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Scott L. Newstok and Ayanna Thompson (eds.), Weyward Macbeth: Intersections of Race and Performance (Houndmills, Basingstoke, and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010). ISBN: 978-0-230-61642-4, xvii + 288 pp. Pbk. £20.99.

Reviewed by Willy Maley


[1]  At a moment when a Conservative Member of the Scottish Parliament is calling once again for the historical Macbeth, supposedly vilified by Shakespeare, to be rehabilitated in the run-up to the 2014 vote on Independence, it is interesting to consider the so-called Scottish play’s complex afterlife, not in terms of Anglo-Scottish relations or specific national agendas, but in the context of American racial politics. Weyward Macbeth: Intersections of Race and Performance is a fascinating collection of essays that aims to address the ways in which Macbeth, the first Shakespeare play recorded in the American colonies, has impacted on issues of race and identity ever since. On the face of it, Macbeth is not an obvious choice for a play about race. Ania Loomba’s list of Shakespeare’s ‘others’ did not include Macbeth. Indeed, although claims have been made for it as a history play its generally accepted status as a tragedy has meant that it is the Scottish play in name only, and that specific nationalist readings of it are relatively rare. If topicality is the graveyard of Shakespeare studies then this is most emphatically the case with the tragedies.

[2]  The title of this volume is taken from the Folio edition of Shakespeare’s Macbeth which refers to the ‘weird sisters’ as the ‘weyward sisters’. Wayward suggests something different from weird, and the question that this volume asks is this: ‘Why Macbeth and race? What is “weyward” about the intersections of race and performance in Macbeth?’ (p.3) The starting point in Ayanna Thompson’s opening essay is ‘Note on Commercial Theatre’ (1940), in which Langston Hughes states, ‘You put me in Macbeth…/ And in everything but what’s about me’ (p.9), which appears to echo both Caliban’s cursing of the language he’s been taught and Macmorris’s questioning of his own patriotic pigeonholing. What Hughes is saying here is that the 1936 ‘Voodoo’ production of Macbeth directed by Orson Welles conscripted black actors into a play that for Hughes had no real relevance to contemporary black American struggles. The rest of the volume is devoted to countering Hughes’ claim. The essays are more concerned with the supernatural than with Scotland, yet paradoxically they have more to say about the play’s complex colonial politics of civility and superstition than most Shakespeare criticism (Toni Morrison’s arguments elsewhere around rootedness and ancestry are relevant in this regard).

[3]  Celia R. Daileader looks at the way in which Middleton’s The Witch can inform racial readings of Macbeth, arguing that ‘it is to Middleton’s interpolations and alterations that we owe the ambivalent, though certainly unwitting, legacy of “racialized” interpretation’ (p.12). Daileader’s claim that Middleton rendered Shakespeare’s original ‘amenable to exoticized settings and an interracial cast’ (p.13) prompts the reader to recall that Scotland was an exotic setting for English playwrights of the period and that the preoccupation with the supernatural had a strong Scottish dimension.

[4]  Subsequent essays dwell on the ways in which Macbeth is experienced, exploited and explored in black American culture, from nineteenth-century debates on slavery to the election of Barack Obama. Heather S. Nathan observes that the play was ‘ubiquitous in antebellum American culture’ (p. 23), and was especially resonant in the years preceding the Civil War: ‘Some spectators imagined Macbeth as a democratic hero, rising up against a tyrant (like the Southern Confederacy defending its states’ rights against Northern oppressors), while others conjured parallels between the “un-sexed” Lady Macbeth and the female antislavery agitators’ (pp.24-5). John C. Briggs examines Frederick Douglass’s ‘most characteristic phrasal link to “the Scottish play”’, namely his repeated use of Macbeth’s defiant speech calling for “banners on the outward walls”, and wonders ‘why Douglass used and repeated a battle cry from an infamous tyrant to rally others around the Fourteenth Amendment and freemen’s (now new citizens’) rights’ (p.35). Briggs’s conclusion is that Douglass found in Macbeth’s speech a spirit of defiance, and in the play more broadly a struggle with sinister forces that resonated with the haunting effects of slavery.

[5]  In a fascinating essay, Bernth Lindfors looks at the ways in which the black American actor Ira Aldridge interpreted Macbeth, beginning with a remarkable performance in Paisley, Scotland, on 25 June 1830. Later, in performances in Germany and Russia, Aldridge as a whiteface Macbeth drew admiration from reviewers as an actor whose ‘histrionic equivocation’ got to the heart of ‘a conscience-stricken Scottish regicide’ (p.54). In ‘Minstrel Show Macbeth’, Joyce Green MacDonald points to ‘Christy’s Nigga Songster, a collection of songs performed by the famous blackface troupe the Christy Minstrels’, which included ‘Nigga’s Description of Macbeth’ (p.55). According to MacDonald, ‘Blackface was instrumental in performing the dislocation and alienation of the whites in 1850s New York through these skewed Macbeths, a dislocation whose depth was directly indexed to its choice of the most high culture of authors for its parodic expression’ (p.63).

[6]  Moving into the nineteenth century, Nick Moschovakis looks at the ways in which Shakespeare’s play features in writing by African Americans from W. E. B. Du Bois’s borrowing from Banquo to lament the slow pace of change since Emancipation in The Souls of Black Folk (1903), to ‘sustained allusions to Macbeth as a figure for African-American self-empowerment and self-advancement’ (p.71) such as Langston Hughes’s drama Emperor of Haiti (1936).

[7]  There follow four essays on Federal Theatre projects, before and after Orson Welles’s all-black Macbeth (1936), with Lisa N. Simmons examining an earlier all-black production of the play in Boston in 1935 by the Negro Federal Theatre of Massachusetts, Marguerite Rippy focusing on Welles’s ‘Voodoo’ version, and a characteristic Welles anecdote about him playing the lead in blackface unnoticed in Indianapolis when the lead actor fell ill, an act of ‘performative passing’ that Rippy notes is ‘unverifiable’. Rippy’s essay sharply details the way in which Welles shifts Shakespeare’s Scottish play to nineteenth-century Haiti in a move that manages to retain the colonial dimensions of the original, too often overlooked by conventional Shakespeare criticism. Scott L. Newstok investigates ‘re-do voodoo Macbeths’ in the wake of Welles, charting the ways in which that 1936 landmark theatre event opened the door for African American theatre and for a long association of that theatre with Shakespeare’s Scottish play. Finally in this section, Lenwood Sloan homes in on The Vo-Du Macbeth (2001-2005), a major collaborative revival of Welles’s project which was ultimately shipwrecked by an unforeseen tempest: ‘Hurricane Katrina came along, blowing the entire project to the four corners of the universe’ (p.110).

[8]  The collection then takes another fascinating turn in a section entitled ‘Further Stages’, as Harry J. Lennix offers ‘A Black Actor’s Guide to the Scottish Play’, starting with his own personal experience, and concluding that he remains ‘plagued by never being able to know with any certainty if my eternal awareness of race lessens or increases my own experience of a play such as Macbeth’ (p.120). Alexander C. Y. Huang discusses John R. Briggs’s Shogun Macbeth (1985) as a fusion of ‘the Scottish play, Kurosawa, and Asian America’, and while he maintains that ‘Shakespeare – however Asian – is always “white”’, he also observes that this version ‘has successfully constructed a contact zone that remains open for future inscription’ (p.125). Anita Maynard-Losh gives an account of her own experience as director of a 2003 Tlinglit version of Macbeth, using this setting of the story in Southeast Alaska to meditate on wider issues of Native American culture in relation to Shakespeare. Her exit line is intriguing in its sense of a new interpretation and sense of ownership emerging with regard to the Scottish play by ‘the ultimate “white” playwright’: ‘Jake Waid, the actor playing Macbeth, stirred everyone in the room to renew their commitment to the challenge when he declared, “We need to claim this play for Native American people’ (p.131). In a similar vein, José A. Esquea maps out New York-based Teatro La Tea’s Latino Macbeth 2029, staged in 2008, while William C. Carroll, in ‘Multicultural, Multilingual Macbeth’, explores the cultural complexities of a 2008 Hawaiian production of the play by Paul T. Mitri, a director of Egyptian descent. Carroll makes a telling point about Shakespeare’s play when he reminds readers that ‘For Shakespeare’s London audiences in 1606, the Scots were, if not a separate race, certainly thought of as an inferior people: uncivilized, too often wild and savage (revealing their descent from the Picts, as opposed to the English descent, predominantly Anglo-Saxon-Norman)’, before going on to conclude that ‘The Scottish play has rarely if ever seemed so cosmopolitan, nor have some contemporary racial issues been so directly represented as in this production’ (p.140).

[9]  A series of essays ensue on musical Macbeths, with Wallace McClain Cheatham reflecting on Verdi, Douglas Lanier dwelling on Duke Ellington’s Such Sweet Thunder (1957), and Todd Landon Barnes taking a look at hip-hop Macbeths. The next section on screen versions begins conventionally with Polanski, but Francesca Royster gives a twist to readings of this film by analysing the politics of whiteness in it and in Shakespeare studies more widely. Courtney Lehmann takes a more oblique angle in a compelling essay on Nina Menkes’s The Bloody Child, while Amy Scott-Douglass, in an ambitious and engaging intervention, looks at a range of responses including Grey’s Anatomy, with some sharp observations on the politics of nontraditional casting and interracial relationships.

[10]  The final section, ‘Shakespearean (A)Versions’, contains three essays that emphasise the inventiveness of contemporary black responses to the play, beginning with Charita Gainey-O’Toole and Elizabeth Alexander’s co-authored piece on three African-American women poets – Rita Dove, Julia Fields, and Lucille Clifton. Philip C. Kolin picks up again on Langston Hughes’s 1940 cautionary note, showing that Macbeth can be ‘about’ African Americans contrary to Hughes’s protestations. Kolin takes August Wilson’s King Hedley II (1999) as exemplifying a creative critical engagement with the play that reorients and repossesses it. These aversions end with Peter Erickson’s absorbing essay detailing the ways in which major figures from James Baldwin to August Wilson have been shaped by and have in turn reshaped Shakespeare.

[11]  The volume closes with an incisive epilogue on ‘ObaMacbeth’, by Richard Burt, which uses President Obama’s allusion to the Scottish play by its accursed proper name in relation to Lincoln’s love of Shakespeare to tease out the politics of a ‘national transition’ that is also a ‘national traumission’ (p. 257). The appendix, a list of ‘Selected Productions of Macbeth Featuring Non-Traditional Casting’, compiled by Brent Butgereit and Scott L. Newstok, sets the seal on a thought-provoking volume that had me taking enough notes to fill a whole notebook. Weyward Macbeth is an exceptionally rich and suggestive collection of essays, the kind of book that you know you’ll return to time and again to mull over the nuggets that its wide and wise contributors have unearthed. With a final nod to Langston Hughes, this is a book that not only puts something distinctive into Macbeth, but also proves Derrida’s point that ‘everything is in Shakespeare’. After reading Weyward Macbeth I went back to Shakespeare’s play and pondered Malcolm’s remark that his sins were such that ‘black Macbeth/ Will seem as pure as snow’ (4.3.53-4), and Macbeth’s cursing of the messenger bearing bad news: ‘The devil damn thee black, thou cream-faced loon!’ (5.3.11). The best critical works are ones that change the way we look at a familiar text, and this book, bristling with energy and insight, certainly does that.

University of Glasgow, February 2013