ORSON WELLES REBORN
Madison Director Unearths A Long Forgotten Script By The Hollywood Legend
Teresa Peneguy-Paprock – Wisconsin State Journal Rhythm Section 9/25/97
What is the nature of evil?
Great minds have been debating the question for centuries, in literature and art, in music and movies.
Almost 60 years ago, Orson Welles wrote a three-act play, "Bright Lucifer," examining the subject. But nobody ever got to see it. Within weeks of finishing his draft, Welles made his infamous Halloween broadcast of "War of the Worlds," propelling thousands into a panic. Just a few months after that, he signed on with RKO Radio Pictures, and -- at the age of 25 -- wrote, produced, and directed "Citizen Kane," regarded by many a film buff as the finest motion picture ever made.
The rest, as they say, is history. With other projects in the works, "Bright Lucifer" was tucked away and forgotten.
Until now. On Sept. 27, the Millennium Theater will present a world premiere of Welles' "lost" play, directed and produced by Jay Rath. The event will be held at the Monona Terrace Convention Center, with subsequent performances at the Oakwood Theater.
Rath is a Madison journalist, director, actor and playwright who is past president of Madison Theater Guild and co-founder and past co-president of Millennium Theater. He's also been a theater critic for 13 years. "Bright Lucifer" presented an exciting challenge for him: although the manuscript appeared to be largely complete, it required a great deal of work to be ready for production.
Rath discovered the manuscript while doing research at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin. A handful of people -- various Welles scholars and literary critic James Naremore -- were aware of the play's existence, but only Naremore actually examined the manuscript, according to Rath. The play, Naremore later wrote, is "a curious blend of philosophic argument and Gothic fantasy, loaded with playful and sometimes troubled autobiographical references; it indirectly summarizes Welles' childhood and adolescence, and it foreshadows much of his later work."
According to Rath, each of the three characters in "Bright Lucifer" appear to be at least somewhat autobiographical, reflecting either Welles' personal past or themes he would embrace in future works. For example, Eldred, an embittered teenager, is a ward with no "real" parents; so was Welles (and so, for that matter, was Charles Foster Kane).
Of the other two characters in "Bright Lucifer," one is a tabloid journalist (like Kane) and the other, a horror film actor who says, "I wanted to scare people on a big scale ... I mean artistically -- a huge practical joke." (Welles had crossed this line out of his manuscript. But Rath, realizing it was written just before the "War of the Worlds" broadcast, chose to put it back in.)
Homosexuality is one theme of the play that would have shocked audiences of the 1930s (and even today). Specifically, the plot alludes to adult-child homosexuality; even as Rath calls it a "shadowed suggestion," it is there. In "Orson Welles: A Biography," written by Barbara Leaming in 1985, Welles admits that as a boy, a teacher almost sexually molested him during a visit to Camp Indianola on Lake Mendota. Later, Welles described himself as, "from my earliest childhood, ... the Littie Langtry of the older homosexual set. Everybody wanted me."
Rath says that if the character of Eldred in "Bright Lucifer" is a true reflection of Welles' feelings about the experience, "He was angry (the perpetrator) had made the overtures. However, he also felt an attraction (to him), which made Welles angry at himself.
"As a result, embarrassment, love, jealousy and rage all figure largely in the make-up of Eldred," says Rath. "In the play, Eldered embraces the relationship, and makes a pact with the devil to preserve it -- casting a less-than politically-correct light on homosexuality."
The controversy that could surround the play doesn't scare the performers away, however. "I think this is one of the most important plays I've ever done," says Will Lindauer, 44, who plays movie star Jack Flynn. "This is the world premiere of an Orson Welles script," he says. "And it's an interesting script. It raises a lot of questions about how evil is perpetuated. And Welles seems to come up with the same conclusion he would in later projects -- that it's largely due to the media." Lindauer earned his theater degree at Southern Illinois University and has performed in Chicago and Los Angeles.
Michael Hanko, 56, plays Bill Flynn, editor of a sensational newspaper and brother of Jack. Hanko has appeared in many Madison plays including "Looneytoons" (written by Rath), "Arsenic and Old Lace," and "The Odd Couple."
Ariel Molvig, 18, plays Eldred, who is Bill's ward and, as Molvig says, "a force for evil." Molvig is a freshman at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Much effort has been made to stay true to the vision Welles must have had for the play. Rath spent months creating an edited draft of the manuscript, attempting to reconcile Welles' handwritten notes with the typed manuscript.
The set design, said Rath, was suggested by Welles' original sketch. Wells' extensive stage directions, which took up a large part of his written script, were used whenever possible. Rath says their very existence is a sign that Welles had serious intentions to complete and produce the play. "The manuscript contains exceedingly detailed stage directions, which typically are added to a play only after it is produced," says Rath.
Anyone who has seen "Citizen Kane" knows Welles attempted to control even the most minute visual details for his audience. "Bright Lucifer" certainly exhibits this tendency. Rath explains: "Beginning on page 31 of "Bright Lucifer" is an extended set of stage directions which take up almost all of page 32, with the exception of two lines of dialogue containing three words -- 'By God?' and 'Hey!' "
It's fitting that Welles' play should be performed for the first time here in Madison, since Welles lived here for a time in his youth (in a flat on Hawthorne Court, now an alley off State Street). He attended the former Washington School at Park and Johnson Streets, and his neighbors included Frank Custer, who spent many years as a Capital Times reporter.
It's also fitting that the first showing will be held in the Monona Terrace building -- another project that came to fruition after the death of its controversial creator. Welles died 12 years ago at the age of 70, having made a lifetime career of stirring things up in a variety of mediums. He would doubtless be pleased that, even after his death, audiences are continuing to question the motivations behind his art and to discuss his offbeat brilliance.
"Everybody denies I am a genius," Welles once said. "But nobody ever called me one!"
Millennium Theater will present "Bright Lucifer" at 8 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 27 at the Monona Terrace Convention Center. Subsequent performances will be held at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays at Oakwood Theater, 6201 Mineral Point Road. Tickets are general admission and are $10 for adults and $8 for students and senior citizens. For ticket reservations call (608) 278-0518.
The production is made possible by a grant from the Madison CitiArts Commission, with additional funds provided by the Wisconsin Arts Board.