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.