Orson Welles was only 25 years old when he directed and starred in Citizen Kane, a film still widely considered the best ever made. Even then, he’d already been a household name for at least three years, since his controversially realistic radio adaptation of H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. But Welles’ high profile at a young age came as a result of serious work at an even younger one. His earlier efforts include Marching Song, a never-produced stage play about the abolitionist John Brown, which he co-wrote with his former schoolmaster Roger Hill when he was just seventeen years old.
Published only in 2019, Marching Song proves that Welles had been working in the fragmented-biography narrative form well before Citizen Kane. It also shows the depth of his fascination with the figure of John Brown. As research, Welles and Hill visited historical sites including Harper’s Ferry, the Virginia town in which Brown, in October of 1859, led the raid on a federal armory meant as the first blow in a large-scale slave-liberation movement. As every American learns in school, Brown’s rebellion did not go as planned — not only did he lose more men than he’d expected to, he also gained the cooperation of fewer slaves than he’d expected to — and brought the country closer to civil war.
About two months later, Brown became the first person executed for treason in the history of the United States. That the verdict didn’t take him by surprise is evidenced by the eloquence of his last speech, delivered extemporaneously after his conviction. Devoutly religious, he used it to make a final appeal to a higher authority. “This court acknowledges, as I suppose, the validity of the law of God,” he said. “I see a book kissed here which I suppose to be the Bible, or at least the New Testament. That teaches me that ‘all things whatsoever I would that men should do to me, I should do even so to them.’ It teaches me, further, to ‘remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them.’ I endeavored to act up to that instruction.”
He then added, “I am yet too young to understand that God is any respecter of persons” — with the clear irony that he was at that point 59 years old, not to mention intimately familiar with the Bible. The gravity of the occasion, and of Brown’s demeanor, might have been too much for the teenage Welles to embody. But when he got older he did well indeed by the text of Brown’s last speech, a performance captured in the video above. He’d also managed, writes Mass Live’s Ray Kelly, to “stage Macbeth with an all-black cast in Harlem in 1936,” produce “the controversial Native Son on Broadway,” and use radio “to seek justice for blinded African-American veteran Isaac Woodard Jr.” Welles never had to face the gallows for his convictions, but could certainly channel the spirit of a man who was prepared to.
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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.