The Ireland of Orson Welles was inhabited by mean men and wanton women
America Letter: The film director’s views on the Irish form part of a new book
Orson Welles with Sir Laurence Olivier in the green room of the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin, where Welles was playing Falstaff in Chimes at Midnight, on March 8th, 1960. Photograph: Jack McManus
Actor Spencer Tracy was “one of those bitchy Irishmen” and mean because 700 years of bitter oppression changed the character of the Irish and gave them a “passive meanness and cunning”.
So said Orson Welles in one of a series of lunchtime conversations with the celebrated American filmmaker and actor recorded between 1983 and 1985, the final two years of his life, at a Hollywood restaurant. The conversations form a new book, My Lunches with Orson, and were taped by his friend, the indie director Henry Jaglom. The book is edited and introduced by Peter Biskind, author of the superb history of 1970s American cinema Easy Riders, Raging Bulls.
Welles explores the concept of the self-hating Irishman and other insights into Irish life and Irish-America in outrageously candid detail in a chapter called “Everyone should be bigoted”.
On the Irish, Welles spoke from experience. Ten years before he wrote, directed and starred in the cinematic masterpiece Citizen Kane, the American made his stage debut on the Gate Theatre in Dublin. In 1931, aged just 16, he travelled to Ireland, believing he could pay his way selling paintings.
By the autumn of 1931, he spent the last of a small inheritance on a meal in Dublin and a ticket to see a show at the Gate. Backstage, he met a friend from the west of Ireland who had starred in the show. Welles later bragged that he convinced the theatre’s manager Hilton Edwards that he was a Broadway star.
The teenager landed a major part in a production of Jew Suss for his maiden performance. Welles subsequently told how, on his opening night, when he recited the line, “A bride fit for Solomon, yet he had a thousand wives did he not”, a voice from the stalls responded: “That is a dirty black Protestant lie!”
Welles told Jaglom that at one performance, two Dublin women were overheard saying: “Orson Welles. Oh, he’s a Jewman too.” Dubliners also thought Edwards was Jewish because he had “a splendid hook nose”, said Welles; the Irish liked that he was a “Jewman” because a Jewman is “a clever fella”.
The filmmaker admitted to being racist during one of his dates with Jaglom. Their discussions range from politics and sex to name-dropping some of the biggest Hollywood stars of the 20th century.
Welles also recalled seeing Irish literary celebrities at parties during his time in Dublin, including William Butler Yeats – “makes me shiver” – and Lady Gregory. Despite their meanness, he had a soft spot for the Irish but intensely disliked Irish-Americans. He asked Micheál Mac Liammóir, Edwards’ partner at the Gate, on the set of Welles’s film version of Othello in 1952, to describe the Irish in one word. “Malice,” Mac Liammóir replied.