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Witches and Jesuits: Shakespeare's Macbeth.

"If Macbeth is such a great tragedy, why do performances of it so often fail?" begins Witches and Jesuits. The book's author, Garry Wills, is the far-reaching political scholar who anticipated the downfall of Richard Nixon in Nixon Agonistes, and in the recent Lincoln at Gettysburg showed how the Gettysburg Address was the dime on which Civil War-ravaged American history turned. In Witches and Jesuits, Wills reveals a previously undisclosed passion for Shakespeare, hurling himself into the Bard's most difficult play, Macbeth.

Witches and Jesuits opens with Wills's assertion that the legendary "curse" on the play blamed for thousands of apocryphal mishaps and injuries in the theatre - is, in fact, a 20th-century mythological outgrowth of the undeniable fact that Macbeth seems almost impossible to produce successfully. This book is his attempt to lift the curse and, although he does not completely succeed, Wills does point his sharpened finger at what the curse actually may be.

What many in the theatre find difficult about Macbeth is that it should work: The poetry is there (the "tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" soliloquy); the complex stakes are there (in order to test MacDuff's loyalty, noble young Prince Malcolm must pretend to be a soulless fiend); the cool stage business is there (witchcraft, ghosts. assorted murders and duels); there's even humor. So why do so many productions of Macbeth lay on the stage like soggy divots, mired in the requisite buckets of stageblood and billowing theatrical fog? (Since the invention of theatrical fog, productions of Macbeth have probably induced more bronchitis among actors than any other single cause.)

The usual explanation for this string of MacFlops is that the play is either 1) a great play that is very badly written; or 2) a play so incredibly well written that it cannot be performed in this dimension; or 3) cursed.

Yet despite any of these explanations, the "Scottish Tragedy" (as Those Who Believe refer to Macbeth, fearing even to name it) is dragged out again and again, and the curse takes on momentum like a black snowball rolling down an ever-steepening slope of mangled productions.

But if Macbeth could be successfully staged more often, the superstition permeating it might lift - and Garry Wills, Exorcist, has set himself the task of revealing the lost keys to staging a successful production of Macbeth. "I shall adopt, as a working hypothesis in this book, the view that Shakespeare was not a bungler...," he states, and then sets about to prove it.

Although Witches and Jesuits does manage to produce a few keys to Macbeth - though by no means all of them it is actually Wills's examination of the play's locks that makes this book beneficial, a work more of dramaturgy than of scholarship.

Shakespeare, of course, was a writer immersed in his time and yet also timeless. Wills dramatically describes the Jesuit-led Gunpowder Plot of 1605 to assassinate England's James t and the entire Parliament, the political aftermath of which spawned a torrent of popular "gunpowder" plays, stories and songs, each of which explored themes of witchcraft, duplicity and murder. Macbeth was Shakespeare's contribution to the "gunpowder" rage, and, not unexpectedly, it has outlasted all the rest. Wills backs up such excellent and practical sociohistorical background with a fascinating textual analysis.

Wills knows that everything surrounding the performance of a text informs its meaning and impact: In Lincoln at Gettysburg, he devoted an entire book to the wheres and whys and what-fors that went into creating nearly each word of the Address, including details of the Pennsylvania landscape, journalism of the day, politics and oral tradition. Witches and Jesuits similarly scrutinizes Macbeth, proving Wills not only an insightful Shakespeare analyst, but also one with an instinct for the theatre's central principle, action (in the Aristotelian sense). Wills's grasp of what it takes to actually make a script play in performance prevents Witches and Jesuits from being swamped in scholarship, and will make it of goodly value to theatre people.

Although we have no videotape of the original production of Macbeth (it was no doubt destroyed when the Globe burned down in 1614), we nonetheless have a blow-by-blow description of the original production - no, not in the British Museum archives, but right where Shakespeare left it, encrypted into the text. Productions achieving the clarity that Shakespeare requires are inevitably those that draw their staging (and everything else) from the text, which Shakespeare's almost superhuman writing skill designed so as to demand of its producers, directors and players certain definite choices.

Wills has an instinct for text-in-action analysis, and he hits a few nails right on the head. He insists, for instance, that Act 4, scene 3, in which Malcolm tests MacDuff's loyalty - and which is usually trimmed awkwardly or else performed badly - is in fact the hinge on which the two halves of the play's action rest. He has some sharp ideas about how to make this scene really play. And three cheers for his insistence that the Witches Three be more than mere tormentors or "mirrors" of Macbeth's psychology. One of the play's knottiest problems is the mystery of the witches' motivation for drawing Macbeth toward doom, because mere capricious evil lacks stakes and thus does not generate action. Wills uncovers textual evidence that the witches drive the action in moments that are usually overlooked. He also makes a strong case for keeping intact Hecate, the witches' boss, a character almost always cut from contemporary productions.

The book falls momentarily under the cold shadow of the curse when it drifts into speculative "directing" - Wills spends too much time elaborating (at times actually diagramming) staging that is heavy on symbolism but light on conflict and action. His insistence that the witches circle Macbeth on the heath, then mirror that movement in the cauldron scene, may be useful in stimulating staging ideas, but to suggest that this piece of blocking will illumine the play's dark recesses demurs the discussion into the sort of intellectual fogbank in which overly academic productions are usually lost.

And that, of course, is the real curse: applying intellectual or technological solutions to a problem that can only be solved with action. Simply being understood may not be as titillating as exotic stage effects or intellectual gymnastics, but it is probably what great playwrights, Shakespeare included, have in mind.

Ferdinand Lewis is co-artistic director of the Los Angeles-based theatre The Ghost Road Company, and is a faculty member at California Institute of the Arts.
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Author:Lewis, Ferdinand
Publication:American Theatre
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 1995
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