Being Wagner

Read below Matthew Sigman's review in Opera News:

HAD RICHARD WAGNER been born in our era of hyper-articulated adolescent psychiatry he would no doubt, by the age of sixteen, have been medicated and incarcerated. Lazy, willful, resistant to education, already an author of violent, blood-soaked dramas, this short, angry, pimply teenager would have been deemed a threat to society. A prescription for Ritalin and a nice chat with Nurse Ratched might have changed the course of his life.

And, of course, the course of opera. “Had he been other than a musical genius, he would have been locked up,” writes Simon Callow, whose splendid new volume captures the man’s madness and music. Eschewing a hack’s against-all-odds psychoanalytic narrative in favor of a thoughtful portrait, Callow traces the evolution of an angry young man to an angry old man who, along the way, unalterably changed the dramaturgy of opera forever. 

But to call this book a “biography” would be to shoehorn it into a genre to which it does not entirely belong. The facts of Wagner’s life and the gestation of his myriad works are authoritatively presented, but where Callow differentiates himself from academics or acolytes is by simply spinning a damn fine yarn. A distinguished actor, director and author, Callow writes clear prose that turns Wagner’s life into an intellectual campfire story appropriate for those who know and love Wagner, those who know and loathe Wagner, and those who know absolutely nothing about Wagner but are easily enchanted by ghouls, kings, wars, exile and insane heroics. Think Roald Dahl meets Fitzcarraldo—on acid. “There is a distinctly 1960s quality to Wagner’s thinking,” Callow writes at one point, with various comparisons to James Dean, Arthur Rimbaud, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer and Kurt Cobain. 

Not that the biographical underscore is lacking in rigor: on the contrary. Drawing from various sources, including Wagner’s privately published autobiography, Callow explores his embrace of Teutonic mythology, his unexpected maturation into composition and conducting, his dissolute pursuit of women (often the wives of his patrons), his sartorial flamboyance and his unrelenting swings from penury to luxury and back. 

Callow shies away neither from the profundity of Opera and Drama—Wagner’s tome that outlined his revolutionary plan to change music and theater—nor from the prejudice of Judaism in Music, his pseudonymously published pamphlet (cowardice was among his attributes) excoriating the presence of Jews in music. Despite the fact that “every Jew he ever met bent over backwards to help him,” notably Meyerbeer, who facilitated the premiere of Rienzi, Wagner thought of Jews as “nonentities” who polluted the German spirit. For those who would prefer to look away from Wagner’s rabid anti-Semitism, Callow turns our heads back to stare it in the face—and forward to its prefiguration of Nazism.

Callow pulls out the stops for the apotheosis of Wagner’s genius, the creation of The Ring and the opera house he designed to birth it. Madness! Madness all about, as he corralled unimaginable musical forces and technical resources (all of whom worked gratis; he would have it no other way), financial backing (thank you, Ludwig II) and emotional support. His long-suffering wife Minna having died, he married Cosima, daughter of Liszt and his mistress, Marie, Comtesse d’Agoult. Cosima had long cuckolded her husband, the pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow, a devotee of Wagner who championed his work; von Bülow conceded her destiny and granted her a divorce. It was a match made in Wagner’s heaven. As Callow tells us, she knew how to treat a god right. “Minna had tried to build a nest for him,” he writes. “Cosima built him Valhalla.”

Presumably, a good biography of a great composer would encourage the reader to sample his work or jump boldly into the ring of fire. But, as Callow reveals, without awe or sentiment, there is really no sampling Wagner, at least not at his apex. With the exception of a few overtures, extracted for easy money, and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, a lark, there are in his canon few recognizable tunes, arias, duets, ensembles—just extended motifs inextricably linked to character and drama. To consume Wagner is to devour a whale whole—the mythology, the drama, the music and the lunatic. Some readers of Being Wagner, and I hope there will be many, may be moved to do just that.-  —Matthew Sigman 

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Orson Welles, Volume 3 - One Man Band

In One-Man Band, the third volume in his epic survey of Orson Welles’ life and work, Simon again probes in comprehensive and penetrating detail into one of the most complex artists of the twentieth century, looking closely at the triumphs and failures of an ambitious one-man assault on one medium after another – theatre, radio, film, television, even, at one point, ballet – in each of which his radical and original approach opened up new directions and hitherto unglimpsed possibilities.

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Acting in Restoration Comedy

Using the Restoration comedy, "The Relapse" as a guide, Simon Callow discusses the techniques of acting in Restoration theatre. The book is based on the BBC Master Class series.

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Being an Actor

Few actors are more eloquent, honest or entertaining about their life and their profession than Simon Callow. Being an Actor traces his stage journey from the letter he wrote to Laurence Olivier that led him to his first job, to his triumph as Mozart in the original production of Amadeus. This new edition continues to tell the story of his past two decades onstage. Callow discusses his occasionally ambivalent yet always passionate feelings about both film and theatre, conflicting sentiments partially resolved by his acclaimed return to the stage with his solo performances in The Importance of Being Oscar and The Mystery of Charles Dickens, seen in the West End and on Broadway in 2002. Being an Actor is a guide not only to the profession but also to the intricacies of the art, told with wit, candour, and irrepressible verve by one if the great figures of the stage.

This edition is completely revised and expanded, with entirely new material detailing Callow's relationship with the theatre in the twenty years since Being an Actor first appeared.

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Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World

"Acclaimed actor and writer Simon Callow captures the essence of Charles Dickens in a sparkling biography that explores the central importance of the theatre to the life of the greatest storyteller in the English language.

From his early years as a child entertainer in Portsmouth to his reluctant retirement from ‘these garish lights’ just before his death, Dickens was obsessed with the stage. Not only was he a dazzling mimic who wrote, acted in and stage-managed plays, all with fanatical perfectionism; as a writer he was a compulsive performer, whose very imagination was theatrical, both in terms of plot devices and construction of character.

Like many actors, Dickens felt the need to be completed by contact with his audience. He was the original ‘celebrity’ author, who attracted thousands of adoring fans to his readings in Britain and across the Atlantic, in which he gave voice to his unforgettable cast of characters.

In Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World, Callow brings his own unique insight to a life driven by performance and showmanship. He reveals an exuberant and irrepressible talent, whose ‘inimitable’ wit and personality crackle off the page.”

‘Callow writes with great authority and elegant insouciance, which makes this “biography with a twist” very entertaining.’ - The Independent on Sunday

‘Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World is a comprehensive biography as enthralling as one of his own performances’ - The Literary Review

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Charles Laughton - A Difficult Actor

This biography follows Charles Laughton from his parents' hotel in Scarborough to his climactic assumption of the role of King Lear in Stratford at the end of his life. The reader discovers a hugely talented and complex man, a legend in his own lifetime, who nonetheless counted himself a failure.

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Dickens' Christmas

“Multi-talented Simon Callow, who has triumphantly brought Charles Dickens to audiences worldwide in his award-winning show The Mystery of Charles Dickens, now brings him to life on the page, lovingly re-creating the phenomenon of Christmas that fascinated the great novelist. From the ancient world of Christmas Past, Callow works his pleasurable way through a Victorian riot of wassail, plum pudding and mistletoe -- not forgetting Christmas as a time to remember those less fortunate. Packed with evocative illustrations, this literary Christmas cracker has as its novelty filling the complete text of A Christmas Carol, with a memorable cast including Ebeneezer Scrooge, Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim, whose toast,'God bless us, every one!' will for ever sum up the spirit of Christmas.”

“A lovely marriage of author and subject Bookseller Simon Callow delights in a traditional Dickensian celebration - with all the jollity that it entailed.” -  Good Book Guide

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Henry IV Part 1

Simon Callow, best-selling author and acclaimed stage and screen actor, immerses himself in Henry IV, Part I and brings to life not only Falstaff but the entire play in a vividly drawn, in-depth consideration of the actor's craft and the art of the play.


Shakespeare's work is important in shaping our language and character. The enduring popularity and success of Shakespearean productions in theatre and on film is a truly international and cross-cultural phenomenon. The aim of the Actors on Shakespeare series is to provide a unique and accessible contemporary commentary to each of the plays via top-class actors who have performed in them.

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Henry IV Part 2

Simon Callow, bestselling author and acclaimed stage and screen actor, immerses himself in Henry IV once more, now concentrating on Part II with an afterword on the death of Falstaff. Together with his previous book in this series, Callow provides an incomparable study of the art of the play and the craft of the actor.

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Jacques & His Master

Jacques and His Master is a deliciously witty and entertaining "variation" on Diderot's novel Jacques le Fatalist, written for Milan Kundera's "private pleasure" in the aftermath of the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia.

When the "heavy Russian irrationality" fell on Czechoslovakia, Milan Kundera explains, he felt drawn to the spirit of the eighteenth century - "And it seemed to me that nowhere was it to be found more densely concentrated than in that banquet of intelligence, humor, and fantasy, Jacques le Fataliste." The upshot was this "Homage to Diderot," which has now been performed throughout the United States and Europe. Here, Jacques and His Master, newly translated by Simon Callow, is a text that will delight Kundera's admirers throughout the English-speaking world.

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Love Is Where It Falls

When Simon Callow first met Peggy Ramsay he could hardly have suspected that his encounter with the play agent would blossom into passionate love. There was the age difference for one thing: Callow was barely 30, Peggy was in her seventies. And then there was Aziz, the handsome but mercurial Egyptian with whom Callow was already deeply in love. For the next 11 years, until her death in 1991, Peggy and Callow conducted their intense liaison in meetings and passionately unbridled letters. In this revealing memoir, Simon Callow tells the story of their unusual relationship, capturing the fiery intensity and reckless gestures, the bliss and the tenderness, as well as the anguish, of their love.

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My Life In Pieces

Winner of the Sheridan Morley Prize for Theatre Biography.

Drawing on a lifetime of writing about theatre and film, Callow takes us behind the curtain and behind the camera to introduce us to the performers and performances that have shaped him as an actor and as a public persona. They include giants like Orson Welles, Charles Dickens, Tommy Cooper, Charles Laughton and Laurence Olivier. The book reconstructs the highlights of his career, including his breakthrough roles as the foul-mouthed Mozart in Amadeus, and as Reverend Beebe in the film of A Room With a View, at the personal insistence of producer Ismail Merchant. The pieces are interspersed with commentaries on pantomime, nudity, homosexuality, and the many other aspects of a rich and varied life, both on and off the stage.

“Callow's not simply a terrific actor who happens to write. You could as well call him a terrific writer who happens to act.” - The Times

“Essential... a gift for transforming personal experience into blazingly intelligent, objective, critical appreciation.” - Observer

“First rate... the best writer-actor we have.” - David Hare, The Guardian

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Orson Welles - Hello Americans

The Observer’s Book of the Year, this is the second volume of Callow’s biography of Orson Welles.

The reason for the decline of Orson Welles's career is a hotly debated issue, but decline it certainly did. When Citizen Kane, his first film, opened in 1941, Welles was universally acclaimed as the most audacious filmmaker alive. But instead of marking the beginning of a triumphant career in Hollywood, the film still regularly voted the greatest ever made proved to be an exception in Welles's life and work. In 1947 Welles left America for Europe and lived for the best part of twenty years in self-imposed exile. Welles himself famously quipped 'I started at the top and worked my way down' - the second volume of Simon Callow's compelling biography tells the story of that complex and protracted descent from grace.

`Includes the personal detail and humour needed to bring such a glamorous, witty figure into a sustained and compelling close-up' – The Observer
'Callow's prose is fruity and precise' – The Daily Telegraph
`It is...passionate engagement with his subject that drives and sustains histbiography... compels the reader to follow the abundant detail.' – The Guardian
` promising to be the longest as well as the most brilliant of recent film biographies' – The Sunday Times
'A gratifulingly detailed account of Welles's industry and imagination that makes you gasp.'  - The Times
`such a vast canvas may seem excessive... but it pays huge dividends.' – The Independent
"Callow is a match for his subject in terms of showmanship but he has gifts of analysis that eluded Welles" – The Sunday Times

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Orson Welles -The Road to Xanadu

“A brilliant biography of the young Orson Welles, from his prodigious childhood and youth, his triumphs with the Mercury Theatre, to the making of CITIZEN KANE. Vivid, vastly entertaining, this is the definitive Wells biography.”

“Now in paperback, Callow's vastly entertaining chronicle of Welles's first 26 years seems even finer than it did in 1995. The author's ability to skewer his subject's evasions and lies while retaining critical affection for him is perhaps explained by the fact that Callow, an actor himself, understands the need to mythologise. Welles's innovative theatrical work in the 1930s has never been better described or analysed. Even such oft-told sagas as the War of the Worlds broadcast and the filming of Citizen Kane gain new dimension from Callow's intelligent treatment.” - Christine Buttery

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Oscar Wilde and his Circle

One of literature's most flamboyant and witty personalities, the much-quoted Oscar Wilde captivated London society with his works of drama, poetry and fiction. His sharp social observation coupled with his elegant writing style assured him popular success both in Britain and the USA. Wilde was a pioneer of celebrity whose contributions to intellectual and artistic life swiftly secured him a place in high society. His friends and contemporaries included Aubrey Beardsley, Lillie Langtry, James McNeill Whistler, Sir Max Beerbohm and Ernest Dowson, but Wilde is perhaps best known for the circumstances of his love affair with Lord Alfred Douglas ('Bosie'). The subsequent libel case against Bosie's father, the Marquess of Queensberry, and Wilde's own tragic imprisonment made him a social exile and was to be his downfall. In this perceptive appraisal of Wilde and his circle, Simon Callow brilliantly captures the spirit of one of Britain's most celebrated, but ultimately tragic, literary figures.

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Oscar Wilde and his Circle (Illustrated Paperback)

One of literatures most witty personalities, Oscar Wilde captivated London society. In this perceptive appraisal of Wilde and those around him including Aubrey Beardsley, Sir Max Beerbohm and Wildes lover, Lord Alfred Douglas (Bosie) Simon Callow captures the spirit of one of Britains most feted, but ultimately tragic literary figures.

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Shakespeare on Love

A selection of Shakespeare's work focusing on the theme of love. From the passion of the sonnets, the poignant balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet to the bewitched love scene between Titania and Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream, this anthology cuts across age and class, taboo and prohibition.

"If music be the food of love, play on," says the lovesick Orsino in Twelfth Night, and Callow provides plenty food for thought in his selections. In a short and pithy introduction he remarks that "in making the selection for this volume, I was struck by how widely the notion of love appears in Shakespeare's work, by no means solely confined to the amorous or the sexual sphere". As a result, interspersed among selections on "Falling in Love", "Love Gone Wrong", and "Love Embraced", we have "The Many Forms of Love", including love of a brother from Hamlet, love of children from Macbeth, and even love of dogs from The Two Gentlemen of Verona. The selections are also supplemented by Callow's wonderfully portentous thoughts on particular passages and characters, and the whole volume is illustrated with other 50 thoughtfully chosen Renaissance and Pre-Raphaelite paintings.” – Lucy Snowe

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The Night of the Hunter

This is an examination of "The Night of the Hunter," Charles Laughton's only outing as a film director. It looks at the symbolism of the piece, at Willa, her throat cut sitting in the Model-T Ford, and the Preacher, a silhouetted threat on the horizon.

"Having written an empathic biography of Laughton, Callow revisits his movie for this luminous monograph, giving a clean, forward-moving account of its origins and creation." - Uncut

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Shooting The Actor

A companion volume to Being an Actor, Callow's classic text about the experience of acting in the theatre, Shooting the Actor reveals the truth about film acting. The book describes his film work, from Amadeus to Four Weddings and a Funeral, from Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls to Shakespeare in Love. Its centrepiece is a hilarious and sometimes agonising account of the making of Manifesto, shot in the former Yugoslavia. When Callow first met the film's director Du-an Makavejev to discuss the movie, they both got on famously. Months later the two were barely speaking.

Insightful and always entertaining, Shooting the Actor reveals more than any formal guide could about the process of filmmaking and the highly complex nature of being both actor and director.

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The National

Marking Richard Eyre's departure from the National Theatre, Simon Callow explores it's history. Interviews, production photographs, and audience reminiscences are included in this account.

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© Simon Callow 2013-24