A Newly-Published Play Enriches the Legacy of an American Genius
Co-written by a 17-year-old Orson Welles and his former teacher Roger Hill, and appearing for the first time in print, Marching Song: A Play dramatizes events in the life of abolitionist John Brown. The play’s themes of racial justice remain significant and the text offers a glimpse of the young author’s immense creativity and burgeoning social conscience; however, the supplementary essays are what make this publication a particular treat for Welles fans.
“In the seventeen kaleidoscopic years of this present existence, I have not once successfully predicted any one-minute of my following future!” – Orson Welles in a letter to Roger Hill
The book opens with a biographical section (written by Hill’s grandson, Todd Tarbox) covering Welles’ early life as a student at the Todd School for Boys, where Hill was headmaster. The minor adventures of Welles as a teenage genius–extroverted, confident, and curious–not only give valuable context to the play that follows, but also provide insight into his later celebrated work on stage and in film. Possessed of a facility with language at age 12 that many adults would envy, Welles’ artistic talents flourished at Todd. In Hill he found a mentor, cheerleader, and lifelong friend.
Hill’s utter belief in Welles as a collaborator, despite Welles’ young age, and in the work that they produced together comes through in snippets from their correspondence. Upon finishing the play in 1932, they made a serious, though ultimately unsuccessful, effort to get someone to produce Marching Song in New York. Still, no one has produced it professionally, though in 1950, Hill’s son-in-law directed a production at Todd School. The book includes photos of that production.
“John Brown’s body lies moldering in the grave, but his soul is marching on…”
The actual script for Marching Song comes sandwiched between the biographical section and an epilogue addressing the social conscience of Welles’ later work on stage and radio. The play has a sense of bombast and theatricality that would mark Welles’ productions with the Mercury Theatre. It’s a compelling read, save for an inexplicably long and repetitive scene in the middle that introduces us to each member of Brown’s “army.” Though it has an archaic quality that betrays the play as a product of the 1930s, ultimately, its sympathies lie with the abolitionists and it doesn’t sentimentalize the antebellum South.
Tarbox presents the play as a fully-realized creative vision which can be largely attributed to Welles, including inventive stage directions, extremely detailed character descriptions, and sketches of concepts for the sets. The text emphasizes the authors’ fascination with the character of John Brown, the charismatic fanatic, and with the men who followed Brown on his doomed crusade, more so than a desire to explore Brown’s cause more deeply. However, when considered along Welles’ larger body of work, Marching Song displays the earnest sense of social justice that would inform his artistic career and activism, particularly regarding racial equality.
“But surely my right to having more than enough is canceled if I don’t use that more to help those who have less.” – Orson Welles
The epilogue contains texts of selected Orson Welles Commentaries, a weekly radio program that aired in 1946. For several weeks, Welles spoke about the case of Isaac Woodard, a black veteran who police in South Carolina beat and blinded. Welles’ broadcasts helped to uncover the name of the man responsible for Woodard’s beating, though a jury eventually acquitted the officer at trial.
Did I mention that Orson Welles was a good writer? The experience of reading his commentaries could only be improved by hearing them delivered in Welles’ famous voice. (Recordings of two of the Woodard broadcasts are available here.)
It feels trite to say that the themes of this play and the selected commentaries remain relevant today. However, in the face of the Black Lives Matter movement, the increased visibility of white nationalist groups, and other current events, we can’t overlook the timeliness of this publication.
In fact, the same month that Marching Song hits bookshelves, a more contemporary case of police brutality is back in the news. The NYPD has finally terminated Daniel Pantaleo, the police officer who caused the 2014 death of Eric Garner by applying an illegal chokehold during an arrest. A grand jury and federal prosecutors declined to bring charges against Pantaleo; however, the consequences of the case and what reforms, if any, should take place within the department continue to be debated. Seventy-three years after Welles’ broadcasts, 160 years after the raid on Harper’s Ferry, the uncomfortable truth remains that black Americans continue to be denied the basic rights of human dignity.
“Life is so full of explaining ourselves and…masquerading ourselves before folks. Thank God we each have a friend for whom we need apply no make-up.” – Roger Hill in a letter to Orson Welles
While Marching Song remains a minor work in the legacy of Orson Welles, the cumulative effect of the play, the essays, and rare photos and illustrations makes for an engaging and thought-provoking read. Moreover, its publication feels like a fitting tribute to Roger Hill and the friendship that was so meaningful to both men.