Consider the path you might have walked to the Globe Theatre in 1606. As London was Europe’s largest city, the streets were swollen with people and throbbing with the cacophony of horses, criers, music, and the hubbub of hoi polloi. Imagine the smell of that much humanity all crowded together. Since many considered the theatres iniquitous arenas of corruption, they were relegated to outside the formal confines of the city by official ordinance. Not unlike more modern vice districts, the powers-that-be wanted to keep entertainments separate from the domain of “respectable” life. So, jockeying through the crowds, you head south toward London Bridge, leaving the glut of the city behind with the anticipation of adventure. Perhaps fittingly, on your way over the bridge, you can see the remains of traitors drawn and quartered, placed on pikes as a warning against sedition. It might cross your mind that you are expressly headed toward a place where criminals often congregate. The danger merely adds to the titillation as you are joined by nearly three-thousand fellow adventurers who wend their way to the Globe on the South bank of the Thames. With no way to light the theatre at night, you’ve given up your entire afternoon to watch Shakespeare’s company perform. Outside of the regulated zone of London proper, poor actors can don crowns and play kings (an act that was literally illegal off-stage), young boys can pose as gorgeous women in tempestuous love scenes, and jokes laden with innuendo can please the poor and the rich alike.
Can we compare the path of that imagined Elizabethan to pulling up to Rock Ledge Ranch in the dimming shadows of the Garden of the Gods? I revel in leaving the city behind, walking in anticipation down the dirt path, over the little bridge (happily lacking both pikes and heads), and through the evergreens to the tent. Is the ritual so different? Surrounded by fellow devotees, basking in the warmth of a fading summer’s day, and preparing for something special, I find ceremony befitting any pilgrim. Perhaps it is the reason that summer festivals celebrating Shakespeare have long been so popular. It might surprise you to know that the first was in 1769, hosted at Stratford-upon-Avon by the great actor David Garrick. Held in September to commemorate the Bard’s birthday (though he was born in April), the Shakespeare Jubilee was a major step in the canonization of Shakespeare as England’s national poet. Hundreds of London’s best-dressed made their way to the small burg of Stratford for massive feasts and pageantry that was almost entirely washed away by a freak storm. We have better people handling our logistics today and watching Shakespeare’s plays under a summer sky has become a national pastime from New York to Oregon. There is something about those summer nights that feel full of possibility. We get a bug for make believe. Like the freedom of crossing the Thames into unregulated territory, the theatre invites reversal. It’s designed to flaunt the rules that command our lives every other moment of the day. Good theatre loosens the knot and lets us drink in the forbidden.
No one is better than Shakespeare to make the most of the transition from the workaday world to that realm of possibility. For sure, he shows us ourselves, putting into words the thoughts and desires we believe are uncommunicable, but he goes so much further, making manifest those things we only dare to dream. And this summer THEATREWORKS plumbs the depths of the forbidden and the untold with their presentation of the Tragedy of Macbeth. The story of a would-be king whose ambition leads him down a path of death and destruction, Macbeth is a story best told by moonlight. Its witches, curses, ghosts, and oracles happen between the states of wake and sleep. This production, directed by Jeff Flygare, seeks out the ambiguous in the story: Who is in control, the witches or Macbeth? Are the witches real or only in the warrior-king’s head? Is Lady Macbeth a victim or a temptress? Look not for answers, the joy is in the wonder.
Macbeth was written just after the ascension of James I and it seems Shakespeare was trying to appeal directly to his new patron. The play is tailored to James: he was king of Scotland before taking the British throne; he had written a book on the occult called Daemonologie; and he counted the historical Banquo as an ancestor (Shakespeare wisely whitewashes the character of any wrongdoing in the play). However, James had also written on the divine and absolute rule of kings. He believed in royal impunity and that if a monarch wills something, it was automatically moral. Macbeth is a monarch who finds that immoral acts breed and compound at a breathless rate once they are begun. “Blood will have blood,” he says. Shakespeare’s warning against tyranny may have also been directed at his new monarch and it is this aspect of the play that generates questions so apropos today: Are tyrants born or made? Is violence an inevitable part of nationhood? How can a nation atone for the violence committed by its leaders? Playwright Eugène Ionesco and scholar Jan Kott both see Macbeth as a validation of the principle that in overtaking a tyrant, you inevitably become one. The trail of blood that Macbeth leaves behind him may merely mark the way for young Malcolm who takes the throne at the play’s end. Will this new king prove a new dawn? Can a leader truly repair a nation after such transgressions? Again, answers may be elusive. The play (like all great dramas) can only help you identify the questions.
The sub-title of this little essay, “Enchanting All That You Put In,” is taken from Hecate’s line to the Witches as they await Macbeth in Act IV. It may not have been written by Shakespeare, but by his collaborator Thomas Middleton, a playwright fond of the supernatural. I find it a fitting description of the relationship between audience and actor. What you bring to the theatre, our artists willingly enchant. It’s a reciprocal relationship to the benefit of all involved, but one participant is nothing without the other. Our actors will be there rain or shine, so bring your wonder and your warmth; bring your fears and your phobias; bring your personal and your politics; bring your doubts and your dogmas. Bring it all “Upon the Heath. There to meet with Macbeth!”