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.1
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 not be worth reading, let alone reviewing. But I don’t so take it, for several reasons. An author who would build a satire around such an insinuation, for which no shred of evidence exists save in the addled wits of crackbrains, couldn’t possibly have written anything as funny as MacBird. humor being incompatible with solipsistic fanaticism. Nor would such a writer be endowed with the sense of reality Miss Garson shows in her adaptation of the Shakespearian material, the joke always depending on deftly using the familiar old lines to comment on the actual current situation. The most obvious explanation seems also the best: That, having picked Macbeth as the Shakespearian play that best lent itself to topical satire, she was stuck with the plot line and, while she could (and did) make some changes, the central dramatic action, Macbeth’s murder of Duncan, couldn’t have been omitted without its becoming another play.2 How onerous she found this necessity I don’t know, but it seems clear to me that she constantly signals that it is a mere plot necessity by wild departures from her usual respect for actuality whenever The Problem arises. Thus Lady Bird is absurdly made into a full-blown Lady Macbeth, the prime mover toward evil of a weak, indecisive husband: MACBIRD: “I dare do all that may become a man. /Who dares do more is none.” /LADY MACBIRD: “I’m not a man. I am a lady and a Southern hostess.” Miss Garson also takes great pains, unlike Shakespeare, to dissociate her villain-hero from the remotest actual connection with the murder of Duncan-Kennedy; MacBird does indeed press the king-president to come down for a visit at the ranch (“So you can meet the people of my state. /You’ll ride in rich regalia through the throng, /And feel the warmth and frenzy of their love“), but the scene grows dim and misty when It Happens, and the only overt crime charged to MacBird is the murder of Oswald, paralleling Macbeth’s murder of Duncan’s guards, which is so contrary to the well-known facts as to suggest a deliberate shift into fantasy—as with the later accusations that MacBird had arranged Ted Ken-O’-Dunc’s near-fatal plane accident and that “a poisoned dart” had been found near the body of the Egg of Head—to make it plain to the groundlings that here the modern author is the captive of the ancient author’s plot and it shouldn’t be taken seriously for goodness sake.
THIS MARE’S NEST APART, there remains a good deal to criticize about MacBird—almost everything, indeed, from a strict point of view. Its imitation of Shakespeare is uneven, to say the least. The opening lines of Act I, Scene 2, quoted above, scan as rather rough-and-ready blank verse, with John’s last line giving up the struggle completely. Nor can much be said for such desperations as the Earl of Warren’s “Oh, whine and pout /That ever I was born to bury doubt.” Or tropes like those of Lady MacBird’s Second Daughter: “We have to follow after her with air-wick /For every several steps she stops and sniffs / And crying out, ‘There’s blood upon this spot!’ /She makes us spray to mask the phantom smell.” Not that Miss Garson doesn’t often rise to the occasion, as with most of the witches’ material and all of the speeches of the Egg of Head, which express a humorously affectionate insight into Stevenson’s political psyche in verse whose excellence may be due somewhat to the author’s sympathy with that great Egg—as the success of the witches’ lines may reflect her identification with their point of view—but perhaps more to the fact that he is in the play, as he was in reality, the only Establishment character with real style, morally and intellectually. But if Miss Garson rises, she also sinks. As Shakespearian pastiche, her play is technically much inferior to Max Beerbohm’s parody of the Elizabethan manner in Savonarola Brown and to Nigel Dennis’s extraordinary and sustained imitation, almost as long as MacBird, in Cards of Identity.
These stylistic lapses are paralleled by a chronic lack of taste in the content: the witches’ dirge, in the form of a blackface burlesque of “Massa’s in De Cold, Cold Ground,” for the murdered President; the appalling and gratuitous joke about “early bird” on the next page, of which the less said the better; the First Reporter’s comment after MacBird’s press conference: “What a shit!”; the repeated insinuations that Ted Ken-O’-Dunc has lost his marbles—though I confess I found them amusing. And passages, all too common, like the following glimpse of the new President in action:
MESSENGER: Beatniks burning draft cards.
MACBIRD: Jail ’em!
MESSENGER: Negroes starting sit-ins.
MACBIRD: Gas ’em!
MESSENGER: Latin rebels rising.
MACBIRD: Shoot ’em!
MESSENGER: Asian peasants arming.
MACBIRD: Bomb ’em!
MESSENGER: Congressmen complaining.
MACBIRD: Fuck ’em!
Flush out this filthy scum; destroy dissent.
It’s treason to defy your president.
(His followers start to move doubtfully)
You heard me! Go on, get your ass in gear.
Get rid of all this protest stuff, y’ hear?
There is no excuse for presenting our President as above except that, according to the daily press and to the recent biography by Rowland Evans and Robert Novak, that is the way he is. The impeccable bad taste that pervades MacBird may be just what the subject calls for, precisely the approach most congruent to the atmosphere of Washington under the Presidency of Lyndon Johnson, and to his political style. The rapier would have been not only inadequate but also irrelevant. An enthusiastic laying about with the broad-axe was needed and this Miss Garson has provided.3 Though I’d not want to push the point too far, I suggest the stylistic crudities may be inextricably intertwined with the special charm of MacBird, which is the freedom with which the Elizabethan rhetoric is roughed up for comic or satiric effect, the Bard being treated as irreverently as the President. Nothing sacred. As Hamlet said to the players: “We’ll e’en to’t like French falconers, fly at anything we see.” Although I am no friend of broad comedy, I find broadness here, given this particular subject, exhilarating and somehow liberating. So much dignified cant has overlaid the reality of our current Establishment politics that it is refreshing to have it brushed aside by a ruthless, if over-exuberant, housekeeper. It would have been better, of course, if Miss Garson had managed to combine the literary finesse of Beerbohm and Dennis with her all-out attack on the accepted political fundaments, as Brecht was able to do, but one really can’t demand genius. And she has solved, in her own slam-bang way, the problem of satirizing a reality so grotesque that it often seems to defy exaggeration, producing its own built-in parody, so to speak. The reek of Johnsonian politics perhaps is better suggested by such passages as these than it would have been by more polished verse:
MACBIRD: This here is the winter of our discontent,
Made odious by that son of….
LADY MACBIRD: I just don’t know….
MACBIRD: I gotta hand it to me.
I sure got style. MacBird, you’re so damned sharp.
MACBIRD: Whatever you read about the demonstrators,
Whatever you hear about those that burn their draft cards,
Remember that there are always some in every crowd.
But the bulk of the two hundred million people in America,
And the bulk of the three billion people in the world,
Thank God there are men like you.
Keep your chin in and your chest out
And do your duty as you see it…
Your parents and your dependents
May not see some of your again,
But they will always be mighty proud
That you came this way, and so am I. Thank You.
To be pedantic, that last passage isn’t actually from MacBird. But I’m sure Miss Garson would have put it in, unless it had sounded a little broad as burlesque even to her permissive ear. Our President, however, had no such qualms when he thus addressed an audience of American and native troops in South Korea during his recent Far Eastern tour. He spoke from his heart, impromptu and spontaneous, uninhibited by any static from his speech-writers. All hail, MacBird!
THE MOST STRIKING, and to me admirable, quality of MacBird as political comment is its complete rejection of and alienation from our political Establishment—all of it. Miss Garson’s alienation is so drastic, her viewpoint so high above the struggle, that she can give us a sympathetic picture of MacBird when he ruminates, after John’s coronation, on those cool, stylish whiz-kids of the opposing clan:
Now do our princelings pipe in tenor tones,
Our bass-voiced elder statesmen cast aside,
Our ancient counsellors yield to college pups;
Grim-visaged politics has smoothed his face;
Our manly wars give way to minc- ing words;
And now instead of mounting sad- dled steeds
To fright the souls of fearful ad- versaries,
He capers nimbly at a yachting party,
He struts before the wanton am- bling nymph.
But I am not cut out for merry meetings,
For fancy foods and poetry and lutes.
I am stamped out in stern and solid shape
And thank the Lord I lack the frippery
To sport and blithely laugh in for- eign tongues
While lightly touching on affairs of state
At fox hunts, polo parties, garden teas.
Yes, I am made of sturdy, home- spun stuff.
Or, as the original put it, according to the Evans-Novak biography (p. 2): “They say Jack Kennedy had style but I’m the one who’s got the bills passed.”
MacBird is an easy target, but the Ken-O’-Dunc clan doesn’t come off much better. Their opposition is shown throughout as calculating opportunism, and at the end, when MacBird confronts Robert and confidently repeats to him the witches’ promise—“No man with beating heart or human blood /Can ever harm MacBird or touch his throne.”—it is kind of sad, really, to hear Robert reply with Miss Garson’s ingenious variation on Shakespeare’s “Macduff was from his mother’s womb /Untimely ripped“:
Your charm is cursed. Prepare to hear the worst.
At each male birth, my father in his wisdom
Prepared his sons for their envis- aged greatness.
Our first gasped cries as moist, in- verted infants
Confirmed for him our place as lords and leaders.
To free his sons from paralyzing scruples
And temper us for roles of world authority
Our pulpy human hearts were cut away,
And in their place precision ap- paratus
Of steel and plastic tubing was in- serted.
The sticky, humid blood was drain- ed and then
A tepid antiseptic brine injected…
Thus steeling us to rule as more than men.
And so, MacBird, that very man you fear,
Your heartless, bloodless foe now lifts his spear!
MacBird staggers and dies of a heart attack, after which Robert doffs his armor, pays reverence to the corpse and then—completely reversing Shakespeare’s ending, which has Malcolm, after a few remarks about “this dead butcher and his fiend-like queen,” restoring the lawful order and concluding with prosaic respectability: “So thanks to all at once, and to each one /Whom we invite to see us crowned at Scone“—promises to continue faithfully the building of MacBird’s “Smooth Society”:
My lords, black sorrow hovers o’er the land.
MacBird, our brilliant leader, lives no more…
So, choked with grief, I pledge my solemn word
To lift aloft the banner of MacBird.
Well, really! How alienated can you get?
The only admirable characters are the witches who are promoted from their role in Shakespeare’s play as neutral soothsayers to committed revolutionaries, prophets of a glorious future in which they will lead mankind into the promised kingdom after those bourgeois fakers have run their course. But such is the even-handed justice with which the author commends the poisoned chalice to everybody’s lips that the witches, too, are treated with a comic realism—much about their present factional idiosyncrasies and almost nothing about that glorious future—which reduces them more to the level of the other characters, speaking existentially and not programmatically, than perhaps the author realizes. Miss Garson seems to be politically committed, right enough, but she is also a comic writer and her commitments are forgotten when she sees a chance to make a joke.
In sum, MacBird is a tasteless, crude, wholly destructive satire which roughs up everybody and everything, from Shakespeare to Vietnam, which would never be accepted by The New Yorker or The Atlantic, and which is extremely funny, especially at its most tasteless, crude, and destructive moments. Its viewpoint is so thoroughly, consistently alienated from every statistically significant group or trend in American political life today that only an anarchist like me could find much comfort in it, and cold comfort at that. About all that can be said for it, aside from its being funny, is that at last the younger generation has produced a satirist.
EXCERPTS FROM “MACBIRD” by Barbara Garson
Your majesty, how do you view our future?
I’m glad you asked that, Bob—I have a dream.
We have an opportunity to move
Not only toward the rich society,
But upwards toward the Smooth Society.
My Smooth Society has room for all;
For each, a house, a car, a family,
A private psychoanalyst, a dog,
And rows of gardens, neatly trimmed and hedged.
This land will be a garden carefully pruned.
We’ll lop off any branch that looks too tall,
That seems to grow too lofty or too fast.
And any weed that springs up on our soil,
To choke the plants I’ve neatly set in rows,
Gets plucked up root and all, by me, MacBird—
And this I do for you, my wholesome flowers.
I see a garden blooming undisturbed
Where all the buds are even in their rows.
An ordered garden, sweet with unity,
That is my dream; my Smooth Society.
(Applause from reporters which finally dies down)
I thank you gentlemen. Next question, please.
Your majesty, how do you plan to deal
With rebel groups which thrive in Viet Land?
What rebel groups? Where is this Viet Land?
Who gave them folks permission to rebel?
Lord MacNamara, valiant chief of war,
What is this place I’ve just been asked about?
It’s way off to the East, eight thousand miles.
A little land we’re trying to subdue.
What crap is this “we’re trying to subdue”?
Since when do we permit an open challenge
To all the world’s security and peace?
Rip out those Reds! Destroy them, root and branch!
Deploy whatever force you think we need!
Eradicate this noxious, spreading weed!
Your word is my command. Your will is done.
That land will be subdued ere set of sun.
* * *
I’ve heard some talk, I’ve thought some thoughts, but I
Prefer to wait, to give MacBird a chance.
This new regime, though watered with warm blood,
May grow and bloom in peace. As to your doubts,
There’s rumors round but I have seen no proof.
There’s proof enough for one who wants to see.
To see, or not to see? That is the question.
Whether ’tis wiser as a statesman to ignore
The gross deception of outrageous liars,
Or to speak out against a reign of evil
And by so doing, end there for all time
The chance and hope to work within for change,
To work within the framework, there’s the rub.
For who would bear the whips and scorns from boors,
The oppressor’s wrongs, the proud man’s contumely,
The insolence of office and the spurns
My patient merit of this braggart takes—
But for the fear of something worse than death.
In speaking out one loses influence.
The chance for change by pleas and prayers is gone,
The chance to modify the devil’s deeds
As critic from within is still my hope.
To quit the club! Be outside looking in!
This outsideness, this unfamiliar land
From which few travellers ever get back in—
It puzzles mind, it paralyzes will,
And make us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of.
Security makes cowards of us all.
I fear to break; I’ll work within for change.
MacBird permits no critics from within.
He draws the line and all are forced to toe.
You’re with him or against him, get that straight.
Your safety, sir, demands his overthrow.
No! No, for still he is our President.
Your president perhaps, but for myself
I had as lief not be alive as be
In awe of such a thing as that…
I was born free as he and so were you.
We both have come as close to being chief.
MacBird! MacBird! (In a crow-like call)
What coarseness in that sound.
The Egg of Head—that name befits the post.
Perhaps it’s true, but fate has made him king.
The fault, dear Egg, is never in our stars
But in ourselves that we are underlings.
That you do mean me well I have no doubt,
But what you work me to, alas I fear.
Oh, nation that has lost thy breed of men!
When could we say but now of this great land
That her far shores encompassed but one man?
Ye Gods, there was an Egg of Head here once
That would have dared the devil…and yet now…
I know you think I’m acting like a toad
But still I choose the middle of the road.
December 1, 1966
Although MacBird is often called a parody even by such well-informed admirers as Robert Brustein, even, in an off moment, by me, it is of course not a parody since its aim is not to ridicule Shakespeare’s style but to use it for comic effect on an incongruous subject. It is, rather, a burlesque (fr. Italian burla, “ridicule”), a form that goes back to the ancient Greek mock epic, the Batrachomyomachia, or the Battle of the Frogs and the Mice, which treated these miniature wars in high Homeric style. A more recent example, and one whose thrust, like MacBird’s is satiric as well as humorous, is Hawthorne’s “The Celestial Railway,” which uses the framework of Pilgrim’s Progress for an attack on the nineteenth-century faith in materialistic Progress. ↩
She might have chosen Julius Caesar, but that would have raised the same problem—hard to get away from murder in Shakespeare—not to mention the temptation to type-cast Stevenson as Brutus to Kennedy’s Caesar, with Johnson as fat-and-hungry-looking Cassius, which would have avoided the problem but would also have thrown any topical relevance into hopeless confusion. ↩
Her technique reminds me of the combat methods of Lewis Carroll’s Tweedledee and Tweedledum: “‘I generally hit everything I can see—when I get really excited’ [says the former] And I laughed. ‘You must hit the trees pretty often, I should think,’ she said. Tweedledum looked around him with a satisfied smile. ‘I don’t suppose,’ he said, ‘there’ll be a tree left standing for ever so far around by the time we’ve finished’.” Not many trees left by the time MacBird ends. Or twigs. ↩