ORSON WELLES AND SCOTLAND
by Tom Doran
"Our story is laid in Scotland - ancient Scotland, savage, half-lost in the mist that hangs between recorded history and the time of legends..."
Well, that's a bit of what Orson Welles wrote when he was asked to create a new opening narration for his 1948 film production of Shakespeare's Macbeth. But, more about that later.
Welles considered himself, since childhood, as somewhat of an authority on Shakespeare's plays. While at the Todd School for Boys in Woodstock, Illinois, he co-authored a book (with his mentor and school headmaster, Roger Hill) called Everybody's Shakespeare - where he annotated and edited some of the plays, gave stage directions, and illustrated a plethora of set design "suggestions".
In the early days of President Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration (The W.P.A was a program the government set up to put people back to work - working on roads, bridges, dams, and other public programs - it also included money for the arts. It was later renamed Works Projects Administration), Welles, John Houseman and their Mercury Theater group, decided to use those funds set aside to the Federal Theater's Project, to stage a unique production of MacBeth - not quite for the masses - but as was usual for Welles and Houseman at this time, an opportunity to employ a group never considered for the playing of classical parts - the African American community of Harlem. The entire cast would be African-Americans. And while few in that community had ever had the chance to play such roles, Welles was determined to let them do so. So determined in fact, that he drilled them mercilessly into the wee hours of the morning. The actors wanted to kill him at times, but they also understood what he was honestly trying to do.
Some in the community, not knowing Welles' intentions, supposed he was doing this in order to mock them - clearly not the case - and at one point on his way to the theater, would-be attackers pulled out a knife to slash Orson - but the assailant was decked by the rather fearsome actor Jack Carter, who was essaying the lead role (some attribute this physical intervention to Canada Lee, who played Banquo). Carter also made sure everyone in the production towed the line as well - and became a fast and furious companion of Welles - venturing into dangerous nightclubs and brothels in the early morning hours after rehearsals. Welles was fearless and indefatigable.
The young Orson was determined to strike boldly into this brave new world. Half measures, or doing the "same old, same old" had no meaning to him. Gigantic, over-the-top, unique: these were his keywords - and if by chance his visions turned out to be actually good, then that was an added bonus.
After much skepticism from the critical public, and frankly, racism, over the belief that the "negro" could not capture the soul and rhythm of Shakespeare's verse, the play nevertheless proved to be a raging success when it opened at the Lafayette Theater on April 14th, 1936. There were massive crowds, thrilled that something like this could come to Harlem in that day and age. L'enfant terrible proved he was a master showman if nothing else.
The play was moved from Scotland to an un-named Caribbean island (strongly indicated to be Haiti); the three Celtic witches became "witch doctors" - and drums provided a musical background. A huge fortress surrounded by a dense jungle became the setting. Macbeth took on the physical characteristics of The Emperor Jones (which may in fact have inspired this conceptual change from Scotland to the islands), but the verse was not changed in any way to indicate the change of location - though a heavy shears was taken to the text - a common occurrence enough for a staging of Shakespeare, but something Welles did with a vengeance. He wanted things to move quickly and dramatically - even if the meaning behind the words suffered in a headlong rocketing to move the action along.
It quickly and popularly became known as the Voodoo Macbeth.
The play moved from Harlem onto Broadway, and then went out on tour - where rumor has it that on one occasion, the lead actor having fallen sick, Welles took over the role of Macbeth, boldly playing it in blackface.
As was his nature, Welles quickly went onto other bold ventures after the thrill of this production had run its course (to him in any event) - never to re-stage this particular vision of Macbeth, though he had offers from London to bring the show there. The "Voodoo Macbeth" actually is going to be revived soon however, using Welles' original prompt book and notes, etc., but the immense and unprecedented impact of the original staging, in that place, in that time, will never be duplicated.
Here is some footage from the production, re-staged (probably without Welles' involvement) for a newsreel.