Shakespeare Spooky Stories 2: The Voodoo Macbeth

In 1936, famed director Orson Welles, (known for his iconic film Citizen Kane), produced an equally memorable production of Macbeth. At the time, Welles was a theater director, working with a government-funded theater group called The Federal Theater Project. The goal of the FTP was to help support the theater during the Great Depression. Welles also found a way to have his production help black actors by, and casting exclusively African Americans.

Opening night of Orson Welles' "Macbeth" outside the Lafayette Theater in Harlem, 1936.
Opening night of Orson Welles’ “Macbeth” outside the Lafayette Theater in Harlem, 1936.

Although Welles kept Shakespeare’s text, he changed the setting to a tribe in Haiti instead of medieval Scotland, and changed the witches into Voodoo priestesses. Below is the only surviving footage of the production, the final scene in which (spoiler alert), Macduff carries Macbeth’s head and sets it on a pole, proclaiming Malcolm the new king. You can see the witches taking a wicked joy when Macbeth’s cursed head is impaled, implying that Welle’s witches had vengeance on their mind when they drove him to kill Duncan.

Eric Burroughs as Hecate.
Eric Burroughs as Hecate.

Notice also the actor who screams “Peace, the charm’s wound up,” at the end of the play. He is playing the part of Hecate, the goddess of magic who appears before Macbeth in Act IV. According to legend, Actor Eric Burroughs was a real Voodoo priest, as were the drummers Welles used to spectacular effect during the show. Many critics called the frenetic drumming that occurred during the show and in scene changes an experience that they’d never forget.

Welles’ innovations helped black actors and theater in general survive during the Depression, but not everyone praised his efforts. Journalist Percy Hammond criticized the merits of the performance, arguing that the government shouldn’t pay for artistic projects. The next day when he returned to the theater, he was greeted by a rhythmic thumping underneath the stage that intensified until the critic abandoned his seat and left the theater. The next day, he fell suddenly ill and died! Was his illness a voodoo curse? We may never know, but this story clearly illustrates the effectiveness of Welles’ staging, and the dark occult appeal that lurks beneath the text in any production of Macbeth.

Macbeth meets the witches around their cauldron, (Act IV, Scene i).
Macbeth meets the witches around their cauldron, (Act IV, Scene i).

Works Cited:

1.     Dunton-Downer Leslie and Alan Riding.The Essential Shakespeare Handbook: Macbeth p.367. New York: DK Publising Inc, 2004.

2.    Rippy, Marguerite. Orson Welles and the Unfinished RKO Projects: A Postmodern Perspective pp 75-76. Retrieved 10/21/15 from Google Books.

3.  Smith, Wendy. The Play That Electrified Harlem. The Library of Congress. Retrieved 10/21/15 from http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/fedtp/ftsmth00.html

4. Digital Public Library: The Show Must Go On! American Theater In the Great Depression: Impact On African American  Theater. Retrieved 10/21/15 from http://dp.la/exhibitions/exhibits/show/the-show/african-american-theatre-impac 

5. The Juggler (online publication): “The Voodoo Macbeth.” Retrieved 10/21/15 from http://culture.pagannewswirecollective.com/2011/04/orson-welles-and-the-voodoo-macbeth/

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