The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 23.0335  Monday, 13 August 2012


From:        Steve Urkowitz <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>

Date:         August 13, 2012 10:55:51 AM EDT

Subject:     Anesthetic MACBETH?


Anesthetic effects of aesthetic directorial choices?


Last week I sat through a well-meaning but essentially emotion-free production of MACBETH.


Though the actors displayed a lot of technical mastery – they spoke clearly, moved well, and generally understood what they were saying – directorial “inventions” restricted emotional engagement between the actors and the audience.  Now, I recognize that for some people such empathic connection ain’t really wanted:  “You all stay on THAT side of the stage apron, and I stay on THIS side.  You all DO stuff, and I WATCH, but don’t you reach through the archway to grab me up close and personal.”  


The many varieties of “method acting” try to break through that barrier.  Many old-time acting styles from the Greeks to Uta Hagen also worked to make the audience feel along with the player, and the playwrights and their players disported any number of rhetorical and physical techniques (or tricks) to make the theatrical experience intensely felt.  Of course, emotionally evocative techniques require the same kinds of disciplines, intellectual analyses, and brick-by-brick learning championed by directorial regimes that celebrate intellectual experience over emotion in theater.  


But here’s an example of how ideas replaced emotions in this MACBETH.  Working to cut the play to a very-accelerated 70-minute playing time, and working with a cast of only 10 actors, this production left out along with much else the scene of the murders of Lady Macduff and household.  But then (perhaps in recompense?) a few moments later, when the Doctor delivers his report on Lady Macbeth “troubled with thick-coming fancies,” Macbeth immediately draws a knife, plunges it into the Doctor’s back, and slides quickly into his eloquent “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” revery.   Huh?  What prompted THIS unscripted murder?  Motiveless malignity?  Schizophrenic paranoia?  Sly references to recent mass killings by heavily armed psychopaths?  Makes you think, huh?  But like the numbing repetitions of the 24-hour news cycle, it sure interferes with letting you “feel” much along the way.  Those words and scenes of the full script are engines to make us feel intense sympathy with both the victims and the increasingly anesthetized Macbeth himself.  This short-cut production eliminated all emotional sympathy from the audience’s repertory of responses, leaving only a sense that there was something richly potential in the play that we’ll have to try finding at a more leisurely moment.


Could we instead try to bring back that risky emotional response in our theaters and (even in the sterilities from No-Child-Left-Behind to Deepest Deconstruction) our classrooms from grade- to graduate-schools..  That’s what I’ve worked on as a director (and textual scholar) for a long time, in venues from classrooms in Maine and the Bronx to Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center and La Fenice in Venice.  Though I get despondent drifting home after paper-towel-tasting productions like that MACBETH, I know there will be better, somewhere.  “Tell me about the rabbits, George.”


(Let me propose an evaluative criterion of something like “educated emotional evocation” that might be added to our critical toolboxes.  “Critic, tell me if you felt along with your understanding. And tell me how that feeling connects with other emotions you enjoy intensely.”)


Now I go off for some intense biking, upsy-downsing from our lake in the hills to sea-level at Damariscota Maine.


Steve Urfeelowitz

Summer in Jefferson ME

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