Scottish Curse

J.L. Carrell's The Shakespeare Curse isn't that bad. Really. There are quite interesting things in it. A lot of them, in fact. There's also a lot of rather annoying and embarrassing nonsense, and, what's more, the dramaturgy is once again "borrowed" from that eternal masterpiece of esoteric prose and flawless scholarship The Da Vinci Code.

Ok, so the plot is pretty boring and plodding. The Wiccan twaddle is insufferable. But still.

Macbeth is what it's all about. A lot of strange things and spooky happenings tend to cluster around the play and performances thereof. Mentioning its name, the names of the principal characters or quoting from it is considered to be bad form and even dangerous. It will bring bad luck, at least that's the impression in theatrical circles. Some suppose it cursed. Death and misery seem to follow it everywhere. This, according to Carrell, is because Shakespeare - while in Scotland in 1585 as an itinerant player - witnessed the rites of a coven of witches and pinched their secret spells for his play. A play what he then wrote twenty years later. Right. The spells are also what made Will such a hot writer. Right.

There is obviously a magic object and everybody wants it to perform their rite. No, there's three actually. A magic mirror which once belonged to the notorious Dr Dee, a sacred cauldron and the original manuscript of Macbeth with the potent spells still in it. Oh, and of course an ancient knife with an unslaked thirst for blood.

Our heroine, the theatre director Kate Stanley, well remembered from The Shakespeare Secret, must recover these objects or a young girl dies. And she's only got 48 hours. Or something. And, of course, there's a crazed killer around, killing his innocent victims left right and centre. Much hilarity ensues.

What I do like is the obvious homework Carrell has done on and around her subject. That's the core and essence of the book, the yummy stuff. She's found some quite fascinating things and used a lot of her materials rather well, inventively even. There is of course a wealth of material when it comes to Macbeth. Too much, in fact, if you try to use most every scrap of it in a single novel. Carrell seems to believe that her book becomes the better the more of it she uses. The opposite is true. Now the novel drowns in a swamp of quaint factoids, none of them really relevant or properly developed.

But. Interesting factoids: Dr Dee owned an Aztec mirror. Did it have magical properties? Is it the same mirror which is currently in the British Museum? That's what Horace Walpole claimed. Dee is perennially interesting, the archetype of both the consummate scholar and proto-scientist and the magician. Carrell makes Shakespeare his pupil. Not bad. Did Walsingham and Lord Salisbury use itinerant players as their wandering spies? Marlowe certainly was one, so too maybe Kyd. Which is of course what got them into trouble and what got Marlowe very dead indeed. What about Shakespeare? Was he in the cloak and dagger business? Good stuff. Did Hal Berridge, who played the Queen in the first performance, die in that performance or just after it? And did Shakespeare have to jump in to finish the role? So legend has it. What happened to Berridge? The curse? Is that how it originated? But, hang on, was there a Hal Berridge? Surely he's mentioned in some list of players? No. Nobody seems to mention him, apart from Aubrey. Or does Aubrey ever mention Berridge? Could it all just be a huge joke on the theatrical world, a succesful prank perpetrated by the sardonic Max Beerbohm? And speaking of Beerbohms, what happened to the early film version of Macbeth with Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree in the title role? Tree died soon after having finished the film - any connection there?

Tree's Lady Macbeth was, by the way, Constance Collier in one of her first screen appearances. Today Collier is perhaps best remembered as the tipsy aunt in Hitchcock's Rope. I'd quite like to see her Lady M.

Carrell clearly is extremely knowledgeable in the field of early American Shakespeare tradition and once again displays it wonderfully. Like when she fishes out the macabre case of Forrest vs. Macready - a feud about Macbeth interpretations that started the lamentable Astor Place riot in 1849 and got nearly thirty people killed.

Edwin Forrest was perhaps the earliest great American Shakespeare actor. He befriended his English colleague Charles Macready and they became fast friends. Macready toured the United States, Forrest toured Britain. It was all a great success. On a tour of England the public suddenly turned on Forrest and wouldn't buy his Macbeth, and Forrest blamed it on Macready and started to hound the baffled Englishman. Once when Macready did a Hamlet Forrest stood up, during the To Be or Not To Be monologue, naturally, and started hissing and booing Macready and ruined the entire performance. He started to sabotage Macready's productions. When Macready appeared in a play, Forrest would arrange to appear in a play in the same town and at the exact same time. Often it was even the same play.

In May 1849 Macready was doing Macbeth in New York at the Astor Place Opera House quite near the Bowery - a tough neighbourhood where the dreaded gangs of New York resided. The lethal Five Points weren't far off either. Forrest was doing Macbeth the same night only a few blocks away on Broadway. The lines were drawn and clear as a bell. Macready was favoured by the anglophile upper crust while Forrest was to the liking of the lower orders to whom Forrest was one of them. Three nights before the riot a number of tough Forrest aficionados bought several hundreds of tickets to Macready's performance and belted the poor man with rotten lettuce and eggs and potatoes and rotten tomatoes and shoes and stenching foul liquids; with anything basically they could hurl at the despised foreign toff. They also pretty much gutted the theatre in the process. Macready knew a hint when he saw one. Time to shift. However, he was talked out of going back to England by such members of the cultural elite of New York as Herman Melville and Washington Irving. He stayed and once more he braved the New York stage as the Scottish King.

That's when things got really nasty.

When the performance commenced there was an enraged rabble of thousands outside the theatre, maybe 20 000 people, drummed up by posters and word of mouth, howling for the Englishman's blood. They stoned the theatre and tried to set it on fire. The Police were pretty helpless against such numbers so the National Guard was called in. The crowd would not settle down so the National Guard fired into it. Nearly thirty died and hundreds were injured.

And I don't think it quite settled the matter of whose Macbeth was better.

Funny thing. Shakespeare seems to have been staggeringly popular and well known in America in the 19th century, even among ill-educated people, and really meant something to them. And in those days there was no mass entertainment and therefore no great divide between low and high art. That came later. So what they had were the classics, above all Shakespeare. It is, by the way, quite impossible to imagine a riot getting started today over whose Macbeth is the better. Not in America, not anywhere is such a thing within the realm of possibility or even the scope of imagination. Not even close.

But back to The Shakespeare Curse. Not an entire waste of time. In parts quite entertaining. But as a novel hopelessly muddled. Rather as one did expect.

No comments: