Acting in the Night: Macbeth and the Places of the Civil War

Acting in the Night: Macbeth and the Places of the Civil War

Acting in the Night: Macbeth and the Places of the Civil War

Acting in the Night: Macbeth and the Places of the Civil War

Synopsis

What can the performance of a single play on one specific night tell us about the world this event inhabited so briefly? Alexander Nemerov takes a performance of Macbeth in Washington, DC on October 17, 1863--with Abraham Lincoln in attendance--to explore this question and illuminate American art, politics, technology, and life as it was being lived. Nemerov's inspiration is Wallace Stevens and his poem "Anecdote of the Jar," in which a single object organizes the wilderness around it in the consciousness of the poet. For Nemerov, that evening's performance of Macbeth reached across the tragedy of civil war to acknowledge the horrors and emptiness of a world it tried and ultimately failed to change.

Excerpt

This book grew out of my wish to study a single night’s performance of Macbeth from sometime in the mid-nineteenth century in some American city. My plan was to understand events of that day in that place by the light, or darkness, thrown by the play, and I hoped newspapers, letters, and diaries would help me along. I wanted to see how a performance of the play might have shaped a world around it. the idea came from Wallace Stevens’s poem “Anecdote of the Jar,” with its famous account of the centrifugal powers of aesthetic acts, the power of even a modest local aesthetic event—the placing of a jar on a hill in Tennessee—to shape the surrounding slovenly wilderness.

Stevens’s poem “The Idea of Order at Key West” was also on my mind, with its description of a singer who is “the single artificer of the world / in which she sang,” a person whose voice turns the “meaningless plungings of water and the wind” into an echo of herself, so that “there never was a world for her / Except the one she sang, and, singing, made.” the horizon becomes a picture of her song (“It was her voice that made / the sky acutest at its vanishing”), and even when she finishes, the tilted lights of the fishing boats seem to apportion the night just as her song has, helping bestow a “Blessed rage for order.” If the singer’s voice could arrange the ocean, and if a jar on a hill in Tennessee “took dominion everywhere,” I wanted to see how another aesthetic gesture—the performance of a play—might also turn chaos into cosmos.

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.