All Hail MACBETH!
I recently came across the study guide issued for the 1948 release of Orson Welles photoplay adaptation of William Shakespeares MACBETH. Since both the film and the play are still studied in schools nationwide, students may now once again enjoy access to this interesting study guide.
MACBETH was trade-shown in Hollywood on October 7, 1948, followed by public showings in Boston, Minneapolis, New Orleans, Seattle and Salt lake City. The film was quickly withdrawn by Republic Pictures, to have its soundtrack re-recorded and re-edited to a shorter length, under the supervision of Richard Wilson. It was subsequently released in the fall of 1950 at 86 minutes, opening in New York at the Trans-Lux 60th St. Theater on Wednesday, December 7, 1950.
The study-guide itself was prepared for the initial 108-minute cut of the film, with notes inserted for deletions that needed to be made in the script excerpts under discussion, which no longer made sense for the new 86-minute version of the film.
MACBETH - A Discussion of the Photoplay
Prepared by Hardy R. Finch
Greenwich High School, Greenwich, Conn.
1. Shakespeare and Macbeth
Acclaimed by many authorities as one of Shakespeare's greatest plays, Macbeth was written after a trying period in the playwright's life. In 1601, his father died, a disappointed man. Shakespeare's friends were treated unjustly. Queen Elizabeth put the Earl of Essex to death for treason and placed the Earl of Southampton in prison. One critic ventures the opinion that Shakespeare himself might have been under suspicion. Shakespeare turned to the writing of deep tragedy and produced such works as Macbeth, Julius Caesar, Othello, Hamlet and King Lear.
His writing of these tragedies is said to have extended from 1601 until 1608. During that time, however, Elizabeth the Queen died, and in March, 1603, James VI of Scotland came to the throne as James I, King of Scotland, England and Ireland. The new king showed great interest in the arts and letters. Under his patronage, forty-seven scholars labored to produce a re-translation of the Bible, the Authorized Version, popularly known as the King .James Version. His interest in the drama was evidenced by his choice of the Lord Chamberlain's Company, led by Burbage and Shakespeare, as "our servants." Later this group became "The King's Own Players" and was made "Grooms of the Chamber." This court title brought with it an annual grant of money amounting to about $4,000 in present-day buying power.
During the year 1603, the plague claimed so many victims in London that the theatres there were finally closed. According to Roger Hill, author of the introductory notes to Welles' edition of Macbeth, "the court of the new king was moved first to Wilton and later to Hampton. Shakespeare's company, which had been touring the provinces, was called to court for at least six command performances that winter." The next year, when the King displayed the splendor of his court in a procession in London, Shakespeare and his associates participated. The king's wardrobe master supplied them with red cloth sufficient for the making of suits to be worn at the celebration, Hill tells us.
Undoubtedly, Shakespeare appreciated what the patronage of the king meant to him. Had not James kept his company solvent during the plague year? Had not the king honored him and his company by making them official court players? Therefore, to show his appreciation he wrote a play about Scotland Macbeth.
Shakespeare did more than place the locale in Scotland. He built into his tragedy the beginning of the Stuart kings. Banquo, the first of the Stuart line and forebear of King James, was hailed in the play as the father of a long line of kings. Knowing of his patron's great interest in demonology (the study of ghosts and spirits), Shakespeare made use of witches to establish the atmosphere of his drama and to lead the central figure Macbeth on in his confusion.
In the writing of the play, Shakespeare drew heavily upon the story of Macbeth as it was presented in Holinshed's Chronicle of England and Scotland, which first appeared in 1577. Whether Shakespeare actually visited Scotland on one of his acting tours and obtained background for his play is still a matter of debate. One of the nineteenth century critics, Henry N. Hudson, believes "the drama yields some cause, in the accuracy of local description and allusion, for thinking that the Poet had been in Scotland."
After Macbeth was performed at court, King James is said to have shown his pleasure with the drama by writing a personal letter to Shakespeare.
2. Preparation For The Film
Unusual preparations for Macbeth were made prior to the shooting of the script. In developing the production, Welles first took his condensed version of the play which is about one-half the usual playing time and wrote a screen treatment. Then he used this script in presenting Macbeth on the stage in Salt Lake City for the Utah Centennial celebration. The presentation was very successful.
Then, with almost the same group of players as were with the Salt Lake City production, he held additional rehearsals, polishing and cutting and elaborating the original until he was satisfied with the outcome. Next he made a sound track recording of the final script.
The recorded Macbeth was used as n guide when the cameras began to do their work. Before going into a scene, each actor rehearsed his lines with the master key. In this way he cued tempo, volume, and pace and took his movement cues from the record.
3. Film Techniques
Since Shakespeare's plays shift in locale from scene to scene, they need the movement and scope of the sound motion picture to realize their full dramatic power. Macbeth seems written to be filmed, and Orson Welles* version makes effective use of many cinematic devices in transmitting it to the screen. '
Long shots, medium shots, angles and close-ups are cleverly combined to give the audience an insight into the minds of the characters and into the meaning of the drama itself. Lighting, always important in a Welles' production, is developed to a fine art in helping to focus attention on essential action. Among technical elements which enhance Shakespeare's drama are the camera work by John L. Russell and William Bradford, special effects by Howard and Theodore Lydecker, imaginative outdoor and indoor settings designed by Fred Hitter and background music by Jacques Ibert.
The very opening sequence sets the mood which carries through the entire story of ambition, murder and revenge. First, the camera catches three witches saying their incantations as they huddle together on a mist-shrouded crag. Then it moves up to look into their boiling cauldron with its devilish brew. The supernatural dement is immediately linked to the human drama when the camera picks up Macbeth and Banquo riding up to the crag. As the witches predict his succession first as Thane of Cawdor and next as king, the close-ups of Macbeth's (Welles') face reflect to the audience the birth of an ambition which will not stop at murder.
Again, the sound camera is used effectively to convey to the audience the ruthlessness of Macbeth's ambition when it records the play of his features as he dictates the story of the witches' prediction in a letter to be sent to his wife. A dissolve to the scene of Lady Macbeth reading the letter quickly conveys her reactions to the audience. The camera pans to a shot of rolling mists as she continues her soliloquy. All through the picture, soliloquies are given greater interest by cutting from scene to scene while the sound track projects the poetry of the language.
Shakespeare's asides, inevitably artificial on the stage, projected as thoughts by letting the sound track carry the words while the character thinking them moves through a scene with silent lips.
Before Macbeth murders the king, the confusion of his thinking is suggested by a series of out-of-focus dissolves. Sounds of actual thunder and wind, recorded by electronic means, are realistically reproduced to point up the action. When the murder has been discovered, close-ups of Banquo. Macduff, Malcolm and others clearly convey their suspicion of Macbeth without actual comment.
Introduction of Banquo's ghost is made especially dramatic when the camera pans from Macbeth's pointing finger to the table with only the bloody ghost seated at the far end. A close-up shows the wild-eyed Macbeth's reaction. This is followed by a medium close-up of Banquo's ghost, his face stained with blood as Macbeth sees it in his guilty imagination.
When Macbeth goes to consult the witches again, a very long down angle shot shows him as a tiny figure against the dominating Scottish landscape. This quick flash reveals him as the pawn of forces mightier than he. As the camera moves slowly in on him, flashes of lightning illuminate his face and he hears the ominous warning: Beware Macduff
Suspense is heightened all through the sequence in which the camera points up the falsity of the witches' prophecy that "Macbeth shall never vanquished Till Birnam Forest come to Dunsinane.
The film shows Macduff s soldiers chopping down trees in Birnam Forest and carrying branches aloft to shield their advancing army, so watchers at Dunsinane castle cannot gauge their strength. This and the succeeding scenes are projected with a vivid realism which is not possible in the theatre.
The swiftness of the denouement is presented in a series of fast action shots of the attacking army and the clashing swordplay in the final duel in which Macduff kills Macbeth. The pictorial device of the crude little statue, introduced by the witches in the opening scene to show Macbeth wearing a crown, is used again in the closing sequence. When Macbeth is killed. the statue's head falls off, and the crown rolls toward Banquo's son as the witches had predicted.
These examples illustrate how the flexibility and scope of sound motion picture technique enhances the moving conflict as Shakespeare wrote it and, in fact, as he himself might have filmed it today if he. had been alive. Certainly he would have welcomed this means of presenting his characters, quickly dissolving from one scene to the next, instead of announcing changes of scene as in his own day.
For more than three and a half centuries, Shakespeare has been recognized as a genius of the theatre. Now, with the collaboration of a modern film studio production crew, he has come into his own as a master craftsman of the screen.
See Part Two of the study guide in the next entry.