Today is the birthday of that great theatrical man John Houseman (1902-1988). We’ve already done a biographical post on him (read that here), and we’ve done one on his late career television show The Paper Chase (read about it here).
Earlier this year I chanced to read the first volume of his three part memoir, Run Through, which he wrote in the 1970s. I found the book both inspirational and consoling. How heartening it is to know that, even for the greatest theatrical geniuses of the age, working on these now legendary productions, life was still feast-or-famine, precarious, on top of the world one minute, broke as a hobo the next, always surfing the miserable yet exhilarating metaphysical tsunami of risk — risking your reputation, your very SELF, repeatedly on the altar of the public’s approval. When looked at this way, is there any doubt that the theatre begins NOT with storytelling, but with human sacrifice? At the volcano’s mouth, at the stake, in the coliseum? It’s not just “putting on a show” — it’s KILLING yourself to put on a show, trying to make something important that will make a memorable impression on the audience, will make some kind of alchemical change in their heads. What a rush. Clearly he felt the same way, although perhaps to a less pathological degree than his partner Orson Welles.
My other take away from this book is how badly the theatre needs more Housemans. Indie theater in particular has more than its share of wanna-be Welleses. Everyone can’t play the coddled genius in this life; someone has to pay the baby food bills. Much rarer and arguably more necessary than aspiring geniuses are willing, hard working business managers. The elephant in the room when discussing Welles, yet rarely brought up, is the fact that the “charmed” phase of his career ended when he alienated Houseman. With Houseman out of the picture, Welles’ life became a struggle instead of the cakewalk it had always been until that point.
Houseman spent his young adulthood toiling behind desks in a series of responsible positions which even he found dreary (he traded grain until the stock market crash). But it taught him worldly skills and discipline. What made Houseman even rarer, of course, was that he was such a highly cultured businessman. In fact most people today think of him primarily as an actor. He was also an accomplished writer, dramaturg and director in addition to being a producer, and was well cultivated in ALL of the arts. Thus, when it was his task to raise money for a project, he was a full creative partner and collaborator. He was necessary to the art; he wasn’t just a bean-counter in some compartmentalized department (as I’ve often witnessed in larger arts organizations). He knew whereof he spoke. Thus I say and say again: The best thing that could happen to the arts in this country would be to start churning out far fewer Wellses, and many more Housemans. WAH! I WANT MY HOUSEMAN!
Houseman made Paper Chase the best.