The funniest, toughest-minded, and most ingenious political satire I’ve read in years is Barbara Garson’s MacBird. A veteran of the Berkeley student wars, Miss Garson has had the excellent and obvious notion—obvious after she did it—of savaging our political Establishment with a burlesque Macbeth, all in Elizabethan blank verse—more blank than verse at times—and enriched by tags from other Shakespeare plays skewed to suit her purpose. It works surprisingly well, whether as sharply pointed satire or as sheer—or if you prefer, mere—high-spirited low-comedy fooling around; most commonly, as a peculiar mixture of both. That Shakespeare is Universal is well known, but, to Garsonize Lady Macbeth: Who would have thought the old bard had so much blood in him?
The stars are Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson as the MacBirds and the three Kennedy brothers as the Ken-O’-Duncs. The supporting cast includes the Earl of Warren, Lord MacNamara, the Wayne of Morse, and—her finest inspiration—the late Adlai Stevenson as the Egg of Head. The witches are individualized and politicalized: First Witch “a student demonstrator, beatnik stereotype”; Second “a Negro with the impeccable grooming and attire of a Muhammed Speaks salesman”; Third “an old leftist, wearing a worker’s cap and overalls and carrying a lunch pail.” They open the play as usual, the blasted heath becoming a hotel corridor during the 1960 Democratic convention:
1ST WITCH: When shall we three meet again?
2ND WITCH: In riot!
3RD WITCH: Strike!
1ST WITCH: Or stopping train?
The next scene gets down to the nitty-gritty with unShakespearian promptness. The Ken-O’-Dunc brothers are discussing the advisability of offering MacBird second place on the Presidential ticket:
JOHN: Like? Dislike? What foolishness is that?
Our cause demands suppressing sentiment.
ROBERT: But, Jack, you know it isn’t merely scruples.
He has a fat, yet hungry look. Such men are dangerous.
JOHN: Good God, this womanly whimpering just when I need your manly immorality!
Miss Garson clearly knows her way around the political scene, and she wastes no time in establishing the characteristics of the opposing chieftains: the amoral, calculating efficiency of the Ken-O’-Duncs is contrasted to that MacBird look, so familiar to us all by now: “fat, yet hungry.” She has plenty to say about our Establishment, all of it uncomplimentary, and she says it in a headlong style, full of verve and humor—a kind of genial ferocity. At $1.00 (from P.O. Box 2273, Grand Central Station, New York, N.Y., 10017) her burlesque is the entertainment bargain of the year.
THE MOST DISTURBING and “controversial” aspect of MacBird is that the eponymous villain murders John Ken-O’-Dunc just as Macbeth murders Duncan. If this is taken to be the author’s serious—or even satirical—implication, then her play sinks to the level of such ultrarightist tracts as A Texan Looks at Lyndon Johnson or the post-assassination lucubrations of the palindromic professor, Dr. Revilo P. Oliver, and it would …
This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Macdonald’s Macbird February 9, 1967