The Encyclopedia of the New York Stage, 1940-1950

By Samuel L. Leiter | Go to book overview
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(1) MACBETH [Dramatic Revival*] A: William Shakespeare; M: Lehman Engel; D: Margaret Webster; S: Samuel Leve; C: Lemuel Ayers; P: Maurice Evans i/a/w John Haggott; T: National Theatre; 11/11/41 (131)

Margaret Webster and Maurice Evans continued their unparalleled series of successful Shakespeare revivals with this distinguished production of the Bard's Scottish play. There had been seven productions of it locally in the 1930s, the last one being the 1937 version by the visiting Barter Theatre of Abingdon, Virginia. The present offering starred Evans as the Thane and Judith Anderson as his wife (a role she already had played in London opposite Laurence Olivier), with Harry Irvine as Duncan and the Doctor, William Nichols as Malcolm, Ernest Graves as Donalbain, Erford Gage as Lennox, John Ireland as the sergeant and first murderer, Staats Cotsworth as Banquo, Herbert Rudley as Macduff, and Viola Keats as Lady Macduff.

The production was deemed the finest presentation of the play most of the reviewers had ever seen. Although outwardly conventional in most respects, it was lauded for the tremendous tension and excitement it evoked and for its successfully haunting creation of the mood of supernatural and mortal skulduggery. Rosamond Gilder ( TAM) thought it "well paced and absorbing throughout," and Richard Watts Jr. ( NYHT), found it remarkable in being able to combine "the melodramatic violence with the brooding eloquence of the play." One of the few critics to turn thumbs down was John Anderson ( NYJA), for whom the work was "dull and listless and wholly lacking in the force needed to drive its lunging melodrama across the stage." (In Don't Put Your Daughter on the Stage, however, Webster expressed her belief that for all its good qualities, the production lacked mystery and that the scenic investiture was "too heavy and too literal.")

Its setting--an indeterminate Scottish historical period--used a forestage and a unit setting that could be varied with the addition of inset pieces. Samuel Leve's designs, however, were not entirely successful, being rather austere, muted, and, in some eyes, cluttered. Webster's direction was particularly brilliant in capturing all the drama of the murder of Duncan and the subsequent alarums surrounding it. Lehman Engels's driving score--played by a live pit orchestra and supplemented by offstage effects--was a major contributant, as were Lemuel Ayers's costumes, woven from cotton but made to look more substantial through a clever trick of weaving.

Because of the production's extremely complex technical requirements, its stage manager referred to it, wrote Webster, as "a whistling bitch." At the New Haven tryout, the stage manager was struck by stage fright, and only the last-minute arrival of another stage manager prevented a disaster. As with most productions of this supposedly haunted play, there were various mishaps. One involved the smoke- pots that Evans had suggested using to help make the witches vanish during their scene on the heath. The flash of light--created by a flashbulb in the smokepot powder--was a substitute for a mechanical disappearing device that had failed to

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