The following piece was written as a supplemental dramaturgy packet for the actors, designers, and creative team who worked on Synchronicity Theatre’s 2019 production of Mac/Beth (adapted by Erica Schmidt; directed by Jennifer Alice Acker; October 4th to October 27th; Atlanta, GA).
“Be not afraid of greatness”: On Erica Schmidt
Erica Schmidt is a successful director and playwright. After graduating from Vassar College and working for a time as a costume designer at Juilliard, Schmidt made her directorial debut with a six-actor production of As You Like It in 2000. After winning the Princess Grace Award in 2001 (a grant program “dedicated to elevating extraordinary emerging artists in theater, dance, and film”), she continued conceiving, adapting, and directing such productions as a musical adaptation of the adult film Debbie Does Dallas (2002), People Be Heard (2004), and Uncle Vanya (2008). In 2017, she wrote and directed the world premiere production of All the Fine Boys at the New Group. Through her career, Schmidt has been interested in incorporating avant garde and experimental approaches to classic texts.
Mac Beth played Off-Broadway at the Red Bull Theatre in May 2019. She has also adapted and will direct an upcoming musical adaptation of Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac set to premiere at the New Group. The musical features music written by Aaron and Bryce Dessner of the band The National and will star Schmidt’s husband Peter Dinklage in the title role.
“Not of an age, but for all time”: On Shakespeare (In Brief)
We all know and love him. Born in 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon, William Shakespeare is widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language and most enduring dramatist the world has ever seen. His name is on some 39 extant plays and 154 sonnets, and his plays have been translated into every major living language.
Most of his known works were written and produced between 1589 and 1613. His early plays were mostly comedies (such as The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Taming of the Shrew, and Love’s Labour’s Lost) and histories (such as Henry VI, Richard III, and Edward III), and up to 1608, he wrote a number of tragedies (Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth). His plays have been adapted into many different new works as theatre scholarship and performance evolves.
Shakespeare’s Macbeth (1606) dramatizes the account of Macbeth, King of Scotland, who ruled from 1040 until his death in 1057. Macbeth is now widely accepted as Shakespeare’s nod to King James I, who was king at the time of the play’s first performance. There are a number of elements within Macbeth’s fabric that point to being written for King James I. For one, the play is based on Scottish history and legend, centers around Scotsmen, and is entirely set in Scotland, and the Scottish-born James ruled over both England and Scotland. James I was a well-known scholar of the supernatural, having published a book called Daemonologie in 1597 that was a study of witchcraft and demons, from which much of the witchcraft in the play is drawn. Macbeth also plays on some of the King’s fears: James was reportedly terrified of assassination, especially in light of 1605’s Gunpowder Plot, a very real attempt on his life; this is reflected in the play with Duncan’s assassination at the hands of one of his noblemen (and one who had been in contact with witches, no less). Additionally, James was widely considered to be Banquo’s descendant, and the witches’ claim that Banquo shall beget kings “though thou be none” served to legitimize James’s place on the English and Scottish throne to contemporary audiences.
“All hail, Macbeth, thou shalt be king hereafter!”: On the Historical Macbeth
The historical king Macbeth shares little with Shakespeare’s characterization. Macbeth mac Findláech was born in 1005 in Moray in northeastern Scotland during a period of civil war. In Gaelic, Macbeth means “son of life.” When he was fifteen, his father Findláech was allegedly killed by Máel Coluim (Macbeth’s cousin and Findláech’s nephew), who then succeeded to the throne. The teenage Macbeth was given refuge by his grandfather, King Malcolm of Scotland. In 1034, Malcolm passed away and another one of his grandsons, Duncan, became king. A far cry from Shakespeare’s Duncan, this Duncan became heavily involved in many failed conflicts against England, leading to a disillusioned public. Duncan died at Macbeth’s hand during battle in Moray in 1040. Macbeth became King of Scots in 1040 and ruled until his death in 1057.
In true tragic fashion, Macbeth was eventually killed by the future King Malcolm III, son of the slain Duncan, in 1057, three years after an English-led invasion of Scotland. He was succeeded by his stepson Lulach. Macbeth’s ascension and reign was documented in Raphael Hollinshed’s Chronicle of Scotland (1577), which served as the basis for much of Shakespeare’s play.
“Thou art translated”: On Shakespearean Adaptation
Schmidt’s Mac Beth is the latest in a long, fruitful lineage of adapting Shakespeare and his plays into different works of art. Shades of Macbeth appear in varying degrees in works as disparate as J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (with the author borrowing the prophecy of the Great Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane Hill in the invention of the Ents) and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton (references to Macbeth’s Act V “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow…” soliloquy). The play has been adapted into multiple film adaptations, but for the purposes of this production, it is perhaps most rewarding to look at other instances where the play is repurposed into a vastly different setting than originally intended: Billy Morrissette’s Scotland, PA (2001) is the a darkly comic reworking of the tragedy centered around a fast-food restaurant in 1970s Pennsylvania; Vishal Bhardwaj’s Maqbool (2003) relocates the play to the Mumbai underworld; Alexander Abela’s Makibefo (1999) employed indigenous Antandroy people from Madagascar to perform a largely improvised adaptation of the play; and, perhaps most notably, Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (1957), which resets the play to Japan’s feudal era and draws from both Shakespeare and Noh theatre.
However, maybe the most prominent point of comparison for Schmidt’s Mac Beth is Joe Calarco’s Shakespeare’s R&J, which resets that play into four schoolboys at a Catholic military prep school. Reading that play in secret, the boys find themselves swept away in the emotion and grandeur of Shakespeare’s words and allow themselves to rebel against the rigidity of their surroundings. In an essay about the play, John Moletress wrote, “Containing the world of Romeo and Juliet within this stringent frame of codified ideals of masculinity, moral and ethical order, Calarco creates an adaptation which unmasks the normative nature of male-dominated Verona by aggressive visceral invention. The ‘boys’ of Shakespeare’s R&J discover the forbidden text of Shakespeare’s play under a wooden floorboard, wrapped in a long, red cloth and enact, as well as are phenomenologically acted upon, an athletic deluge of adolescent agitation, terror, and fierce desire.”
What is it about Macbeth that finds new life in the bodies, voices, souls, and performances of young women? How does this new way of looking at the text challenge our cultural expectations of femininity, of violence, of play, of juvenile abandon? What does it have to say about the way our society views young women and girls?