The crowd for "Macbeth" at Lafayette Theatre Federal Theatre Project Collection.
Macbeth, however, began quietly enough in the fall of 1935 when John Houseman became the head of the FTP's Negro Unit in New York. Hallie Flanagan, the project's fiesty national director, wanted an African-American leader, but the black professionals she consulted felt that a white man would give the unit additional prestige and clout. The 33-year-old Houseman had directed the Virgil Thomson-Gertrude Stein opera Four Saints in Three Acts, and his work with the show's all-black cast convinced Flanagan that he had the sensitivity and tact required of a white administrator running an African-American company.
Houseman had to skirt some political land mines in selecting material for the Negro Unit. African-American theater was in decline by the 1930s-the victim, ironically, of the smashing success in the '20s of all-black musicals like Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake's Shuffle Along, which prompted white investors to get into a business formerly dominated by black theater owners and producers. As a result, resident stock companies like Chicago's Pekin Theatre and New York's Lafayette Players, which had produced plays about African-American life as well as the musicals popular with both blacks and whites, withered. There were serious plays in the 1920s with African-American protagonists, but The Emperor Jones, In Abraham's Bosom and Porgy all had white authors. "The Negro theatre has not really progressed," commented the Baltimore Afro-American in 1933. "It has merely been absorbed."
Jack Carter, Ken Renard and George Dixon. Federal Theatre Project Collection.
Inspired by the example of Four Saints in Three Acts, for which he and Virgil Thomson cast black singers as 16th-century Spaniards solely on the basis of their voices and physical presence, Houseman decided that one part of the Negro Unit should do classical plays "without concession or reference to color." He knew exactly who he wanted to direct this audacious enterprise: the "monstrous boy" whose performance as Tybalt in Katharine Cornell's Romeo and Juliet had overwhelmed him one year earlier, and with whom he had talked throughout the spring of 1935 about creating contemporary versions of Elizabethan drama. This actor's only directing experiences were a high-school production of Julius Caesar and a summer festival performance of Trilby in Illinois.
Orson Welles had earned a reputation for erratic behavior (including practical jokes and chronic lateness) on the Romeo and Juliet tour, and there was no reason to believe he had the maturity to guide a largely inexperienced company through the thickets of Shakespearean verse. But Houseman had absolute faith in Welle's talent and, with the psychological shrewdness that characterized his entire career, sensed that the self-assured, protean actor would rise to the occasion. He offered Welles the job of directing the unit's first classical production and asked him to suggest a play.
Welles's wife, Virginia, came up with the idea of setting Macbeth in 19th-century Haiti and making the witches voodoo priestesses, and Welles responded with zest. He drastically revised Shakespeare's text to build up the witches' role and turned Hecate into a male ringleader of the forces of darkness, which dominated the play and controlled Macbeth from the very beginning. While this interpretation scanted the drama's central theme of a man destroyed by ambition, it allowed for striking visual and sound effects that were at least as important as the acting - a tendency evident in every play and film Welles subsequently directed.