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 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.”
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.”
Things got worse 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 with his first novel, The Sheltering Sky.