Voodoo Witches and a Skeleton Backdrop

With Macbeth, Welle’s desire to subordinate the performances to the production’s overall concept was actually helpful, since his cast contained only four professional actors. The Federal Theater Project, it should be remembered, was a relief organization whose primary mission was to put people to work; Hallie Flanagan’s stated goal was to spend 90 percent of the FTP budget on salaries. Although she also decreed that only those who had previously made their living in the theater could be hired, in practice this conflicted with the bureaucratic requirement that 90 percent of the employees be taken from the relief rolls. Of the 750 people in the Black Unit, most had done only occasional work as extras or chorus dancers; barely 150 were real professionals, and they included elocutionists and African drummers as well as experienced actors.

At least the African drummers – a Sierra Leonean group headed by a genuine witch doctor – could be put to good use in Macbeth. For his murderous thane, Welles chose Jack Carter, who had made a sensation as Crown in Porgy but was also known as difficult and dangerous drunk. Balancing him as Lady Macbeth was Edna Thomas, a seasoned pro from the Lafayette Players who had also worked on Broadway. She had performed only one minor Shakespearean role, Carter none, but the actor cast as Hecate – Eric Burroughs, a graduate of London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art – presumably had some background in speaking verse. Canada Lee as a cigarette – smoking Banquo completed the production’s professional acting roster.

Rehearsals began with a good deal of tension in the air. The Harlem community was not at all sure what it thought of “Shakespeare in blackface” directed by a white man. Some African-Americans feared the production would make their race look ridiculous. One local zealot, convinced that Macbeth’s director was deliberately creating a travesty to humiliate blacks, attacked Welles with a razor in the Lafayette Theater lobby, apparently without hurting him. Within the FTP, a memo complained that Macbeth was consuming a disproportionate percentage of the Black Unit’s budget and staff time – a comment that seemed borne out by the elaborate costumes and vivid sets taking shape in Nat Karson’s designs. (In fact the scenic budget was a mere $2,000, low even in the ’30s, though generous by the standards of the FTP.)

The director responded to these pressures by creating a sense of community among his actors. He brought food and drink to rehearsals, paid for out of his earnings from radio work. That work kept him busy in the evenings, so the company assembled after midnight and rehearsed in nocturnal isolation, which also helped draw them together. Welles knew he had to establish his authority with a cast that quite possibly harbored doubts about his ability and intentions. He quickly won over Edna Thomas, respected by the others for her professionalism and dignity, by treating her with delicate consideration and respect. With the turbulent Jack Carter, he created a camaraderie of hell-raising, joining the actor after rehearsals ended at dawn to prowl through Harlem’s nightspots.

Rehearsals were often chaotic; a friend of Nat Karson’s attended one and found “absolute pandemonium, with Welles barking orders over the amplification system.” The director was volatile and caustic: “Jesus Christ, Jack – learn your lines!” and “What the hell happened to the Virgil Thomson sound effects between acts?” were among the exasperated comments found in his notes. Hallie Flanagan recalled later that “our Black company … were always … threatening to murder Orson in spite of their admiration for him.” But they were confident that the director’s outbursts weren’t racially motivated; he reserved his most venomous criticisms for the white lighting designer, Abe Feder. Welles knew how to get results from people, Houseman observed: “He had a shrewd instinctive sense of when to bully or charm, when to be kind or savage – and he was seldom mistaken.”

As the production took shape during technical run-throughs, it became clear that Welles had fashioned a dynamic, dazzlingly theatrical version of Macbeth that both compensated for his performers’ weaknesses and took advantage of their strengths. The actors spoke Shakespeare’s verse in a simple, unstudied manner perfectly suited to the production’s ferociously direct style. Their untrained voices were supported and given added impressiveness during the most important speeches by Welles’s use of drums, percussion and sound effects as underscoring.

The witches’ scenes were truly menacing, with the costumes, jungle backdrops and authentic voodoo drumming and chants creating a convincingly supernatural atmosphere. Garry Wills argues in Witches and Jesuits, his provocative book on Macbeth, that most psychologically oriented modern productions have failed to provide the coherent spiritual framework essential to making Macbeth’s downfall understandable; Welles seemed instinctively to grasp that voodoo would substitute nicely for the Elizabethans’ belief in witches as servants of the devil. The total effect was of a violent universe ruled by evil. Rewritten by Welles, the ending no longer suggested reconciliation and rebirth; instead, Malcolm seemed likely to be the witches’ next victim. Though Welle’s interpretation was not overtly political, this nightmare vision had obvious resonance in a world menaced by fascism and the threat of world war.