Academic journal article Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England

Shakespeare, Memory and Performance

Academic journal article Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England

Shakespeare, Memory and Performance

Article excerpt

Shakespeare, Memory and Performance, Peter Holland, ed. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006. Pp. xx + 367. Cloth $90.00.

Reviewer: R. A. Foakes

One of my earliest memories of a Shakespeare performance spotlights a stunning treatment of a scene in Glen Byam Shaw's Macbeth with Laurence Olivier in the title role in 1955. The Weird Sisters had appeared, as I recall, in customary black robes in the first scene and in 1.3, where they greet Banquo and Macbeth as they return from their victory over rebels. In 3.1, the murder of Duncan accomplished, Macbeth summons the two murderers he has hired to deal with Banquo. He asks them if they have thought about his "speeches" in which he put the blame for their poverty and misfortunes on Banquo. They neither agree nor disagree, but the first murderer responds with the enigmatic "We are men, my liege," which provokes Macbeth into his great lines beginning, "Ay, in the catalogue ye go for men," comparing the variety of men to the various kinds of dogs. This is the speech in which Macbeth, so to speak, lets go, and speaks his mind. The previous exchanges with the murderers serve as an introduction to it. But Shaw and Olivier shaped the scene differently: he stood center stage, and the murderers appeared one on each side downstage, as their dialogue begins. Memory tells me that as the murderers entered Olivier summoned them to him on the next phrase, with a finger gesture to each, as he spoke the words "Well," beckoning one, "then," beckoning the other, "now" bringing both to form a close group with himself at the center. The murderers and Macbeth were cloaked in black, so that they gathered to create a stage image matching the three witches in the opening scene. It was a striking visual parallel that for me added a new perspective into the power of the witches and the power of three in the play.

But is this really how the scene was played? Can memories be trusted? It so happens that two promptbooks for this production by Glen Byam Shaw survive. One, (A), Shaw's outline of his blocking, has been edited in facsimile by Michael Mullin (Macbeth on Stage, Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1976). The other (B) is in the library of the Shakespeare Centre in Stratford-upon-Avon, and appears to be the working promptbook of the stage manager, Jean Roberts, and assistants, showing what in practice was intended. These differ, making a reconstruction even more difficult, and they tell us what the director and stage manager wanted, but not necessarily what happened when I attended a performance, since as the season went by actors may have introduced variations. But my memory blanked out altogether the introduction of the murderers by a servant (Seyton in Shaw's production), and the lines that immediately follow Macbeth' s call, "Who's there?" According to promptbook A, Macbeth was to make a "slight move" downstage at this point, and on "till we call" he beckoned "1st. & 2nd. Murds to him." Promptbook B says Macbeth clapped his hands, and Seyton entered right center, followed by the murderers, and then directed one to cross downstage to left of center, "bottom step," the other to cross downstage right of center.

Re-enter [Attendants] Seyton, with two Murderers

Now go to the door, and stay there till we call.

[Exit Attendant]

Was it not yesterday we spoke together?

1. M. It was, so please your highness.

Mac. Well then, now

Have you considered of my speeches?

At "Well then, now" Macbeth was to move to center downstage. Seyton then was to exit upstage of the murderers as Macbeth beckons the murderers to him. This is where my memory of the scene cuts in, omitting Seyton' s presence altogether.

In the grouping of Macbeth and the murderers as figures costumed in black I saw an image recalling the grouping of the witches in the opening scene. Here again their entry as floating airborne figures in fog disappeared from my memory, as also did their descent to earth "like passengers on a flying bedstead," as one reviewer, Peter Rodford in the Western Daily Press, June 9, 1955, rather scathingly described their arrival. …

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