“WARNING.” So say the signs stenciled on the exterior doors of the Barrymore Theater on Broadway in block capitals. Then: “The producers ask that you please refrain from speaking the name of the play you are about to see while within these walls.”
The play we were about to see is Alan Cumming’s sensational one-man version of Macbeth, Shakespeare’s most complex meditation on the nature of evil. The play has long been considered—by actors, directors, even many scholars—to be so fraught, so teeming, so radioactive with evil and the supernatural that to utter the name of the play beyond the fragile perimeters of the stage is to unleash a vicious curse upon whomever makes the fateful mistake. Instead one is supposed to refer to it as “the Scottish play.” I’m sure that helps.
It’s a great theatrical gimmick putting that WARNING sign on the entrances. But there’s something more to it, the tribute that virtue pays to the power of vice, this taboo. It reflects the fear that the evil adumbrated in the play cannot be contained, cannot be explained even within the structure of tragedy. That it is beyond tragedy, an uncontrollable encounter with the unnamable thing—evil itself. While I’m not that superstitious a fellow, it does help explain why I have never seen a Macbeth production that I felt lived up to the unutterable darkness of the language, a torrent of Shakespeare’s most potent and poisonous verbiage, which, I’ve found overwhelms puny actors’ ability to embody—or more often futilely psychologize it.
I used to think the superstition surrounding the taboo name of the play was not really serious, until I spent some years researching my book on Shakespearean controversies. Talking to sophisticated contemporary scholars and theater people, I was recurrently taken aback by the casual, almost automatic way they would substitute “the Scottish play” whenever Macbeth came up in conversation. They didn’t want to take any chances! You probably know about the version of Macbeth Roman Polanski was preparing when Charles Manson’s gang murdered his wife, Sharon Tate. Like I said, I’m not a superstitious guy. But I do recognize that the superstition pays tribute to a truth: that the play forces us to face our inability—the inability of our greatest playwright even—to define and confine the felt reality of evil.
Which is why I had wanted to see Alan Cumming’s unique way of embodying it—he sets the play in a lockdown mental hospital and plays a suicidal psycho who performs all the parts. He’s both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth and all their victims, and the witches (or more accurately “the weyard sisters”) too. It sounds like a gimmick, yes, but I’d seen some acclaimed Macbeths before (Trevor Nunn’s version with Ian McKellan and Judi Dench, Anthony Sher at the RSC, among others) and they’d left me cold. (Only Orson Welles’ glowering film version of the play caught something of the abyss it spoke from—and may have cursed him ever after.)
But I wanted to see how Cumming’s version comported with the unresolved, schismatic contemporary discourse in our culture over evil—another word the uttering of which is almost as taboo among soi disant sophisticates as “Macbeth” is.
And then as I was getting ready to order tickets, Boston happened. Which at the very least reinvigorated the question of what we talk about when we talk about evil. And let’s not neglect the fact that, as Gary Wills reminds us in one of the best recent books on Macbeth (Witches and Jesuits), the play was written in the dark aftermath of a barely averted act of terrorism—the 1605 Guy Fawkes Gunpowder Plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament—and bears the imprint of that attempted regicide in the tale of the murder of the Scottish ancestor of the real target, King James I.
By the time I passed through the WARNING doors of the Barrymore that night, the debate over evil and terrorism had once again divided the culture, and I wondered if there was anything further to be gleaned from seeing this Scottish actor’s idiosyncratic, psych-ward version of the Scottish play.
The schism in our psyches over evil after Boston was evident in the New York papers the day after the pressure cooker explosions.
That morning the New York Daily News splashed a photo of 8-year-old Martin Richard, one of the three dead at the finish line on its front page, along with a cover line: “Evil took his innocent life.” But what is this thing called evil? That same day on the Times op-ed page, Boston crime novelist Dennis Lehane had a different view, belied by the bluster of the headline (“Messing With the Wrong City”): “When the authorities find the weak and maladjusted culprit or culprits we’ll roll our eyes at whatever backward ideology they embrace and move on with our lives.” (Unless you’ve lost a leg or a child, of course.)