The Play That Electrified Harlem
For days, Harlem residents strolling anywhere between Lexington Avenue and Broadway from 125th to 140th Streets had seen the word "MACBETH" stenciled in glowing paint at every corner. New York's African-American community had been discussing the new production by the Federal Theater Project's Negro Unit with mingled pride and anxiety for months, and by opening night on April 14, 1936, anticipation had reached a fever pitch. At 6:30 p.m., 10,000 people stood as close as they could come to the Lafayette Theatre on Seventh Avenue near 131st Street, jamming the avenue for 10 blocks and halting northbound traffic for more than an hour.
Spotlights swept the crowd as mounted policemen strove to keep the entrance to the theater open for the arriving ticket holders, an integrated group of "Harlemites in ermine, orchids and gardenias, Broadwayites in mufti," as the New York World-Telegram noted the next day. Every one of the Lafayette's 1,223 seats was taken; scalpers were getting $3 for a pair of 40-cent tickets. The lobby was so packed people couldn't get to their seats; the curtain, announced for 8:45, didn't rise until 9:30. When it finally did, on a jungle scene complete with witches and voodoo drums, the frenzied mood outside the theater was matched by that within.
"Excitment...fairly rocked the Lafayette Theatre," The New York Times commented the next morning. The spectators were enthusiastic and noisy; they vocally encouraged Macbeth's soliloquies and clapped vigorously when the second act opened with more than half of the 100-plus cast massed onstage for his coronation ball, a sea of colorful costumes swaying to the strains of Joseph Lanner waltzes. After the curtain fell on the final grim tableau of the witches holding Macbeth's severed head aloft as Hecate intoned ominously, "The charm's wound up!" cheers and applause filled the auditorium for 15 minutes. Not bad for a show directed by an actor barely out of his teens with a cast that was 95 percent amateur, and a scenery and costume budget of $2,000.
The "Voodoo Macbeth," as this all-black version set in 19th century Haiti came to be called, was notable on several counts. It was one of four Manhattan premieres in the spring of 1936 that solidified the shaky reputation of the Federal Theater Project, the most controversial of the Works Progress Administration's arts programs. (The project had been under fire since its founding in August 1935 for spending taxpayers' money on salaries without actually providing much theater for the public to see.) Macbeth launched the meteoric directing career of Orson Welles, not yet 21 when it opened, who would go on to astonish New York theatergoers with several more bold stage productions before departing for Hollywood in 1939. It gave African-American performers, usually restricted to dancing and singing for white audiences, a chance to prove they were capable of tackling the classics.
For all its individual brilliance, the Voodoo Macbeth was fairly representive of American theater in the 1930s, a decade whose passionate political debates and general sense of a world gone dangerously awry-whether you identified the danger as coming from fascist Germany, communist Russia or the capitalist West-seemed to find their most fulfilling artistic expression in drama. The rambunctious Macbeth premiere was one of several electrifying opening nights in the mid-'30s. For The Cradle Will Rock (also directed by Welles), an FTP show shuttered at the last minute by nervous WPA officials who found the labor opera's sentiments too radical, the audience followed the cast 21 blocks uptown to another theater and roared its approval as the actors (forbidden by their union to appear onstage) sang their parts from the auditorium. The Group Theater production of Clifford Odet's Waiting for Lefty, another working-class drama, prompted the first-night crowd of 1,400 people to leap to their feet and shout, "Strike! Strike!" at its conclusion. Unfortunately for the FTP, its work prompted an equally strong political response from Congress, which in 1939 noisily killed the project.
Macbeth, however, began quietly enough in the fall of 1935 when John Houseman became the head of the FTP's Negro Unit in New York. Hallie Flanagan, the project's fiesty national director, wanted an African-American leader, but the black professionals she consulted felt that a white man would give the unit additional prestige and clout. The 33-year-old Houseman had directed the Virgil Thomson-Gertrude Stein opera Four Saints in Three Acts, and his work with the show's all-black cast convinced Flanagan that he had the sensitivity and tact required of a white administrator running an African-American company.
Houseman had to skirt some political land mines in selecting material for the Negro Unit. African-American theater was in decline by the 1930s-the victim, ironically, of the smashing success in the '20s of all-black musicals like Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake's Shuffle Along, which prompted white investors to get into a business formerly dominated by black theater owners and producers. As a result, resident stock companies like Chicago's Pekin Theatre and New York's Lafayette Players, which had produced plays about African-American life as well as the musicals popular with both blacks and whites, withered. There were serious plays in the 1920s with African-American protagonists, but The Emperor Jones, In Abraham's Bosom and Porgy all had white authors. "The Negro theatre has not really progressed," commented the Baltimore Afro-American in 1933. "It has merely been absorbed."
Harlem audiences, Houseman concluded, would be offended by uptown productions of racial dramas written from a white point of view. And in the militant atmosphere of the '30s, the revues and musicals that had gained mainstream acceptance for many black performers "were regarded as 'handkerchief-head' and so, for our purposes, anathema," as he worte in his memoirs. He solved his immediate problem by launching the Negro Unit with two contemporary plays written by well-known African-Americans. But neither Frank Wilson's earnest, awkward Walk Together Chillun! nor Rudolph Fisher's slick Conjur Man Dies was the kind of ambitious fare Houseman hoped to present.
Inspired by the example of Four Saints in Three Acts, for which he and Virgil Thomson cast black singers as 16th-century Spaniards solely on the basis of their voices and physical presence, Houseman decided that one part of the Negro Unit should do classical plays "without concession or reference to color." He knew exactly who he wanted to direct this audacious enterprise: the "monstrous boy" whose performance as Tybalt in Katharine Cornell's Romeo and Juliet had overwhelmed him one year earlier, and with whom he had talked throughout the spring of 1935 about creating contemporary versions of Elizabethan drama. This actor's only directing experiences were a high-school production of Julius Caesar and a summer festival performance of Trilby in Illinois.
Orson Welles had earned a reputation for erratic behavior (including practical jokes and chronic lateness) on the Romeo and Juliet tour, and there was no reason to believe he had the maturity to guide a largely inexperienced company through the thickets of Shakespearean verse. But Houseman had absolute faith in Welle's talent and, with the psychological shrewdness that characterized his entire career, sensed that the self-assured, protean actor would rise to the occasion. He offered Welles the job of directing the unit's first classical production and asked him to suggest a play.
Welles's wife, Virginia, came up with the idea of setting Macbeth in 19th-century Haiti and making the witches voodoo priestesses, and Welles responded with zest. He drastically revised Shakespeare's text to build up the witches' role and turned Hecate into a male ringleader of the forces of darkness, which dominated the play and controlled Macbeth from the very beginning. While this interpretation scanted the drama's central theme of a man destroyed by ambition, it allowed for striking visual and sound effects that were at least as important as the acting - a tendency evident in every play and film Welles subsequently directed.
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 Negro 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 Negro 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 Negro 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.
The critics were a bit bewildered by it all. They couldn't help but respond to the production's swirling excitement and lush imagery (the black-and-white photographs in the Federal Theater Project archives at the Library of Congress, alas, give little sense of the riot of color that exploded on the Lafayette Theatre stage), and most realized that transposing the scene to Haiti gave the witches an effectiveness they seldom had in contemporary presentations. Some critics carped, however, that this radical rethinking of Macbeth "wasn't Shakespeare at all" but rather "an experiment in Afro-American showmanship." Percy Hammond of the anti-New Deal Herald Tribune went further and called the show "an exhibition of de-luxe boondoggling," complaining that the government was squandering taxpayer dollars on a wasteful vanity production no commercial producer would be insane enough to undertake. When Hammond died suddenly a few days later, a rumor circulated among the Negro Unit staff that he was the victim of malevolent spells cast by the enraged voodoo drummers.
The Voodoo Macbeth certainly cast a spell over audiences, which did not share the critics' reservations. It ran for 10 sold-out weeks at the Lafayette, then moved downtown for a 10-day run at the Adelphi Theatre before going on tour to FTP theaters in Bridgeport, Hartford, Dallas, Indianapolis, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland and Syracuse. It also inspired Negro units in other cities to adapt the classics: Seattle's did an all-black Lysistrata, closed by WPA officials who found Aristophanes' verse "too risque," and when Los Angeles couldn't get the Welles Macbeth, the unit produced its own, set in Africa. Cincinnati did not make Macbeth's touring schedule because local authorities said the audience would have to be segregated, which was against FTP policy; at all WPA productions, blacks could sit anywhere, not just in the balcony.
Everywhere it went, Macbeth caused an enormous stir. The one thing it did not do was make money. An FTP memo estimated the production's touring costs at nearly $3,400 a week (including railroad fares and subsistence pay for the company) and noted that the best weekly gross at the Lafayette had been $1,935 - this at a time when a modest Broadway hit like the Group Theater's Awake and Sing! was pulling in $10,000 a week. When the tour was over, Macbeth had netted $14,000 - and spent $97,000.
The Federal Theater Project was not intended to turn a profit. Its aim was twofold: to put people back to work and to provide free or low-cost entertainment to audiences previously unreached because of ticket prices or the lack of live theater in their area. Two-thrids of the FTP's productions were free, and tickets for the rest were cheap. Macbeth in Harlem for example, had a price scale from 15 to 40 cents, while a Broadway show, by comparison, charged $1 for a balcony and $3 for the orchestra.
The FTP established companies in regions where people had not seen live performances since the movies killed vaudeville. Extravaganzas like Macbeth and sharply political works like the Living Newspaper productions, which grappled with such charged issues as venereal disease and labor activism, got all the press attention. But it was the quiet, day-to-day work of the federally supported local theaters, which presented everything from children's plays to such stock staples as Up in Mabel's Room, that most affected average Americans. Beyond the FTP's immediate goals, Hallie Flanagan dreamed of creating a distinctively American national theater, diverse and democratic as the highly centralized state theaters of Europe were not, that would express the country's varied cultural heritage, yet draw people together in shared theatrical experiences.
The FTP, however, did not have as long a professional life as Welles and Houseman. (After departing the project, they went on to stir up New York with the Mercury Theater productions of Julius Caesar and Heartbreak House - as well as the infamous radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds.) Between 1936 and 1939, the FTP presented some 1,200 productions at a cost of approximately $46 million. More than 30 million Americans saw these shows, which took in about $2 million in admissions - more revenue, Flanagan pointed out, than any other WPA project generated. But on June 30, 1939, the FTP was shut down by an act of Congress.
The popularity of big-spending New Deal programs had waned by 1939, and although closing the FTP saved not one cent - its budget was simply distributed among other projects - it gave congressmen who had always disliked the idea of the government funding show business an opportunity to make a political point. Almost all the witnesses invited to testify before the House Committee on Appropriations were opponents of the FTP; the WPA foolishly decided not to permit Flanagan to reply to their charges until it was too late. By then, hostile congressmen had succeeded in depicting the FTP as a hotbed of communism (which it was not) and as a tax-subsidized organization disseminating New Deal propaganda (which it more or less was). The WPA appropriations bill for 1939 specifically stated that none of its funds "shall be available...for the operation of any Theatre Project."
Independent African-American companies did not spring up to take the place of the Negro units, and without such institutional support serious black playwrights floundered until galvanized by the civil-rights movement. After 1939, black actors were once again relegated to stereotyped roles in mainstream white shows, and the black technicians trained by the FTP were excluded from every theatrical union in the United States. It would be two decades before the actors and technicians who had gained employment and artistic self-respect on Macbeth and the other Federal Theater Project productions would again find sustained work in the theater.
Written by Wendy Smith
(Reproduced by permission from the January-February 1996 issue of Civilization magazine)