When Orson Welles was just a teenager, he traveled to Ireland. And although it seems improbable (perhaps not, because this is Orson Welles we’re talking about), he decided to audition for the newly-formed Gate Theatre, and was given a role in their upcoming production. He literally walked in off the street and was cast. With no professional experience. As Welles sometimes told it, he unwittingly became the Toast of Dublin. A slight exaggeration, but the reality is that he did appear in a number of plays at The Gate, enjoying a lot of success.
With all of the great stuff in the Orson Welles story, I am particularly taken by the sojourn in Ireland. It’s the stuff dreams are made of. The Gate Theatre was a new operation, formed as an alternative to the all-powerful Abbey Theatre. The Gate would do new works, experimental works. The Gate still exists. The Gate was formed by a man named Micheál MacLiammóir. (He would become a lifelong friend of Orson Welles, playing Iago in Welles’ film Othello.)
My father knew everything about MacLiammóir and gave me a copy of an obscure short-lived literary journal from 1950 called “Envoy” which included an essay by MacLiammóir called “Celluloid and the Actor.” Yes, I typed the whole thing out. It is unavailable otherwise. If the copyright-gods want to come after me, so be it. MacLiammóir’s thoughts on the actor’s craft as it relates to the movies is invaluable so I’m happy to break the law in this instance to share it.
But some words on MacLiammóir, because it’s fascinating and perfect that he and Orson Welles, a famous fabulist and tall-tale-teller himself (God love ‘im), would become such good friends. MacLiammóir presented himself as an Irish Catholic, from a long ancestral line of Catholics in Cork. He spoke fluent Irish. He wrote three autobiographies in Irish – in Irish!! – that then had to be translated into English. He devoted himself to culture in Ireland. Like Yeats, he was a great encourager of other artists. However, this Irishman with not one but TWO accents in his Gaelic name, was actually a Protestant Englishman named Alfred Willmore. He had been a child actor, appearing onstage with that most British of humans, Noel Coward, and as a young man he fell in love with Ireland. So much so that he “disappeared” his old identity and cultural heritage and re-invented himself entirely as an Irish person.
My dad and I had many great conversations about him, and the Gate, as well as Welles’ time spent there. With MacLiammóir, as with Welles, lies and truth were blended, and the fantasy was preferable to the reality, and so why not step entirely into the fantasy? These were men who were incredibly productive with their own fantasies. It takes a great imagination, not to mention courage, to walk into an audition as an American teenager in a foreign land. You have to believe that you can actually get through the door, you have to believe that you have a right to be there. It takes balls, yes, but it also takes a belief in the fantasy for yourself that you hold in your own mind. (This is what separated Elvis out from the pack, by the way. It’s not that he was the most talented. It’s that he dreamed the biggest, the highest, and those dreams were AS real to him as the everyday world around him. This is flat-out just not the case with most normal people, who accept limits as part of reality. Dreamers do not accept limits.)
So. Orson Welles, a precocious and bold teenager, who had already had much success in his high school years, appearing on radio shows with his own adaptation of a Sherlock Holmes story, and basically taking over the drama club, strolled into the audition, unannounced, unheralded. No one who was there forgot that day.
MacLiammóir’s stories of Welles’ first audition for them are laugh-out-loud funny. MacLiammóir, in one of his autobiographies (he wrote several, as I mentioned) describes being told “There’s an American teenager in the lobby … he says he wants to audition … what should I tell him?” … This “American teenager” claimed he was a lead actor at the Guild Theatre in America (which, of course, was totally untrue). Welles was basically standing out there demanding an audition. MacLiammóir said sure, send the kid in, and in walked Orson Welles.
MacLiammóir describes what happened next:
‘Is this all the light you can give me?’ he said in a voice like a regretful oboe. We hadn’t given him any at all yet, so that was settled, and he began. It was an astonishing performance, wrong from beginning to end but with all the qualities of fine acting tearing their way through a chaos of inexperience. His diction was practically perfect, his personality, in spite of his fantastic circus antics, was real and varied; his sense of passion, of evil, of drunkenness, of tyranny, of a sort of demoniac authority was arresting; a preposterous energy pulsated through everything he did. One wanted to bellow with laughter, yet the laughter died on one’s lips. One wanted to say, ‘Now, now, really, you know,’ but something stopped the words from coming. And that was because he was real to himself, because it was something more to him than a show, more than the mere inflated exhibitionism one might have suspected from his previous talk, something much more.
I’ve written longer posts for Welles in the past. I adore him. I adore his singular story. But today, I thought I’d focus on that audition for MacLiammóir because, honestly, so much came from it. Not just the gigs at the Gate. But a confidence as well as what I perceive to be a re-assurance from the universe (in Welles’ mind, anyway) that his fantasies were actually real and valid. He could already see it all in his own mind. The situation very well could have turned out differently, if it wasn’t MacLiammóir sitting out there in the darkness watching. If it had been somebody else, Welles would never have gotten through the door. If it had been somebody else, they may have watched that outrageous audition, and actually said out loud, “Now, now, really, you know” as MacLiammóir reported that he thought, but then stopped himself from saying.
Because MacLiammóir saw the flaws in the acting, saw the green-ness in the technique, saw the inexperience and pomposity and all that. It must have been completely ridiculous what was going on up on that stage. But MacLiammóir saw something else as well. He saw the fantasy at work behind all of it. He saw the boy’s dreams for himself, and how very very real those dreams were. He saw that the kid before him was “real to himself,” and let me tell you: that’s not just rare in actor-land, but rare in humanity in general. MacLiammóir saw it all. And he was not wrong.
Happy birthday, Orson Welles!