Orson Welles Reads the Abolitionist John Brown’s Final Speech After Being Sentenced to Death

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.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Young Orson Welles Directs “Voodoo Mac­beth,” the First Shake­speare Pro­duc­tion With An All-Black Cast: Footage from 1936

Albert Ein­stein Explains How Slav­ery Has Crip­pled Everyone’s Abil­i­ty to Think Clear­ly About Racism

The Anti-Slav­ery Alpha­bet: 1846 Book Teach­es Kids the ABCs of Slavery’s Evils

How Karl Marx Influ­enced Abra­ham Lin­coln and His Posi­tion on Slav­ery & Labor

When Orson Welles Became a Speech & Joke Writer for Franklin Delano Roo­sevelt

Orson Welles Nar­rates an Ani­mat­ed Para­ble About How Xeno­pho­bia & Greed Will Put Amer­i­ca Into Decline (1971)

When Orson Welles Crossed Paths With Hitler (and Churchill): “He Had No Per­son­al­i­ty…. I Think There Was Noth­ing There.”

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.

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