The Scottish Play

Joel BellmanBy Joel Bellman      November 26, 2021

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The Scottish Play
Voodoo Macbeth premier at Lafayette Theatre, Harlem, April 14, 1936. (Library of Congress)
Even if it weren’t adapted and directed by the Joel half of the Coen Brothers filmmaking team, I’d run out to see the upcoming Tragedy of Macbeth, set for Christmas release and later streaming. It seems I can’t get enough of this story, and I’m not alone. Audiences are presumably so familiar with the material that the cryptic trailer makes no mention of Shakespeare at all, offering only a montage of grimly iconic images: circling ravens, a mist-shrouded forest, a troubled king, and a sinister Lady Macbeth, set to a pounding drum and a Weird Sister’s croaking prophecy. This is only the latest commercial film release of one of Shakespeare’s most popular and enduring tragedies, which has seen countless stage adaptations and revivals since its debut more than 500 years ago. Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum last revived it in 2008. The so-called “Scottish play”—an old theater superstition has it that it’s bad luck to pronounce its name unless you’re actually performing or rehearsing it, hence the euphemism—has spawned many dozens of creative film and stage adaptations over the last century, not all of them tragic. There are parodies: In 1966, Berkeley activist Barbara Garson penned Macbird!, a satire that cast LBJ and Lady Bird Johnson as Lord and Lady Macbeth, with JFK as the hapless ruler who falls victim to their murderous ambitions, and is avenged when his brother ascends to the throne. It ran nearly 400 performances Off-Broadway, to mostly rave reviews. And twenty years ago, the goof, Scotland, PA, recast Joe McBeth as a lowly employee in a hamburger stand whose harpy wife pushes him to murder its owner (named Duncan, like Shakespeare’s doomed king) so he can take over the franchise, ignoring the prophecies of three hippie witches. Christopher Walken turns up as Lt. Mcduff, the affable cop who cracks the case. There are mob dramas: In the 1955 British Joe Macbeth, he’s an underboss who decides to rub out the big guy and take over (tagline: “A man lusting for power…a woman hot with ambition..and not a moral between them!”) A 1990 American production took the same idea and turned it into a competent Scorsese knock-off, carried by an intense John Turturro as Mike Battaglia with Rod Steiger as the ill-fated mob boss Charlie D’Amico, with a murderer’s row of top Italian-American actors in supporting roles. In 1971, still deeply grieving over the murder of his wife, Sharon Tate, director Roman Polanski was coaxed back to work when Hugh Hefner offered to bankroll a new production of Macbeth, which Polanski adapted with critic and playwright Kenneth Tynan; violent, gory, and deeply disturbing, it remains one of the most striking and faithful of all the film versions. Perhaps the most unique and artistically successful transposition was Kurosawa’s celebrated adaptation, Throne of Blood, starring Toshiro Mifune as a samurai warlord in feudal Japan. Can it still be Shakespeare without the language? With character, plot, and emotional conflicts intact, I would say yes. Macbeth captivated me when I first read it in a high-school English class. More than 40 years earlier, it also captured the imagination of a young Orson Welles, who first staged it as a student at the Todd School for Boys in Woodstock, Illinois. Several years later, he recorded a version with his Mercury Theater players on an album set of 78 rpm discs. In 1948, he directed and starred in a relatively low-budget but faithful adaptationthat was only released in mangled form by the studio and panned at the time. But with its 1980 restoration by UCLA film archivist Bob Gitt, his Macbeth has recovered its reputation and taken its rightful place alongside Welles’s other highly regarded Shakespeare features, Othello and Chimes At Midnight. By far the most interesting, Welles’ Macbeth project was the one that gave him his first big professional break, when he and producer John Houseman in 1936 staged a legendary production from the Negro Theater Unit of FDR’s Federal Theater Project known as the Voodoo Macbeth, which set the story in a Caribbean island with an all-Black cast. After months of rehearsals, funding and political conflicts, casting challenges, and other problems, the production finally came together and was a sensational critical and popular success, running for three months in New York and another three months on tour throughout New England and the Midwest. It helped introduce Shakespeare to a popular audience, established Black actors as serious classical performers, and secured the reputation of its 20-year-old actor-director, who would go on to become a radio star and, for a brief shining moment, a Hollywood wunderkind filmmaker. And it inspired one of the most unique Macbeth film projects I’ve seen, but unfortunately one that has yet to find a commercial distributor: Voodoo Macbeth, a lightly fictionalized account of how the Welles-Houseman production came together, is a USC School of Cinematic Arts student feature underwritten by Warner Bros. and overseen by a faculty advisor with extensive industry experience. Despite having ten student directors and eight student writers, it’s a tonally and thematically seamless and professional production in every way, and enormously enjoyable. When I spoke to producer Jason Phillips and the male lead, Jewell Wilson Bridges (who makes his feature film debut as Orson Welles), they explained its appeal this way. Phillips told me, “It’s one of those stories that once you hear about, everyone is, like, ‘Wait, how did I not know about this?’” As he noted, “In the shifting world of cinema right now, and discovering more stories that have been untold, this was a great opportunity to bring to light something that would be timely, we could look at the 1930s through a 2020 lens, and do something that we all felt very passionate about.” Bridges’ passion was equally clear: “The story is so much bigger than this film and our project, and we really hope it sparks in the hearts and minds of people because this story is so important, and it connects to everything happening today.” As a cautionary tale of unbridled ambition and lust for power untethered from any moral constraints, the story is today almost too on-the-nose. “You didn’t have to change a whole lot to show how the humanity and all the struggles around this story are still just as pertinent,” Bridges adds, “and occurring to this very day.” Like so many others, these young filmmakers discovered for themselves that, as Bridges put it, “the story is strong enough to support reinterpretation.” And that is why the tragedy of Macbeth, despite its seemingly endless multi-media and avant-garde incarnations—from heavily promoted studio productions to precocious student projects—continues to resonate deeply, and continues to thrill and move and enlighten us.
From left, Orson Welles (Jewell Wilson Bridges) confers with John Houseman (Daniel Kuhlman) and Rose McClendon (Inger Tudor) (USC School of Cinematic Arts)
Joel Bellman

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