OK, LET’S GET this out of the way: I did it first.
Before Alan Cumming and before Stephen Dillane.
When my friend Cheryl King at Stage Left Studio asked me to bring my one-man show, That Play: A Solo Macbeth, to her intimate, boutique theatre, I demurred. Coquettishly vague, I gave a series of wishy-washy reasons for not wanting to revive a project I’d done ten years ago, most of which were fueled by:
a) Laziness, and
b) An acute distrust of the theatre after “X” number of years as an
actor/ writer/ director/ nightmare.
Also, I just didn’t know if I wanted to memorize all that $#!+ again.
Playing Macbeth and his wife (and every doomed Scot in Inverness) takes its emotional toll, let me tell you. Never mind self-producing, which means overseeing everything everyday from sunrise ‘til the “crack of doom!”
Cheryl asked me six years in a row.
Then it struck me: approaching 13 years since I had conceived of my solo Macbeth, maybe the thirteenth anniversary would be good luck in the wonderfully-awful upside-down universe of Shakespeare’s darkest tragedy.
In the theatre, you’re not supposed to say “Macbeth” or even quote lines from it because so many horrible incidents surround productions. As I discuss in the adaptation, created with my director/collaborator Heather Hill, theatre people prefer to use irritating euphemisms rather than say the title, the most common being “The Scottish Play.”
But I’d always challenged the idea that you shouldn’t speak the darkness aloud.
While pondering Cheryl’s seventh query and the 13-year anniversary, I walked under a ladder, opened an umbrella indoors, and went outside hoping a black cat would cross my path. No joke – I searched for a black cat and when I found one sitting languorously in the sun I encouraged it to walk in front of me. But it was too lazy. I took this as a sign that my own laziness was getting in the way of re-staging my opus.
As I was preparing to perform another multi-character piece, I told Cheryl, “I’m doing it.” She couldn’t have been more encouraging. We set dates and talked about submitting it to her Left Out Festival of LGBT theatre, which happens every spring. In this case, it would take place in the spring of that thirteenth year – 2012.
Two days later – no kidding – a friend shared an article with me via “The Facebook:” Alan Cumming would be performing a solo Macbeth, first at The National Theatre of Scotland then at The Lincoln Center Festival.
What?! Can the devil speak true?
After my head exploded and the scorpions crawled out, I screwed my cranium back together and called my press agent – the zany, supportive and hyperbole-prone delight I call Mad Judy.
We discussed the fact that in the past 13 years there have been a total of three solo Macbeths that we knew of: mine, first performed in its entirety in 2002 though conceived of in 1999; Stephen Dillane’s, from 2004; and now Cumming’s. How do three artists make the same kind of art from the same raw materials within a few years of each other? It’s very nearly plagiarism. And by that I mean we three have mined Shakespeare for our own purposes, not that Cumming had untimely ripped me off. Then again, one can’t be too sure; Macbeth is a play about ruthless ambition…
Back in 1999 I thought I was catching the zeitgeist. What’s the lifespan of a zeitgeist anyway? Probably about 13 years, because some 13 years later we have had several productions of Macbeth by various companies here in New York : The Epic Theatre Ensemble, Aquila Theatre, The Met with a new staging of Verdi’s opera, and off-Broadway’s Macbeth-inspired Sleep No More.
But Alan Cumming’s version at the Lincoln Center Festival? That was a punch in the gut.
If you’re a Buddhist, you already know that to expect anything is folly. If you’re a Catholic… not so much. If you’re a recovering Catholic who has read a little about Buddhism, you are probably starting to understand that expectation creates unhappiness, but you’d still like to hurl your bitterness in God’s general direction. The Universe, you see, has this way of reminding you who’s boss and that while you may be the one telling your tale, that tale signifies nothing aaaannddd…you’re an idiot.
There have been solo adaptations of Shakespeare before. And there will be more to come, I’m sure. There was Robert Lepage’s solo Hamlet in 1997, Susanna Hamnett’s one-woman Nearly Lear, and reductions such as Joe Calarco’s four-man R&J and Fiasco Theatre’s six-actor Cymbeline. But three solo Macbeths in one decade? Come on, Universe, I know you’re all-powerful and all, but can’t I just enjoy this piece of the artistic pie by myself?!
Twenty-four hours later, Mad Judy and I decided that two solo Macbeths could only be an ironic omen in the world of bad luck that is “The Scottish Play.” So, break out the umbrella, the ladder, salt for the table and a pride of black cats…I made the decision and took some advice from Lady Macbeth: “Things without all remedy should be without regard.”
Alan Cumming is doing his solo Macbeth. So what? Do I run away with my tale between my legs?
I began in earnest to “screw my courage to the sticking place” but when those “saucy doubts and fears” started making me feel like a fraud, I imagined Alan Cumming having a conversation like this:
MACBETH: Hey, Alan, what are you doing about your career, ya c*nt? (The Scots love that word.)
ALAN CUMMING: (defensively) I’m working! The Good Wife, you know. A bunch of other stuff. Get off me back ye boggin’ bag o’shite. (I don’t know if Alan Cumming has ever called anyone a “boggin’ bag o’shite” but it sure does sound Scottish, doesn’t it?)
LADY M: You need some time showing off.
ALAN CUMMING: Good point.
MACBETH: (sotto voce, to the missus) You always know the right thing to say.
LADY M: (to Alan) And we’ve got a great idea.
ALAN CUMMING: Not sure I’d trust that. Remember what happened the last time.
LADY M: Was that necessary?
ALAN CUMMING: I’m just being honest.
MACBETH: People always say that when they’re being rude.
ALAN CUMMING: Sorry. But your story’s been done to death.
MACBETH: Not solo!
ALAN CUMMING: I remember some weirdo doing a solo version back at The Belt Theatre when I had my theatre company there. And then Stephen Dillane in ’04. (considers) I don’t think so.
MACBETH: That was a long time ago and you’re a huge star! Think of it: pictures of you with snot running out of your nose. You know everyone loves it when an actor goes all ugly for art. Plus, you get to play everybody. Even her.
LADY M: I’m not ugly.
MACBETH: That’s true. (winking) But your soul is.
LADY M (giggles): You’re so bad.
ALAN CUMMING: Tell me more.
And by appealing to Mr. Cumming’s vanity, I imagine the Macbeths found a way into his heart. He could march in the parade, while everyone else…? Well…as Will Rogers said, “We can’t all be heroes, because somebody has to sit on the curb and applaud when they go by.”
Doing a solo adaptation of Shakespeare’s popular but notoriously difficult play doesn’t make heroes of Alan Cumming, Stephen Dillane or me, but it does take some daring and more than a little recklessness.
Am I implying that Alan Cumming’s show is a great big vanity project while my own is inspired by an altruistic need to entertain? Hardly! Artists need to express themselves; the motivation is immaterial. But it sort of helps me to pretend that Alan Cumming is the more vain of the two of us.
I try to live in “the now,” rather than tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. I try not to have expectations. I try not to let my expectations run away with me. As Valmont says in Les Liaisons Dangereuses, “I have no illusions. I lost them on my travels.” But I ask you: three solo Macbeths strutting and fretting upon the stage in the same 13-year span? Come on!
I have, surprisingly, begun to feel generous. I’m a little concerned about saying “happy” for fear the Universe will smite me with its unfunny irony.
UNIVERSE: (spitefully) Happy? Hahahaha. You can’t possibly understand happy until you’ve squashed some nobody’s dreams!
But, yes, I should dare bring the bad luck into the room. I should tempt fate. I’ll say it the way I say “Macbeth” out loud in the theatre: I am the happiest I have been in 25 years!
It’s tremendous fun to murder people onstage, to shout and snot and bare the darkest parts of my soul. If you’ve never tried it – you should. Just don’t let me catch you doing Macbeth.
As for Mr. Dillane and Mr. Cumming, here’s a question: “When shall we three meet again?”
I don’t need their answer, really. I’ve already got one of my own:
I’m not waiting for the hurlyburly to be done. I’m making my own.
THAT PLAY: a solo Macbeth
October 4-November 19, 2012
Stage Left Studio.
Oh, Tom. I knew you when, back at S.U. – you are so fucking talented.
I feel a sense of “YEAH” at this first. You did it first, DAMMITT!
Stupid universe. But noone can take away that you did it first. And better.
And best. I saw it back then. Loved it. And almost saw you last week.
(stupid mercury retrograde and other mitigating factors…)
This is not the same – but I may share your woe in a small way.
I wrote a song about Jonathan Ames, the writer, called, “Jonathan” back in 2003 after a mild dalliance with him. It turned into the best song I recorded with my band, Mimi Ferocious. We even won a Billboard songwriting award best new indie song or something – I can’t even remember. But, it was the best of all coming together in songwriting, my band, performance; I was always very proud of it. Did it ever get the real accolades it deserved? Of course not. And life moves on, as I moved on and stopped performing for whatever reasons.
But recently, Fiona Apple, who just broke up with Jonathan Ames wrote a song about him on her new album, called, “Jonathan”. It’s called Jonathan. About Jonathan Ames. She has every right to do so. And it will get listened to by thousands, while mine melts into obscurity. It’s fine. But, mine is better.
Fair is foul and foul is fair.
Ms. St. John,
You are an artist and your work and joy bubble up in everything you do. Like all of us on the artistic train, we sometimes hit the universal energy at the same time – tis a matter of luck, as they say in acting schools around the nation, and being in the right place at the right time. Given how talented you are, I’m 100% certain your “Jonathan” and Ms. Apple’s could not be more different – as is the case with the Gualtieri vs. the Cumming Macbeths.
There’s room for all of us. But, indeed, fair is foul sometimes…
Joyfully always yours,
I was thrilled with your MacBeth thirteen years ago and am thrilled with it now. Thirteen years does a lot for a person’s soul and yours grows exponentially. Your theater piece is riveting, your writing here delicious and your heart as big as ever. Thanks for hoisting yourself, not on your own petard but so that we may see the world through your eyes.
Mr. Gualtieri, you, my dear friend, are unstoppable.
I enjoyed “That Play” thirteen years ago and shame on me for not getting to the theatre this time around. The new dates give me another chance. Glad to see them.