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Shakespeare in the Movies

Antony and Cleopatra (to be released in the United States later this year)

directed by Charlton Heston


directed by Roman Polanski

King Lear

directed by Peter Brook

Piety, as we’ve all discovered by now, won’t get us anywhere. If Shakespeare has a right to attention, that right must be established again and again. The authority that establishes it has itself to be proved by demonstration, not by the old appeal to the dead, the sanctity of what has been accepted always, everywhere, and by everybody. Some of the men who direct his plays on stage or on film are intensely aware of this, and of the fact that their giant, if he is to live at all, must live in change. There was a time, in the history of the movies, when a man might make a version of a Shakespeare play and expect it to last for many years. That time has passed, not only because television can exhaust the movie almost at one shot (as it did Olivier’s Richard III) but because the very concept of the “classic” performance has withered.

Shakespeare is a willing but restless collaborator; his fidelity is to next year’s language. He has never, like true classical drama, required that if rapport is to be kept up, the whole culture must hold itself in a position of fidelity. He can be made new in far more possible ways than Racine or the Japanese No play. Obviously the cinema has advantages as a setting for the wrestling match between this angel and the bold director.

Roger Manvell, in his useful and well-illustrated survey of the history of filmed Shakespeare,1 makes the point that the cinema can, much better than the modern theater, match the fluidity of action on the Shakespearean stage. This is too obvious to dwell on, since the forty-odd scenes of Antony and Cleopatra or the arrival of a forest at Macbeth’s castle, or of a ghost at his banquet, present no real difficulty to the movies, and though modern stage directors have found how to do most of these things there are still problems, as the sad stage history of Macbeth demonstrates. And as Manvell rightly remarks, much more is required than fluidity. He emphasizes the problem (peculiar of course to English versions) of ensuring that what we see endorses rather than replaces the text, “points” rather than usurps it. As George Bernard Shaw observed in 1936, “It is extraordinary how much can be spoiled if you let the photographer…get the upper hand. There is the human voice; you have the verse and the lines. They may be deliberately distorted for some reason, but you have to be careful.”

Some of these difficulties are primarily technical—Manvell reprints an interesting conversation with Peter Hall that explores them—but others go deeper. It’s still harder to get an actor to say the lines right than to bring Birnam Wood to Dunsinane, and it’s harder still to rethink imaginatively the text of the play without falling into fanciful perversity. Granted, any archaeological reproduction of a Shakespeare play will certainly be a dead thing, the rethinking has to be done and the risk taken. But it’s asking a lot of the average director.

Consider what he has to do. Certain plays—the three discussed below are among them—are commonly regarded as very great works. But common consent is not only not enough, it is in this situation a danger. The new maker has got to feel that the true nature of their greatness has eluded him, at any rate; that the testimony of others is mostly irrelevant; and that what he does with it must show what he found in it—not everything, but something—that confirmed his intuition that it was worth doing, and so at once justifies his authority and establishes that of the play.

This requirement immediately rules out the modish tinkerer, the director with ingenious theories that interest him more than any laborious encounter with the words will ever do. But it also rules out the dull man who leaves everything to the text. Of the three directors whose work is discussed here one is capable of the extraordinary effort, not to speak of the intelligence and imagination, needed to reduce his whole text to chaos and recompose it. Keats spoke of King Lear as a text he had to burn through. Peter Brook has done something like that to the same play. The others have simply not understood the need.

There is no need to waste much time on Charlton Heston’s Antony and Cleopatra, a work of no imagination. During the negotiations for Antony’s marriage to Octavia two gladiators thump one another in the arena below. As one impales the other with his trident the negotiations conclude, and Octavius gives a thumbs-up sign at the words “the power of Caesar.” This bright idea is so tediously executed, cutting back and forth from the arena to the politicians, that one dreads the bright ideas to follow. However, there are very few. The disastrous Cleopatra of Hildegarde Neil has neither presence (when she speaks of her majesty, as she often does, we take it as a kind of in-joke) nor sexuality.

Every actress I have seen play Cleopatra (Edith Evans, Vivien Leigh, Peggy Ashcroft) has done something—though Vivien Leigh didn’t do much—to make the part new: it is primarily a question of discovering the verse. Miss Neil has no voice and no skill, and the pain of listening to her grows literally unbearable; I left after “O withered is the garland of the war,” shirking the remainder. Heston is a conscientious Antony, large, generous, cruel, and so on, but inexpressive and clumsy with the verse. Some good performances in the smaller parts (notably John Castle’s Octavius) and good stuff in the battle scenes on shore and afloat cannot save this expensive disaster. The screenplay is not willful or stupid, but totally uninspired; the whole thing comes down, sadly, to dull reproduction—the degree of superficial fidelity achieved simply enhances its spuriousness.

The film of Macbeth is much more interesting. A lot of intelligence and skill have gone into it, not of the highest kind, but they should always be noticed; and it has an odd quality of getting better as it goes along, as if some of the real work—the work of de-creation and re-imagining—suggested itself, and got started, in the course of shooting. The provenance of this movie—financing by Playboy, adaptation by Tynan and Polanski, direction by Polanski—is not such as to inspire in me, at any rate, great trust in the outcome. But this is a more than competent and often a beautiful film, vastly more so, in obvious ways, than Peter Brook’s Lear.

The parts of the film made on location in Northumberland and Wales are often splendid. Birnam Wood does indeed come convincingly to Dunsinane, the young, little known players perform creditably, and the fights are fantastic. At one moment, when a warrior struck another a thudding blow between the legs with one of those spiky balls on the end of a chain, I winced. The Thane of Cawdor suffers an exotic on-stage execution; the murder of Lady Macduff and her children is elaborately horrible. The weird sisters run a full-scale spine-chilling sabbath, and we get a screenful of horrific dugs.

But it isn’t sweated out, re-imagined. It’s powerful, vulgar, and vain by turns, and a great Shakespeare film might well be all these things; but this isn’t a great one. The first thing a director has to learn about Macbeth is that it is written in a peculiar dialect. Its language and rhythms are quite different from those of the other major tragedies, and up to the murder of Duncan it is especially strange and strained. It allows a narrative to go forward while, by miming crisis and criminal choice, the language insists on a scarcely tolerable degree of attention to one point in time, the present. The future is in this endless instant. And on this moment everything turns, the whole either/or of the thing: lost and won, fair and foul, present grace and great prediction, which grain will grow and which will not.

For Macbeth “function/is smothered in surmise and nothing is/But what is not”; he is subject to a supernatural soliciting that “cannot be ill, cannot be good.” This dreadful cooperation of language with our sense of a world in the balance continues in Lady Macbeth’s first vertiginous speech: “What thou wouldst highly / That wouldst thou holily.” Macbeth’s crucial soliloquy trembles with this disease of language: surcease-success, be-all, end-all.

Now this really is the crux of the matter. As Bernard Shaw and Peter Hall realized, the film we see mustn’t spoil such astonishing effects of language. In Polanski’s movie these are lost. Only after the murder is the playing, the direction, and the editing acceptable at all. In the crucial first movement neither of the principals gives the slightest indication of awareness of what is being so uniquely achieved in the text. The great soliloquy is a director’s disaster. Spoken voice-over as Macbeth sits at table with his royal guest, it drags drearily on, canceling the nerve-rending rhythms; it is interrupted by the entertainments laid on for the diners, including a rendering by Fleance of the song “Your eyen two will slay me suddenly,” written not for a court such as this, admirably displaying what the publicity men describe as “eleventh-century ruggedness,” but by Chaucer for the court of Richard II three hundred years later, and in another country. Anachronisms are not important in themselves, but this one is not only absurd in view of the stated aims of the makers but an inexcusably camp intrusion which will be felt as such by people who have no idea of the origin of the piece.

The eleventh-century world of this Macbeth is modishly cruel and desperate; a world of treacherous feudal chieftains, in which one political murder will be certainly followed by another. Even as Malcolm is crowned his brother Donalbain rides off, uncanonically, to consult the weird sisters. There are three kings in play and film; in the film alone all of them are hailed as such by Ross. For Ross has turned out to be a traitor. This fits the scheme of universal treachery, and I suppose Polanski or Tynan got the idea from the old chestnut about who was the Third Murderer—the unknown who turns up to help the two originally commissioned by Macbeth to murder Banquo. Why not Ross? And if so, why not make Ross not the friend but the betrayer of Lady Macduff? It will make it a little harder to manage the scene where Ross informs Macduff of the murder of his family; but that matters little compared with the advantages that accrue. For here is a brand-new character, his importance disguised in the original—a Machiavellian, a good guy who is really a traitor.

It’s some kind of an achievement, and a characteristic one. For whereas Shakespeare’s text seems to be about the purgation of a state—a country once happy but suffering a horrible infliction of evil—the film says that it’s always this way, whatever you try to do about it. In Shakespeare Macduff kills Macbeth, comes in saying, “The time is free,” and hails the new king Malcolm. In Polanski Ross hails Malcolm, and Donalbain rides off to the witches. In Shakespeare Duncan is a good, even a holy man, like his contemporary Edward the Confessor, whom Shakespeare also drags in. Here he happens merely to be the current boss, whose murder, incidentally, we are shown; rather splendidly in fact, for as usual the filmed scenes have a life independent of the words.

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    Shakespeare and the Film by Roger Manvell. Praeger, 184 pp., $10.00. (Contains a filmography of the principal—not all—Shakespeare movies since 1929.)

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