In 1935, a 19-year-old Orson Welles—just becoming well-known as a radio actor—found himself part of the Federal Theatre Project, a New Deal program started to help struggling writers, actors, directors, and theater workers. Hired by John Houseman, then director of New York's Negro Theatre Unit, Welles threw himself into the project, even investing his own earnings from his radio work to speed productions along and make them more professional. He would later tell Peter Bogdanovich, "Roosevelt once said that I was the only operator in history who ever illegally siphoned money into a Washington project."
For his first play, Welles adapted Shakespeare's Macbeth, setting it on the island of Haiti under post-revolutionary ruler King Henri Christophe. Instead of the Scottish witchcraft of the original, Welles' production featured Haitian vodou rituals, and it thus acquired the name "Voodoo Macbeth."
You can see four minutes of the production in the film above. Despite the change of setting, a voiceover announcer tells us, "the spirit of Macbeth and every line of the play has remained intact."
The play debuted in 1936 at Harlem's Lafayette Theater and was performed for segregated audiences. It was so popular that it exceeded its initial run, then toured the country, spending two weeks in Dallas at the Texas Centennial Exposition (see a playbill above). Welles, at 20 years of age, was hailed as a prodigy. The adaptation, writes the Digital Public Library of America, "brought magical realism and aspects of Haitian culture to the production."
The play included drummers who played and sang chants from voodoo ceremonies. Welles reimagined the witches from the original Macbeth as voodoo priestesses. Costumes reflected fashion from Haiti's nineteenth-century colonial period.
As with so many of Welles' theater experiments, critical opinion divided sharply. Some, including the Harlem Communists, saw the play as racist comedy. Many others "felt that Welles' casting of an entire company of African-American actors allowed these actors to show their talent and tenacity during performances in front of segregated audiences."
The play employed 150 actors, including boxer and successful film actor Canada Lee as Banquo (above), and "raised contemporary social issues that for some drew uncomfortable attention to national problems." (Wikipedia has a full cast list and several production stills.)
All footage of the production was thought lost for several years, until the four minutes at the top were discovered in the short film above, "We Work Again." Produced by Alfred Edgar Smith---a civil rights activist and onetime member of F.D.R.'s so-called "Black Cabinet"---this film details in optimistic tones the WPA's success in creating jobs for unemployed African-Americans. Smith worked, writes The New York Times, "to ban differential pay rates and to hire black case workers in the South," and he made "We Work Again" as one of many "studies on how blacks fared under relief programs." His efforts, of course, have their own historical significance, but we can also thank Smith for preserving the only surviving sound and moving image of Welles' first major theatrical production. "The 'Voodoo' Macbeth," writes Shakespeare scholar Susan McCloskey, is notable as "the first black professional production of Shakespeare, an important critical and commercial success for the Federal Theatre, and an appropriately dazzling debut for its twenty-year-old director."
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(George) Orson Welles 1915–
American director, actor, screenwriter, producer, and novelist.
Welles is considered to be one of the most influential craftsmen of the cinema. His lighting techniques and long-focus shots have often been copied but rarely duplicated. All of Welles's films, beginning with the classic Citizen Kane, deal with the same basic themes: the fixity of human existence and the futile attempt to regain lost youth and innocence. The importance of Welles's films lies in his ability to portray these themes through a wide variety of characters.
Welles demonstrated his extraordinary gifts when he was a child. At the age of three, Welles was reading Shakespeare; by the age of ten, Welles had mastered Shakespeare's works. Welles acted in and directed eight plays a year while in high school. He lied his way onto the professional stage in Dublin at sixteen and from there developed a reputation as a fine leading actor and director. Welles's directorial efforts for the Federal Theatre Project have become legend—an all-black production of Macbeth, a bare-stage Doctor Faustus, and a modern-dress Julius Caesar exemplified his innovativeness. Welles was already a veteran radio actor when, on October 30, 1938, he narrated H. G. Wells's The War of the Worlds. The program was presented as a series of newscasts and was narrated with such realism that America was swept into panic. People fled their homes and caused massive traffic jams because they believed a Martian invasion was really taking place.
As a result of his growing notoriety, Welles was signed to a Hollywood film contract. "I didn't want money; I wanted authority," Welles has said of the contract, and the fact that a novice had received total directorial and editorial authority over his films immediately alienated him from Hollywood's elite. After two aborted projects, Welles completed Citizen Kane, a film which many critics feel he has never equalled. This highly-renowned work proved troublesome, for Citizen Kane is a thinly-disguised caricature of William Randolph Hearst, who tried to have the film either altered or suppressed. He was unsuccessful, but Hollywood's animosity toward Welles continued to grow because Welles's lifestyle and filmic subjects and techniques did not conform to the Hollywood idea of normality.
Because Citizen Kane was not an immediate box-office success, Welles's studio, RKO, decided to recut his next film, The Magnificent Ambersons. This became the first of many difficulties in the completion of Welles's films. He directed the first scenes of Journey into Fear but was soon taken off the film, and his directorial work went uncredited. His next project, a four-part film entitled It's All True, was never completed, although critics who have seen brief clips of the film feel that it could have been among Welles's best work. The Stranger and The Lady from Shanghai were received indifferently, although the latter film is seen in retrospect as one of Welles's more important films.
Welles's subsequent work has received wildly contradictory criticism. For example, some critics believe that The Trial incorporates almost nothing of Kafka's novel into the film, while others feel that the theme of the novel is clearly stated in the film and is at the heart of Welles's artistic philosophy. Macbeth and Othello were poorly received upon their release, but recent criticism has been more favorable. Mr. Arkadin (Confidential Report), based on a novel by Welles, is seen either as an unimportant film or as an autobiographical work similar to Citizen Kane. However, most critics agree that Touch of Evil is a superior thriller with subtle yet significant directorial touches, and Chimes at Midnight (Falstaff) is believed to be Welles's best work since The Magnificent Ambersons. Nevertheless, Welles's successes have been produced with much difficulty, and he has acted in second-rate films, television programs, and commercials in order to finance his own work.
Some of Welles's films have been made under very unusual conditions. Othello took four years and three Desdemonas to complete. Other long-standing projects, including the films Don Quixote and The Other Side of the Wind, have never been completed despite being filmed over a number of years. Despite these setbacks and the condemnation of some critics, a new Welles project is always greeted with great anticipation. Even The Immortal Story, a short film originally made for television, and F for Fake display Welles's artistic ingenuity. Critics and other directors express admiration for Welles's innovative directorial techniques. The deeply human themes of his films, and his memorable portrayal of characters such as Kane, Macbeth, Othello, and Falstaff are ample evidence that, despite his erratic career, Welles is one of the true artists of the cinema. At their best, his works have been patterned after his conviction that "A film is a ribbon of dreams." (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 93-96.)