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.
This visually oriented perversity may explain the selection of Francesca Annis for the part of Lady Macbeth. She is beautiful and cannot speak verse. The sleepwalking scene is very perverse—a nude lady wandering about the freezing castle under the eye of her doctor, who, though he cannot minister to a mind diseased, can surely send the waiting woman for a cloak. Still, the break-up of Lady Macbeth is not wholly unconvincing. Jon Finch as Macbeth gets better and better as he grows more simply wicked, but is inadequate in the early stages, when violence on the screen is not a good enough substitute for the pressure in the poetry. John Stride, it must be said, makes a powerful impression as Ross, Mark II. But finally it should be repeated that this is nearly always a spectacularly good movie to look at, and one leaves it with a sort of discontented satisfaction. It’s much better than it might have been. Some, though not the highest, possibilities of Shakespeare in the movies are realized, though at a rather high cost to whatever it is we might agree ought to be preserved.
Peter Brook’s Lear had a bad press in England; it disappeared very quickly and is now hard to find. It wouldn’t be difficult to say why it displeased people who think they know about movies, and why it displeased others who thought they knew about Shakespeare. Some of the reasons will emerge from what follows. In fact, the really difficult thing is to explain why it is very good, and so far beyond the more popular Macbeth that they aren’t really comparable, and why the common judgment, that Brook is a genius in the theater but a bad movie director, is wrong. A genius, certainly; but he has also made the best of all Shakespeare movies. (We can rule out Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, which is an allusion to, rather than a version of, Macbeth.) How his Lear came to be so, despite all its apparent faults, is what has to be explained.
Manvell reports Brook as having said in 1965 (that is, some time after his classic Royal Shakespeare production of Lear, which I reviewed here in 1964) that Shakespeare was impossible to film. What the verse does, he said, can’t be done on film, though he thought there might be possibilities in a multiple screen using images in counterpoint, or projecting segments of a single image. Now this was the right way to begin: by despairing of the text in a film context. And when he decided after all to try to make the movie Brook continued, very fruitfully, to do so.
Manvell quotes a long and valuable statement by Michael Birkett, Brook’s producer, concerning the origins of the movie. Briefly, Brook set about the task of de-creating the text. He did so by means that may appear extravagant, even absurd; for he invited Ted Hughes to translate the play “into a language which seemed to him to be expressive of the story as he saw it, in his own right as a poet.” Kurosawa’s solution was not available; and since it was the original text that was making the film impossible, this must have seemed an imaginative compromise. Hughes, we are told, did an excellent job (it would be very interesting to see it). But after comparing his text with Shakespeare’s they decided that Shakespeare’s was better. “Sooner or later it comes down to the fact that there are passages, obviously the greatest passages in the play, which have a force and emotional power that no translation, no paraphrase, can possibly match.”
The important thing is not simply to have known this as “everybody” does, but to have seen the need to work for the knowledge. Thenceforth the director saw the whole play, and its verse, differently. His sense of its power, its unmatched force, was no longer endoxal, as the French critics say—no longer merely a function of what people conventionally say about it. So that whatever else he might do, he would always operate according to this luminous conviction. And when the great moments, on which all depends, arrive—say, the meeting of Lear and Gloucester on the beach at Dover—there will be in them nothing that simply reflects conventional opinion. It will not be a matter of being in a place which centuries of respect have made sacred, not a matter of whispering in church, but rather of being as near the source as we can, each in his own capacity, bear, of the greatest poetry that any of us can conceive of. To make such a scene is enough; and a production that made it would be a great human achievement if it seemed to botch nearly everything else.
Brook’s version does make it. The closing stages of this film, in particular, have what Kent found and sought to serve in the face of Lear, namely, authority. Perhaps they could not have had it without some such purgative preliminary as Ted Hughes’s paraphrase represented. It was a kind of ritual blasphemy, not unlike those of the play itself, when the young blind their fathers and deny them the right to be “in the basest things superfluous.” The play needed, as it were, to be sent naked into the storm before it could know itself.
After rejecting the paraphrase, Brook wrote a narrative treatment without dialogue; then he cut the play to fit this treatment, and went on changing it in the course of shooting. This was done in Jutland, in a wintry setting of sand, snow, and mud which fitted the bleak and vague Dark Age idea Brook entertained of the setting—wooden compounds for castles, lumbering wooden wagons for transportation, of which there is rather a lot in Lear. The general misery of working in such conditions was no doubt a benefit in the end. This is a Lear that grows out of bitter soil.
Odd things happen as Brook engages his text, and so they ought; but it is still right to question detail. There are some shocking changes and omissions. To say so does not imply that one is a purist, as Lord Birkett, in the paper I mentioned, suggests. To be a purist in these matters is to be an idiot. But consider the great scene—which was the very heart of Brook’s stage production—in which the blind Gloucester sits in silence while the battle rages offstage; Edgar has left him with his new-found patience, but when he comes back with the news that the battle is lost the old man refuses to be dragged away: “a man may rot even here.” Edgar, impatiently recommending patience yet again, hustles him away with the saying “Ripeness is all.” Of all this we got only the last bit, not the great silence. As Lord Birkett remarks, silence is a tricky problem in the talkies.
Other apparent perversities: the libels invented by Edmund to blacken the character of his brother in the eyes of his father (“the father should be as ward to the son,” etc.) are in the movie actually spoken by Edgar. Yet Edgar’s truly horrible lines to the dying Edmund—“The gods are just…the dark and vicious place where these he got / Cost him his eyes”—are transferred to the dying Cornwall, played, with his usual splendid sadistic venom, by Patrick Magee.
For most people the opening of Act IV is fundamental to the play: Edgar, congratulating himself on his hopeless plight, says that nothing worse can happen to him, at which point his father enters, eyeless. Though much in the spirit of the Brook version, this passage is cut. So is much else: Gloucester’s final happiness, Edmund’s final repentance. The most famous line to disappear (though Scofield, at the appropriate moment, fumbles with his coat) is Lear’s “Pray you, undo this button.”
There are a great many other cuts not easily explicable on the sound principle that you have to have some, or as helping to strengthen the Brook version. Albany’s “Humanity must prey upon itself / Like monsters of the deep” is shorn of its necessary prologue: “If that the heavens do not their visible spirits / Send quickly down to tame these vile offences / It will come….” Lear himself, curiously, loses some of his sexual disgust (“But to the girdle do the gods inherit, / The rest is all the fiend’s. There’s hell, there’s darkness, there’s the sulphurous pit…”). Kent, at the outset, says, in remonstrating against Lear’s treatment of Cordelia, “Be Kent unmannerly when Lear is mad”; in the movie he simply shouts “Lear is mad,” surely an unwise alteration. Cordelia loses too many of her very few lines; she is also shown for a second, and a second too long, with a rope round her neck.
I wonder whether Brook could explain in every case what he was up to; or how it is that after years with the play he still lets actors stress lines wrongly, even Scofield: “How shall your houseless heads….” Or why he makes so much less of the Fool than he did on the stage, and reduces the role of Kent, and gives less scope to his Goneril. These may simply be faults, like some of the deliberately clumsy camera work and the muddles in the storm scene and the introduction of subtitles to explain scene changes, which was entirely avoidable.
Brook’s decision to set the film in the Dark Ages has disadvantages as well as advantages: the jurisprudence of Lear and the talk of women at court whose finery “scarcely keeps them warm” and many other matters are medieval or Renaissance, and have nothing to do with the hovels and rudeness of the movie. No wonder Goneril and Regan found the king’s knights an unruly mob and wanted them cut from a hundred to fifty, twenty-five, ten, five, one, and none. It wasn’t, apparently, that the king had taught them in the opening scene to quantify love, just that the housing problem was insoluble.
One could go on talking about such details, but they don’t really matter. The film has authority, promised at the outset, confirmed at the close. Much that troubles people very familiar with the original won’t be noticed by most audiences, who will be making their first acquaintance with a fully realized and deeply imagined version of this great work. The playing is fine, especially, among the newer actors, Susan Engel’s Regan, a performance of terrifying intelligence; Magee’s Cornwall, Cyril Cusak’s Albany, and Robert Lloyd’s Edgar are as good as may be imagined. They are all, of course, servants of a masterly conception of the play. One noticed how Brook contrived to emphasize certain key words (sight, nothing, know) from the beginning, without encouraging the actors to lean on them; so that at the end, when Lear giggles about Gloucester’s eyes, and when, in madness, he knows Kent, Gloucester, and Cordelia, the pressure is on, the effect as exactly close to unbearable as it ought to be.
Finally, the collaboration of Brook and Scofield is now such that it is impossible to conceive of anybody else matching this actor’s performance. The strong, good-humored, ignorant, and willful old man of the opening still breathes power, is still wanton of fancy and judgment; arbitrary and self-assured, he has first to learn that his authority may be questioned, and then to discover the true nature of his old body, and then the true nature of justice, and then the true nature of love.
All this learning he must show in madness when he encounters Cordelia and Gloucester. In the second of these encounters, which I mentioned earlier as the great test of the whole, he must say what scarcely bears saying for terror and beauty. “I remember thine eyes well enough. Dost thou squiny at me? No, do thy worst, blind Cupid, I’ll not love…. look with thine eyes…. When we are born we cry that we are come / To this great stage of fools….” And Scofield is equal to this; especially in “I know thee well enough; thy name is Gloucester.” All this is spoken on the shore, where Gloucester has just made his suicide attempt, and where (in the film) Lear will shortly bend over the body of his dead daughter. “Thou must be patient….”
The point is simple: these texts, if we are to hold on to their greatness (and who says we can afford to lose it?), have to be reborn in the imagination of another. Hardly anybody is equal to this labor. It is not a task for the actor-manager, all self-regard is fatal to it. The true process is a violent one, and things will get distorted and torn. But the kind of truth this movie has in its last quarter of an hour can be got at in no other way. Here the right man was available, and he made a great film, which, unlike the relatively trivial Macbeth and negligible Antony, cannot be seen in London, though New York honorably supports it, thus escaping a most serious censure. For Peter Brook should be honored in this. C’est une belle âme, comme on ne fait plus à Londres.
May 4, 1972