The McDonaldization of Macbeth: Shakespeare and Pop Culture in Scotland, PA

Article excerpt

"The best response I get is from the people who I was writing it for, the kids who are reading the Cliffs Notes and out getting stoned."

Billy Morrissette, director, Scotland, PA

"We're not bad people-just under-achievers who have to make up for lost time."

-Pat McBeth, Scotland, PA

According to the early eighteenth-century poet and essayist James Beattie, "laughter arises from the view of two or more inconsistent, unsuitable, or incongruous parts or circumstances, considered as united in one complex assemblage" (qtd. in Oring 2). This perhaps offers a starting point from which an exploration of the independent film, Scotland, PA (2000), can begin. In his first film, director Billy Morrissette takes on a daunting task: the transformation of Macbeth-one of Shakespeare's bloodiest, most macabre works-into a comedy. Shifting the action of the play from medieval Scotland to a small-town, Pennsylvania, drive-in burger joint in 1975, Morrissette mines humor from the juxtaposition of two disparate sets of cultural and chronological contexts. The result is a parody of the original work and a satire of modern consumer culture and class aspirations. For the film to succeed as either or both, the audience must recognize both contexts: the opening sequence-a clip from the 1970s detective show "McCloud"-assumes the audience's familiarity with both this show and the recurrence of the prefixes "Mc" and "Mac" in the surnames of the play's characters; the choice of the song "Bad Company" by Bad Company in an early scene is only amusing if the audience recognizes it and knows enough about the play to understand the implicit reference to the underhanded machinations of Macbeth and his wife. This central conceit-the film's references to both Shakespeare's story and the fast food, garish fashion, and testosterone-driven rock of the mid-1970s-is predicated upon the traditional distinction between high and low culture, and yet, the use of both contexts ultimately subverts such distinctions and invites a revision of the commonplace understanding of Shakespeare's place in our culture: Macbeth, the film suggests, is no less common a cultural experience than popular music, regrettable hair styles, and bad jobs in food service.

The relationship between parody and satire in Scotland, PA is not one of simple complement, but rather, one of simultaneity. Any given contextual reference in the film necessarily draws from Macbeth and elements of popular culture, parodying the first and satirizing the second. The examples mentioned above-"McCloud" and Bad Company-illustrate as much, but this model functions more broadly, as well. In the film, Lord and Lady Macbeth become Mac and Pat McBeth (James LeGros and Maura Tierney), a somewhat tacky couple trapped in dead-end jobs in a local McDonald's-style fast food restaurant, Duncan's. Their plot to murder their boss (James Rebhorn) and usurp ownership recontexualizes Macbeth's assassination of Duncan and assumption of the Scottish throne: Mac McBeth does not wish to be King of Scotland, just the burger king of his town. The Macbeths' plot to achieve absolute monarchical authority is absurdly reduced to the McBeths' desperate bourgeois ambitions.

The film's plot offers few surprises-it is Macbeth, after all; the fun, however, emerges from the discovery of the forms the film's analogues have assumed. Prompted by the chemically-enduced prophesying offered by three stoners (Amy Smart, Timothy "Speed" Levitch. and Andy Dick), Mac McBeth decides to heed his wife's nagging: together, he and Pat kill Duncan and convince his two sons, Malcolm (Tom Guiry) and Donald (Geoff Dunsworth) to sell the restaurant to them for a meager sum. Their machinations, however, are threatened by the snooping representative of the state police, Lt. Ernie McDuff (Christopher Walken); the plot is further complicated when their paranoia drives Mac to murder his friend and fry cook, Anthony "Banko" Banconi (Kevin Corrigan). …