The Post-Colonial Vision of the “Voodoo Macbeth

Peter Byrne, Kent State University, Trumbull

In 1935, the Federal Theatre Project, a part of Roosevelt’s New Deal initiative for supporting the arts when private funding was crippled by the Depression, established the Negro Theatre Project in New York. The first production under this new program would become arguably the most famous production of Macbeth of the twentieth century, the so-called “Voodoo Macbeth,” conceived and directed by Orson Welles. Welles, a lifelong Shakespearean enthusiast and iconoclast, decided to set the play in Haiti, using an all-black cast, and he reframed the narrative to incorporate Caribbean cultural elements: costumes, music, and iconography.

While Welles initially insisted to the media that his island was as imaginary as that of The Tempest, he soon revised this claim, conceding that the native elements of the production made it recognizably Haitian. Welles’ choice of Haiti was greeted with suspicions of mere (and possibly racist) sensationalism; there was early controversy in the Harlem artistic community over the potential for the production to descend to a “black-face novelty” farce. Such concerns quickly dissipated as the true nature of the production became clear: Welles was offering a damning indictment of the cultural politics that oppressed post-colonial artists and audiences. Given the politically charged nature of the Federal Theater Project's productions under Welles—his Julius Caesar set in a fascist Italy, and his highly controversial, pro-union production of the musical The Cradle Will Rock—it is unsurprising that his Macbeth would be more than a racially provocative curiosity. For Welles, the racial aspect of the production was primarily a means by which he could make a more substantial argument about European colonialism, both political and cultural.

The history of Haiti’s struggle for (and with) independence provided him with a parallel narrative that emphasized those elements of the Macbeth narrative he wished to highlight. The clash between Macbeth and Malcolm was recast as that between Henri Christophe (self-proclaimed “First King of Haiti”) and Jean Pierre Boyer, known as the man who re-united his divided country under a native government, but also for his imperial vision for Hispaniola, and for making a deal with the French to pay an exorbitant sum to get the former imperialists to recognize the new nation’s legitimacy. The production’s climax, in which Hecate appears to inaugurate Malcolm’s rule by reinitiating the curse that doomed Macbeth, gestures towards an unbroken cycle of tyranny; the story would begin again, and tell the same tale. The “Voodoo Macbeth” therefore offered not merely an indictment of post-colonial reenactment of colonial oppression, but, in presenting a cohesively relevant vision of the play in a post-colonial setting, a criticism of the cultural hegemony of Shakespeare as a European ethos.

The production—directed by a prodigy from Wisconsin, acted by African-Americans, set on a Caribbean island—provides what the play denies: a break with oppressive precedent. Welles’ production was a pointedly international one—a mélange of Haiti and Harlem—and one that argued passionately for the access of all nations, races, and cultures to the language and meanings of Shakespeare. Somewhat comically, this argument was seemingly lost in the immediate critical response to the production: John Mason Brown of the New York Post opined that the production was “conventional,” a claim that rather affirms the success of Welles’s vision of intercultural Shakespearean relevance.