Our interviewer is England’s eminent drama critic Kenneth Tynan, whom readers will remember as the author of previous Playboy Interviews with Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole, as well as several trenchant Playboy articles. Of this month’s larger-than-life subject, Tynan writes:
“The performing arts have now enjoyed the professional services of George Orson Welles for 35 years—ever since 1931, when he arrived at the Gate Theater in Dublin, passed himself off as a well-known actor from the New York Theater Guild and began playing leads at the age of 16. The previous year, just before graduating from a progressive boys’ school in Woodstock, Illinois, he had put an ad in an American trade paper. It read, in part: ‘Orson Welles—Stock, Characters, Heavies, Juveniles or as cast…. Lots of pep, experience and ability.’ Already George Welles had begun to behave as if he were Orson Welles.
“He was born in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in 1915. Both his parents were then approaching middle age. Through his mother—an aesthete, a beauty and a talented musician—he met Ravel and Stravinsky. Through his father—a globe-trotting gambler who loved star quality—he met numerous actors, magicians and circus performers. The milestones of Welles’ career are dotted all over the landscape of show business in the middle decades of the 20th century.
“He had only to train his sights on an art for it to capitulate. Theater fell first. Just 30 years ago, he directed a famous all-Negro Macbeth in Harlem. Moving downtown, he launched the Mercury Theater with his modern-dress production of Julius Caesar, in which Caesar was a bald-pated replica of Mussolini. Almost in passing, he conquered radio: Blood froze all over America when he celebrated Halloween in 1938 with a broadcast version of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. The movie industry was the next to surrender. A quarter of a century has passed since the premiere of Citizen Kane, Welles’ first film; but Hollywood seismographs still record the tremors left by its impact. It gave the American cinema an adult vocabulary, and in a recent poll of international critics, it was voted the finest film ever made. The Magnificent Ambersons, which followed in 1942, confirmed the arrival of a revolutionary virtuoso. In every art he touched, Welles started at the top. That was his triumph, and also his problem. Whenever his name appeared on anything less than a masterpiece, people instantly said he was slipping.
“During the past 20 years, living mainly in Europe, Welles has been a rogue elephant at large in most of the performing media. He may turn up in Morocco, filming Othello on a frayed shoestring; in London, directing his own brilliant stage adaptation of Moby Dick; in Paris, shooting Kafka’s The Trial in a derelict railway station; in Spain, making a still-unfinished movie of Don Quixote; in Yugoslavia or Italy, hamming away for money in other people’s bad epics; and even in Hollywood, where in 1958 he made a startling and underrated thriller called Touch of Evil. You can never tell how or where he will manifest himself next. In the course of his career—apart from writing and directing films and plays, and acting in both—he has been a novelist, a painter, a ballet scenarist, a conjurer, a columnist, a television pundit and an amateur bullfighter. There’s symbolic if not literal truth in the story about how he once addressed a thinly attended meeting of admirers with the words: ‘Isn’t it a shame that there are so many of me and so few of you?’
“He has grown fat spreading himself thin. A passive figure sculpted in foam rubber, he is preceded wherever he goes by his belly and an oversized cigar; and his presence is immediately signaled, even to the blind, by the Bacchic earthquake of his laughter. His first European base was a villa near Rome, but nowadays he lives with his Italian wife and their daughter Beatrice in an expensive suburb of Madrid. ‘I used to be an American émigré in Italy,’ he says. ‘Now I’m an Italian exile in Spain.’ At 51, he has long since joined the select group of international celebrities whose fame is self-sustaining, no matter how widely opinions of their work may vary, and no matter how much the work itself may fluctuate in quality. (Other members of the club in recent times have been Chaplin, Ellington, Cocteau, Picasso and Hemingway.)
“My interview with him took place last spring in London. Welles was appearing with Peter Sellers and David Niven in Casino Royale, the James Bond film that has everything but Sean Connery. Characteristically, Welles had insisted on living in a furnished apartment directly over the Mirabelle, one of the most expensive and arguably the best restaurant in London. Thus, he could be sure of gourmet room service. Empty caviar pots adorned every table. Imposingly swathed in the robes of a Buddhist priest, he sipped Dom Pérignon champagne and talked far into the night.
“Shortly afterward, Welles took his Falstaff film, Chimes at Midnight [released in the U.S. as Falstaff], to the Cannes Festival. Not all the critics were ecstatic; one said that Welles was the only actor who ever had to slim down to play Falstaff. But the jury reacted warmly; and so did the audience at the prize-giving ceremony, which began with the announcement of a special award to ‘M. Orson Welles, for his contribution to world cinema.’ Jeers and whistles greeted many of the other prizes; but for this one, everybody rose—avant-garde critics and commercial producers alike—and clapped with their hands held over their heads. The ovation lasted for minutes. Welles beamed and sweated on the stage of the Festival Palace, looking like a melting iceberg and occasionally tilting forward in something that approximated a bow.
“Later, at his hotel, he talked with me about his next production—Treasure Island, in which he would play Long John Silver. Then he would complete Don Quixote and make a film of King Lear. After that, there were plenty of other projects in hand. ‘The bee,’ he said happily, ‘is always making honey.'”
PLAYBOY: You’ve been a celebrity now for 30 years. In all that time, what’s the most accurate description anyone has given of you?
ORSON WELLES: I don’t want any description of me to be accurate; I want it to be flattering. I don’t think people who have to sing for their supper ever like to be described truthfully—not in print, anyway. We need to sell tickets, so we need good reviews.
PLAYBOY: In private conversation, what’s the pleasantest thing you ever heard about yourself?
ORSON WELLES: Roosevelt saying that I would have been a great politician. Barrymore saying that Chaplin and myself were the two finest living actors. I don’t mean that I believe those things, but you used the word “pleasant.” What I really enjoy is flattery in the suburbs of my work—about things I’m not mainly or even professionally occupied with. When an old bullfighter tells me I’m one of the few people who understand the bulls, or when a magician says I’m a good magician, that tickles the ego without having anything to do with the box office.
PLAYBOY: Of all the comments, written or spoken, that have been made about you, which has displeased you the most?
ORSON WELLES: Nothing spoken. It’s only written things I mind—for example, everything Walter Kerr ever wrote about me. It takes a big effort for me to persuade myself that anything bad I read about myself isn’t true. I have a primitive respect for the printed word as it applies to me, especially if it’s negative. I can remember being described in Denver, when I was playing Marchbanks in Candida at the age of 18, as “a sea cow whining in a basso profundo.” That was more than 30 years ago, and I can still quote the review verbatim. I can never remember the good ones. Probably the bad ones hurt so much and so morbidly because I’ve run the store so long. I’ve been an actor-manager in radio, films and the theater; and in a very immediate way, I’ve been economically dependent on what’s written about me, so that I worry about how much it’s going to affect the gross. Or maybe that’s just a justification for hypersensitivity.
PLAYBOY: Talking about critics, you once complained: “They don’t review my work, they review me.” Do you feel that’s still true?
ORSON WELLES: Yes—but I suppose I shouldn’t kick about it. I earn a good living and get a lot of work because of this ridiculous myth about me. But the price of it is that when I try to do something serious, something I care about, a great many critics don’t review that particular work, but me in general. They write their standard Welles piece. It’s either the good piece or the bad piece, but they’re both fairly standard.
PLAYBOY: In an era of increasing specialization, you’ve expressed yourself in almost every artistic medium. Have you never wanted to specialize?
ORSON WELLES: No, I can’t imagine limiting myself. It’s a great shame that we live in an age of specialists, and I think we give them too much respect. I’ve known four or five great doctors in my life, and they have always told me that medicine is still in a primitive state and that they know hardly anything about it. I’ve known only one great cameraman—Gregg Toland, who photographed Citizen Kane. He said he could teach me everything about the camera in four hours—and he did. I don’t believe the specialist is all that our epoch cracks him up to be.
PLAYBOY: Is it possible nowadays to be a Renaissance man—someone who’s equally at home in the arts and the sciences?
ORSON WELLES: It’s possible and it’s also necessary, because the big problem ahead of us today is synthesis. We have to get all these scattered things together and make sense of them. The wildest kind of lunacy is to go wandering up some single street. It’s better not only for the individual but for society that our personal horizons should be as wide as possible. What a normally intelligent person can’t learn—if he’s genuinely alive and honestly curious—isn’t really worth learning. For instance, besides knowing something about Elizabethan drama, I think I could also make a stab at explaining the basic principles of nuclear fission—a fair enough stab to be living in the world today. I don’t just say: “That’s a mystery that ought to be left to the scientists.” Of course, I don’t mean that I’m ready to accept a key post in national defense.
PLAYBOY: Since World War II, you’ve lived and worked mostly outside the United States. Would you call yourself an expatriate?
ORSON WELLES: I don’t like that word. Since childhood, I’ve always regarded myself as an American who happens to live all over the place. “Expatriate” is a dated word that relates to a particular 1920ish generation and to a romantic attitude about living abroad. I’m prejudiced against the word rather than the fact. I might very well cease to be an American citizen someday, but simply because, if you’re forming a production company in Europe, it’s economically helpful to be a European. I’m not young enough to bear arms for my country, so why shouldn’t I live where I like and where I get the most work? After all, London is full of Hungarians and Germans and Frenchmen, and America is full of everybody—and they aren’t called expatriates.
PLAYBOY: Isn’t it true that you chose to live in Europe because the U.S. government refused to allow you tax deductions on the losses you suffered in your 1946 Broadway production of Around the World in Eighty Days?
ORSON WELLES: My tax problems began at that time, but that wasn’t why I went to Europe. I spent many of these years in Europe paying the government back all that money I lost, which they wouldn’t let me write off as a loss because of some bad bookkeeping. I like living in Europe; I’m not a refugee.
PLAYBOY: You aren’t a Catholic, yet you decided to live in two intensely Catholic countries—first Italy and now Spain. Why?
ORSON WELLES: This has nothing to do with religion. The Mediterranean culture is more generous, less guilt-ridden. Any society that exists without natural gaiety, without some sense of ease in the presence of death, is one in which I am not immensely comfortable. I don’t condemn that very northern, very Protestant world of artists like Ingmar Bergman; it’s just not where I live. The Sweden I like to visit is a lot of fun. But Bergman’s Sweden always reminds me of something Henry James said about Ibsen’s Norway—that it was full of “the odor of spiritual paraffin.” How I sympathize with that!
PLAYBOY: If you could have picked any country and period in which to be born, would you have chosen America in 1915?
ORSON WELLES: It wouldn’t have been all that low on my list, but anyone in their senses would have wanted to live in the golden age of Greece, in 15th century Italy or Elizabethan England. And there were other golden ages. Persia had one and China had four or five. Ours is an extraordinary age, but it doesn’t even look very silver to me. I think I might have been happier and more fulfilled in other periods and places—including America at about the time when we started putting up roofs instead of tents.
PLAYBOY: Are there any figures in American history you identify with?
ORSON WELLES: Like most Americans, I wish I had some Lincoln in me: But I don’t. I can’t imagine myself being capable of any such goodness or compassion. I guess the only great American whose role I might conceivably have occupied is Tom Paine. He was a radical, a true independent—not in the comfortable, present-day liberal sense, but in the good, tough sense that he was prepared to go to jail for it. It’s been my luck, good or bad, not to have been faced with that choice.
PLAYBOY: Your parents separated when you were six, but you traveled widely with your mother, who died two years later. You then went around the world with your father, who died when you were 15. What places do you remember most vividly from this early globe-trotting period?
ORSON WELLES: Berlin had about three good years, from 1926 onward, and so did Chicago about the same time. But the best cities were certainly Budapest and Peking. They had the best talk and the most action right up to the end. But I can’t forget a party I attended somewhere in the Tyrol sometime in the mid-Twenties. I was on a walking tour with several other little boys, and our tutor took us to eat at a big open-air beer garden. We sat at a long table with a lot of Nazis, who were then a little-known bunch of cranks, and I was placed next to a small man with a very dim personality. He made no impression on me at the time, but later, when I saw his pictures, I realized that I had lunched with Adolf Hitler.
PLAYBOY: In many of the films you’ve written and directed, the hero has no father. We know nothing about Citizen Kane’s father: and George, in The Magnificent Ambersons, ruins the life of his widowed mother by forbidding her to remarry. In your latest film, Falstaff, the hero is Prince Hal, whose legitimate father, Henry IV of England, is a murderous usurper; but his spiritual father, whom you play yourself—
ORSON WELLES: Is Falstaff.
PLAYBOY: Right. Does this attitude toward fathers reflect anything in your own life?
ORSON WELLES: I don’t think so. I had a father whom I remember as enormously likable and attractive. He was a gambler, and a playboy who may have been getting a bit old for it when I knew him, but he was a marvelous fellow, and it was a great sorrow to me when he died. No, a story interests me on its own merits, not because it’s autobiographical. The Falstaff story is the best in Shakespeare—not the best play, but the best story. The richness of the triangle between the father and Falstaff and the son is without parallel; it’s a complete Shakespearean creation. The other plays are good stories borrowed from other sources and made great because of what Shakespeare breathed into them. But there’s nothing in the medieval chronicles that even hints at the Falstaff-Hal-King story. That’s Shakespeare’s story, and Falstaff is entirely his creation. He’s the only great character in dramatic literature who is also good.
PLAYBOY: Do you agree with W.H. Auden, who once likened him to a Christ figure?
ORSON WELLES: I won’t argue with that, although my flesh always creeps when people use the word “Christ.” I think Falstaff is like a Christmas tree decorated with vices. The tree itself is total innocence and love. By contrast, the king is decorated only with kingliness. He’s a pure Machiavellian. And there’s something beady-eyed and self-regarding about his son—even when he reaches his apotheosis as Henry V.
PLAYBOY: Do you think Falstaff is likely to outrage Shakespeare lovers?
ORSON WELLES: Well, I’ve always edited Shakespeare, and my other Shakespearean films have suffered critically for just that reason. God knows what will happen with this one. In the case of Macbeth or Othello, I tried to make a single play into a filmscript. In Falstaff, I’ve taken five plays—Richard II, the two parts of Henry IV, Henry V and The Merry Wives of Windsor—and turned them into an entertainment lasting less than two hours. Naturally, I’m going to offend the kind of Shakespeare lover whose main concern is the sacredness of the text. But with people who are willing to concede that movies are a separate art form, I have some hopes of success. After all, when Verdi wrote Falstaff and Otello, nobody criticized him for radically changing Shakespeare. Larry Olivier has made fine Shakespearean movies that are essentially filmed Shakespearean plays; I use Shakespeare’s words and characters to make motion pictures. They are variations on his themes. In Falstaff, I’ve gone much further than ever before, but not willfully, not for the fun of chopping and dabbling. If you see the history plays night after night in the theater, you discover a continuing story about a delinquent prince who turns into a great military captain, a usurping king, and Falstaff, the prince’s spiritual father, who is a kind of secular saint. It finally culminates in the rejection of Falstaff by the prince. My film is entirely true to that story, although it sacrifices great parts of the plays from which the story is mined.
PLAYBOY: Does the film have a “message”?
ORSON WELLES: It laments the death of chivalry and the rejection of merry England. Even in Shakespeare’s day, the old England of the greenwood and Maytime was already a myth, but a very real one. The rejection of Falstaff by the prince means the rejection of that England by a new kind of England that Shakespeare deplored—an England that ended up as the British Empire. The main change is no excuse for the betrayal of a friendship. It’s the liberation of that story that justifies my surgical approach to the text.
PLAYBOY: May we check on a few of the popular rumors about you? It’s been said that your pictures always go over the budget. True or false?
ORSON WELLES: False. I’m not an overspender, though I’ve sometimes been a delayed earner. Citizen Kane, for instance, cost about $850,000. I’ve no idea how much profit it’s made by now, but it must be plenty. That profit took time, and it didn’t go to me. All the pictures I’ve directed have been made within their budgets. The only exception was a documentary about South America that I started in 1942, just after I finished shooting The Magnificent Ambersons. I was asked to do it by the government for no salary but with $1 million to spend. But it was the studio’s money, not the government’s, and the studio fired me when I’d spent $600,000, on the basis that I was throwing money away. This is when the legend started. The studio spent a lot of dough and a lot of manpower putting it into circulation.
PLAYBOY: Another prevalent rumor is that you have the power of clairvoyance. Is that true?
ORSON WELLES: Well, if it exists, I sure as hell have it; if it doesn’t exist, I have the thing that’s mistaken for it. I’ve told people their futures in a terrifying way sometimes—and please understand that I hate fortune-telling. It’s meddlesome, dangerous and a mockery of free will—the most important doctrine man has invented. But I was a fortune-teller once in Kansas City, when I was playing a week’s stand there in the theater. As a part-time magician, I’d met a lot of semi-magician racketeers and learned the tricks of the professional seers. I took an apartment in a cheap district and put up a sign—$2 Readings—and every day I went there, put on a turban and told fortunes. At first I used what are called “cold readings”; that’s a technical term for things you say to people that are bound to impress them and put them off their guard, so that they start telling you things about themselves. A typical cold reading is to say that you have a scar on your knee. Everybody has a scar on their knee, because everybody fell down as a child. Another one is to say that a big change took place in your attitude toward life between the ages of 12 and 14. But in the last two or three days, I stopped doing the tricks and just talked. A woman came in wearing a bright dress. As soon as she sat down, I said, “You’ve just lost your husband”; and she burst into tears. I believe that I saw and deduced things that my conscious mind did not record. But consciously, I just said the first thing that came into my head, and it was true. So I was well on the way to contracting the fortune-teller’s occupational disease, which is to start believing in yourself; to become what they call a “shut-eye.” And that’s dangerous.
PLAYBOY: A third charge often leveled against you is that you dissipate too much energy in talk. The English critic Cyril Connolly once said that conversation, for an artist, was “a ceremony of self-wastage.” Does that phrase give you a pang?
ORSON WELLES: No, but it reminds me of Thornton Wilder and his theory of “capsule conversations.” He used to say to me: “You must stop wasting your energy, Orson. You must do what I do—have capsule conversations.” Just as a comic can do three minutes of his mother-in-law, Thornton could do three minutes on Gertrude Stein or Lope de Vega. That’s how he saved his energy. But I don’t believe that you have more energy if you save it. It isn’t a priceless juice that has to be kept in a secret bottle. We’re social animals, and good conversation—not just parroting slogans and vogue words—is an essential part of good living. It doesn’t behoove any artist to regard what he has to offer as something so valuable that not a second of it should be frittered away in talking to his chums.
PLAYBOY: It’s also been said that you spend too much time in the company of ski bums and pretenders to Middle European thrones. Do you agree?
ORSON WELLES: I don’t know many people in either of those categories. Those that I do know are all right, but they’re certainly not my constant companions. However, I have nothing against being known as a friend of any sort of person.
PLAYBOY: A good deal of space and veneration is lavished on you in such avant-garde movie interviews as Cahiers du Cinéma. What do you think of the New Wave French directors so admired by these journals?
ORSON WELLES: I’m longing to see their work! I’ve missed most of it because I’m afraid it might inhibit my own. When I make a picture, I don’t like it to refer to other pictures; I like to think I’m inventing everything for the first time. I talk to Cahiers du Cinéma about movies in general because I’m so pleased that they like mine. When they want long highbrow interviews, I haven’t the heart to refuse them. But it’s a complete act. I’m a fraud; I even talk about “the art of the cinema.” I wouldn’t talk to my friends about the art of the cinema—I’d rather be caught without my pants in the middle of Times Square.
PLAYBOY: How do you feel about the films of Antonioni?
ORSON WELLES: According to a young American critic, one of the great discoveries of our age is the value of boredom as an artistic subject. If that is so, Antonioni deserves to be counted as a pioneer and founding father. His movies are perfect backgrounds for fashion models. Maybe there aren’t backgrounds that good in Vogue, but three ought to be. They ought to get Antonioni to design them.
PLAYBOY: And what about Fellini?
ORSON WELLES: He’s as gifted as anyone making pictures today. His limitation—which is also the source of his charm—is that he’s fundamentally very provincial. His films are a small-town boy’s dream of the big city. His sophistication works because it’s the creation of someone who doesn’t have it. But he shows dangerous signs of being a superlative artist with little to say.
PLAYBOY: Ingmar Bergman?
ORSON WELLES: As I suggested a while ago, I share neither his interests nor his obsessions. He’s far more foreign to me than the Japanese.
PLAYBOY: How about contemporary American directors?
ORSON WELLES: Stanley Kubrick and Richard Lester are the only ones that appeal to me—except for the old masters. By which I mean John Ford, John Ford and John Ford. I don’t regard Alfred Hitchcock as an American director, though he’s worked in Hollywood for all these years. He seems to me tremendously English in the best Edgar Wallace tradition, and no more. There’s always something anecdotal about his work; his contrivances remain contrivances, no matter how marvelously they’re conceived and executed. I don’t honestly believe that Hitchcock is a director whose pictures will be of any interest a hundred years from now. With Ford at his best, you feel that the movie has lived and breathed in a real world, even though it may have been written by Mother Machree. With Hitchcock, it’s a world of spooks.
PLAYBOY: When you first went to Hollywood in 1940, the big studios were still omnipotent. Do you think you’d have fared better if you’d arrived 20 years later, in the era of independent productions?
ORSON WELLES: The very opposite. Hollywood died on me as soon as I got there. I wish to God I’d gone there sooner. It was the rise of the independents that was my ruin as a director. The old studio bosses—Jack Warner, Sam Goldwyn, Darryl Zanuck, Harry Cohn—were all friends, or friendly enemies I knew how to deal with. They all offered me work. Louis B. Mayer even wanted me to be the production chief of his studio—the job Dore Schary took. I was in great shape with those boys. The minute the independents got in, I never directed another American picture except by accident. If I’d gone to Hollywood in the last five years, virgin and unknown, I could have written my own ticket. But I’m not a virgin; I drag my myth around with me, and I’ve had much more trouble with the independents than I ever had with the big studios. I was a maverick, but the studios understood what that meant, and if there was a fight, we both enjoyed it. With an annual output of 40 pictures per studio, there would probably be room for one Orson Welles picture. But an independent is a fellow whose work is centered around his own particular gifts. In that setup, there’s no place for me.
PLAYBOY: Is it possible to learn how to direct movies?
ORSON WELLES: Oh, the various technical jobs can be taught, just as you can teach the principles of grammar and rhetoric. But you can’t teach writing, and directing a picture is very much like writing, except that it involves 300 people and a great many more skills. A director has to function like a commander in the field in time of battle. You need the same ability to inspire, terrify, encourage, reinforce and generally dominate. So it’s partly a question of personality, which isn’t so easy to acquire as a skill.
PLAYBOY: Do you think it would help if there were a federally subsidized film school in the United States?
ORSON WELLES: If they made movies instead of talking about making movies, and if all classes on theory were rigorously forbidden, I could imagine a film school being very valuable, indeed.
PLAYBOY: Do you think movie production ought to be aided by public money, as it is in many European countries?
ORSON WELLES: If it is true—and I believe it is—that the theater and opera and music should be subsidized by the state, then it’s equally true of the cinema, only more so. Films are more potent socially and have more to do with this particular moment in world history. The biggest money should go to the cinema. It needs more and has more to say.
PLAYBOY: What do you see as the next development in the cinema?
ORSON WELLES: I hope it does develop, that’s all. There hasn’t been any major revolution in films in more than 20 years, and without a revolution, stagnation sets in and decay is just around the corner. I hope some brand-new kind of moviemaking will arise. But before that happens, some form of making films more cheaply and showing them more cheaply will have to be evolved. Otherwise, the big revolution won’t take place and the film artist will never be free.
PLAYBOY: Given worldwide distribution, do you think any film could change the course of history?
ORSON WELLES: Yes. And it might be a very bad film.
PLAYBOY: Let’s turn to the theater. Five years ago you said, “London is the actor’s city, Paris is the playwright’s city and New York is the director’s city.” Do you still agree with that judgment?
ORSON WELLES: Today, I’d say that New York is David Merrick’s city. Paris has ceased to be interesting at all as far as theater is concerned. London is still the great place for actors—but not for actresses. The English theater is a man’s world. “London is a man’s town, there’s power in the air: And Paris is a woman’s town, with flowers in her hair.” I don’t know who wrote that terrible old poem, but it continues to be true. Nobody in England writes great parts for women.
PLAYBOY: Have you any unfulfilled theatrical ambitions?
ORSON WELLES: I’d like to run a theater school, but not—and it makes me very sad to say this—not in America. Especially not in New York. Two generations of American actors have been so besotted by the Method that they have a built-in resistance to any other approach to theater. I don’t want to drive the Method out of New York, but I wish it would move over and leave room for a few other ideas about acting. The last time I tried to work in New York. I found no one who wasn’t touched by it.
PLAYBOY: Do you think American actors are equipped to play the classics?
ORSON WELLES: They should be, but they’re less able to than they were when we were running the Mercury Theater around a quarter of a century ago. Part of the reason is that New York was a much more cosmopolitan city in those days. We were still within speaking distance of the age when it was called the melting pot. People were still first- and second-generation Europeans, and there was a genuine internationalism that did not come from the mass media. It just came from Uncle Joe having been born in a Warsaw suburb, and there were foreign-language theaters and I don’t know how many foreign-language newspapers. All this gave a fertilizing richness to the earth that has now gone. New York has become much more standardized. Nowadays it’s a sort of premixed manhattan cocktail, with a jigger of Irishness, Jewishness, WASP, and so forth. And that’s your modern New Yorker, no matter where his grandfather came from. He may be just as nice a guy, but he isn’t as various.
PLAYBOY: Have you any predictions about the future of the theater in general?
ORSON WELLES: I believe that the theater, like ballet and grand opera, is already an anachronism. It still gives us joy and stimulation: It still offers the artist a chance to do important work—qualitatively, perhaps, work as good as has ever been done. But it isn’t an institution that belongs to our times, and it cannot expect a long future. It’s not true that we’ve always had the theater. That’s a dream. We’ve had it for only a few periods of history, no matter what its partisans say to the contrary. And the theater as we know it is now in its last stages.
PLAYBOY: Looking back on your career in the performing arts, do you ever regret that you didn’t go into politics?
ORSON WELLES: Sometimes very bitterly. There was a time when I considered running as a junior senator from Wisconsin; my opponent would have been a fellow called Joe McCarthy. If you feel that you might have been useful and effective in public office, you can’t help being disappointed in yourself for never having tried it. And I flatter myself that I might have been. I think I am—at least potentially—a better public speaker than an actor, and I might have been able to reach people, to move and convince them. Oratory today is an almost nonexistent art, but if we lived in a society where rhetoric was seriously considered as an art—as it has been at many periods in world history—then I would have been an orator.
PLAYBOY: What are your politics—and have they changed in the last 25 years?
ORSON WELLES: Everyone’s politics have changed in the last 25 years. You can’t have a political opinion in a vacuum; it has to be a reaction to a situation. I’ve always been an independent radical, but with wide streaks of emotional and cultural old-fashionedness. I have enormous respect for many human institutions that are now in serious decay and likely never to be revived. Although I’m what is called a progressive, it isn’t out of dislike for the past. I don’t reject our yesterdays. I wish that parts of our dead past were more alive. If I’m capable of originality, it’s not because I want to knock down idols or be ahead of the times. If there’s anything rigid about me, it’s a distaste for being in vogue. I would much rather be thought old-fashioned than “with it.” But in general, I still belong to the liberal leftist world as it exists in the West. I vote that way and stand with those people. We may disagree on one issue or another, but that is where I belong.
PLAYBOY: Where do you stand on the Vietnam war?
ORSON WELLES: There’s a newspaper in front of me right now that says that, according to a poll, popular support for Johnson’s Vietnam program is going down. By the time this appears in print, anything I say will probably be shared by many more people. America doesn’t have a history of losing wars and it has only a few bad wars on its conscience; this is one of them.
PLAYBOY: You’ve met many of the great men and women of your time. Is there any living person you’d still like to meet?
ORSON WELLES: Mrs. Sukarno, for obvious reasons, and Chou En-lai, mostly out of curiosity—I don’t know if he’d be as interesting now as I always heard he used to be. He might be old and stiff and sad. I wish I’d known George Marshall, Winston Churchill and Wilson Mizner [an early-20th century American playwright] better than I did. I never knew Pope John and that’s a real regret. And although it may sound a little demagogic, I’d love to talk to an old lady named Elizabeth Allen: She’s English, she’s been living in a tin hut in a forest for about 80 years and she makes the most beautiful pictures you ever saw out of rags. She’s just had her first exhibition in London and she is superlative. But above everybody else, I’d like to meet Robert Graves. Not only because I think he’s the greatest living poet, but because he has given me through the years the kind of pleasure that you get from close friends. I’d like to have some more of that stuff, only firsthand.
PLAYBOY: Is there anyone, living or dead, with whom you’d like to change places?
ORSON WELLES: If you’ve had as much luck as I have, it would be a sort of treachery to want to be anyone but yourself.
PLAYBOY: What is your major vice?
ORSON WELLES: Accidia—the medieval Latin word for melancholy, and sloth. I don’t give way to it for long, but it still comes lurching at me out of the shadows. I have most of the accepted sins—envy, perhaps, the least of all. And pride. I’m not sure that is a sin; it’s the only place where I quarrel with the Christian list. If it’s a virtue, I don’t recognize much of it in myself; the same is true if it’s a vice.
PLAYBOY: Do you consider gluttony a bad vice?
ORSON WELLES: All vice is bad. A lot of vices are secret, but not gluttony—it shows. It certainly shows on me. But I feel that gluttony must be a good deal less deadly than some of the other sins. Because it’s affirmative, isn’t it? At least it celebrates some of the good things of life. Gluttony may be a sin, but an awful lot of fun goes into committing it. On the other hand, it’s wrong for a man to make a mess of himself. I’m fat, and people shouldn’t be fat.
PLAYBOY: What is your attitude toward pornography and the literary use of four-letter words?
ORSON WELLES: Four-letter words are useful tools, but when they cease to be more or less forbidden, they lose their cutting edge. When we wish to shock, we must have something left in our verbal quiver that will actually do the job. As for pornography, I don’t agree with the present permissiveness in publishing it. By this I don’t mean Lady Chatterley’s Lover –t he sort of book about physical love that used to be banned. I mean hard-core pornography—the blue novel and the blue movie. The difference is quite clear; it becomes blurred only when you have to testify in a court. We all know perfectly well what we mean by what the French call cochon. It’s not only piggish but lonely. Hard-core pornography may begin as a fairly benign sexual stimulant, but it ends up pretty vicious and sick. Then it isn’t a harmless release for that which is sick in us; it excites and encourages the sickness, particularly in young people who have yet to learn about sex in terms of love and shared joy. The sexual habits of consenting adults are their own business. It’s the secondhandedness of the printed thing that I don’t like; not the fact that people do it, but that other people sit alone and read about it.
PLAYBOY: If the decision were yours, would you censor anything in films or the theater?
ORSON WELLES: I am so opposed to censorship that I must answer no—nothing. But if there were no censorship, I have a little list of the things I would prefer not to have shown. Not too often, anyway. Heavy spice isn’t good for the palate; and in the theater and films, when there’s too much license, what is merely raw tends to crowd out almost everything else, and our dramatic vocabulary is impoverished. If you show the act of copulation every time you do a love scene, both the producers and the public get to feel that no other kind of love scene is worth doing, and that the only variations on the theme are variations of physical position. No, artists should not be censored, but I do think they should restrain themselves, in order not to weaken the language of their art. Take the old Roman comedies: Once you bring out those great leather phalluses, you get so there isn’t any other sort of joke you can do. It’s the same with violence, or any theatrical extreme. If it’s pushed too far, it tends to erode the middle register of human feeling. However, propaganda against any kind of loving human relationship is despicable and probably ought to be censored.
PLAYBOY: But how do you reconcile that with —
ORSON WELLES: For 30 years people have been asking me how I reconcile X with Y! The truthful answer is that I don’t. Everything about me is a contradiction, and so is everything about everybody I know. We are made out of oppositions; we live between two poles. There’s a Philistine and an aesthete in all of us, and a murderer and a saint. You don’t reconcile the poles. You just recognize them.
PLAYBOY: Did you have a religious upbringing?
ORSON WELLES: Quite the contrary. My mother was born a Catholic but then became a student of Oriental religions, in which she later lost interest. She taught me to read the Bible as a wonderful piece of literature. My father was a total agnostic, and Dr. Bernstein—the guardian who looked after me when my parents died—always made fun of the Bible stories. That shocked me as a child. I have a natural sense of veneration for what man has aspired to beyond himself, in East or West. It comes easily and instinctively to me to feel reverence rather than a gleeful skepticism. I read the mystics, though I’m not a mystic myself.
PLAYBOY: Do you believe in God?
ORSON WELLES: My feelings on that subject are a constant interior dialog that I haven’t sufficiently resolved to be sure that I have anything worth communicating to people I don’t know. I may not be a believer, but I’m certainly religious. In a strange way, I even accept the divinity of Christ. The accumulation of faith creates its own veracity. It does this in a sort of Jungian sense, because it’s been made true in a way that’s almost as real as life. If you ask me whether the rabbi who was crucified was God, the answer is no. But the great, irresistible thing about the Judaeo-Christian idea is that man—no matter what his ancestry, no matter how close he is to any murderous ape—really is unique. If we are capable of unselfishly loving one another, we are absolutely alone, as a species, on this planet. There isn’t another animal that remotely resembles us. The notion of Christ’s divinity is a way of saying that. That’s why the myth is true. In the highest tragic sense, it dramatizes the idea that man is divine.
PLAYBOY: Does your idealization of man apply equally to woman? Are there any limitations on what a woman can achieve?
ORSON WELLES: No. There’s a limitation on what she is likely to do, but not on what she can do. Women have managed to do everything; but the likelihood that they’re going to do it often is statistically small. It’s improbable that they will ever be as numerous as men in the arts. I believe that if there had never been men, there would never have been art—but if there had never been women, men would never have made art.
PLAYBOY: Whom would you choose as a model of the way men ought to behave toward women?
ORSON WELLES: Robert Graves. In other words, total adoration. Mine is less total than it ought to be. I’m crazy about the girls, but I do like to sit around the port with the boys. I recognize in myself that old-fashioned Edwardian tendency—shared by many other societies in other epochs—to let the ladies leave us for a while after dinner, so the men can talk. We’ll join them later. I’ve talked endlessly to women for sexual purposes—years of my life have been given up to it. But women usually depress or dominate a conversation to its detriment—though, of course, there are brilliant and unnerving exceptions. In a sense, every woman is an exception. It’s the generality that makes a male chauvinist like me.
PLAYBOY: In the opinion of some, the frontiers of art—and reality—may soon be pushed back by the use of hallucinogenic drugs. What do you think about these so-called aids to perception?
ORSON WELLES: The use of drugs is a perverse expression of individualism, antisocial and life-denying. It’s all part of a great reaction—especially in the West—against the inevitably collective nature of society in the future. Let me put it discursively. European women are painting their eyelids to look Chinese. Japanese women are having operations to look American; white people are getting sun-tanned and Negroes are having their hair dekinked. We are trying to become as much like one another as possible. And with this great mass movement—which is both good and bad, both a denial of cultural heritage and an affirmation of human solidarity—there goes a retreat from the crowd into one’s lonely self. And that’s what this drug business is all about. It isn’t an assertion of individuality; it’s a substitute for it. It’s not an attempt to be different when everyone else is becoming more alike; it’s a way of copping out. And that’s the worst thing you can do. I much prefer people who rock the boat to people who jump out.
PLAYBOY: If art is an expression of protest, as some philosophers have felt, do you think it’s possible that in an automated world of abundance, devoid of frustrations and pressures, nobody would feel compelled to create art?
ORSON WELLES: I don’t believe that, even in a perfect oyster shell, there will never be another grain of sand, and therefore never another pearl. And I don’t accept that art is necessarily based on unhappiness. It’s often serene and joyous and a kind of celebration. That isn’t to deny the vast body of work that has been created in conditions of spiritual and economic wretchedness and even torment, but I see no reason to think that culture will be poorer because people are happier.
PLAYBOY: Some critics assert that modern art can be produced by accident—as in action painting, aleatory music and theatrical Happenings. Do you think it’s possible to create a work of art without intending to?
ORSON WELLES: Categorically no. You may create something that will give some of the pleasures and emotions that a work of art may give, just as a microscopic study of a snowflake or a tapeworm or a cancer cell may be a beautiful object. But a work of art is a conscious human effort that has to do with communication. It is that or it is nothing. When an accident is applauded as a work of art, when a cult grows up around the deliciousness of inadvertent beauty, we are in the presence of the greatest decadence the West has known in its history.
PLAYBOY: Do you agree with those modern artists who say: “I don’t care what happens to my work tomorrow—it’s only meant for today”?
ORSON WELLES: No, because an artist shouldn’t care what happens today, either. To care about today to the exclusion of any other time, to be self-consciously contemporary, is to be absurdly parochial. That’s what is wrong about the artist’s association with the huckster. Today has been canonized, beatified. But today is just one day in the history of our planet. It’s the be-all and the end-all only for somebody who is selling something.
PLAYBOY: What effect do you feel the advertising industry is having on artists—on writers as well as painters and designers?
ORSON WELLES: The advertisers are having a disastrous effect on every art they touch. They are not only seducing the artist, they are drafting him. They are not only drawing on him, they are sucking the soul out of him. And the artist has gone over to the advertiser far more than he ever did to the merchant. The classic enemy of art has always been the marketplace. There you find the merchant and the charlatan—the man with goods to sell and the man with the snake oil. In the old days you had merchant princes, ex-pushcart peddlers turned into Hollywood moguls, but by and large honest salesmen, trying to give the public what they believed was good—even if it wasn’t—and not seriously invading the artist’s life unless the artist was willing to make that concession. But now we’re in the hands of the snake-oil boys. Among the advertisers, you find artists who have betrayed their kind and are busy getting their brethren hooked on the same drug. The advertising profession is largely made up of unfrocked poets, disappointed novelists, frustrated actors and unsuccessful producers with split-level homes. They’ve somehow managed to pervade the whole universe of art, so that the artist himself now thinks and functions as an advertising man. He makes expendable objects, deals in the immediate gut kick, revels in the lack of true content. He paints a soup can and calls it art. A can of soup, well enough designed, could be a work of art; but a painting of it, never.
PLAYBOY: Have you any theories about what will happen to you after death?
ORSON WELLES: I don’t know about my soul, but my body will be sent to the White House. American passports ask you to state the name and address of the person to whom your remains should be delivered in the event of your death. I discovered many years ago that there is no law against putting down the name and address of the President. This has a powerful effect on the borders of many countries and acts as a sort of diplomatic visa. During the long Eisenhower years, I would almost have been willing to die, in order to have my coffin turn up some evening in front of his television set.
PLAYBOY: How would you like the world to remember you?
ORSON WELLES: I’ve set myself against being concerned with any more worldly success than I need to function with. That’s an honest statement and not a piece of attitudinizing. Up to a point, I have to be successful in order to operate. But I think it’s corrupting to care about success; and nothing could be more vulgar than to worry about posterity.
Tynan, Kenneth, Playboy interview: Orson Welles‘. Playboy magazine, March 1967