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ASK Biblitz about Macbeth.

'The devil damn thee black, thou cream-faced loon!'

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I've just been given the lead role in another bloody Shakespeare play, Macbeth of all stupid things, and I can't get out of it. Any advice?


See also Hamlet and Poetry - what it is, what it isn't and how to approach the miserable stuff as a student.

Biblitz replies:

Start rowing or borrow a rowing machine to get your wind up for starters.

Happy Alchemy

Writings on the Theatre and Other Lively Arts

By Robertson Davies

More Shakespeare.

An actor in Shakespeare needs a big vocal range. Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson, who was one of the very great actors of the early part of this century, and famous for his splendid voice, said that range of at least two octaves was needed, and he himself did exercises every day at the piano, to keep his voice in tune. Yes, I said in tune, for those great actors of the past, and the really good ones of today, knew the art of speaking in intervals which are as musical and as carefully calculated as anything in Wagner, and what is more, they could speak in minor as well as major modulations - and that is the secret of many greatly poetic efforts.

But to get back to Macbeth, a first-rate voice is essential because withut it the actor will become tired - his voice will show strain, and in the last act of Macbeth you have no time to indulge fatigue. Some years ago I heard that fine actor Frederick Valk play Othello, and his voice was tired by the end of act three. He was then an old man. He barely made it to the curtain. Members of an audience rarely understand what a variety and strength of vocal technique goes into the acting of a great Shakespearean role. Perhaps some of you saw Richard Burton as Hamlet. A fine voice, but he was not in physical condition for a great role and the last two acts were very dull. No amount of pretending that it is all colloquial, and that Shakespeare is our contemporary, is of any use whatever. You might as well try to be colloquial singing Mozart. The comparison is apt. A great actor and a great singer are not far apart in physical equipment.

You have all heard that Macbeth has the reputation of being an unlucky play, and actors love to tell stories of the mishaps that have taken place when it is put on the stage. My wife was stage manager at the Old Vic in 1937 during a first-rate example of the Macbeth ill-fortune. To begin, the scenery which had been made for the play proved, when it was put on the stage, not to fit, although such a miscalculation is almost unheard of. Next, the dearly loved dog of the great manager, Lilian Baylis, was killed in the street outside the stage door. Third, a heavy iron bar fell, inexplicably, from the area above the stage and very nearly killed some of the flower of the English theatre, which would have been a great misfortune indeed. What followed was that the production was not ready - not sufficiently rehearsed - to be seen on the opening night, and for the first time in the history of that great theatre an opening had to be postponed. That was too much for Lilian Baylis, who was in delicate health, and she took to her bed and died. A succession of misfortunes, which the threatre folk, who are inclined toward superstittion, laid at the door of what was often called "the Scottish play" - to avoid speaking its name. I recall once, when I was a young actor, quoting Macbeth in the dressing-room at the Old Vic, and being asked to leave the room and re-enter it, to ward off bad luck.

That Old Vic production was ill luck indeed. ... (From On Seeing Plays, pgs. 55-56)

I have seen production of Macbeth that were obviously the work of directors who did not really believe in Evil except as a human aberration, and who thought that the supernatural was not part of the reality of nature itself. The supernatural is only what our limited perceptions do not understand, but which we see in life and sometimes suffer appallingly because of it. For myself, I believe that Evil is a reality - a mighty force - not created by Man, but a force of Nature which may manifest itself horribly in the life of Man, and though I do not attempt to read Shakespeare's mind, a lifelong study of his work makes me think he believed so, as well. A director who does not at least admit the possibility of such a thing must work to make this play convincing on purely human grounds, and sometimes such directors struggle with the Witches, and the Apparitions and prophecies, in an attempt to explain them away, or present them as the superstitions of an earlier age. (-- p. 60)


A Dressing Room for Biblitz after Joseph Cornell's 1939 masterwork, A Dressing Room for Gilles


'The devil damn thee black, thou cream-faced loon! / Where got'st thou that goose look?' Macbeth to a servant, Act 5, Scene 3, Dunsinane, in the Scottish play, a Biblitz favorite far, far too dark for adolescent study but entirely proper fare for earnest 10- and 11-year-olds young enough to enjoy displays of witchcraft and frequent violence..

Of other equally cream-faced loons:

Clinging to the Wreckage

By John Mortimer

At some time great stretches of Shakespeare's plays had lodged in my father's head, and he used the lines for odd moments of pleasure, intoning, 'Nymph, in thy orisons be all my sins remember'd' when staning in the Law Courts' lavatory, or during breakfast. When I was young he often greeted me with, 'Is execution done on Cawdor?' a question which, at the age of six, I was at a loss to answer. At other moments he would look at me in a threatening manner and say, casting himself as Hubert and me the youthful Prince Arthur, about to be blinded:

Heat me these irons hot; and look thou stand
Within the arras: when Is trike my foot
Upon the bosom of the ground, rush forth.
And bind the boy...

An even earlier memory is of him pointing a trembling finger to a corner of the room, where, he assured me, the blood- bolter'd Banquo had just appeared to push us from our stools and join the family table, much as he materialized at that embarrassing dinner party of the Macbeths.

So the words of Shakespeare's plays became a sort of family code and the subject of our jokes. 'Is execution done on Cawdor?' was a line of hilarious comedy, and 'Rushforth and Blindtheyboy' a firm of dubious solicitors.
(-- pgs. 24-25)

A few words about witchcraft:

The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks

By Robertson Davies


A child asked me today to explain a picture it had found in a magazine, which showed some mailed warriors walking toward a castle carrying branches of trees in front of them. It was an advertisement for Scotch whisky, and the picture was Malcolm's forces advancing upon Macbeth's castle - Birnam Wood moving toward Dunsinane, in fact. I explained this to the child, and gave a rough and expurgated version of the Shakespeare play, in which I happened to mention that the Witches had told Macbeth that this very thing was likely to happen. "If a witch had told me that, I'd have cut down the forest right away," said the child. I agreed that this would been a wise precaution, but that if Macbeth had done so there would have been no tragedy, and the whole course of Scots history would have been altered. She looked up at me searchingly and said: "That's silly." Sometimes I think that the reins of government should be put in the hands of children. They have remarkably direct minds, and when a witch tells them something, they pay attention. (From The Table Talk of Samuel Marchbanks, p. 278)

The Spiral Dance

A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess

By Starhawk

More of the book, including a healing charm and how to bind it.

When you have finished casting a spell, visualize yourself tying a knot in a cord wrapped around the symbol or image on which you have focused. Tell yourself you are setting the form of the spell, as a clay pot is set when it is fired. Say,

By all the power
Of three times three,
This spell bound around
Shall be,
To cause no harm,
Nor return on me.
As I do will,
So mote it be!

(From Magical Symbols, Excercise 43: Binding a Spell, p. 114)