Thursday, June 5, 2008

"And question this most bloody piece of work, to know it further..."

(Image: From DramaTech Theatre's 2007 production of Macbeth: Gene Hullender as Macbeth, Lee Smith as a Weird Sister. Photo by Jon Drews.)

We’ve talked about the treatment of the Weird Sisters in Middleton’s adaptation of Macbeth, and, for what it’s worth, I’ve given you my opinion on those changes: negative, although granting they make a potent spectacle in the theatre. The one thing I’d add, because I don’t think I touched on this, is how much better the Hecate material reads in the “reconstructed” form in Gary Taylor’s text, compared to the drab “Music and a song: ‘Black spirits,’ &c.” in the First Folio and most modern texts of Macbeth. I still can’t stand the Hecate stuff, but at least I have a much better appreciation of how it would have looked and sounded and impressed an audience in the Blackfriars in 1616. I wish all editors would do something similar.

Of all the other items Taylor argues for making up Middleton’s revisions, only two strike me as having much impact artistically: the condensation of the opening battles in Act 1, Scene 2, and the cuts to the “England Scene,” Act 4, Scene 3, in which, supposedly, Edward the Confessor originally appeared in person. Both of these changes are primarily cuts, rather than additions, and are harder to judge without the benefit of the original text. Perhaps, thinking about these things at all is the kind of exercise in imagination that says more about the writer than the subject. It seems that’s always a huge risk in Shakespeare…but, fool that I am, I rush in:

The Opening Battles

Shakespeare loved a swirling melee on the stage, but the audience of 1616 found this sort of thing “old-fashioned and ridiculous” as Taylor puts it. He mentions Ben Jonson’s sneer (in the prologue to the revised edition of Every Man in His Humor) at the absurdity of staging a battle with “three rusty swords and help of some few foot- and half-foot words.” So Middleton moved the battles against Norway, Macdonwald, and Cawdor off-stage, and glued together some bits of the dialogue to narrate the story.

Convincing? Middleton’s fingerprints abound in this scene: vocabulary, phrasing, imagery. Taylor’s analysis of it all is enthralling, and perfectly convincing. Particularly telling is his discussion of the stage direction “Enter…meeting a bleeding captain.” The “enter…meeting” formulation is a Middleton hallmark; Shakespeare used “enter…severally,” or “enter X at one door, Y at another.” It seems certain Middleton condensed and re-wrote this scene, and what else could he have been cutting, but one of those old-fashioned Shakespeare battles?

But is it good? Times change, and tastes change, and a big battle is the highlight of many a modern Shakespeare production. Even in this age of summer blockbusters, we’re perfectly thrilled to see those three rusty swords on the stage. And I think it’s telling that both of the productions of Macbeth I’ve worked with have seen fit to restore some kind of on-stage battle in Act I. I can’t say the scene we have is bad—it’s often quite effective—but I sure wish we had the original.

Edward the Confessor

The “England Scene,” Act 4, Scene 3, is almost always the low point of a Macbeth production: overlong and endlessly talky. Macduff’s reaction to the death of his family is heartbreaking, but comes after so much ineffective dialogue that the audience has generally nodded off by this point. And yet the scene can’t be eliminated: it is here that the revolution begins, the long march to Dunsinane and final victory. In my script, I cut this scene savagely, wondering all the time how Shakespeare had left such a dud at this critical moment in the story.

Taylor argues for a very different interlude in England, in which Edward the Confessor is not merely a vague presence off-stage, but comes on to perform healing miracles in person and anoint Malcolm as Scotland’s rightful King. In a play that started dark and has grown ever bleaker, this is the first ray of light: a sign that Good is a force in the world, and will not allow Evil to rule forever.

Why would Middleton cut this material? Partly, to give the supernatural spotlight completely to his greatly expanded witches, and partly to downplay the significance of the Catholic saint, King Edward.

Convincing? I just don’t know. Taylor’s vision for this scene does feel right…but a feeling isn’t evidence, and the evidence here is quite slim. None of those obvious Middltonian tics in the language or the stage directions, no ragged edges in the verse or sudden shifts in style. That English Doctor is odd, with his speech about Edward curing skin diseases, but far more understandable if you think of the play being performed in front of King James I—he is praising the virtue and goodness of all English monarchs, not just Edward the Confessor. The most important item Taylor produces is an account of Macbeth on the stage written around 1611—before Middleton’s revision—which mentions the play is set in the time of “Edward the Confessor” (the existing text of Macbeth mentions “Edward,” but doesn’t give him the “Confessor” tag). It’s a slender enough reed to prop up such a weighty theory. While it stirs the blood to imagine the possibility, I think the only safe course is a healthy skepticism.

But is it good? If Middleton made this change, I would find it hard to praise him for it. What a wonderful scene the original might have been!

Other Changes

Most of the remaining changes Taylor ascribes to Middleton don’t seem to make much difference to a modern audience. Most significantly, he argues that Middleton added lines to the scene between Lady Macduff and her son (everything between the two places Lady Macduff says, “How wilt thou do for a father?”), punching up the dialogue with topical references to the Overbury treason trials of 1615. It seems convincing, but we’re left with much the same scene in the end.

Of course, what we can’t see—even with Gary Taylor’s literary X-Ray Glasses—are the potentially many, many deletions from the 1606 text. Based on the length of Shakespeare’s other tragedies, as much as one quarter of the original Macbeth may have been left on the Jacobean version of the cutting-room floor. From my experience editing Macbeth for performance, I can attest that it is possible to razor out a great deal of a Shakespeare play without leaving obvious gaps. Perhaps Macbeth was always a conspicuously short text, but it seems to me that we must credit Middleton for at least some of the “tightness” and “intensity” of the play we have today.

On the whole, though, and basing my judgment on the items we can most confidently ascribe to Middleton, I have to take a dim view of the revision. I mentioned that Inga Stina-Ewbank declined to argue (in her introduction to the text) that Middleton’s changes constituted an artistic improvement, and I will make so bold as to say that she did not because they do not.

The revised Macbeth was certainly a popular success, and I don’t deny that Middleton had to pay his bills like everyone else, but I will have to keep reading to find the proof that this is “our other Shakespeare.”

Happily, that is just what I mean to do. I’m not sorry I read this remarkable treatment of Macbeth first, but I’m hungry for the real article: some genuine Thomas Middleton drama. I’m starting with The Changeling, next week, and trembling with anticipation.


Alan K.Farrar said...

The one thing that leaps out at me over the 'battle' is the change in likely performance space - and audience: I can see the groundlings lapping up the blood and gore, the sophisticated rich of the Blackfriars less so.
And space differences too?
Was Middleton working on a text with more flexibility in performance spaces - so it could tour for example? Stage space being limited, better no battle - but keep the individual combat scenes later in the play?

Didn't James 'lay on hands' - so the 'Catholic' argument isn't so convincing?

Craig said...

I think you're spot-on in terms of space and audience; Taylor speaks at several points about the adaptation taking a Globe-oriented piece and turning it into a Blackfriars-oriented one. As for "flexibility," I would say that was less of a concern--the new Hecate material called for all kinds of flying machines and special effects, based on the reconstruction of the full songs from The Witch and Davenent's script of Macbeth. (Of course, once you've cut the Hecate scenes, you do get a more flexibile play...)

I'm given to understand that James found the whole "touching for the King's Evil" thing very off-putting, and tended not to actually lay hands on the filthy peasants, but just gave them a kind of commerative token they could wear around their necks--same difference, though, in terms of assessing the "Catholic" content. I don't really find the argument compelling, myself. I think it's probably another case of a Shakespeare scholar having an interesting idea, and letting it run away with him. The case for an on-stage Edward is one of the weaker item's in this text.