The McDonaldization of Macbeth: Shakespeare and Pop Culture in Scotland, PA
Hoefer, Anthony D., Jr., Literature/Film Quarterly
"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).
According to Linda Hutcheon, parody does not have to make fun or be critical of the prior work or works it references; in fact, parody is not necessarily humorous, despite the commonplace definition and understanding of the term. Drawing upon the neo-classical mode of "imitation," Hutcheon describes parody simply as a work that imitates, references, and transforms a prior work: "Parody, therefore, is a form of imitation, but imitation characterized by ironic inversion, not always at the expense of the original text [...] Parody is, in another formulation, repetition with critical distance, with marks of difference rather than similarity" (6). In laying out her definition, Hutcheon draws upon an example particularly appropriate to this discussion, Tom Stoppard's play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. R&GaD is not a burlesque of Hamlet, the comedy does not come at the original play's expense. Rather, Stoppard's play is a parody, that is, a wholly new work that imitates a prior work and incorporates or transforms recognizable elements from it. This model seems to work for Scotland, PA. Rarely, if ever, does the film reach for a laugh by making fun of Shakespearean conventions or language. Rather, it relies upon Macbeth as a sort of foundational text
Parodies such as Stoppard's engage in a discourse with the source text, building meaning from the transformation of one work into the other. Simon Dentith suggests that Hutcheon's model moves the definition of parody away from a polemical relationship between the original text and the text that alludes to it and instead focuses on a discourse between the two (Dentith 16). The tension between the two often turns the parodie work's polemic view outward, that is, away from the original work and toward a broader context. Thus, a work can at once be a parody in the model described by Hutcheon, imitating a prior work in an often ironic way, as well as a satire with a potentially broader target, if satire is defined as a work employing humor and irony to offer a critical perspective. For example, Arthur Penn's Little Big Man (1970) and MeI Brooks's Blazing Saddles (1974) both parody Hollywood Westerns, humorously imitating the various conventions and archetypal characters of the genre. Both films offer critical statements about social issues of the 1970s, and both rely upon the audiences' familiarity with the parodied genre as the foundational element. Cultural practices that might be normalized in a contemporary context are more easily apparent when placed into a context with which the audience is familiar but in which these practices appear incongruous.
This same simultaneity of parody and satire is evident in Morrissette's film. The primary text, Macbeth, functions as a foundation from which a critical view of another context-contemporary consumer culture and bourgeois aspirations-can be satirized. The incongruity of these two contexts is absolutely crucial to the film's comic sensibility. Morrissette's conflations comically reduce the grandiosity of Shakespearean drama to the pedestrian circumstances of small-town America. Macbeth's heroic victories against Duncan's enemies become Mac's slow-motion prevention of a food fight at Duncan's restaurant; the stoner witches of Scotland, PA do not tell Mac that he will become king, but rather, prophesy the development of the drive-thru window. The vapidity of the fleeting fashions of the mid-1970s is in stark contrast to the longevity of the Shakespearean text. Likewise, the circumstances of the film's hapless losers are a distant cry from the aristocracy at Dusinane. The juxtaposition is predicated not simply on a contrast between the environment and the social positions of the characters in the two works, but also on the contrast among the cultural practices of Mac, Pat, and their crew in Scotland, Pennsylvania, and the elevated position of Shakespeare in our culture. When the film begins, Mac and Pat live in a rundown trailer, drive a beat-up sedan with steer horns fixed to the hood, and drink tallboys of Pabst Blue Ribbon. Each of these cultural practices suggests a white, working-class identity. As justification for Duncan's murder, Pat tells Mac, "We're not bad people-just under-achievers who have to make up for lost time."
In his book Highbrow/Lowbrow, cultural historian Lawrence W. Levine suggests that Shakespeare has played a unique role in the formulation of class in the United States since the late nineteenth century. Up until then, performances of Shakespearean drama were among the most common forms of entertainment available throughout the expanding country; along with the Bible, editions of Shakespeare's plays were common in homes, even in the frontier. At the end of the nineteenth century, great anxieties about cultural differences emerged in response to the large waves of Eastern European immigrants pouring into the urban centers of the Northeast and upper Midwest. At the very moment when "native" Americans (white, Protestant, and of Western European descent) believed they had forged a true national identity with the resolution of a civil war and the emergence of mythologized understanding of its frontier, the nation's cities suddenly seemed a cacophonous, indistinguishable mess of languages, religions, and ethnic identities. Aprevailing desire for some sort of cultural order emerged amid what many viewed as chaos. According to Levine, this idealized order would result in a "true culture," a culture "free of intrusion, free of dilution, free of the insistent demands of the people and the marketplace; culture that would ennoble, elevate, purify; culture that would provide a refuge from the turmoil, the feelings of alienation, the sense of impotence that were becoming all too common" (206). Alongside classical works, Shakespeare became part of this "true culture," Levine suggests. The plays of William Shakespeare ceased to be seen as mass entertainment. Instead, they took on a position of exaltation as the definitive, almost sacred, literary works of the English language and, thus, became a marker of literacy, education, and class.
In the broadest sense, the film's jokes come from the location of a Shakespearean drama into the place where the commonplace notions of class suggest it least belongs. This incongruity in Morrissette's transformations and conflations is the basis for many of the film's jokes: Shakespeare's witches are little more than three stoned hippies who reappear in Mac's hallucinations, their cauldron replaced by a classic toy, the fortune-telling Magic 8-Ball; Duncan is not the king of Scotland, but a doughnut maker (a nod to Dunkin Donuts) cum small-town burger king; his teenaged sons, Malcolm and Donald become, respectively, a rebellious would-be rock star and an introspective, closeted, high school thespian with a penchant for the folk-pop of Janis Ian and the Cabaret songbook. The film is filled with references to the popular culture of the 1970s, like the witches' Magic 8-Ball. These are largely flash-in-the-pan, consumer fads that are intended to seem laughable in retrospect. The act of cultural retrospection is crucial: the transformation of elements of the play-Macbeth's "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" soliloquy into Lt. McDuff's new-age, self-help audio cassette, for instance-depend on specific textual knowledge as well as pop culture awareness.
As elements of popular, consumer culture, the film's reference points are far removed from the sort of thing that, in Levine's words, would be "free of the insistent demands of the people and the marketplace." Shakespearean drama, in his formulation, holds a rarified position in the traditional understanding of culture and class. The transformation of Dusinane into a fast-food restaurant probably originated from the play's frequent use of the Scottish prefix "Me/Mac." a theme repeated on the McDonald's menu, i.e., Chicken McNuggets, Egg McMuffin, the Big Mac, etc. However, this move has broader implications: the fast-food industry, and specifically, McDonald's, has become synonymous with the culture of mass consumption and globalization. Sociologist George Ritzer even coined the term "McDonaldization" to refer to "the process by which the principles of the fast food restaurant are coming to dominate more and more sectors of American society as well as the rest of the world" (Ritzer 1). In the mid-1970s, however, the fast food industry had not yet emerged as a transnational entity. Scotland, PA takes place at a point when standardized, inexpensive fare and the convenience of drive-thru service are happy novelties, the opening of a fast-food chain in a small town was big news, and the local burger joint still played a crucial role in youth culture. Mac, in fact, plays a role in the development of two staples of fast food, the drive-thru window and the dip-able chicken nugget (here, the Chicken McBeth rather than the Chicken McNugget). Pat, Mac, and their customers may be excited about these innovations, but the audience realizes that these things, along with his Camaro SS and her feathered hair, will soon seem passé. The audience knows that the novelty of fast food will give way to globalization, just as they know murder is on the horizon.
If Levine's model of cultural hierarchy in the United States is applied to the cultural practices and consumptive patterns depicted in this film. Shakespearean drama designates "high brow," and Camaros, tallboys of Pabst Blue Ribbon, and the Chicken McBeth fall under the umbrella "low brow"; these distinctions might also be made in the terms of "good" and "bad" taste, and of course, have explicit and implicit class connotations. The representation and understanding of consumption and consumer culture are inseparable from our notions of class. Pierre Bordieu writes, "To the socially recognized hierarchy of the arts, and within each of them, of genres, schools or periods, corresponds a social hierarchy of the consumers. This predisposes tastes to function as markers of 'class'" (2). The cultural practices and consumptive patterns of the McBeths and their cronies are "in bad taste," and coded specifically as those of the white working class, or, "in poor taste."
The film's chronological context lessens the sting of the class implications. Such jokes might be more troubling if, for instance, the cultural practices being satirized were those of the contemporary working classes (whether white or black). Here, the jokes can be justified as simply making fun of a period in which the garish was fashionable. The past to which the film refers, however, is specifically that of the lower- and lower-middle classes. In her review in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Marguerite Rippy describes the film "as a cautionary tale of class ambition, or perhaps an indictment of the social structures fated to stifle that ambition" (B16). Certainly, class mobility seems hopeless in the context of the film. The McBeths can elevate their social position only by stepping completely outside the bounds of all social institutions and committing murder. This act, however, initiates a series of problems: the McBeths lose control of their scheme and, ultimately, lose their minds. Lt. McDuff ends their moment of class ascendancy and takes over the restaurant. This move-from police detective to small business owner-is acceptable because, in the class hierarchy, it is a lateral one. Perhaps the most damning indictment of the McBeths, however, is made in terms of class. Consumption provides identity in the late capitalist economy, and the film certainly plays with mass-consumer products to establish its characters. But even when Pat and Mac find success, their tastes remain comically tacky. The film captures their accumulation in a montage set to the bubblegum pop hit, "Beach Baby," performed by a long-forgotten group, First Class1: the Camaro, the split level home, the garish renovations to the restaurant, and their new clothes. True class mobility, it seems, is impossible, as patterns of accumulation and consumption inevitably reveal true class identity.
The vapidity of this sort of accumulation appears ridiculous in a Shakespearean context. Again, this juxtaposition is based less upon the film's relationship to the source text than upon a contrast between these characters and the idea of Shakespeare, that is, its place within the cultural hierarchy. The film's humor can be articulated in two ways: either its jokes emerge from the comic understatement of the circumstances of Macbeth or the hyperbolic elevation of the McBeths' scheme to the grand circumstance of Shakespeare's play.
If this is the case, Morrissette's film engages in a very different sort of discourse with Macbeth from that which other cinematic adaptations of Shakespeare's plays enter with their source texts. Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh might be viewed as the once and future torchbearers of popular Shakespeare, and in interviews, they express a common goal. Their work is aimed at bringing Shakespeare's work to a larger audience. For Olivier, this effort had clear class implications. According to Mark Abrams, "[Olivier] was conscious, too of the different and wider cinema audience to which he would be bringing Shakespeare, and which in the 1940s still retained 'its slight preponderance of women, its heavy working-class bias and its very strong "youth" bias'" (qtd. in Davies 163).
In contrast, Branagh suggests that his aim is to pull back the veil of cultural hierarchy. Russell Jackson writes, "Branagh is not shy in his desire to entertain, to bring Shakespeare to a wider audience by 'telling the story with the utmost clarity and simplicity'" (228). Branagh spoke of his motivations in an interview with Cineaste: "For many people there continues to be the sense that this writer and his work, which has this Masterpiece status, is something to fear and dread, something that will somehow expose their lack of learning or intelligence [...]" (Crowdus). Al Pacino's aims for his film, Looking for Richard, are similar. He told Rolling Stone:
I try to set the stage for you, so that when you get to Shakespeare, you can get into it a little bit more relaxed. Some of the scenes have given you a chance to understand what the characters are doing and why they're doing it, so you're then able to receive the vintage Shakespeare, the real power of his vision. (DeCurtis)
Olivier, Branagh, and Pacino each seek to introduce Shakespearean drama to audiences-particularly young people-that have not been exposed to Shakespeare. It is their general premise that these audiences dismiss Shakespeare as irrelevant, boring, or antiquated before they have actually viewed a performance or read the text. Film offers a way-the only way-to reach an audience theater and literature have lost to a multimedia culture.
Morrissette's aim is entirely different. In an interview included on the DVD edition of the film, he describes his target audience as "the kids who are reading the Cliff's Notes and out getting stoned." His goal hardly seems to expose a new audience to the works of William Shakespeare, but rather, to engage an audience that already possesses an understanding of the text. The classic model for ajoke is set-up-punchline. In Scotland, PA, Macbeth and these various elements of mass culture are both part of the set-up. Morrissette finds his punchlines in the juxtaposition of the two. In the incongruity model, both contexts are "expected," that is, the audience is familiar with them. The juxtaposition of them, however, is often unexpected.
As I have said earlier, the film's humor here depends on commonplace understanding of cultural hierarchy. Simultaneously, however, it subverts this hierarchy. Consider the example of the witches' Magic 8-Ball: the joke depends on the audience to understand both cultural contexts equally, i.e., the audience must know the role of the witches in Macbeth and recognize the fortune-telling toy. Bordieu suggests that the consumption of art is "an act of deciphering" that requires the mastery of certain "schemes of appreciation and perception" that are transmitted through educational and social experience, and are thus inexorably linked to class: "A work of art has meaning and interest only for someone who possesses the cultural competence, that is, the code, into which it is encoded," he writes (2). For the audience to find humor in Scotland, PA, its members must possess the "cultural competence" sufficient to recognize the meaning of the Macbeth's witches and the Magic 8-Ball; the commonplace, hierarchical formulation of culture suggests that these belong to distinct cultural codes, and indeed, the joke relies on this understanding. However, the necessity of the audience's recognition of both codes subverts this distinction. Macbeth and the Magic 8-Ball belong to common experience and are part of a broader cultural consciousness. Unlike the efforts of Olivier, Branagh, and Pacino, Morrissette's film does not attempt to introduce Shakespeare to a new audience. Rather, it works only if and because the audience brings with them a prior familiarity with the text.
1 "Beach Baby" was written by John Carter and Gill (not Will) Shakespeare.
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Anthony D. Hoefer, Jr.
Louisiana State University…
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Publication information: Article title: The McDonaldization of Macbeth: Shakespeare and Pop Culture in Scotland, PA. Contributors: Hoefer, Anthony D., Jr. - Author. Journal title: Literature/Film Quarterly. Volume: 34. Issue: 2 Publication date: April 1, 2006. Page number: 154+. © Salisbury University 2008. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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