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People & Arts: Theater

Orson Welles and Paul Bowles

Orson Welles (left) and Paul Bowles were in their early 20s when they worked together.

When Paul Bowles and Orson Welles Collaborated in the Theater

Years before he became a renowned author, Bowles was a young composer who wrote music for three Welles productions in New York. The experience began wonderfully, but didn’t end well for either man

By Greg Beaubien

By GREG BEAUBIEN    Oct. 15, 2021


IN 1936, WHEN PAUL BOWLES was 25 years old, he wrote his first theater score, for the Orson Welles production Horse Eats Hat in New York. Welles, then only 21, co-wrote and directed the risqué comedy about what happens after a horse munches the bonnet of a young woman who is cheating on her husband.

The young lady, Agatha (played by Paula Laurence), is afraid her husband will discover the affair if she comes home without her hat. So she convinces her friend Freddy (Joseph Cotten) to run all over town trying to find a replacement hat for her, forcing him to keep Myrtle, his bride-to-be (played by Welles’s wife Virginia) waiting on their wedding day. Welles played Mugglethorp, the father of the bride.

Co-written by Edwin Denby and produced by the Federal Theatre Project—which the U.S. government sponsored to create jobs for unemployed theatrical people during the Great Depression—Horse Eats Hat was an adaptation of the French farce The Italian Straw Hat. American composer and critic Virgil Thomson suggested the play to Welles and his producing partner John Houseman, and recommended that Bowles compose the music.

As Bowles would write in his autobiography, Without Stopping, Thomson took him to 14th Street in Manhattan “to meet a young couple named Welles. The husband was in charge of the newly created Project 891 of the Federal Theater and was going to direct Edwin Denby’s translation of the Labich farce, Un Chapeau de Paille d’Italie …. The production needed a great deal of music, and it was Virgil’s idea that I should write it.”

Bowles told Bomb magazine in 1982 that Welles was living “in a basement, near Union Square. He was married to Virginia. I met this roly-poly youth [Bowles inflated his cheeks]; he was only 19, I think. Very young.”

Welles ‘made us all feel inferior, not intentionally, but he had so much energy!’ Bowles said. ‘He could go on and on and on, all night at times, while everyone was thoroughly exhausted.’

According to Paul Bowles: A Life, by Virginia Spencer Carr, Bowles recalled that “Whereas my earlier compositions were conceived and arranged for small chamber forces, the pit orchestra for Horse Eats Hat required thirty-three musicians, a grand piano in each of the lower boxes, a pianola, a female trumpeter, and a gypsy orchestra—all multiple units with which I had no experience. Yet I did manage to compose for the occasion two long pieces ‘of continuity,’ three overtures, the horse ballet, and several songs.”

For Horse Eats Hat, Bowles wrote new music and also used material he had previously composed. The music pleased audiences with “light colors and gentle textures and amusing rhythms.”

Composing the music for Horse Eats Hat “had to be done posthaste, as rehearsals were already in progress,” Bowles wrote in Without Stopping. “I spent all day every day in the apartment, working frantically …. We got the score ready in time, and Horse Eats Hat opened on schedule.”

The play premiered at the Maxine Elliott Theatre on West 39th Street on Sept. 26, 1936, and ran for ten weeks.

In Welles’s hands, the production “grew into an exploration of what is real and what is staged,” says According to, “Welles made the actors, props, and scenery fully engage with the audience. Actors would speak to the audience and make purposefully wrong entrances, scenery would crash down at inopportune times, props would malfunction, and even the intermission became an opportunity to keep the action going, as Welles employed distractions then as well.”

Playbill for Orson Welles production of Horse Eats Hat

Playbill for Welles’s 1936 production of Horse Eats Hat. (Library of Congress)

Critics lambasted Welles and Denby for what they considered the play’s crudity. After viewing Horse Eats Hat—which included the line, “It’s nice to see a pretty little pussy,”—Illinois Senator Everett Dirksen’s wife complained about the play to her husband, who then publicly denounced the production as “salacious tripe.”

In its review, The New York Times said Horse Eats Hat “was as though Gertrude Stein had dreamed a dream after eating a late supper of pickles and ice cream, the ensuing revelations being crisply acted by giants and midgets, caricatures, lunatics, and a prop nag.”

As Bowles told Bomb, the show “was marvelous, a terribly funny piece. Orson was the czar, he did everything.” For his work, Bowles, like everyone else in the production (including Welles), was paid $23.86 a week.

“I enjoyed watching and listening to my music so much that I used to drop by the theater nearly every night for weeks after the show opened,” Bowles wrote in his autobiography.

A few months after the run of Horse Eats Hat, Bowles was commissioned to write music for Welles’s production of Christopher Marlowe’s Elizabethan tragedy, Dr. Faustus.

“That was incredible, too, beautiful!” Bowles told Bomb. Welles “did all his magic tricks, and the entire front of the theater was simply black velvet, all the way up, and the lighting! … fantastic. He did costumes, sets, everything. He knew exactly what he wanted. A genius. He made us all feel inferior, not intentionally, but he had so much energy! He could go on and on and on, all night at times, while everyone was thoroughly exhausted.”

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Two years later, when Bowles and his wife Jane were living on the French Riviera, a cable arrived from Welles, saying that he wanted Bowles to return to New York. Welles “had decided to produce William Gillett’s ancient farce Too Much Johnson at the Mercury Theater,” Bowles remembered. “I was needed immediately to provide the score. We took a German ship to New York.”

According to Carr’s biography of Bowles, Too Much Johnson “was to have been Welles’s means of breaking free of the confines of the stage altogether, and to this end he introduced film segments juxtaposed with the actors onstage. Bowles was grossly disappointed when he learned that the music he had been called home to compose for the entire play would be used now only as an accompaniment to two short cinematographic sequences presented between acts.”

The situation worsened for Bowles when even those brief film segments were removed from the production. Welles had arranged a preview of the play in Stony Creek, Conn., without knowing that the town’s fire regulations prohibited the use of nitrate film in a projector because it was highly flammable. Upon learning of the rule, Welles told the cast the play would have to run without the film footage. The resulting preview was a disaster, and Welles abandoned the project.

Bowles wrote in his autobiography that he and Jane “were very poor, having spent what was left of our wedding money, after the Central American honeymoon, in getting settled in our house at Èze” in southern France. “The fact that we had then given it all up and returned to America on the strength of a promise which failed to materialize rankled considerably with me. I felt that I should have had some compensation for my work and my trouble, something more than the $100 I was given.”

As Carr wrote, “Bowles complained that it had cost him and his wife twenty times that amount to abandon their villa in Èze and establish themselves once again in New York.”

Composing music for Orson Welles’s plays would prove a boon for Bowles’s career, however. He went on to write incidental music for many other theater productions, including William Saroyan’s Love’s Old Sweet Song, the Theatre Guild’s production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Cyrano de Bergerac starring José Ferre, and Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie. According to the official Paul Bowles website, he “became New York’s composer of choice for literary dramas.”

Three years after the debacle of Too Much Johnson, Welles would make his debut as a film director with his masterpiece Citizen Kane, in 1941. In 1949, Bowles won acclaim as an author for his first novel, The Sheltering Sky.


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