What is the magical spell that Orson Welles legendary “Voodoo Macbeth” holds over us? It was neither the first nor the only production of its kind, and yet 75 years later this the one that we go back to as one of the best examples of what a visionary director can do with Shakespeare. Ironically there’s talk of someone actually doing “Welles’ Voodoo Macbeth” again, as something of an homage. Not really sure how I feel about that. Newstok’s own essay in the collection refers to these as “re-do Macbeths.”
Anyway that brings us to Weyward Macbeth : Intersections of Race an Performance, edited by Scott Newstok. Scott was one of the first authors (editor, to be more specific) to have enough faith in my fledgling little site to send me a copy of his book, Kenneth Burke on Shakespeare, for review. I had no idea who Kenneth Burke was at the time, and said as much, but I must have done something right because Scott’s kept in touch over the years.
When Scott offered me a review copy of his latest, my first reaction was “Oh, like Voodoo Macbeth.” Scott said that reactions such as mine, this believe that the universe of what we’ll call “racial Shakespeare” began with Welles, was really a motivating factor for the book’s existence. Who paved the way for Welles’ vision? What’s happened in the 75 years since? Time neither started nor stopped in 1936, and there’s plenty to talk about on both sides of this particular (though monumentous) event in Macbeth history.
When I received the book, a collection of essays on the subject, I did just like I did with the Burke book – I flipped around the contents to find somewhere I felt like I could dive in. I looked to see where Welles and voodoo showed up, and was intrigued to see the first essay about Welles on page 83, 9 essays in. What, then, came first? I see that essay #8 is entitled Before Welles: A 1935 Boston Production. Coming from Massachusetts, I’m intrigued. I pick that one. 1935? Like, the year before? Why have we never heard of that one?
This production did not go for an exotic locale, though it was indeed an “all negro” cast (that is the term used in the essay). Other than that it was intended to be staged largely as Shakespeare wrote it, specifically because the director believed strongly in presenting the talent and range of his black actors. (This to me sounds like something of a snipe at Welles’ production which gained its legendary status precisely for its staging and its direction, and almost nothing is ever said of the actors themselves.)
Did Welles get wind of this production? That would, as the essay understates, “prove an important complication of the Welles legend.” I’ll say. He always claimed that his wife gave him the idea. But what credit would be due if he got the idea from seeing (or at least hearing about) a previous, similar production?
The book is full of small little fascinating selections like this. Flip toward the front of the book and you can read stories of Frederick Douglass using passages from Macbeth in 1875. Do not miss the picture of Ira Aldridge, a black man, portraying Macbeth in 1830.
Or flip toward the end and maybe head right for the sure-to-raise-eyebrows “ObaMacbeth” essay which goes straight for Barack Obama. After mentioning that Obama’s campaign never invoked Macbeth, the essay author Richard Burt spots a Newsweek story that broke out the footage from Welles’ production and basically called upon Obama to bring about a progressive revolution to the National Endowment for the Arts.
With 26 essays spanning over 200 pages, there is a massive amount of information here about the history of interpreting the Scottish play. An excellent and thought-provoking collection from Scott Newstok once again, and I’m pleased that I get the opportunity to have projects such as these cross my desk.