Macbeth on stage - Macbeth

Four tragedies - Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Othello, the Moor of Venice, Macbeth and King Lear - David Bevington and David Scott Kastan 1988, 2005

Macbeth on stage


Theater managers have too often been unwilling to leave Macbeth as Shakespeare wrote it. The tampering began even during Shakespeare’s lifetime or shortly thereafter. Added music and business for the witches must have been included in performances prior to 1623, since interpolations of this sort are found in the original Folio text published in that year. Act 3, scene 5, consisting chiefly of an unnecessary appearance by the witch Hecate, is probably by another author, and the song “Black spirits” in Act 4, scene 1, is from a play by Thomas Middleton.

To be sure, Simon Forman’s description of his visit to the Globe Theatre on April 20, 1611, suggests that he saw something close to what Shakespeare wrote. Forman, an astrologer and physician, tells of Macbeth and Banquo “riding through a wood” (were Richard Burbage and a fellow actor on horseback?) where they encountered “three women fairies or nymphs” who saluted Macbeth, “saying three times to him, ’Hail, Macbeth, King of Codon’ ” (i.e., Thane of Cawdor). Forman goes on to describe a banquet at which Macbeth “began to speak of noble Banquo, and to wish that he were there. And as he thus did, standing up to drink a carouse to him, the ghost of Banquo came and sat down in his chair beside him. And he, turning about to sit down again, saw the ghost of Banquo, which fronted [affronted] him so that he fell into a great passion of fear and fury.” All this sounds close to Shakespeare’s text, as one would expect of a performance some three or four years after Shakespeare wrote the play and while he was still an active member of his acting company, the King’s Men. Macbeth probably remained in repertory during those years. Richard Burbage is likely to have played Macbeth, and John Rice, a boy actor in the company, may have played Lady Macbeth in 1611 when Forman saw the play. But fidelity to Shakespeare’s intention was not to continue for long.

The play that diarist Samuel Pepys saw and enjoyed in the 1660s had already been expanded to include a good deal of new spectacle. Pepys marveled, on April 19, 1667: “Here we saw Macbeth, which, though I have seen it often, yet it is one of the best plays for a stage, and variety of dancing and music, that ever I saw.” Earlier, in January of the same year, Pepys especially liked the “divertissement,” that is to say the song and dance. William Davenant provided the altered and augmented script for this production, not only amplifying the original through operatic and scenic splendor, but also symmetrically balancing the play with an enlarged role for Lady Macduff so that her invincible virtue might offset the wickedness of Lady Macbeth. A production of Davenant’s version in 1672 at the Dorset Garden Theatre, according to John Downes, showed the play “being dressed in all its finery, as new clothes, new scenes, machines, as flyings for the witches, with all the singing and dancing in it.” Music was provided by Matthew Locke and others. Thomas Betterton enjoyed one of his great successes as Macbeth, and continued to play the part until 1707. The witches flew, danced, sang, and otherwise amused the spectators; their parts were taken by comic actors, and their costumes were meant to invite laughter.

Macbeth had become something of an opera. The scenic effects and additional stage business were simply irresistible, and audiences continued to demand more than Shakespeare had provided. The operatic tradition continued well into the eighteenth century after Betterton had been succeeded as Macbeth by John Mills and James Quin, and Mary Porter had emerged as the most remarkable Lady Macbeth of the era—even better than Hannah Pritchard, according to the actor Charles Macklin.

David Garrick made an attempt to restore Shakespeare’s play in 1744, though at the last minute, afraid of an adverse reaction, he partly backed down. He did reintroduce some of Shakespeare’s language, permitted the witches to rise from under the stage rather than enter in flight, and cut away the platitudinous moralisms that Davenant had supplied for Lady Macduff. On the other hand he omitted the murder of Lady Macduff and her son (4.2), left out the drunken Porter (2.3) as a blatant violation of classical strictures against including comic material in a tragedy, and then, somewhat incongruously perhaps, continued to provide the diverting song and dance of the witches to which audiences had grown so accustomed. Despite these unreformed accretions, Garrick’s interpretation of the lead role contributed to a new understanding of Shakespeare’s artistry. Garrick’s thoughtful soliloquies, intimately shared with the audience in the small Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, presented Macbeth as a sensitive and poetic man caught up in the horrid deed he could not resist. Hannah Pritchard, physically towering over Garrick as Lady Macbeth, was, in Thomas Davies’s words, “insensible to compunction and inflexibly bent to cruelty” as she shamed Macbeth into action with her ferocious strength of spirit. Together, this famous pair performed so compellingly that they lent authority and impetus to the new movement in literary criticism toward the study of character as the central feature of Shakespearean drama.

Garrick performed Macbeth in contemporary eighteenth-century dress. The movement toward naturalistic and authentic setting and costume, with which the nineteenth century was to be increasingly fascinated, seems to have begun with West Digges at Edinburgh in 1757 and then Charles Macklin at Covent Garden in 1773, both of whom dressed in historical Scottish garb. (Garrick considered the idea in 1772 but finally rejected it.) Macklin’s costumes and sets were as yet far from accurate—he included cannon for Macbeth’s castle in a presumably eleventh-century Scottish setting long before the discovery of gunpowder, dressed Lady Macbeth in modern robes, and indeed wore a tunic himself that reflected early sixteenth-rather than eleventh-century fashion—but his attempt at least attested to a growing interest in historical realism.

John Philip Kemble’s production at Drury Lane in 1794 was, according to theater historian and producer W. C. Oulton, distinguished by its realistic attention to the appearance of the witches: they were no longer dressed in “mittens, plaited caps, laced aprons, red stomachers, ruffs, etc., which was the dress of those weird sisters when Mesdames Beard, Champness, etc. represented them with Garrick’s Macbeth,” but appeared as “preternatural beings, distinguished only by the fellness of their purposes and the fatality of their delusions.” In the cauldron scene, serpents writhed around the evil spirits. Kemble was the first to treat Banquo’s ghost as a phantasm seen only by Macbeth. Kemble’s famous leading lady (and sister), Sarah Siddons, offered an intensely psychological portrayal of Lady Macbeth in the great tradition of Mary Porter and Hannah Pritchard. With her “turbulent and inhuman strength of spirit,” so much admired by William Hazlitt, Siddons was also able, especially in the sleepwalking scene, to move audiences with the suggestion of a desolate and tortured soul. She and Kemble did much to further Garrick’s and Pritchard’s exploitation of character as the essence of Shakespearean tragedy, further humanizing the portraits that they had developed. Yet Kemble did little to take away Davenant’s spectacle; Matthew Locke’s music was still to be heard, and scenic extravagance was abetted by the large size of the Drury Lane theater after it was renovated in 1794 and by the capacity of the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden (where Kemble and Siddons performed in 1800, 1803, 1809, and afterward).

Still greater magnificence was on its way. Edmund Kean, a fierce devotee of visual authenticity, produced a version of Macbeth in 1814 that, along with the music of Locke, provided new scenery of a splendidly romantic cast: a rocky pass and a bridge, a gallery and banquet hall in Macbeth’s castle, a cavern and “car of clouds,” Hecate’s cave, and much more. The ascent of Hecate in her chariot was particularly admired. Kean wore kilts over an armored breastplate in the first acts, as Kemble had done. William Charles Macready, who played Macbeth over a period of some thirty years (starting in 1820 at Covent Garden, and thereafter chiefly at Drury Lane opposite the brilliant Helen Faucit), devised striking atmospheric effects for his production at Drury Lane in 1837 in order to evoke the dark visionary realm that Macbeth inhabits. These effects included a mist that rose slowly in Act 1 to reveal a barren heath and highland landscape, a rustic bridge, later a royal march for Duncan, a castle interior at Dunsinane with torches and with servants carrying food, a walled courtyard of the same castle in Act 2, an opulent banquet scene, and a ghost entering through a trapdoor hidden from the audience by a cluster of servants. At Birnam Wood, each soldier was completely screened by the huge bough he carried, while the illusion of the forested army receded into the infinite distance of a diorama. To accommodate the scenic elaboration, Macready could not play Shakespeare’s complete text, omitting, among others, the Porter scene while preserving many of Davenant’s hoary alterations.

Not until Samuel Phelps’s production of 1847 at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre, in fact, did a theater manager summon the resolution to do away with the witch scenes of Davenant and limit the music to between acts. Phelps went on to restore the Porter (though cutting the second half of his speech), the killing of Lady Macduff and her son onstage, and the killing of Macbeth offstage, as in Shakespeare’s original. Objection was raised to the horror of some of Phelps’s restorations, and in later productions he eliminated the murder of Macduff’s young son and Macduff’s entry with Macbeth’s head on a pole. Phelps provided some striking effects of “darkness visible” by means of gauze screens and imaginative lighting. His own acting of Macbeth was rugged and energetic, less poetic and haunted than Macready’s or Edwin Booth’s, but, as one critic wrote, “robust and terrible, and, to my mind, closer to the spirit of Shakespeare.”

Phelps’s courageous restoration was almost immediately undone, however, by Charles Kean, who resuscitated Locke and Davenant in an especially magnificent spectacle at the Princess’s Theatre in 1853. Gone once again was the scene of Lady Macduff and her son and the slaying of Macbeth off stage. Instead of striving for textual accuracy, Kean lavished all his attention on what he took to be an authentic reproduction of eleventh-century Scotland. Reasoning that the era in question was one of Danish invasion, Kean devised tunics, mantles, and cross-gartering of Danish and Anglo-Saxon style, along with feathered helmets, particolored woolens, and iron mail sewn on cloth or leather. His sets aimed at architectural reconstruction as well, with sloping roofs supported by Saxon pillars and the like. The Victorian age, besotted by the delights of scenic splendor in the theater, simply was not ready to give up the opportunities that Davenant and Locke had provided for visual and musical elaboration. Kean’s production did not, to be sure, delight everyone: Lloyd’s Weekly complained that “in Garrick’s day we had a Macbeth without the costume, and now we have the costume without Macbeth.” If the lavish spectacle, the inclusion of music, and the focus on the main characters at the expense of lesser figures threatened to overwhelm Shakespeare’s play, it did provide the cultural matrix in which Giuseppe Verdi could write his Italian opera, Macbeth (first performed in 1847, revised in 1865).

Late nineteenth-century theater managers gave full expression to the prevailing taste in opulent historical realism. Henry Irving, at the Lyceum Theatre in 1875 and 1888, chose to revive eleventh-century Scotland once again while banishing Lady Macduff and her son and including songs from stage tradition, though he did restore the drunken Porter. Ellen Terry excelled in Irving’s 1888 production as Lady Macbeth: she was, as one critic wrote, “the stormy dominant woman of the eleventh century equipped with the capricious emotional subtlety of the nineteenth century.” Sarah Bernhardt startled audiences in 1884 at the Gaiety Theatre by coming onstage in the sleepwalking scene barefoot and in a clinging nightdress. Tommaso Salvini (1884, Covent Garden) and Johnston Forbes-Robertson (1898, Lyceum Theatre) continued the tradition of bulky and nearly unmovable sets. Herbert Beerbohm Tree (1911, His Majesty’s Theatre) paid particular attention to beautiful stage pictures—Lady Macbeth (Violet Vanbrugh) in a long scarf of crimson silk or veiled in black, Lady Macbeth ascending and descending a staircase in defiance of the requirements of Shakespeare’s text for the sleepwalking scene, torches glowing in the dark, an exquisite set for the murder of Duncan—which inevitably required extensive cutting and reduction of the number of scenes. Frank Benson, who directed the play in nine different seasons between 1896 and 1911 at Stratford-upon-Avon, summed up in his own way what nineteenth-century staging and interpretation had to offer.

A new direction manifested itself in William Poel’s return to the original Folio text in a performance by the Shakespeare Reading Society in 1895. Though anticipated by Garrick and especially Phelps in regard to textual restoration, Poel went beyond them in staging the play as an Elizabethan drama, not as a Scottish one, using Elizabethan dress and a thrust apron stage. Change was in the air, and by 1915 and 1918 Sybil Thorndike at the Old Vic played Lady Macbeth as though she and her husband were “ ’big capitalists’ in a tragic partnership” (Dennis Bartholomeusz, Macbeth and the Players, p. 226, quoting Thorndike). Lewis Casson, at the Prince’s Theatre in 1926, tried to reconcile the scenic realism of Tree and Kean with Casson’s interest in the staging theories of Poel and Harley Granville-Barker. Sybil Thorndike again played Lady Macbeth. Harcourt Williams, at the Old Vic in 1930, provided simple sets and swift-paced action for John Gielgud’s subtle portrait of Macbeth’s moral isolation. Tyrone Guthrie dropped the witches from the opening scene of his Old Vic production of 1934, arguing that they should not be allowed to govern the entire tragedy; his Macbeth, played by Charles Laughton with Flora Robson as Lady Macbeth, was a man caught in conflict between his noble qualities and the destructive ambition that those very qualities seemed to generate.

Innovation encouraged further experiment. Theodore Komisarjevsky used modern dress against a backdrop of the howitzers and field uniforms of World War I for his Macbeth at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1933. Komisarjevsky’s witches were old hags who rifled the corpses of soldiers slain in battle and used palmistry to tell the fortunes of Macbeth and Banquo. John Gielgud directed Ralph Richardson as Macbeth at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1952 on an abstract set of menacing dark masses lit only by torchlight. In Glen Byam Shaw’s memorable production at Stratford-upon-Avon three years later, with Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, the brutality of the murder of Lady Macduff and her son was in keeping with the production’s bleakly formidable set and unsparing confrontation with uncontrollable evil. Interpretations have ranged from Guthrie’s excision of the witches in Act 1, scene 1, to more predetermined views of Macbeth’s tragedy, as in Stratford, Ontario’s Macbeth of 1983, in which the witches hovered everywhere and even took the part of the third murderer of Banquo so that they could enable Fleance to escape as predicted, or the Kabuki Macbeth of Chicago’s Wisdom Bridge Theatre, 1983, in which the witches were puppetmasters guiding the players in their drama by invisible wires.

The Boston Theatre Works production in 2002, directed by Jason Slavick, began and ended with the three kohl-eyed witches, whose control over all the action was made clear by having them double each of the smaller parts, including the Porter; while, in the opposite direction, in 2004, Anton Krause directed the play at the South London Theatre with no witches at all and their lines transposed to voices in Macbeth’s own subconscious.

Contemporary productions have, then, been willing to experiment with nontraditional stagings that offered a candid exploration of evil, often in the context of the modern experience of war and terror. Orson Welles directed a Macbeth with an all- black cast at New York’s Lafayette Theater in 1936, with the witches replaced by voodoo practitioners. Peter Hall’s production at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1967 consciously explored what Hall termed “the metaphysics of evil,” opening with a large white sheet that fluttered away at the approach of the witches to reveal a blood-red carpet. At Stratford, Ontario, in 1971, Peter Gill directed a Macbeth centered on the idea of tyranny, with throngs of “poor people” present as the silent victims of the powerful. In 1974, at the height of interest in the Watergate scandal, Edward Berkeley directed the play for the New York Shakespeare Festival, on a grim set composed of subway grates, as a study of public corruption and the inner wastage it involves. The following year, at Stratford-upon-Avon, Trevor Nunn produced a dark, brooding version of the play, with Nicol Williamson playing Macbeth, in the words of drama critic Irving Wardle, as “a secretive man who becomes more and more unreachable until by the end events are happening only in his head.” Two years later, at The Other Place in Stratford, Nunn brilliantly directed Ian McKellen and Judi Dench on a small, bare stage with a few crates as props, emphasizing the claustrophobic world created by Macbeth’s manic evil. Adrian Noble’s Macbeth, starring Jonathan Pryce, at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1986, was domestic and introverted, all the more terrifying for being so, finding the tragedy in Macbeth’s inability to live with the consequences of his actions and their ramifications. In 1999, Greg Doran’s brilliant direction at the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon set the play (with Antony Sher as Macbeth) in a modern militaristic society, recalling the violent world of the former Yugoslavia, while at London’s Albery Theatre in 2002, Edward Hall cast Sean Bean and Samantha Bond as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth in a successful production set in the cold, urban landscape of a war-torn city.

But even traditional stagings still can work powerfully. At New York’s Public Theater in 1998, George C. Wolfe directed the play as an action-packed mystery set in eleventh-century Scotland and played in a theater space redesigned to recall the amphitheaters of Shakespeare’s London. Alec Baldwin and Angela Bassett were charismatic and sexy leads, whose obvious attraction to one another impelled the fast-paced drama. Dominic Cooke’s production for the RSC in 2004 was similarly fast-paced, if more psychologically nuanced, and played, as so many Macbeths are these days, without an interval. Greg Hicks’s Macbeth was cool and ironic, an almost disinterested participant in his own tragedy, while Sian Thomas’s Lady Macbeth revealed the ambition that drives them on. Clearly the play works well in the theater, not least because the tragedy unfolds comfortably within “the two hours’ traffic of our stage.” In whatever guise, and in spite of its notoriety for being bad luck in the theater, Macbeth has attracted a remarkable roster of great performers in modern times: Judith Anderson, Alec Guinness, Pamela Brown, Donald Wolfit, Michael Redgrave, Godfrey Tearle, Diana Wynyard, Paul Rogers, Albert Finney, Simone Signoret, Michael Hordern, Christopher Plummer, Eric Porter, Jason Robards, Jr., Christopher Walken, F. Murray Abraham, Derek Jacobi, Janet Suzman, and Peter O’Toole, to name only some.