The Reason Foul Is Fair

I could claim that I’ve read all of Shakespeare’s plays, but inevitably I would be stone cold busted by someone asking me “So what is your favorite part of Cymbeline?” and responding with “The part where the scrappy underdog rocks it in her first cymbal solo.” So, NO, Shakespeare scholars, I haven’t read them all and I’ll immediately concede everyone’s superior knowledge on the Shakespeare catalog. I’ve read a few, though, and it’s not a contest but MACBETH WINS. I’m not just saying that because I am afraid Lady MacBeth will kill me in my sleep. This play just blows my hair back. I like Macbeth so much that I automatically love anything remotely Macbeth-related, including but not limited to getting blood on my hands and/or clothing, presidential election cycles, and haggis. HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA just kidding I loathe presidential election cycles.

This story of an ambitious warrior who murders his way to the throne in ancient Scotland is ubiquitous. Even if you haven’t read Macbeth, you’ve bumped into it. You have, really. You can’t help it. It’s like pumpkin spice—it gets everywhere. “Something wicked this way comes”? From Macbeth. “Out, out, damned spot”? Macbeth. “Double, double, toil and trouble”, “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury” and I’ll spare you but there is much more. This play has provided some of the most fundamental ways in which we communicate in the English language and it’s an amazingly long list from a relatively short work.  Macbeth was written around 1606, is the shortest of Shakespeare’s tragedies, and is really, really murdery.

There is something so satisfying about a great ghost story, and that’s where my love affair with this work germinates. It’s so moody and dark I’m convinced Shakespeare was in his Goth teen phase when he wrote it, hanging out in his room practicing black eyeliner application and bingelistening to Morrissey. At its core, Macbeth is about how our choices and our decisions haunt us, about how consequence becomes our fate. Shakespeare illustrates the failings that result from arrogance and hubris with creepy, psychic elements like bloody visions and sleepwalking. Also trees come to life and ambush people. (The first draft had a Loch Ness Monster subplot. Probably. Because Scotland). It’s a big pile of kilt-wearing spooky greatness.

What Up, Witches Can we talk about the witches? Because they make me fangirl HARD. There are three of them. They live in a cave, they dance for hours around a cauldron (see? Shakespeare even invented raves), and they probably haven’t brushed their teeth ever. If they meet an endangered species? They’ll cut it up for spellcasting. If you won’t share your snacks with them? They’ll find your husband and screw him to death. THEY DO NOT CARE. I realize all the death and mangling is supposed to turn me off but I love them so much. For all the forwardness and enlightenment that was the Elizabethan age, women were still regulated to very specific roles, and didn’t get many chances to be in charge of their own destinies. Shakespeare wrote these weird sisters as profoundly, refreshingly powerful. They are not here for small talk, thanks. They are here to terrify people and chew bubblegum, and they are all out of bubblegum. Chief among their interests is career counseling, evidenced by telling Macbeth that they have prophesized that he seems destined to wear a crown. This is awesome because gold is SO his color. (Compliance tip: Your yearly performance review should not contain “Ensure throne appropriation via aggressive death blueprint” as a development item because regicide is a very serious HR violation.)
Witches: Dude we had a vision you will be King
Macbeth: ok gonna go kill someone so it’ll happen
Witches: well that escalated quickly

Real Housewives of Scotland If you ever get cast on any Real Housewife series, I would not look to New Jersey or California for tips on how to best conduct your privileged life of social climbing. I’d go straight to Scotland for that playbook. If any couple in the history of couples was made for reality TV, it’s the Macbeths. They’re ambitious, morally ambiguous, and fashion-forward. (Macbeth begins and ends the play in full battle armor and I don’t want to live in a world where that kind of bold choice doesn’t at least get you a shot at Vanity Fair’s Best Dressed.) Lady Macbeth is ride or die when it comes to helping her husband climb that career ladder. As soon as she hears he’s got witch juju on his side, she’s ready to take it to the mat. Some long-time married couples put some spice back in their relationship by investing in vacation real estate, and some do it by murdering a bunch of people to ensure ascension to the throne. Guess which track is more likely to land you on Bravo’s Watch What Happens Live?
Disclaimer: I don’t recommend political assassinations as a joint hobby. Or as a singular hobby. What is wrong with you? But if I did, I’d point you to the Macbeths and tell you that the number one indicator of success when you are trying to murder people to be King of Scotland is a supportive partner. One who shares your dreams. Someone who can pick you up when you are feeling down. Someone who can call on the gods to surgically excise all of her humanity so that stabbing someone doesn’t feel like a bad idea.
Macbeth: Some random women from the woods said I might be King someday
Lady Macbeth: seems legit, let’s kill people to make that happen
Macbeth: well that escalated quickly

Can’t See The Forest For The Treason Call it an Elizabethan special effect or an arboreal miracle. Either way, the witches’ prophecy about Macbeth staying King until “Birnam Wood do come to Dunsinane” isn’t the get out of jail free card that Macbeth thinks it is. TWIST: it’s a big Scottish loophole. Macbeth is assured by the witches that he’s King until the trees in a nearby Birnham forest can walk to his castle in Dunsinane. It never occurs to Macbeth to take this prophecy anything but literally, because Macbeth is an asshat. In fact, Macbeth’s exact line is (paraphrasing) “Pfft. Trees can’t walk. I’m hiring a contractor to renovate the throne room.” Meanwhile, back at the ranch, opposition leader MacDuff raises an army to attack Macbeth’s fortified castle. The army gets close enough to attack by disguising themselves with branches from Birnham forest. Think of it as the original manscaping. I love this scene. It’s so satisfying to see karma delivered in such a creative and decisive way. It’s also fun to imagine how the bagpipe player managed to look like a tree while playing his bagpipe. (In my version of this, there’s always a bagpipe player. Because Scotland. Sorry, Scotland.) MacDuff and his troops breach the castle, throw down some trash talk, and before you know it Macbeth’s been beheaded. Let that be a lesson-never piss off an armed tree. Malcolm, the rightful heir, takes the throne and we have our happy ending.
Malcolm: didst thou vanquish MacBeth, Thane Of Asshat?
MacDuff: totes!
Malcolm: I just can’t waaaaiiit to be King
MacDuff: I cut off his head, here ya go
Malcolm: well that…….EW.
MacDuff: not the line
Malcolm: kings make their own punchlines

Action Items
There is an interactive Macbeth HOW COOL:

The Reason For Witness Protection

Deep dark secrets are great until you confess them and risk of being held accountable. Who wouldn’t rather be ‘mysterious with a dangerous streak’ instead of ‘on parole’? But it’s time for me to come clean about bad choices made in my impulsive, reckless youth. I did things. I did bad things. I’ll tell you about it here but I am changing some details to protect the innocent (innocent = way super guilty).

I stole a book from a library.
In my defense, I really wanted the book and I was going to take it. Just hear me out before you throw away the metaphorical key to my imaginary cell. You’ll never take me alive, copper.

But first…some words about libraries. I love libraries. ALL OF THEM. The smell, the reverent hush, the solid reassurance of a multitude of filled shelves. The swagger in your step approaching the card catalog because your Dewey brings the decimals to the yard. Libraries-hands down-have always been my favorite places to go. I could, and did, spend hours in the stacks, letting looking for one book lead me to another book, another topic, another place. Sadly there was always a point at which the adult in charge would announce “Last call! You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here!” (to which my panicked reply was always “BUT MOM! I HAVE TO GO HOME WITH YOU!”)Libraries made sense to me. They were orderly. I never had to figure out which table had the cool kids, or get side-eye at how many books I was taking home. I don’t even know how many books it would take to get a librarian to give side-eye. Dude, don’t even try. You cannot flap the unflappable.

While it was deliriously thrilling to assemble a check-out pile, I also loved pulling random books off the shelf and finding a comfy chair for some reading time. (It’s VERY grown-up to read at a library. People like Katharine Hepburn did it in black and white movies so…)I would find a section I didn’t have a reason to be in and just peruse. I would grab intriguing titles and do a lap in the pages to see if I wanted to commit. My favorite place to do this was in the 800s/Literature and on the particular day that I found this particular book, I was in the 811s, American Drama. I was 9ish years old.

American Drama was always yummy and juicy and a good way to pass some time holed up in the stacks. I read plays by Arthur Miller and Edward Albee and Tennessee Williams. I’d never heard of Kaufman and Hart, but there was this little blue book with an understated title: Six Plays by Kaufman and Hart, from Random House’s Modern Library, published in 1942. There were some introductory essays that I skipped (whatever, you don’t look at them either) and I thumbed through, looking at the play titles. I settled on one in the middle of the book called “You Can’t Take It With You” and looked at the character’s names. Penelope Sycamore. HA. I was sold. Best first character name everrrrrr. That name was like a warm hug from your eccentric aunt, your dad’s sister that your mom didn’t like. I added it to my stack to go home with me.

I had strict rules for reading-can look at the description on the back, must read in order without looking ahead, never cheat by looking at the last page, always finish the book no matter what (anyone wanna hang out with me yet? Don’t I sound superfun?) but these rules didn’t apply to play collections. I started Six Plays in the middle, with the play that had so effectively grabbed my attention. To my pleasant surprise, I had me a book of comedies. “You Can’t Take It With You” was a little strange, a lot energetic, and very, very funny. Kaufman and Hart made every character interesting and dimensional and necessary-even the ingenue was more than a pretty face driving the romance plot. I read it through, then turned back to the beginning and read it again, saying random lines out loud just to delight in how they rolled off my tongue. Kaufman and Hart’s inherent genius is supporting a myriad of active, varied, explosive characters—putting SO MUCH into the script—with staccato, cascading dialogue that drives manic pace of the play with comparatively spare language. The resulting buoyancy is infectiously joyful and did I mention funny? Funny to read, fun to say out loud, fun to hear. I had to pay attention, because the good stuff flew fast and nonstop and it was all gold. (Yes, it won a Pulitzer Prize, so, you know, I’m aware that saying “This play is good!” is like saying “Water is wet!”)

When I found this book, I was unaware that George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart were kind of big deals. Like, the biggest American theater deals. George S. Kaufman was a member of the Algonquin Round Table. Moss Hart was younger than Kaufman by 15 years and was a natural storyteller encouraged into the theater by a beloved aunt. Apart, their accomplishments are mind-boggling but together they flat owned the 1930s when it came to American theatrical comedy. Six Plays spans that decade’s body of work.

I read “You Can’t Take It With You” four times in a row and finally moved on to another play. “Once In A Lifetime” was fun, but I met my new best friend, the sly and self-involved Sheridan Whiteside, in “The Man Who Came To Dinner”. I would give my right arm to play Sheridan Whiteside. (Hello, casting directors, the ultimate in stunt casting! A complete unknown with limited experience genderbending a beloved, iconic role! I’ll just sit here and wait for the avalanche of offers). The breathtaking wit, glamour, and flat hilarious intelligence of this play did me in. I knew that I could not live without this book.

I like to think that Mr. Whiteside, petty thief that he is, would approve of my next move. When it came time to return my most recent stack to the library (pay attention here because CRIMINAL MASTERMIND) , I hid Six Plays under my bed. At the library, instead of handing the books over the counter to the librarian to get checked back in, I put them in the book drop so as to not draw attention to The Missing Book. Then I constructed an underground lair and hired a bunch of henchmen.

You (not YOU, I’m sure) probably hid porn under your bed. I hid a book of comedic plays written in the 1930s. Can we agree that I’ve always been a sad, sad nerd? It took a few years, but in time I gained some maturity and a moral compass and my illegal gain started to nag at me. I possessed My Precious but I had victimized a library and thwarted who knows how many research papers. My relationship with libraries had been one way, my perspective one of “how can I be served”? When I stole the book, it was because I wanted to keep that delirious riot of an experience for myself. I had it wrong. One person does not make a riot. Riots are communal. You gotta invite everybody and make sure you have lots of confetti and silly string on hand.

I know you’re waiting for the happy ending punchline where I make good and return the book all those years later. HAHAHAHAHAHA nope. I never got found out and I still have that copy of Six Plays. I read it about once a year. The experience of finding a book that so envelops you that it becomes part of who you are, that it colors how you see the world, is an experience that I was afforded because I got to go to a library. Kaufman and Hart were there, just waiting to be found.Every so often, I’ll find a good copy of Six Plays in a used bookstore. I always buy it and take it to my local library to donate. It’s the most peaceful way I know to start a riot. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to field all those “The Man Who Came To Dinner” casting offers.

Action Items
Check out local theater companies in November/December-chances are there’s a staging of “The Man Who Came To Dinner”. You can also spend some quality time in your living rooms with the movie versions of all of the plays in this book. They will usually be in the classic movie sections of your favorite movie-obtaining service.
Support your library.