So now I have seen four (4) productions of Macbeth this year. This latest one was community theater, and about as good as you can expect from free community theater Shakespeare in a park, but it still managed to be more entertaining to watch than the Cheek by Jowl production I saw, even if it lacked the strange insights into the play CbJ (quite boringly) presented.
That’s not to say there wasn’t some thought there. This production was set, rather vaguely, in Colonial America at about the time of the Revolutionary War. The witches, for instance, were Native Americans, and there were lots of bayonets, and so on. The fact that I watched this production on September 11 probably affected by reception of it a bit, too, but regardless of all of that, it put me into the state of mind in which I consider American (US) literature and what’s important about it.
I don’t talk about US lit a lot, mostly because I find it substantially less interesting than other things, but that doesn’t mean I have Opinions, by god, because if I ever manage to make a name for myself I’ll definitely be a part of the US literary tradition more than, well, whatever-the-hell-else. So anyway, I think that if there is a Shakespeare play that comes close to being an “American” play, it probably really is Macbeth.
This sounds a bit nutty, I know, but Macbeth in my mind has always seemed like a deeply nuanced reworking of Marlowe’s Faust. And if there’s any European myth that I think has some special claim on America, it’s Faust. I am very cagey about people (including me) making sweeping statements about “American” literature or a great “American” novel, but if there is a recurring motif in what we seem to consider great US fiction, it’s this notion of a deal with a devil, a fascination with things that have the power to make us great or destroy us, and the choices we have in relationship to these forces.
Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” is the prototype for this in my mind, but I also see it in Moby Dick, in Their Eyes Were Watching God, The Great Gatsby, All the King’s Men, Beloved, and on and on. My own Gothic predilections are obvious here, but I think there’s something worthwhile in the notion of our national myth, so to speak, being one of great power and ability bought at a terrible (usually bloody) cost. I’m kind of a pessimist, too, so there’s that.