Friday, Aug. 30, 2013

The Real Orson Welles?

By David Luhrssen
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Orson Welles was 11 when he enrolled in the Todd Seminary for Boys, a progressive prep school in Woodstock, Illinois. The influence of its alternative pedagogy, which encouraged creative thinking based on the maxim that doing is the best way to learn and best theory is derived from practical experience, has been noted by Welles’ many biographers. “I fell in love with Roger Hill,” Welles said of his headmaster at Todd. Inspired by him as a boy, the great director continued his friendship with Hill through the end of his life. Hill outlived his student by five years.

Hill’s grandson, Todd Tarbox, explores the relationship in his book Orson Welles and Roger Hill: A Friendship in Three Acts. Welles found his voice during his five years at Todd; the play he performed at graduation, an amalgam of Shakespeare’s historical dramas called Five Kings, turned up in the Mercury Theatre’s repertoire and was the basis for one of Welles’ last films, Chimes at Midnight (1966).

Welles and Hill spoke often by phone and in the director’s last years, his beloved master taped their conversations. The core of Tarbox’s book is a transcription of several of those tapes edited into a three-act play as “an homage” to the two men’s enduring love of theater. The conversations give a sense for the personal Welles—the man behind the persona—as he reminisces about the past and frets over the present.

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