Scenes from Show Biz

Run-Through: A Memoir

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

Orson Welles
Orson Welles; drawing by David Levine

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…

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