I Dare Do All That May Become A Man

Hey folks. Tonight is opening night, we’ve gotten through our previews, so I think it’s time for us to talk about something a little more serious, but relevant and necessary to understand for this show. Unfortunately not everything can be ghosts and magic and basketball; sometimes I have to provide more concrete context. And sometimes that context isn’t about something fun or old-timey, but is instead a dangerous and insidious real world problem that gave us an anchor point for the concept of this production. A problem like, for example, toxic masculinity. That’s right, I’m going to talk about the pernicious influence of masculinity on men, and the way that it impacts and can be identified in Macbeth, for 1500 words. If you’d rather not engage with this topic, first of all I don’t blame you, and second, why don’t you read this piece about acknowledging artifice on stage that I wrote a few years ago, and pretend we’re talking about that instead. It’ll still be relevant and it WON’T be a bummer!

Since you’re alive and Online in this, the Year of Our Lord Two Thousand and Nineteen, I’m certain you’re at the least aware of toxic masculinity. But in the interest of clarity it is helpful to define our terms anyway. Toxic, or hegemonic, masculinity is a restrictive and dangerous understanding of what it means to be a man, typified by the deadening of any emotion but anger, the demonstration of sexual prowess, an all-but-solipsistic view of the world, the necessity of being a dominant figure in the world around you, and the willingness, if not open eagerness, to impose that dominance through physical violence. It is also referred to as hegemonic masculinity, since (as a casual look at our society will no doubt demonstrate) it is and long has been the dominant force in the Western world. Ceaselessly upheld by just about every institution in existence, it is ubiquitous to the point that it has until recently been invisible, “just the way things worked”.

Trump Tantrum

Picture unrelated.

A necessary aspect of this culture is the denigration of those who do not fall into this carefully curated vision of manliness and a need to rebuke or correct them for their transgressions, preferably through the application of the aforementioned violence. Any such rejection of the values of toxic masculinity is regarded as what you might call gender treason, an admission of personal weakness, and an existential threat to the concept of manhood. It is, as you see, an extraordinarily fragile worldview, requiring near-constant external affirmation and outright antagonism towards other beliefs. For our purposes there are three main facets of toxic masculinity to consider: the death of feeling, self-policing, and its performative nature. Fortunately we are observing this through the lens of Macbeth and not that of Titus Andronicus, so I do not have to engage in this blog with the truly monstrous sexual violence that comes part and parcel with a need to dominate your surroundings, a hypersensitivity to perceived slights, and the arrogance of unacknowledged privilege.

[Side note: As a straight white cis man it seems to me that I am either the best or the worst person to talk about this subject, but since I’m the one whose job it is to write these blogs let’s defer to my lived experience in it instead of disqualifying me for my potential for blind spots. -KH]

Of all these aspects of toxicity, the murder of emotion is the one most harmful to the men themselves, as well as the aspect that can be most clearly observed in the character of Macbeth. Acknowledging feelings, and sharing those feelings with friends and loved ones, is feminine, and therefore weak. A real man doesn’t expose their weaknesses, and he ESPECIALLY doesn’t complain about how he’s feeling. The strong man is strong enough to bear any torment. And if he isn’t he suffers in silence, until he can take his revenge, because anger is the only acceptable emotion. This puts an often-unbearable weight on men to pretend they have no feelings, until either they’ve successfully killed their emotional sides, find a way to convert any emotion into rage, or snap and commit suicide.

Macbeth gives us a wonderful pair of examples of this attitude late in the show, from Macbeth and Macduff. Upon learning of his wife’s death, Macbeth responds with his most famous soliloquy, “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow”, which gives us a peek into the nihilism, desolation, and apparent death wish that now make up his psyche. Macbeth’s soul has been so consumed by his desire for domination and strength that he cannot summon up a tear or a sweet word for his wife and partner. Gone is the passionate lover, the loyal retainer, the man who joked with his friend Banquo; all replaced by a brief candle, lighting the way to dusty death. By contrast, Macduff makes no secret of the terrible depths of his emotion when he learns of HIS wife’s death, and when he is enjoined to “Dispute it like a man” by Malcolm, Macduff counters that a real man can, will, and must embrace his feelings. This exchange is riddled with Malcolm’s repeated insistence that Macduff man up, pull himself together, and use his grief to fuel his rage. There has been no hint at any point elsewhere in the play that Macduff is weak, but this display of emotion so upsets and discomfits Malcom that he demands, over and over, that Macduff stop crying and “[l]et grief convert to anger.”

This could not be a more perfect example of the self-policing that men do. It is very important to note that there is no outside observer setting or enforcing these standards, nor a biological imperative driving men to execute these masculine traits, despite what its proponents may lead you to believe. Baby boys aren’t born with a need to impose dominance on their surroundings. All of these attitudes and behaviors are learned from, and enforced by, other men. I regularly refer to masculinity as a Death Cult, and while there is no Messianic figure extolling these ‘virtues’ from on high, there is certainly a cultlike internal enforcement of these values between men. Look shortly before the banquet scene, when Macbeth recruits a “Murtherer”, whatever that is, to do his dirty work for him. Macbeth is able to provoke the assassin into action by calling his manliness into question, noting that there are as many different kinds of ‘men’ as there are dogs, and taunting him into proving his masculinity.

Macbeth Assassin

L-R: Dylan Fleming as Murderer, Danny Cackley as Macbeth. From We Happy Few’s 2019 production of Macbeth. Photo by Mark Williams Hoelschler.

And the fact that this taunt works on the killer proves that, because it is entirely self-policed and self-defined, how performative toxic masculinity of necessity has to be. It’s a race to the bottom in an echo chamber, where every man assumes they are being judged by every other man and they must demonstrate their bona fides to each other at all times, lest they be outed and ridiculed, at best, for not being real men. It is the sort of thing that, in our society, leads men to feign interest in sports instead of poetry, or drink brown liquor instead of fruit-heavy cocktails, or wear nothing but utilitarian earth tones. And it is the sort of thing that Macbeth proves time and again. When Siward refuses to mourn his son’s death because he died fighting, he is performing his manliness. When Macbeth would rather die than be taken captive and be forced to kneel before Malcolm, he is performing his manliness. When he is frightened by the ghost of Banquo at the banquet, Macbeth angrily lists his credentials, all the things he isn’t afraid of, as evidence that this apparition is hideous enough to even frighten a MAN.

This show also clearly demonstrates that belief in the cult is not limited to men. Women can and often do buy in to the rules that men are expected to abide by. In that banquet scene it is not one of the male guests, but rather Lady M who calls Macbeth on being “quite unmann’d in folly”, and when he gets cold feet before the murder she is there to coax him into manly action. Lady Macbeth is so on board with this conception of masculinity that she openly laments her misfortune in being a woman, and wishes she were a man, or at the least, “unsex[ed]”, so that she would be allowed to seize the power that her husband apparently struggles with. As a woman she feels these aggressive, ambitious thoughts, but instead of accepting them as part of her personality she wishes she were a man, so those thoughts would be not only acceptable, but normal.

Lady M.jpg

Raven Bonniwell as Lady Macbeth. From We Happy Few’s 2019 Production of Macbeth. Photo by Mark Williams Hoelschler.

This is obviously a tiny, TINY primer on the pervasive danger of toxic masculinity. I have skipped over a lot of the inherent privileges and ALL of the sexual violence that is arguably its most appalling feature. And because I was viewing it through an inherently violent play I left most of the potential for physical violence to be inferred, instead of addressing it directly. But regardless I hope that this will help you interpret the toxic conceptions of masculinity that pervade not only our play, but the world we live in as a whole. If you want to see all of this play out on stage, tickets are available now! We are sold out for the rest of this weekend but the show runs until the end of the month!

Macbeth: Superstition

Theatre people, much like the criminals with whom we have long been associated, are a superstitious, cowardly lot. But unlike our felonious brethren, we are not frightened of a psychologically damaged billionaire wearing a bat costume, no matter how many gadgets he possesses. We are much more afraid of the spaces where we work, the shows that we perform, and the ever-present menace of the audience. Things can go wrong on stage. Disastrously so. In an effort to mitigate these risks or feign control over the uncontrollable, we have devised any number of superstitions and rituals to placate whatever malevolent or hubris-punishing spirits would seek to ruin our shows. But surely there could be nothing foolhardy or dangerous about explaining all of these fears and superstitions before the opening of a famously cursed play, right? …right?

I am aware that even writing this blog is a gamble, but I am putting my faith in faerie tale rules, where naming a thing gives you power over it, instead of horror rules, where mentioning a thing draws its attention to you. If I am wrong I beg indulgence of Thespis, and beseech Saints Genesius and Jerome to protect our humble company and me, personally, from the consequences of my arrogance.

Saint Genesius protoicon

Icon of Genesius, patron saint of actors. Image commissioned by the Fraternity of St. Genesius, 2007.

Like I mentioned above, things can go very wrong in a performance. A lot, a LOT, of moving parts go into every show, and any of them can go off the rails at any time. And Murphy’s Law tells us that ALL of them will go wrong. It is therefore an article of faith that as many of those things as possible should go wrong during the dress rehearsals. What better time could there be to jump some lines, to burn out a lamp, to rip a seam on a costume, to miss a cue? As humans, our faulty comprehension of probability tells us that if an unlikely thing happens it is guaranteed not to happen again for a good long while, whereas if something HASN’T happened for a some time, we may well be due for it. That’s why a bad dress rehearsal makes for a good opening night. It is an opportunity to burn through a bunch of mistakes in a controlled environment so we don’t have to be afraid they will happen while the audience is watching.

Another of the myriad things we fear is the sound of whistling. Unless the play specifically calls for it, whistling is verboten anywhere on- or backstage, and, to be safe, anywhere in the theatre at all. The possibly-apocryphal reason for this injunction lurks in the fly loft, the network of ropes, pulleys, curtains, weights, sandbags, lights, and scenery pieces that hangs like the Sword of Damocles above many stages. When theatres began hanging scenery above the stage to raise and lower into the audience’s field of vision, they routinely hired sailors to run the complicated rigging, sailors being second only to perverts in their familiarity with ropes. These sailors imported their use of whistling as signals to each other of when something needed to go up or down. An errant whistle could therefore result in a flat embarrassingly rising at the wrong time, or more dangerously in an unexpected sandbag hurtling to the ground. Although no company to my knowledge retains such an archaic and distracting cueing system, and many theatres do not even have a fly loft, including our own home base of CHAW, the theatre has a long institutional memory and being safe is generally preferable to being sorry.

We are also afraid of g-g-g-ghosts. Every theatre I have worked in has had at least one resident ghost, although I only ever met one, working late on a paper in my college theatre [s/o to Harper Joy! -KH]. Sometimes they’re helpful, other times…less so. Most of the time they show themselves late at night when people are alone, and so their appearances are usually a hint, subtle or otherwise, that you need to go home and get some sleep. In addition to every theatre’s Ghost-in-Residence, we also have the spectre of Thespis to contend with. Thespis, the (Western) world’s first actor and the namesake of the word “Thespian”, haunts the theatrical and performing-arts world on November 23rd, the date when he first stepped out of the chorus and delivered lines as a character in a play. His portfolio is more mischievous than our resident ghosts, concerned, like the good Greek Tragedian he is, on exposing hubris and encouraging humility. Fortunately for us he seems to have mellowed in his old age, because his lessons tend to be merely embarrassing, and not as lethal as his former colleagues Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides might prefer.

Sports Night Thespis

L-R: Jeff Mooring as Dave, Felicity Huffman as Dana Whitaker, Joshua Malina as Jeremy Goodwin, Ron Ostrow as Will. From Sports Night, Season 1 Episode 8, “Thespis”, 1998.

While Thespis is simply a force who must be endured, resident ghosts are more easily placated. What they want is to get to use the stage again every once in a while. That’s why they chase us home if we’re around too late, and it’s why we leave them the ghost light, a light that stays on in the middle of the stage all night when the rest of the lights are off and the theatre is (or, at least, supposed to be) abandoned. Often, but not always, a bare bulb on a floor lamp, the ghost light lets the ghosts see and put on their own shows in the space while we are at home asleep. Very conveniently, the ghost light also illuminates the stage for any mortals who are inadvisably wandering through the theatre late at night. A dark stage is rife with potential hazards, including open trapdoors, the orchestra pit, and loose tools and pieces of scenery, just waiting for a careless or overtired technician, stage manager, or actor’s legs to trip and neck to break.

Ghost Light

Image from ramagrrl on Flickr.

Speaking of breaking bones, one of the best-known theatre superstitions is the phrase “break a leg”. Used instead of the prosaic “good luck”, it is a defense against jinxing, a reproving assertion that a good show doesn’t need luck to be successful, and a bit of gallows humor. It may also be related to failed actor but successful assassin John Wilkes Booth, who injured his leg when he leapt down to the stage after killing President Abraham Lincoln at a production of Our American Cousin [which, along with RUR and The King in Yellow, routinely tops my season proposal list -KH]. The French, because they simply MUST be different, instead say “merde”, literally “shit”, allegedly a roundabout reference to the hope that there would be many carriages dropping patrons off in front of the theatre and, therefore, a good deal of horse manure on the street. And I am given to understand that Australians say “Chooka!” instead, for reasons perhaps best left to themselves.

Of course, the elephant in the room is the play Macbeth itself, which has a sinister reputation. Besides being notoriously difficult to execute well, it is believed to be actively cursed, perhaps on account of the witches and ghosts and blood that permeates the show. This curse has been around seemingly as long as the show itself, and it seems to me that every person and company has a different theory about how the curse came about. Maybe Shakespeare, intentionally or otherwise, included real magic spells in the text. Maybe a local coven took offense to the portrayal of witches on stage and hexed it. Maybe Thomas Middleton’s alteration of the text angered Shakespeare’s ghost. Whatever the reason, strange things undeniably happen during Macbeth performances, including bankruptcy, actor injuries, fires, and disappearances.

Ian Peakes Macbeth.jpg

Ian Merrill Peakes as Macbeth, in Folger Theatre/Two River Theatre co-production of Macbeth, 2008. Photo by Carroll Pratt

One piece of lore universally agreed upon is that saying the name of the play is forbidden. It is a sure-fire way to draw the unwanted attention of whatever actual witches or murdered Scots or discontented actors have seen fit to torment the foolish. It is instead referred to as Mackers or the Scottish Play, and the characters as Lord and Lady M [or, if you’re me, Mr. and Mrs. Scottish Play -KH]. The more astute among my audience will recognize that such a blanket ban on both the title of the play and the name of its main character would make it impossible to rehearse, advertise, or perform, so it should be noted that the ban only applies onstage when not rehearsing or performing the show itself. Fortunately, and very unusually, this curse comes with a countercharm. While the details vary from company to company, the basic form calls for the offending party to immediately exit the theatre, run around it three times, and spit or curse. Embellishments may include nudity, quotations from other Shakespeare, holy scripture, a slap, or permission to re-enter the space. In this way the curse will be satisfied and disaster, hopefully, averted.

Your belief in these superstitions may vary, but I assure you they are real to us, and despite my tone we do take them seriously. I myself wear a tie line bracelet as a good luck charm that I never remove, because things can always go wrong and you never know when a length of tie line will come in handy. If you have any charms or rituals you’d like to share I’d be thrilled to hear about them at the show, for which tickets are available now! I’ll be working the box office for Scottish Play most weekends, and if you come on either the 15th or 22nd of March I am hosting a talkback after the shows! In the meantime, keep us in your thoughts but whatever you do, don’t wish us luck.