The sort of wunderkind who was already a successful radio actor before he was twenty, Orson Welles became known as an extraordinarily talented young man who could stage incredibly innovative theater by the time that he was twenty. (Pause to introduce President Roosevelt and his politics of Enlightened Progressiveness.) In the mid-1930s, Roosevelt was directing much government money towards combating the economic hardships of the Great Depression, through the Works Projects Administration. Part of this was the Federal Theatre Project (intended both to promote the Cultural Arts and to assist out-of-work theater artists); under the FTP was what was known in 1935 as the Negro Theater Unit.
John Houseman was employed by the government as the producer for the NTU, in Harlem; this fantastically talented young guy named Orson Welles had come to Houseman’s attention, whom Houseman approached to direct shows for the NTU; and the rest (so the cliche goes, in trite manner) is history.
Welles apparently conceived that he wanted to put up Macbeth, and determined to re-imagine it in 19th century Haiti (taking advantage of the colorful Napoleonic costumes of the period). This required a rethinking of the Witches, and a decision to cast them as Voodoo Priestesses. (Welles made the shrewd observation that Haitian Voodoo was likely to impress twentieth century American audiences in a way that Jacobean Witchcraft would not.) The role of Hecate (which is often cut from productions, as it is argued that the “Hecate” sections are not by Shakespeare at all) was cast as a Voodoo High Priest, with the part apparently expanded; an authentic Voodoo Priest was located to fill this role, with a band of Voodoo drummers recruited to accompany him and his Priestesses- and so was born the famous Voodoo Macbeth. (I realize that “Vodou” is probably considered the correct spelling by Neo-Pagans, if not by actual Practitioners; as it is known as “Voodoo” in the context of Welles’ show, please give leave and pardon to continue designating the Practice in this manner.)
Stories of this production are legend, recounted by both Welles and Houseman. The Voodoo High Priest (whose life had perhaps never before experienced an interlude as a stage-actor) fell into the project with a passion of commitment that apparently included deep Voodoo trances and the sacrifice of a goat in the theater’s basement on opening night. The sets were painted to suggest a stylized jungle, the palms rendered as the bones of skeletons. The Witches’ Scenes were said to be spine-tingling; I assume that they took their direction from the beating of the drums, and I assume that the regular iambic structure of the Witches’ lines directed the drumbeats. Pagans (I’m sure) will understand what I say: imagine a theater performance where a huge part of the energy is driven by drum-rhythm. (Wild to think about, right?)
Well, the play is a huge, huge hit, opening in Harlem at the LafeyetteTheatre in 1936 to such exuberant crowds, traffic has to be stopped on the street for 10 blocks either way; the show performs to sold-out houses for nine weeks (and thrice again, to make up nine). The enthusiasm of Harlemites for the Voodoo Macbeth can be understood when one considers that it is believed to be the first completely African-American theater production in the United States. A clip of the show was included in a government documentary about the Works Project, replete with reflections upon the “cultural development of the community,” and how “this and other contributions to the American Theater set us on the road to a brighter future!”; the clip is available on YouTube, and gives us an idea what Orson Welles’ first professional theater production looked like.
Watching it, please keep your eye on the stairs, and pay attention to the first three individuals to run up it at the end; these are The Three. This staging is very Wellesian, meaning it is very innovative: few people pull the Witches back onstage at the end, to gloat over Macbeth’s defeat as these do here (what you see next to them is Macbeth’s severed “head,” hoisted aloft by the valiant rebels against his tyranny). In another moment, the Voodoo High Priest will erupt from behind them, ringing out with triumph: “Peace! The Charm’s wound up!” (This is a Welles innovation that he was apparently fond of; he does the same thing at the end of his 1948 movie. The line is the concluding line to the Weird Sisters Charm, found in [I.iii]; Welles cuts the line from there, and holds off on it until the end. Giving a more interestingly hopeful quality to the play’s finish than it generally enjoys, the line’s placement at the end is nonetheless a bit odd. According to the text, the Wyrrd Sisters Charm is something the Witches “wind up” just before their first meeting with Macbeth: the rest of the play then takes place in the Space of a Wound-up Charm. Placing the line at the end suggests that it is Macbeth’s beheading that sets in motion the “Charm” that will presumably carry the audience outside and back home. It’s a bit of a different orientation, is all.)
One funny (famous) story: reviews for the play were generally very favorable; one kind of Republican critic (Percy Hammond, of the Herald Tribune), however, slammed the show, not being much of a fan of government money endowing the Arts (ahem, ahem, ahem). Well, the resident Voodoo Priest and Voodoo drummers took Mr. Hammond’s criticism to heart- to a dark and vengeful place in their hearts. As Welles and Houseman would both recall, Houseman arrived at the theater the next morning to receive a strange report of drumming- resolute, purposeful drumming- emanating from the basement of the theater, late at night until early morning.
Houseman was astounded. That morning, Hammond had taken suddenly and seriously ill; rushed to the hospital, he died a couple of days later.
So I guess his poor review of the Voodoo Macbeth was the last thing he ever wrote; it suggests something of the uncanny power attributed to the play, that it seems to lend itself to- you know, Voodoo curses.
Operating from Welles’ original prompt-book, the Voodoo Macbeth was revived in 1977, at the New Federal Theater; the National Black Arts Festival (operating with the National Endowment for the Arts) has announced plans to stage it again in 2011, in Atlanta.
Orson Welles would go on to direct the Mercury Theater, then produce Citizen Kane (called the greatest movie ever), before he was out of his twenties.