1915 was both too late and too modern a year for someone like Orson Welles…


Orson Welles at the Mercury Theatre. Photograph first published in The American Magazine, June 1938.

From The Threepenny Review:

Orson Welles was born in 1915, which, in my view, was both lucky and unlucky. Unlucky because it was too late and too modern a year for someone like him—and I’m not referring now to the curious boundary drawn up by my reader, because I think 1914 and 1913 would have been equally wrong and inappropriate in more than one sense. Lucky because it meant he could make films and not work solely in the theater, and could thus bequeath to us his immense talent both as director and actor, but above all because he could be the rather alarming child prodigy he was rather than the child monster he would doubtless have become had he arrived in the world ten or fifteen, let alone twenty-five or thirty years later, in an age when it is now considered an aberration for a child to speak and behave like an adult and equally frowned upon for a real adult to behave and speak like one. Welles should really have been born in the eighteenth century, when children were still treated as adults-in-the-making, and their various childhood stages seen as transitory phases to be got through as quickly as possible and merely as part of a child’s training for adulthood—an unavoidably long period of annoying restrictions that one simply had to put up with. Nowadays, on the other hand, people tend to cultivate childishness, irresponsibility, and feebleness for as long as possible, so much so that a modern-day Orson Welles would have been a detestable anomaly, and would soon have become the object of ridicule on one of those late-night programs on junk TV, or else have had his life cut short by some psychopathic child-murderer who would have taken a special pleasure in dismembering such an overly talented and unbearably knowledgeable child.

For the truth is that, in more than one respect, little Orson was always Mr. Welles. Not that in his childhood he wasn’t already seen as a truly remarkable prodigy, but in the 1910s and 1920s, someone like him—if brought up in a somewhat eccentric, “artistic” family—could survive childhood and adolescence without being re-educated, psychologized, locked up, folkloricized, interned, kidnapped by the State, used as a guinea pig, or quite simply destroyed by neurotics.

His burly physique was the least of it, although it did help to cover up the anomalous gap between his precocious intelligence and his extreme youth, when it was still extreme. He weighed nearly ten pounds at birth, and his early career onstage came to a premature end precisely because of his robust build: after a promising debut as the illegitimate son of Madame Butterfly in a performance by the Chicago Opera, he was lent out on several subsequent occasions to strapping sopranos playing roles in which, at some point, they were called upon to hold a child in their arms, but at the tender age of three Welles was rejected by various sopranos as being too heavy for them to pick him up and sing at the same time.

“Little Mr. Welles”, Javier Marías, The Threepenny Review