The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Sunday, July 26, 2009

My World With John Houseman

When I was a boy, I stumbled on the film and series The Paper Chase, and was quickly engrossed in it--something about the relationship between the professor and his students, the thrust-and-parry of the dialectic, and the way in which a welter of details could build up to a picture of right and wrong, gripped me. When PBS broadcast the old series, and added panel discussions of legal questions to fill out the hour, I was even more hooked. I began looking for books on law in the library, and found a handful of Supreme Court reporters containing decisions of the 1970s (in a funky red binding I've never seen since) and formed my political views from reading the opinions of Justices. I quickly learned to distinguish the pompous nonsense of Warren Burger and the tendentious writing of William Rehnquist from the often blunt but always grounded reasoning of William O. Douglas. I grew up a lawyer and a politics addict in a family that had neither on either side.

In high school and then much more in college, I found theater, and loved acting, working backstage, even assistant directing. That's when I discovered the enormous contribution Houseman made to the theater, both before and after his collaboration with Orson Welles. I saw Houseman lecture twice; once at Molloy College and once at Fordham, where I got to meet him. He was charming; funny, self-effacing, anecdotal, and with great manner with a punch line. I've read his memoirs, and they convey something of that quality.

So why do I mention this now? Because I've just finished the two volumes of a three volume biography of Welles published to date by Simon Callow. They are awfully good, and in volume 1, Callow draws off a deathbed interview with Houseman. The stories are more tinged with sadness as Callow tells them; he feels for both men, caught in a highly emotional partnership, which grows and dies in a few concentrated years.

And Houseman? His own feeling that he was a chameleon, playing a series of roles in his early life is one which any lawyer--or, I should think, actor--can identify with. We lose ourselves in the parts. But, at some point,we have to find the essential person behind the personae. I don't know if Welles managed it. The last volume of Houseman's memoir suggests that he did.

And me? Ah, that would be telling.

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