Saturday, August 22, 2009

Voodoo Macbeth and The Cradle Will Rock

Houseman became director of the Negro Theatre Project in Harlem (in those days, "black" was the impolite term) when the black woman everyone agreed should head it insisted he be hired as her co-equal associate, but then she became too ill with cancer to continue. There were productions by black playwrights, but one of the first was a production of Macbeth directed by Orson Welles, at the beginning of his tempestuous partnership with Houseman.

Welles used the tales surrounding an actual dictator of Haiti to create what was soon dubbed the Voodoo Macbeth. And it was no idle name. The three witches were played by voodoo practitioners from Haiti. They held back on their spells but Houseman claims that when they got a hostile review, they used the real thing, and the reviewer died within weeks.

As rehearsals began, Harlem was of two minds about the project. Some felt it was a white attempt to humiliate black actors unfamiliar with the verse, and a few adherents of this view tried to beat up Orson Welles late one night after a rehearsal. But the premiere was a stellar event, and brought out an audience of 10,000. It was stunningly successful, and remains one of the most famous Federal Theatre productions. Houseman was particularly impressed with the offstage technicians and artists from Harlem, highly skilled but usually without work in the theatre. They had that work for the brief life of the Project.

That was 1936. By 1937, Houseman and Welles were running a unit in midtown Manhattan for classic productions, called Project #891. By then the economy was marginally better, and the buzzsaw of Republican criticism had increased and threatened the entire Federal Theatre Project. By early summer, retrenchments had begun, and one of the first victims was to be the political musical Houseman and Welles were preparing to mount, called The Cradle Will Rock.

The relevant scenes in Tim Robbins feature film of 2000, Cradle Will Rock, conform to Houseman's account. The production was locked out of its theatre, with all the sets, costumes, and even the scripts locked inside, under guard. Unions wouldn't permit actors to play in any wildcat production. But at the last minute an empty theatre was found, some of the audience in several groups marched through Manhattan streets to that theatre, and the place was packed.

As in the movie, the play's author, Marc Blitzstein, was prepared to sing the entire score while playing piano. But Houseman believed that the actors were not technically in violation of their union's order if they didn't take the stage. And as in the movie, it was one lone female voice, a novice actor, who began singing her part with Blitzstein, from her seat in the audience. Others began to join it, and to work out scenes and dialogue, standing in the aisles.

The movie doesn't show or mention that the event was so successful that it was repeated several times on subsequent nights, with everyone trying to remember and reproduce what had happened spontaneously the first night. Eventually Houseman and Welles detached themselves from the Federal Theatre Project, and did the musical as a full, independent production. It wound up being presented more than 100 times, and has been revived on stage at least five times over the years, in 1947, 1960, 1964, 1983 and 1985.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

There's a forthcoming collection of essays called "Weyward Macbeth" that examines Welles's production among many "non-traditional" versions of "Macbeth" in the United States --