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Drama Versus Novel – Macbeth and Moby-Dick

Each art specializes in expressing a facet of nature. Rhythm, for example, belongs to the musical arts. The painted arts, of course, can convey rhythm as well. Looking at Géricault’s Epsom Races, one cannot but hear the familiar three beat signature of racing horses:

Géricault, Epsom Races (Course D’Epsom)

But motion is properly the property of music. Colour belongs to the painted arts. Of course music can also have “colour” or “scene:” for example, Liszt’s tone-poems has scene and Davis’ “King of Blue” has colour.

Now what about prophecy? I guess this isn’t really a facet of nature, but a facet of the supernatural. But which art owns the rights to prophecy? Well, let’s put it to the test! There’s two similar prophecies in Shakespeare’s play Macbeth and Melville’s novel Moby-Dick. Here we have drama and novel trying to do the same thing.

Contestant #1 Drama (Shakespeare’s Macbeth)

In this scene, the witches call up apparitions who prophecy to Macbeth:

SECOND APPARITION. Macbeth! Macbeth! Macbeth!

MACBETH. Had I three ears, I’d hear thee.

SECOND APPARITION. Be bloody, bold, and resolute; laugh to scorn

The power of man, for none of woman born

Shall harm Macbeth. [Descends]

MACBETH. Then live, Macduff: what need I fear of thee?

But yet I’ll make assurance double sure,

And take a bond of fate: thou shalt not live;

That I may tell pale-hearted fear it lies,

And sleep in spite of thunder.

[Thunder. THIRD APPARITION: a Child crown’d, with a tree in his hand.]

What is this,

That rises like the issue of a king,

And wears upon his baby-brow the round

And top of sovereignty?

ALL. Listen, but speak not to ‘t.

THIRD APPARITION. Be lion-mettled, proud; and take no care

Who chafes, who frets, or where conspirers are:

Macbeth shall never vanquish’d be, until

Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill

Shall come against him. [Descends]

MACBETH. That will never be:

Who can impress the forest; bid the tree

Unfix his earth-bound root? Sweet bodements! good!

Rebellion’s head, rise never, till the wood

Of Birnam rise, and our high-plac’d Macbeth

Shall live the lease of nature, pay his breath

To time and mortal custom.

Contestant #2 Novel (Melville’s Moby-Dick)

Ahab and all his boat’s crew seemed asleep but the Parsee; who crouching in the bow, sat watching the sharks, that spectrally played round the whale, and tapped the light cedar planks with their tails. A sound like the moaning in squadrons over Asphaltites of unforgiven ghosts of Gomorrah, ran shuddering through the air.

Started from his slumbers, Ahab, face to face, saw the Parsee; and hooped round by the gloom of the night they seemed the last men in a flooded world. “I have dreamed it again,” said he.

“Of the hearses? Have I not said, old man, that neither hearse nor coffin can be thine?”

“And who are hearsed that die on the sea?”

“But I said, old man, that ere thou couldst die on this voyage, two hearses must verily be seen by thee on the sea; the first not made by mortal hands; and the visible wood of the last one must be grown in America.”

“Aye, aye! a strange sight that, Parsee:–a hearse and its plumes floating over the ocean with the waves for the pall-bearers. Ha! Such a sight we shall not soon see.”

“Believe it or not, thou canst not die till it be seen, old man.”

“And what was that saying about thyself?”

“Though it come to the last, I shall still go before thee thy pilot.”

“And when thou art so gone before–if that ever befall-then ere I can follow, thou must still appear to me, to pilot me still?–Was it not so? Well, then, did I believe all ye say, oh my pilot! I have here two pledges that I shall yet slay Moby Dick and survive it.”

“Take another pledge, old man,” said the Parsee, as his eyes lighted up like fire-flies in the gloom–“Hemp only can kill thee.”

“The gallows, ye mean.–I am immortal then, on land and on sea,” cried Ahab, with a laugh of derision;–“Immortal on land and on sea!”

Both were silent again, as one man. The grey dawn came on, and the slumbering crew arose from the boat’s bottom, and ere noon the dead whale was brought to the ship.

Moby-Dick is narrative; Macbeth is dramatic. But which one does prophecy better? Both passages give me the chills because it’s quite obvious in both instances that the low-probability event that they laugh off is precisely what’s going to kill them.

Well, there’s more economy in drama. It takes Melville 362 words to convey what Shakespeare does in 201. Another dramatist might even have been able to do it in less. Shakespeare is known to be quite verbose (when you’re that good with words, why not?). Winner: dramatic art.

But, while drama is more frugal and to the point, there’s a third voice in the narrative version, the voice of the narrator. In Shakespeare, the witches and Macbeth converse: that’s it. In Melville, there is the main dialogue between Ahab and the Parsee, and the narrator adds the details of the shark’s tails and the description of the men’s silence after Fedallah prophecies. Of course, the director of the drama could invite the audience to see these supratextual details in the stage directions or the setting. Here I think that the writer is superior to the dramatist in that the writer has more control over the reader’s interpretation. The dramatist is at the mercy of the director. So, while it’s not the case that narrative art is richer, but it is the case that narrative art retains greater control of the artistic product. Winner: narrative art.

What about from the viewpoint of suspense? It’s patently obvious that Ahab is going to be seeing dual hearses that someone is going to bid the tree unfix his earthbound root. What both Shakespeare and Melville are doing is setting up their audience’s expectations by saying: “Stay tuned, just wait to see how I pull this off!” From the perspective of suspense, the narrative and dramatic arts come to a draw. But I’ll have to give this one to the dramatic arts because, Melville, to make the scene more “dramatic” borrows from drama: the exchange between Fedallah and Ahab is recited verbatim and could be part of a play.

Of course I say this because I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work and not the work of the Muse of narrative art.

Macbeth Review (Blue Bridge at the Roxy May 5, 2015)

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Another year, another Macbeth! Readers from last year will remember the memorable production put on by Shakespeare by the Sea with the Strait of Juan de Fuca as the backdrop. Well, yesterday I got a ticket to the preview of Macbeth put on by The Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre at the old Roxy Theatre directed by Brian Richmond! The Roxy Theatre.s a Victoria landmark: for years they would put on the Rocky Horror Picture Show at Halloween. During the rest of the year they would play artsy type movies which catered to the local intelligentsia. At some point, it probably became an underperforming property. While I was still in construction, there were always rumours it would be torn down by the evil developers to make a condo building. That.s what everything downtown these days is turning into. Parking lots, theatres, churches (e.g. where I live), warehouses, and you name it are being all converted into condos. Fortunately for the Roxy, it was bought up by the Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre which converted the silver screen theatre into a live theatre. I was excited since this will have been my first time in the Roxy in many years.

Here.s my ticket!–

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Keep in mind, yesterday.s show felt like opening night, but was technically a preview. They offer substantially discounted tickets (along the lines of $20 off) for the first two showings. They.ve done all the dress rehearsals but during the previews they work out the last glitches. I was told it.s a good deal since usually they.re perfect performances. To me, this is live theatre so in a way the preview would even be more exciting with so much more tension in the air!

So, voila, here.s what the venue looks like–

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The photo was taken as you enter into the auditorium. You can see that it.s an more intimate setting. The slope down to the stage is fairly steep for a theatre and the stage is raised about four feet off the ground. I sat in row ‘D’, but I think next time I.ll sit in for ‘F’. Row ‘F’ would probably be the best in terms of elevation and proximity to the stage. They had certainly just got everything together, since I think the paint on the stage was still drying! While we were waiting for the show to start, the three witches were  playing the role of the three fates: spinning, cutting, and joining the thread of the players’ lives. A nice touch. I.d estimate the crowd on ‘preview’ opening night to be at 70 or so. The usual crowd with a scattering of ten or so younger folk who were eagerly discussing the plays merits outside after the show. And yes, I took the photo before the show started and before they announced no cameras!

I.d never seen the Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre in action before, so wasn.t quite sure what to expect. Well, to my surprise as the show started, Duncan, Malcolm, and the Sergeant are all played by women! The set is quite bare bones and the forces quite minimal in this production. For example, some actresses play 8+ roles! This hearkens back to the days pre-Marolovian theatre in pieces such as Cambises where six men and two boys would take on 38 roles. As far as the set, you can sort of see the drapes at the back of the stage in the photograph. They.re translucent (that.s harder to make out from the photograph) and shadows can be backlit onto them. So for the forest scene, they would project a shadow of leaves and branches onto the fabric. I sort of like the idea of less staging. The imagination fills things out. The multiple role playing I wasn.t quite used to and threw me off a little bit: i.e. what.s Malcolm doing with Banquo, oh no, that.s not Malcolm, she.s actually playing Fleance! That women were playing men further confused me. In their defence, they have little props in their costumes: for example, when Malcolm is Malcolm, he has a little crown. I can sort of understand how nice it is to have actresses play many roles and have them change characters right before your eyes on stage: it makes things go faster! And, as regulars readers know, I like fast! But what.s harder for me to understand is the point they.re trying to make by having women play men.s roles. In fact, I was wondering how Act 4 Scene 3 would play out where you would have Malcolm (as played by a woman) saying: ‘You matrons, and your maids, could not fill up / The cistern of my lust’ and ‘I am yet / Unknown to women’. I don.t think I heard those lines. Were they excised? There is the danger in tragedy of introducing comedy at the wrong moment. The risk is increased by role reversal. I.m sure modern audiences are receptive to things such as this. But to me, perhaps there could have been word in a prologue as to what sort of artistic effect they were aiming for?

Now for the good part: ALL HAIL LADY MACBETH! She was played by Celine Stubel and boy she stole the show! Her Lady Macbeth is dangerously on the edge and desperate for power, all at the same time as being all too fragile. Stubel.s not afraid of taking her voice past its natural registers to prove her impassioned point. The ‘unsex me’ speech was as good as I.ve seen. It made be believe. And she put on a master class in acting: you.re on stage, wave your arms in the air. Contort your body when under strain. When you push someone around, push with some feeling like you meant it! When you speak on stage, really put some oomph into those labials, the ‘p’s and ‘b’s! If you.re truly evil, put some hiss into the ‘s’ sounds! Man I think she was meant for this role because this Lady Macbeth is better than I even imagined her to be! Did I say she was good? Her performance alone was worth the price of admission and more. Too bad Lady Macbeth dies too soon!

Jacob Richmond.s (I wonder if any relation to the director Brian Richmond?) interpretation of Macbeth is one of a subdued man, one who is more ‘done to’ than ‘doing’. As a result, even in the ‘firstlings of my heart’ speech where Macbeth affirms the will to action there is a hint of hesitation. Richmond.s Macbeth is more philosopher than warrior. The ‘is this a dagger I see before me’ scene was particularly well done. In the flexible drapes at the back of the stage, while Macbeth was delivering the lines, daggers were held up tight against the flexible and translucent fabric to give the impression that they were suspended in the air of his thoughts. The ‘tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow’ soliloquy was spoken softly, to give the impression of a broken tyrant. From watching this production, I learned that Macbeth is a challenging role. Most of the time, the other characters are speaking back and forth with other people. Macbeth, on the other hand, spends a lot of the time, it seems, in his thoughts speaking with himself. Without cues from the other actors, Macbeth has really got to make cues for himself as he is not bouncing the dialogue and banter back and forth with the other actors.

I really enjoyed the sparse bare bones setting. More honest for the imagination. For example, the dinner table was represented by a large red cloth held up by the four ‘apparitions’ (who would also dress and undress characters for their role doublings on stage). The one thing I.ve never really seen done convincingly on stage is the scene where Macbeth goes the second time to the witches and sees: ‘A show of eight KINGS, the last with a glass in his hand; BANQUO’S GHOST following’. In this production, Banquo holds up the glass (mirror) sort of towards Macbeth. But why would Macbeth look at his own reflection. But then if Banquo looks at himself in the mirror, it doesn.t quite work either. I.ve heard that in the original production, the glass was held up to King James (who is descended from Banquo) in some sort of fashion where he would see a mise-en-abyme of kings going to ‘the crack of doom’. I.d like to see this staged somehow. As to how, I.m not sure!

Go get your tickets to see Lady Macbeth in action! Stubel in my mind unseats Kate Fleetwood from the 2010 Patrick Stewart Macbeth as my favourite Lady Macbeth. And that.s saying something because the 2010 production was a movie with all a movie.s resources!

So, until next time, I.m Edwin Wong and it was sure a blast to be Doing Melpomene.s Work last night at the Roxy watching Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre.s production of the awe inspiring Macbeth!

Macbeth Review (Shakespeare by the Sea July 17, 2014)

Do you prefer Springsteen.s Nevada to Born in the USA? How about dining?-mom and pop or Michelin all-star restaurants? Do you prefer baroque and rococo furniture or the Eames aesthetic? If you had said ‘Nevada’ or ‘hole in the wall restaurant’, or ‘Eames’, then the Victoria.s Shakespeare by the Sea production of Macbeth is just your ticket.

Both Nevada and Born in the USA are great albums. But, of the two, Nevada is the more honest album.  Honest in the sense that it.s a guy with his guitar recording on a four track in the garage. Just vocals and guitar. No E Street Band or million dollar studio to hide behind. The same with the mom and pop restaurant. It.s honest because the focus isn.t on the linen, the service, the water feature, or the Picasso hanging beside you. The focus is on the food. It.s the same with Eames furniture. The focus is on functionality. If it.s stylish, it.s not because of the acanthus leaf carved into the armrest or the barley twist leg. It.s stylish because there.s beauty in honest design.

The Shakespeare by the Sea Macbeth is about honesty. Honest in the sense that Nevada is honest or Skinnytato Restaurant on Johnson Street is honest. When I called to reserve a ticket a few hours before the performance (turns out it was a good idea) the director took the call. No Ticketmaster. I would later see that, in addition to being director and manning the phones, Robert Light was also impresario, usher, and stagehand. Lighting consists of daylight. Heating is provided but the sun and ventilation by the wind. Shelter is provided by a 25’x40′ tent which covers the stage and the audience. A green painted plywood box raises the stage half a foot off the ground. There are five exits and entrances. One at each corner of the tent. The main door where one enters the tent (directly looking onto the stage) is the fifth entrance. Being set up on Clover Point Bluff, the tent is oriented towards the south. That is, the backdrop of the stage is the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Except for the exits and entrances, the tent is enclosed all around. Behind the stage is a window through which the strait is visible. But not an infinite or ‘floor to ceiling’ opening: the wooden stage extends about three feet up on the rear before the window starts. This is good, as it provides the stage with a boundary. Actually, the window can function asa sixth exit, but only the transgressional Porter character seems to be able to make use of it. The spartan simplicity forces the attention to the action. Like Duncan says, here the air is good.