Academic journal article Multicultural Shakespeare

"All's Well That Ends Welles": Orson Welles and the "Voodoo" Macbeth

Academic journal article Multicultural Shakespeare

"All's Well That Ends Welles": Orson Welles and the "Voodoo" Macbeth

Article excerpt

Multicultural Shakespeare: Translation, Appropriation and Performance vol. 13 (28), 2016; DOI: 10.1515/mstap-2016-0007

Abstract: The Federal Theatre Project, which was established in 1935 to put unemployed Americans back to work after the Great Depression, and later employed over 10,000 people at its peak, financed one particularly original adaptation of Shakespeare: the voodoo Macbeth directed by Orson Welles in 1936. Debuting in Harlem with an all-black cast, the plays setting resembled a Haiti-like island instead of ancient Scotland, and Welles also supplemented the witches with voodoo priestesses, sensing that the practice of voodoo was more relevant, if not more realistic, for a contemporary audience than early modern witchcraft. My essay will consider how the terms national origins and originality intersect in three distinct ways vis-a-vis this play: The Harlem locale for the premier, the Caribbean setting for the tragedy, and the federal funding for the production.

Keywords: multicultural, Caribbean, Orson Welles, nationality, voodoo, Shakespeare, Macbeth, race.

The quotation in my title was voiced by a frustrated official at RKO Studios, which, in late 1942, hoped to rid itself of Welles in order to release the company from any further financial obligation to the director. Following the success of Citizen Kane (1941) and during the editing of The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Welles had been more or less AWOL in Brazil working on a never-completed film project, tentatively titled Its All True, which was over budget as well as overdue. But I would suggest that the quote might also be an apt one when considering Welless attempts at re-interpreting Shakespeare throughout his career, for not only does it turn Welless beloved Bards own words against him, but it also suggests the complex and vexed connection between Welles and Shakespeare. While the Voodoo Macbeth did not ultimately end Welles or his career (and in hindsight may have done just the opposite), there was enough toil and trouble leading up to the debut of the play that many thought, and others vehemently wished, that the curse of the Scottish

East Tennessee State University.

Robert Sawyer

Alls Well that Ends Welles: Orson Welles and the Voodoo Macbeth


Robert Sawyer

play had traversed the ocean to find a new home at the Lafayette Theatre in Harlem, the renovated auditorium where the production premiered in 1936. Although funded under the auspices of the Works Progress Administrations (WPA) Federal Theatre Project centered in Washington D.C., the program was locally administrated by John Houseman for the Negro Theatre unit of the FTP.

The essay focuses on three aspects of Welless production of the Voodoo Macbeth. After looking first at Welless engagement with Shakespeare in general, I turn my attention to his adaptation of the tragedy, including his relocating of the play from Scotland to Haiti, as well as his supplanting of the wayward sisters with Voodoo priestess. The third section considers Welles and race more generally in the five years following the 1936 performance in order to show that the all-black production may have influenced Welles both professionally and personally at a pivotal point in the twenty-year olds life.

Welles and Shakespeare

Welless early exposure and interest in Shakespeare formed the foundation on which his lifelong devotion to the Bard was staged. At the age of two he spoke fluent and considered English, claims the noted English theatre critic Kenneth Tynan (13), and before he was three, he was familiar with the plays of Shakespeare from his mothers readings. One story even features Welles throwing a fit when he realized his mother was reading to him from Lambs version of the tales condensed for children; he preferred the genuine text it seemed, and he was savvy enough to detect the difference. Welless mother died when he was only nine, unfortunately, and his father passed away six years later, leaving Welles to his own devices as well as in charge of his own education. …

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