Orson Welles, Mercury Theatre, Voodoo

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Orson Welles, Mercury Theatre and Voodoo

Orson Welles, Mercury Theatre and Voodoo


“Everybody's Orson Welles” is a periodic series of projects designed to encourage the public to view and thoughtfully engage with the creative work of Orson Welles in radio, theatre, and film. Since 2004, the University of Michigan Special Collections Library has been the repository of two massive collections of written, illustrated, recorded, and photographic materials pertaining to the writer-actor-director's artistic career from around 1931 to 1985. These collections, totaling some one hundred linear feet, are the product of Orson Welles's close working relationship with Richard Wilson. He was the associate producer of Mercury Theatre projects, beginning with Too Much Johnson in 1938 and continued with supervision of Mercury radio shows and studio-produced films. It all happened prior to directing his own films in the 1950s, and with sculptress and writer Oja Kodar, who collaborated with Welles on various international film projects, both finished and unfinished, during the last two decades of his life and career. There were dozens of items culled from these collections which were displayed at the Library as part of an inaugural exhibit, “Orson Welles and the Art of Adaptation in Radio, Theatre, and Film,” on view from 20 September to 1 December 2007. The famous play known as “The Magnificent Ambersons”, which the author interpreted for both radio and screen from the novel by Booth Tarkington, first published in 1918; and a series of staging for the theatre, radio, and film, of Shakespeare's tragedy, Macbeth (1606). It is said to have been based on passages from volume five of Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1577). Therefore, further aspects related with these collections will be discussed in detail in this topic.

Main Body

At first blush, one might wonder at the juxtaposition of these projects or rather, what amounts in the current presentation to a spicing of the latter by the former, a critically acclaimed “A” film known as The Magnificent Ambersons. It was produced in 1942 for a major Hollywood studio (RKO) and adapted from a middlebrow early twentieth-century novel; and a critically controversial low-budget film known as Macbeth. The film was produced and released by a Poverty Row studio (Republic), representing a play, which has been considered part of highbrow theatrical tradition since the nineteenth century. It was set briefly aside the cultural politics that have swirled and clung to novelistic and Shakespearean adaptations. There were few stakes attached to such politics by the Hollywood studio system during its prime and it had worth signaling from an authorial standpoint that was semantic and had historical points of resonance between these efforts. First, there was a common plot element of unbridled power, linked, in the more modern,” The Magnificent Ambersons”, to socioeconomic privilege, in the hands of a male protagonist who was encouraged in his schemes by a female character. The character known as Aunt Fanny, in The Magnificent Ambersons, Lady Macbeth in the Shakespearean film, happened to be childless, ...