Tuesday, March 11, 2008

MacBeth for Boys

For actors, no play in the English language is more surrounded by superstition and tradition than “the Scottish play.”
My brothers and I were blissfully unaware of this as we contemplated mounting our own production of Shakespeare's “MacBeth” in our bedroom in 1962.
There had been a televised version of it and we had been allowed to stay up and see it. I recall dimly my mother explaining the plot to us.
The subtleties of literary sub texts—meditations on the fleetingness of power, mortality, morality and so on surely eluded us.
It had witches, ghosts, castles, murders and battles. And, if it did lack a twelve eyed Godzilla bent on eating Tokyo or Los Angeles, well, that's just because the Scottish play was literature; culture.
Our parents were almost as concerned that we be cultured as that we eat all our vegetables and drink all our milk.
As producer, director, and star, I recognized we were short of resources. We had no costumes, sets, props, or even a script.
“But the play's the thing!”
As I could only play MacBeth, it was necessary that my brothers handle all the other roles.
Michael and John's two level bunk bed served as the castle.
We had a plastic crown from Halloween (my mother was a theater costumer) and no house full of little boys is ever short of plenty of plastic swords and shields.
Michael (then about 8) had just had his hair cut in a crew cut, so he wrapped up in an old green blanket with part thrown over his head whenever he had to play a female role. Actually, he looked vaguely like the Virgin Mary in a Christmas pageant, which added a special piquancy to his Lady Macbeth.
We lacked a script.
This was not really a problem. I knew the story and would direct my brothers as to where to stand and what to say.
In the opening scene, one of the witches cries out, “Hail MacBeth, Thane of Caudor!” Mom had explained to me “thane” was a Scottish title—sort of like “duke” or “first baseman.” It never occurred to her to explain Caudor was a place. This little omission was shortly to cause trouble.
Instructing the witches, I had my brothers—both draped in green blankets and bent over while they stirred a cardboard box cauldron with broom handles—to say “Hail MacBeth, Thane of Corridor!”
“Thane,” I smugly volunteered, was a Scottish nobleman.
“What's a corridor?” Michael asked innocently.
I was irritated to be asked a question to which I did not know the answer.
“A hall monitor,” I told him. “Corridor is another word for hall.”
Michael nodded, only half comprehending. We both attended the grammar school across the street. Some little goody two shoes student would be appointed by the teachers to enforce our lining up, not talking, or whatever. We suffered hall monitors, water fountain monitors, bathroom monitors, etc. To be honest, the notion of a duke or thane of hall monitors had puzzled me, too, so I improvised.
“Castles have halls,” I began. “MacBeth's in charge of who has hall passes in the castle.”
That satisfied both Michael and me and so on we plunged. It really didn't matter all that much to us. In our stripped down, fast paced version, MacBeth was not going to be handing out hall passes above five minutes before moving on to murder King Duncan.
We lacked only one thing. A dagger. In the TV version we'd seen, MacBeth does his famous “Is this a dagger I see before me?” speech with a large knife floating in a doorway above his head. I intended reproducing this with equally as much dramatic effect.
I would hang our dagger by a string from the doorway into the hall. With the hall lights on and our bedroom lights off, I was sure the effect would be eerie.
I would finish the speech, snatch it free of the string and stalk over to my bed where my youngest brother John (age 4 or 5) was essaying the role of hapless King Duncan.
We encountered our first obstacle.
Mom absolutely refused to allow us to use her butcher knife for our dagger. This was a blow since it was not only impressively large and deadly looking, but it had a small hole drilled in the hilt, perfect to draw a string through. Mom seldom used the knife but she was not about to let us use the it. Not even if we promised to be careful.
I was unwilling to give up the special effect, so I settled for letting Mom give us a large soup ladle.
It did not strike me that the casual observer would think Macbeth even more deranged than he is when gazing up into the light, cries “Is this a dagger I see before me?” and rushes off to stab King Duncan with a soup ladle.
I brought the ladle down on John. Michael crouched behind my dresser, stabbing a fresh apple with a pencil. It made a terrific sound effect. John, of course, played his big scene for all it was worth and my parents nearly became hysterical.
The play had to be stopped and lights flipped on so Mom and Dad could be reassured no real fratricide had taken place.
As director and star, I was of several minds about this. I really didn't like the pace of our play being broken up, but I took a perverse satisfaction in how effective our sound effects had been.
Back on track, we pressed on. Michael and John eventually returning in the final scene, carrying before them their wilting pecan branches we'd broken off the trees in the back yard. Our back yard, if not Birnham Wood, had come to move.
The final scene came off perfectly.
We had choreographed a gigantic, stupendous, unbelievable, impressive, jaw dropping, lots of people get stabbed in big swords fights, screaming like banshees with blood all over the place-we-even-use-real-ketchup-on-old-tee-shirts and jumping up and down on the top bunk bed final battle!
MacBeth dead, Michael makes a short speech on the top bunk bed, places the crown on top of his head and...
Exeunt Omnes


Postscript:::::Years later, my brother, John, having acquired theater degrees from both UNC and USC, won a fellowship to get yet another post grad degree in directing and acting at University of California-Berkeley.
He directed MacBeth.
I understand it was brilliant. But without a Virgin Mary drag queen for Lady MacBeth, fresh apples, and a giant soup ladle, I can't imagine it was more memorable than mine.

POST POSTSCRIPT after reading all of the above, my mother, Douglas Haas Bennett sent along these additional memories of the play:
The story brought back such happy memories but I must make some comments.
Costumes: Can't remember what you wore but there was always a pile of "costume stuff" for all of you to choose from.
As armor, John wore the top of a silver dress I had made in the 1940s. Later, I cut the skirt from it when Mike was younger and wanted to be a knight for Halloween. As Banquo's ghost, John wore it with jeans tucked into aluminum foil covered rain boots. Somewhere there is a picture of him on that old metal hobby horse. John did not wear the boots for the play but as the ghost he covered the silver armor with a sheet. This ghost approaching almost did YF (Your Father) in.
Michael stabbed an Idaho potato, not an apple. It makes a wonderful natural sound effect: a tip which I later passed on to numerous theaters. Apples are too soft and the core keeps the sound from lasting long enough.
As I recall what really broke YF (Your Father) up into laughter was The Virgin Mary as Lady MacBeth stalking along the top bunk bed while making the speech about bloody hands.
When you asked for the knife I had no idea of what you were up to and could easily see you being completely fed up with your younger brothers.
I saw the play all the way through and then when YF (Your Father) came home I suggested that you all repeat it for him. It was then that he had his laugh breakdown and you three would never give another performance.
I was very impressed with the way you cut the play so that you three could do it and have the play make sense while still keeping it to under 30 minutes.
It is one of my fondest memories of the three of you doing a joint project.
I love you all for it.

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