exploitation. Welles’s was luckier than most. And if it amounts to little more today than mere distinction, his own self-destructive propensity was the cause.

The partnership with Houseman was an enterprise that worked through a shared faith in Welles’s genius, hence mutual trust, with all their powers in full operation. No wonder they inspired loyalties. And no wonder John Houseman in his memoir has a story to tell. This is a story of artistic satisfactions. Families can die or divorce, marry, move away, or end by boring the very guts out of you. But an artistic result achieved through common effort and publicly attested does not fade. It does not fade because there never could have been, never was any doubt about it. And so the telling of how it came to be becomes an act of history. Not a theory about history or a meditation on its meaning, but an act regarding it, like your grandmother, who lived through the Civil War, telling you exactly what it was like.

Houseman wouldn’t kid you; for him the Orson years are glorious enough told right. And that they are told right I can bear witness, because I was there, in many moments a participant, in virtually all the rest John Houseman’s confidant as well as daily housemate in five New York residences shared.

What might be Welles’s version we cannot guess, although the facts as known could scarce be different. Those regarding Citizen Kane are in a book by Pauline Kael,1 which Houseman has no quarrel with. And the disastrous “invasion from Mars” has been similarly reported.2 What would be interesting to know from Welles is how he remembers feeling about those years as they went by. Maybe nothing at all, he was so busy. But surely with his lively mind, his gift for sizing up people, and his direct way of speech, surely he would remember most of it right and tell some of it straight, though he still gets credit on the screen for the story and script of Citizen Kane, which, though Houseman also worked on it, Herman Mankiewicz actually wrote. His trouble would no doubt be, as it always was, such an abundance of ideas and of ingenious solutions that right up to opening night curtain his shows were never really set or finished, still being created, still alive.

As an actor Welles’s qualities were voice (deep, beautiful, controllable, and strong) and presence (when he was on stage you never saw anyone else). These plus brains, breeding, and a not inconsiderable learning (in dramatic literature, stage history, and languages) were to his advantage. His negative qualities were mostly the product of his monstrous person—over-tall, loose-hung, white-fleshed, flat-footed, moon-faced, later a gigantic blowup of itself. Energy he did not lack nor, according to him, great sexual abundance. But his physique would not do for glamour heroes. No Romeo he, nor Cleopatra’s Antony, nor Hamlet. Only the monstrous and the monumental lay in his reach—King Lear, Othello, Citizen Kane, just barely Jane Eyre’s Mr. Rochester.

This limitation in one so young, a hatred too, I am quite sure, of exhibiting his ungainly proportions, turned him toward directing plays instead of always having to show himself. And the satisfactions of not appearing gave such delight that his work as a director was always marked by joy. And so the legend grew that he was better off directing than acting. Happier he was, for sure. Who could be happy on a stage, looking like that? But in radio, with the body concealed and full vocal variety unleashed, he was in my memory also a miraculous actor.

A further limitation to his powers lay in the fact that like many another artist of the virtuoso type, he had shot his bolt early, astonishingly early in fact, since by the age of twenty-six, when normally an artist first begins to walk alone, Orson Welles had done practically all the work for which he is today remembered. Since that time a sound professionalism has stayed with him, but there is little depth or surprise in the work accomplished.

It was exactly this precocity that attracted Houseman, his mastery at nineteen of the whole professional gambit. No wonder the man of thirty-two became pupil to the boy genius and of his exploding career the servant. No wonder, as well, that by the time Welles’s full expansion was complete the pupil had already left that phantom ship, henceforth condemned to sail the foreign seas with no more cargo than its own flying Dutchman, tragically doomed, never quite a wreck, nor ever quite redeemed.

Letters

Not Thomson’s Title August 31, 1972

  1. 1

    The Citizen Kane Book (Little Brown, 1971).

  2. 2

    Hadley Cantril, The Invasion from Mars: A Study in the Psychology of Panic (Harper & Row, 1966).

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