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Shakespeare & Beyond

A memorable Macbeth: Setting the Scottish play in 19th-century Haiti

Excerpt: The Playbook: A Story of Theater, Democracy, and the Making of a Culture War by James Shapiro

A new book from Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro explores the far-reaching impact and targeted downfall of the Federal Theatre Project in 1930s America. In the excerpt below from The Playbook: A Story of Theater, Democracy, and the Making of a Culture War, Shapiro writes about a notable Federal Theatre Project production: the 1936 Harlem staging of Macbeth, directed by Orson Welles and featuring an all-Black cast.

>> On View  |  See the playbill from the 1936 Macbeth in our Shakespeare Exhibition

James Shapiro. Photo © Mary Cregan.

This production, also known as the “voodoo Macbeth,” was set in 19th-century Haiti and took the stage only a year after the United States had ended a lengthy military occupation of the Caribbean nation.

James Shapiro is Larry Miller Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. He has written several award-winning books, including Shakespeare in a Divided America, The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606, and 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare.


Looking back on Macbeth’s success, the Black poet and scholar Sterling A. Brown ruefully noted that it “was the only Negro production for which white audiences stood in queues,” then quotes an unnamed source on the obstacles it had to overcome: “Harlem had lost its tourist trade, Macbeth its attraction for theatregoers, and the revival of both together was no mean accomplishment.” It’s an astute observation, for its setting in Harlem as well as its role in reversing Macbeth’s declining appeal proved crucial to its success.  Perhaps no play had been revived in America more often in the early twentieth century; since 1900 Macbeth had returned to one New York City theater or another nearly every year. None of these productions had been especially memorable. Yet another revival arrived in town in October 1935, shortly before Houseman and Welles decided to stage it.  It had bored the New York Times reviewer, Brooks Atkinson, and left him wondering how the play had managed to appeal to playgoers in Shakespeare’s day.  Directed by an Englishman, with English actors in the lead roles, this latest Macbeth had all the familiar trappings: Scottish costumes and setting, “metal roofing thunder and witches’ cauldrons.” While the actors spoke Shakespeare’s verse well enough, the production failed to hold Atkinson’s interest: “The gory events of Macbeth call for ferocity of feeling and action,” and these were absent.  The problem, as he saw it, was that the world had changed, and theater too, since Macbeth was written.  Shakespeare, Atkinson decided, was “not a good modern dramatist.”  It didn’t help that witchcraft, so essential to the plot, was now robbed of its once “terrible plausibility.”  “If we are to have Macbeth on the stage,” he concluded, “it must be charged with some sort of vitality,” though what that might be he stopped short of imagining.

The tradition that Atkinson found so wearyingly familiar–with the cast in tartan and the sets depicting medieval Scotland–had been radical when introduced to the London stage by Charles Macklin in 1773.  Macklin broke with a longstanding modern-dress tradition that originated at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in 1606 and ran in an uninterrupted line through William Davenant’s Restoration revival, up to the 1744 production of Macklin’s arch-rival, David Garrick.  Macklin turned Macbeth into “the Scottish play,” and his innovations were picked up a decade later by John Philip Kemble, starring opposite one of the greatest Lady Macbeths, Sarah Siddons, in a wildly popular production.  They in turn also established a long tradition of the play as a two-hander, with audiences in both Britain and America flocking to see a pair of stars play the most fascinating married couple in Shakespeare.

It wasn’t until 1928 that a heretical director bucked tradition and restored modern dress. When Barry Jackson did so at London’s Royal Court Theatre, playgoers jeered and critics pounced.  His setting was still Scotland—but post-World War.  Castles were now country houses. Men wore khaki army uniforms and Lady Macbeth appeared in a “short-skirted evening dress.”  There were machine gun bursts and shellfire in the battlefield scenes.  It was at once familiar and strange for playgoers, who needed more distance from the play’s horrors: “The khaki,” as one critic put it, “has associations too recent and too intense.” Modern dress also seemed to knock audience identification off-kilter, diminishing sympathy for the Macbeths and shifting it to their victims. And the Witches, one critic concluded, “will not do,” and provoked laughter. Word travelled, as the failure of this modern-dress Macbeth was international news.

While the traditional way of staging the play seemed exhausted, modern playgoers were not quite ready for modern dress. Orson Welles would claim that his wife, Virginia Nicholson, came up with the idea of a third way: setting the play in early nineteenth-century Haiti, with Macbeth loosely modelled on the Black slave-turned-king, Henry Christophe.  It was a brilliant idea, one that solved many of the challenges facing the Negro Unit at one go, and an excited Welles recalled how he called Houseman at two in the morning to share it.  But this too, seems to have been another bit of retrospective mythmaking, for it would have been impossible to have realized this concept without knowing that Dafora’s popular troupe was available, and that wasn’t the case until January 1936, when rehearsals on the show began. Welles’s later claim that he “had to go all the way to the Gold Coast and import a troupe” to realize his conception of Macbeth got things exactly backwards.

Aside from being well suited to an all-Black cast—that would not be seen as impersonating White characters—the Haitian setting was also timely. A year earlier the United States had ended its two-decade military occupation of Haiti.  A critique of that invasion had in part inspired one of the finer American plays written for a Black lead in the 1920s, Eugene O’Neill’s Emperor Jones, and many reviewers of the Macbeth in Harlem noted how aligned the two tragedies were.  Those familiar with W. W. Harvey’s influential Sketches of Hayti (1827), would have recognized how directly the gorgeous costuming of Macbeth was lifted from its pages, the dazzling military uniforms “bedecked with gold and lace,” their shoulders “burdened with epaulets of an enormous size,” and their caps “adorned with feathers nearly equalling their own height,” which “rendered their appearance supremely fantastical.”

Setting the play in Haiti setting also helped solve several of the problems Atkinson had identified, from a lack of “ferocity of feeling and action” to how medieval Scottish witches were no longer disturbing; exotic voodoo practitioners were, especially to curious Whites drawn to lurid accounts of “the ritual orgies of these transplanted primitives” peddled in works like the 1935 bestseller, Voodoo Fire in Haiti.  Setting the play in nineteenth-century Haiti also tilted the production to the left politically; in Macbeth, as Richard France put it, “Welles played on his audience’s current paranoia—the threat…of fascism and impending war,” and the “impression left in the theatre was that of a world steadily being consumed by the powers of darkness.” Ira Katznelson, in Fear Itself, an outstanding study of what drove American political culture in the 1930s, speaks of the three predominant fears: fear of fascism, fear of racial equality, and fear of global violence.  Macbeth ticked all three boxes.

An excerpt from THE PLAYBOOK, published by Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2024 by James Shapiro.