On July 25, 1936, after a five-night run, the audience at the Park Theatre in Bridgeport, Connecticut, applauded the closing night performance of Macbeth, produced by John Houseman and directed by Orson Welles for the Federal Theatre Project (FTP) of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The FTP was one of five arts-related projects established during the first term of President Franklin D. Roosevelt to assist unemployed writers, actors, and artists during the Great Depression.
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player That struts and frets his hour upon the stage And then is heard no more: it is a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.
William Shakespeare. Macbeth. Act 5, Scene 5External
It overwhelms you with its fury and its phantom splendor.
Brooks Atkinson, The New York Times. Macbeth Playbill. Bridgeport, Connecticut, July 21-25, 1936. Federal Theatre Project, 1935 to 1939. Music Division.
John Houseman came to the Federal Theatre Project from an already established career that included directing the avant-garde opera, Four Saints in Three Acts, by Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson, in New York.
Welles, just twenty-one years old at the time, began his theatrical career directing Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Christopher Marlowe’s Tragical History of Dr. Faustus for the Federal Theatre Project.
Welles’ designs for the plays were characterized by the creative risk-taking that exemplified his dramatic work. His use of racially integrated casting and “alternative” settings for these masterpieces was an innovation.
For Macbeth, Welles cast African-American performers in all the roles, moved the play’s setting from Scotland to the Caribbean, and changed the witches to Haitian witch doctors.
Critics hailed the results as “startling,” “splendid,” and “colorful.” After a series of sold-out performances in Harlem, Welles’ “Voodoo Macbeth” took to the road, traveling to several cities on the East coast.
- The collection Federal Theatre Project, 1935 to 1939 features the production books, stage and costume designs, still photographs, and posters of three Federal Theatre Project productions: Macbeth, Dr. Faustus, and Power, a play written and performed by the Living Newspaper unit, an innovative FTP project.
- Read more about Orson Welles’ production of Macbeth, in “The Play That Electrified Harlem,” one of the illustrated articles presented along with the collection. The article, written by Wendy Smith, was originally published in Civilization magazine.
- Read several newspaper articles about the New York production of this play from The Brooklyn Daily EagleExternal.
- Search on the phrase Federal Theatre Project in Chronicling America to find newspaper articles from across the country about the FTP and specific performances.
- View the online exhibition Coast to Coast: The Federal Theatre Project, 1935-1939.
- Read MacbethExternal or browse the Complete Works of William ShakespeareExternal online.
- Learn more about researching material related to Shakespeare through the blog post Finding Shakespeare at the Library of Congress.