Monday, December 01, 2014

Welles the enigma, Welles the (sometime) Oxfordian

[Note: This post has been edited to add quotations from & discussion about the new book My Lunches with Orson, below.]

Orson Welles the maverick, Orson Welles the provocateur, Orson Welles the puckish contrarian. Also, on the strength of one unequivocally Oxfordian remark recorded c. 1954, there's Orson Welles the Oxfordian.

Below I'll discuss why I think he should be labeled a "sometime Oxfordian," because it's clear he'd changed his views over the course of his life. By the end he'd backed off, in other words, from his full-blown endorsement of Oxfordianism.

The questions over Welles' flirtation with the authorship question goes back to line a quoted from him in Cecil Beaton and Kenneth Tynan's 1954 book of celebrity interviews, Persona Grata. (i.e. "I think Oxford wrote Shakespeare. If you don't there an awful lot of funny coincidences to explain away.")

I don't think it's a coincidence that the Ogburns' opus This Star of England had been published in 1952, just a year or two before Welles' now well-known utterance. Welles was clearly impressed by the raft of correspondences between Oxford's life and the Shakespeare canon. And the timing at least suggests he'd learned of these correspondences from This Star of England. 

Yet why did he not say anything more on the matter after 1954? He died 31 years later, after all, in 1985.

I'd like to offer new evidence that Welles by the end of his life had resolved himself to a kind of defeatist agnosticism. (Meaning he de facto accepted the conventional story but preferred not to know much about the author -- satisfying himself with just the works.)

Now, fast forward to the early 1980s, when Welles was in his late 60s. The filmmaker Henry Jaglom took many lunches with Welles during the final three years of the legendary Hollywood maverick's life, 1983-'85. The BBC this week has an interesting hourlong radio documentary based on Jaglom's troves of tapes, recorded with Welles' permission, of their lunches together. It's a great listen, providing a fly-on-the-wall's view of this larger than life figure of stage and screen.

There was also a book published last year (My Lunches With Orson) transcribing many of Jaglom and Welles' conversations. I've been able to look through this book a little more since writing the first draft of this post.* And I've come to modify my views, namely that Welles evidently settled on a stance reminiscent of Charles Dickens' famous quote about the authorship question. ("It is a great comfort, to my thinking, that so little is known concerning the poet. It is a fine mystery, and I tremble every day lest something should come out." [Dickens letter to William Sandys, June 13, 1847])

Ironically enough, Welles' statement to this effect comes right after talking about Dickens.


Orson Welles: [W]ith writers, they have become my friends from the testimony of the pages they've written. And anything else diminishes what I feel. If I'm enraptured by any writer's work, I don't want to know about him. Somebody's come out with a snide biography of [Joseph] Conrad now. Just reading the review of it made me sick.

Henry Jaglom: But doesn't it add another dimension that --

O.W.: Nothing. I know everybody thinks that way, but I don't believe it. I don't want to keep hearing that [Charles] Dickens was a lousy son of a bitch. The hateful Dickens, you know. I'm very glad I don't know anything about Shakespeare as a man. I think it's all there in what he wrote. All that counts, anyway.


Welles makes it clear elsewhere in the interview that he accepts Will Shakspere of Stratford as the author (discussing, for instance, Shakspere's coat of arms and real estate transactions). Welles adds that he thinks any mystery around Shakespeare is "greatly exaggerated," which might seem to contradict what he said above. (It's probably worth noting too that as Jaglom told the BBC, these lunches also involved imbibing no small amounts of wine. So expecting logical self-consistency here might be, shall we say, a bit too stringent a requirement.)

There's a kind of once-burned-twice-shy quality to Welles' musings about Shakespeare here. As Jaglom himself tried to interject, an author's biography does "add another dimension." (I might suggest a book for him to read.)

Oxfordians of course have a straightforward response as to why the Stratford biography simply makes no sense and adds zero insight into our understanding and appreciation of the "Shakespeare" canon.

Namely scholars and biographers have the wrong guy. Jaglom's absolutely right. And Welles was right, once upon a time, too.

On a related note, the blogger Rambler has this year been assembling a monumental and impressive case that Vladimir Nabokov was fascinated with Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford and the authorship question and peppered many of his own enigmatic and hard-to-decipher novels with allusions (e.g. the "discreet Bill" interlude at the end of Lolita) to Nabokov's own discoveries and musings about the authorship debate.

If Rambler is right, and I think he makes a compelling case over months and months of blog posts encyclopedically proving his point, then Nabokov offers up a provocative case study of a great artist who embraced the Oxfordian mystery -- albeit in a characteristically veiled manner. Welles' response of fleeing from it, I think, offers the other side of the coin.

Nabokov (1899-1977) and Welles (1915-1985) are rough contemporaries whose flirtations with/explorations of the Shakespeare authorship question and Edward de Vere, I think, might be considered in light of one another. Both relished their role as controversialist and enjoyed a love-hate relationship with scholars, critics and fans. Nabokov, Rambler has convinced me, discovered artistic wellsprings of inspiration to be found in Oxfordian readings of Shakespeare and his contemporaries.

Would that Welles had arrived at a similar frame of mind.

* The first draft of this blog post also stated we do not know what Welles' position on the authorship question was later in life. As can be seen from the passage above, this is clearly not the case.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

A Waste of Shame: The case of Vivian Maier

This weekend Penny and I saw a documentary that, as I reflect on it, has some curious correspondence to the authorship question. It's called Finding Vivian Maier, and it's about a secretive photographer who shot over 100,000 images during her long life but yet never revealed nearly any of her great works to anyone, whether friend or colleague or agent or auctioneer.

This phenomenal corpus was only brought to light when an archivist happened to discover some of her negatives. Struck by the singular nature of these images, he unearthed more and more of Maier's photos till he ultimately became her posthumous advocate and agent (as well as the director of the present film). 

As the documentary notes, Maier's body of work is arguably among the greatest of any American photographer in the 20th century. The immediacy and probity of her photos, piercing to the quick her subjects with a single stunning image, is often impossible to adequately convey with words. Overall it's a fascinating story well told. On its own merits, Finding Vivian Maier comes highly recommended. (Amazon / iTunes. Not on Netflix that I'm aware.) 

I mention it here, though, because it's also a mystery not unlike the authorship mystery behind another great artist. Namely, Finding Vivian Maier asks but does not answer a fundamental question behind the whole story: Why? 

Why would someone so clearly adept at taking stunning photos, an artist so singularly possessed, spend her whole life -- Emily Dickinson-like -- hiding her phenomenal talent and body of work? For paying work, Maier spent nearly her entire career as a nanny for various families mostly in the Chicago area. She would take her children with her on day trips into the city, photographing everything and everyone she encountered. 

It's not coincidental, I think, that Maier also took to concealing her identity using assumed names -- a storyline in the film that comes out briefly in the trailer. It's not a tremendous leap, one suspects, to go from an artist who conceals her work to an artist who conceals her name. 

It is further revealed that she concealed some darkness in her life too. Without providing any spoilers, I'll just note that Maier emerges from this film as an enigmatic, troubled and brooding figure. Was she disturbed by the mania that possessed her in her work? Was she shamed by the work itself somehow? Was she embarrassed by her related obsessive-compusive behaviors and neurotic tendency to hoard?

The answers are only dimly revealed. But I was struck by the similarly open questions one finds in the story of an author who seems also to have been compulsively driven to conceal his work and identity. In the Sonnets, the author bemoans his buried name (e.g. 72) and his tongue-tied art (66). But he's also drawn by the undertow of shame. ("I am shamed by that which I bring forth..."; "Th' expense of spirit in a waste of shame...") 

So what is the nature of the author's shame? For those who see Edward de Vere as a conflicted, bisexual man battling his own erotic desires (esp. in the "Fair Youth" sonnets to the young man), one might appreciate how the enveloping shadows of shame might darken his consciousness. Then again, some see the author's self-guilt more stemming from, in the words of Sonnet 127, "beauty slandered by a bastard shame." Concealed blood relationships -- royal or otherwise -- they argue is at the core of the author's battles with shame. 

This post is not going to delve into that long-standing battle behind Oxfordian lines. But it may be worth considering this related story of an artist singularly possessed by his/her work, but who for whatever reasons could not reveal this work to anyone else. 

Are the artists' feelings of shame related to their drive to conceal their work? The case of Vivian Maier, while clearly different in obvious ways from the Shake-speare authorship question, does present a psychological profile of a great artist driven to bury and conceal. To the point of self-obliteration. 

Thankfully, in both cases, the forces of obliteration did not win in the end. The works survive, though many mysteries remain. 

Friday, February 21, 2014

Corrigendum: The case of "Oxford's Greek New Testament"

On the Facebook forum ShakesVere, researcher, author and blogger Marie Merkel recently questioned a piece of evidence in the Oxfordian docket. The item -- a Greek New Testament (it is surmised) that Edward de Vere gave to his wife Anne -- is mentioned in Appendix A of "Shakespeare" by Another Name

In reviewing this material, I'm persuaded that, yes, there's more supposition than fact here. As will be described below, I think the matter still merits an endnote. But only as a hypothesis, and one that also should be flagged as such. 

As Oxford's first biographer, B.M. Ward first pointed out, there's a record in the calendar of manuscripts at Hatfield House (XIII, 362) of a copy of a New Testament which is no longer extant. But the manuscript calendar does transcribe a Latin inscription from the book's flyleaf. Nina Green's excellent Oxford-Shakespeare website has the full Latin transcript with an English translation here.  

The Latin poem from the New Testament's flyleaf contains homophonic, though not etymological, puns on Vere and the Latin veritas (truth). Here's part of it:
"[S]ince thou, a Vere, art wife and mother of a Vere daughter, and seeing that thou mayest with good hope look forward to being mother of an heir of the Veres, may thy mind always glow with love of the truth, and may thy true motto be Ever Lover of the Truth. And that thou mayest the better attain to this, pray to the Author of all Truth that His Word may teach thee; that His Spirit may nourish thy inner life, so that, thus alleviating the absent longings of thy dear husband, thou, a Vere, mayest be called the true glory of thy husband. ... To the illustrious Lady Anne Vere, Countess of Oxford, while her noble husband, Edward Vere, Earl of Oxford, was travelling in foreign parts."
Not exactly Virgil. Still, despite its anonymous nature, the context of the poem does suggest Oxford's hand, especially as it might offer an interesting glimpse into an insecure, doting zealotry in Oxford's intense scrutiny over Anne's pregnancy.

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

These c. 1602 references to Macbeth explode the Stratfordian myth

Readers of this blog hopefully already know that a much more active site of SBAN-related discussion these days is the  Facebook group ShakesVere. And a familiar refrain on SV over the past year has been "Please, go read Rambler." 

Rambler is a pseudonymous blogger with an encyclopedic grasp of early modern drama who's been posting on nearly a daily basis since last April about his forays into Elizabethan and early Jacobean plays written by many authors other than "Shakespeare." 

Executive summary of Rambler's posts: Writers from the London literary scene 400 years ago -- Chapman, Middleton, Jonson, Nashe, and numerous others as well -- had all written in guarded terms about Edward de Vere as "Shakespeare." Their testimony taken as a whole exposes and validates what we today call the Shakespeare Authorship Question. And the Oxfordian theory specifically. Stratfordians have COMPLETELY missed the boat here.

Rambler's blog carries the catchy spoonerism "Quakespeare Shorterly" and is at the URL Anyone interested in the authorship question should really bookmark its RSS feed and Please, just go read Rambler

Rambler's latest two posts concern, in part, Queen Elizabeth as a historical prototype for the character Lady Macbeth. (Post 1, post 2) As I was writing "Shakespeare" by Another Name in 2002-'04, I'd reached the conclusion myself that England's queen seems to have served as a prototype for the play's bloodthirsty Scottish queen -- at least in the context of the Mary Queen of Scots trial and Elizabeth's (and, as a jury member in Mary's trial, Oxford's) ordering Mary's beheading. 

The execution of Mary Queen of Scots in 1587 was an extraordinarily big deal, especially for a member of the feudal nobility who had been reared in the belief that kings and queens were God's handpicked agents in human affairs. (As noted in SBAN's Appendix A and in Roger Stritmatter's landmark PhD dissertation, the motif of anointed kings is a commonplace in the handwritten biblical annotations found in Oxford's copy of the Geneva Bible too.) 

To liken Mary's execution to deicide is no mere exaggeration. The anxiety over the royal blood Oxford and Elizabeth had spilled spills over into Macbeth in multitudinous ways. Books can, and should, be written about this. SBAN only begins to get the ball rolling. (Though it's also been surprising to me to learn how little even Oxfordian commentary there has been on Lady Macbeth and Queen Elizabeth.) 

Anyway, Rambler's two posts argue that the late Elizabethan play Blurt, Master Constable riffs on Lady Macbeth and language in Macbeth that strongly suggests Macbeth inspired this play that was published in 1602. Rambler points out that previous scholarship points to 1600-'01 as Blurt's likely composition date, but 1602 would be a hard-fast number here. For Macbeth to have influenced Blurt, some version of it must have been written and likely performed before Blurt was published.

If Rambler is correct, to put it mildly, this would pose a serious problem for Stratfordian chronology. It would mean some early draft of Macbeth were written before at the latest 1602 -- and would, by extension, stand to devastate no small portion of the whole house of cards upon which the Stratfordian chronology is built. 

Stratfordians have long claimed, on very little evidence, that Macbeth was a direct response to the Gunpowder Plot, a terrorist campaign that quickly became a public sensation in London in 1605-'06. Yet, as noted in SBAN's Appendix on the "1604 Question", the allusions Macbeth makes that might be seen as Gunpowder Plot references also trace back to courtroom trials from the 1580s and '90s, one of which Edward de Vere even sat on the jury for!

Despite all this, Macbeth and King Lear have been emerging lately as the Stratfordian fallback positions to a losing battle they're now fighting on The Tempest. (See here and especially here.) In all 3 cases, the claim is these are plays definitively written sometime after Edward de Vere died, in June 1604. So, if any one of those claims could be established firmly, then – again to put it mildly – it'd be very difficult sledding ahead for the Oxfordian paradigm.

Instead, however, 1604 has emerged as a kind of line in the sand. Attempts to discover firm evidence for composition of "Shakespeare" plays before 1604 often prove fruitful. Oxfordian chronologies of the "Shakespeare" canon from before 1604 draw on much the same evidence Stratfordian chronologies do.*

But after 1604, Stratfordian chronologies are, to put it bluntly, a joke. There is not only no firm evidence to date any "Shakespeare" play after 1604, there's plenty good evidence to argue that a post-1604 date is wrong.

Blurt, Master Constable is just the latest example.

As Rambler signs off, Thank you for reading. 

*That said, Oxfordians are also not bound by the Stratfordian stringent timeline for Will Shakspere. His move from Stratford to London in the late 1580s at the very earliest is presumed to be the earliest possible date for any "Shakespeare" work. Of course with Oxford circulating in Elizabeth's court  from 1562 onwards, Oxfordians have much more leeway to (realistically, I think) stipulate substantial foregrounds for many of the plays. So Comedy of Errors, as an example, may ultimately date to 1594 as Stratfordian chronologies theorize. But the performance at court in 1577 of the anonymous play A Historie of Error (as noted in SBAN) also makes good sense as an early draft of what eventually was staged and published as the mature "Shakespeare" work.


POSTSCRIPT: I can already hear the Stratfordian reply: Who's to say Macbeth wasn't referencing Blurt, Master Constable? To which I say, simply, one is one of the greatest plays ever written. The other is a largely forgettable lark. If you knew nothing else about popular culture over the past 50 years and saw Spaceballs and then Star Wars or Austin Powers and then Goldfinger or even read Pride and Prejudice and then read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.... which one would you think came first and which one came second?

The spoof post-dates the thing it's spoofing. Great masters at the top of their game don't worry themselves with referencing disposable goofs and trifles. Seriously, folks. In anywhere but topsy-turvy Stratford-land, this is Q.E.D.

(cc) image: John Singer Sargent, Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Shakespeare, Decaffeinated

The Hungarian mathematician Alfréd Rényi once said, "A mathematician is a machine for turning coffee into theorems." The same might be said about writers and books -- or plays. 

London's first coffeehouse opened in 1652 and was an instant hit. With not much exaggeration, it's been said coffee fueled the Enlightenment. As one recent account of London coffeehouses on the website Public Domain Review notes,

"Remember -- until the mid-seventeenth century, most people in England were either slightly — or very -- drunk all of the time. Drink London’s fetid river water at your own peril; most people wisely favoured watered-down ale or beer (“small beer”). The arrival of coffee, then, triggered a dawn of sobriety that laid the foundations for truly spectacular economic growth in the decades that followed as people thought clearly for the first time. The stock exchange, insurance industry, and auctioneering: all burst into life in 17th-century coffeehouses — in Jonathan’s, Lloyd’s, and Garraway’s — spawning the credit, security, and markets that facilitated the dramatic expansion of Britain’s network of global trade in Asia, Africa and America."

In the spring of 1575, Oxford wrote back to Lord Burghley from Paris that in his travels from Venice and beyond he intended to "bestow two or three months to see Constantinope and some part of Greece." That plus the fact that King Henri III of France had given Oxford letters of introduction to the Sultan's court in Constantinople suggest it's at least possible that the man Elizabeth called her "Turk" did in fact visit Turkey.

For me, when I was researching and assembling "Shakespeare" by Another Name, Turkey became a bridge too far in piecing together the most likely itinerary for Oxford's Italian, Adriatic, Mediterranean (and Aegean and Black Sea??) travels. I just couldn't make it all fit, and Turkey just seemed too far out of the likely orbit.

But there it is. Oxford said he wanted to go. And he had letters of passage from the King of France to give him entry.

There the coffee certainly flowed like water. Er... well at least syrupy water. A Turkish proverb from the time said coffee is best served "black as hell, strong as death, sweet as love."

Given how much Italy Oxford brought back to England with him in 1576, I'm inclined to suspect -- given the absence of Turkey (and coffee!) in his life and works and in the "Shakespeare" canon as well -- he never quite made it to Sultan Murad III's court.

The age of "Shakespeare" was still some 50 years before the dawn of the age of coffee in England. Hamlet written with the benefit of caffeine: It's a curious thought experiment at least, though I suspect it will forever be only just that.