“Never underestimate or disregard location: as one of the givens in the play; it is there for a purpose.”
– Patsy Rodenburg
Understanding the geography of a scene and the signposts of meaning has arguably never been more of a challenge for actors, theatre directors, educators and learners due to the sheer weight of images that are immediate, unearned and accessible in today’s world. Through the analysis of a scene from Macbeth, I propose that the world of a play, the plot elements within it, and its thematic concerns can be entirely understood through stage direction. To be able to accurately ‘predict’ a play based on a handful of lines is a useful skill for time poor participants. As a society, we are hungrier than ever for ‘relevance’ and immediate access to a text; so the ability to perceive foreshadowing is invaluable. Given the attention that the narrative text receives, it is understandable that the role of geography and stage direction is less clear in this paradigm.
Shakespeare, stage direction and drama in Macbeth, Act I vii:
To continue the analysis of the objectively dramatic situation, and the theory of presence and absence in drama, it will be important to challenge conventional wisdom and the strict idea of soliloquy in Shakespearean texts.
When Shakespeare offers us clear stage direction, particularly in the scene introduction, it is important to acknowledge its impact:
The same. A room in the Castle.
Hautboys and torches. Enter, and
pass over the Stage, a Sewer, and
divers Servants with dishes and
Then enter Macbeth.
The stage direction tells us, foremost, that this is a public space; indeed, a thoroughfare in which musicians, servants carrying food, even a food-taster or chief butler are duty-bound to be intermittently present, as they move to and from the banquet held in honour of King Duncan. In short, the low-status characters must play a crucial role if this scene is to be effective in carrying out the objective function of drama.
It is clear that Macbeth has left the banquet. How long, conceivably, can a host maintain his absence in such a protocol setting that a king’s presence demands? He proceeds to deliver a speech of nearly thirty lines, stretching the tension that his absence has created (remembering that he is also absent from the greeting scene, previous).
Most productions leave it here, having audience members suspend their disbelief that a person in Macbeth’s shoes would happily belt out such contentious information, in what has been established to be a public space. There is a deliberate reason why Shakespeare has enabled Macbeth to speak in this part of the castle (remember: it is Macbeth’s castle and he has chosen this part of it, at this time, in which to raise the subjects of regicide, ambition and conscience).
The reason is a dramatic one because it ensures the physical juxtaposition of low-status servants and high-status king-aspirant. This allows Macbeth’s words to become more than a private and passive communication with the audience. Suddenly, the words become dangerous; they are potentially incriminating. The tension between presence and absence – of Macbeth, due to his guilty conscience, knowing that he cannot be absent from the king for too long; but cannot bear to be present with the man he will soon murder – jolts the audience from passive listening to actively anticipating when the scene will be disrupted or interrupted, and if the protagonist will incriminate himself with loose words.
In short, the public-private tension that the low-status characters bring to the scene, through the stage direction, raises the stakes in the scene itself and the audience’s investment in it. To what extent do the low-status characters, in turn, become conscious of Macbeth’s ruminations? To what extent do they, themselves, become conflicted by the tension between presence and absence? Their master is obviously attempting a private moment; yet the given and physical circumstances demand that they, as servants and underlings, be present.
This scene from Macbeth, therefore, falls short of becoming a dramatic situation if the servants do not appear intermittently, or if their ‘clamour’ (dishes, etc.) is not heard. Unfortunately, most productions ignore them or treat their presence as a cosmetic ‘starter’ for the scene, ignoring the crucial – and equal – role they play in the establishment of drama.
If a sense of danger, that challenges the physical existence of both high and low-status characters, is not established in Shakespearean tragedy, then something is not working. The literal and deliberately irregular upstaging of the high-status by the low-status, evidenced in the stage direction, plays a crucial role in the escalation of the objectively dramatic situation in this scene, even after the advent of Lady Macbeth. This will aggravate some readers, but to sum up: Macbeth’s speech is not the drama in this scene; it is one element of the dramatic situation. It is the desires and fears that the speech houses, weighed against the prospect, in the scene itself, that said desires will be exposed via the three-dimensional and ongoing world of the play in operation, that completes the objectively dramatic situation. The laws of soliloquy enable a great speech to be heard in the back row; but adhering to the stage direction enables drama itself.
In far too many cases…
A word on contemporary theatre and the objectively dramatic situation. People often say that they’re doing theatre or that they’re in a theatre show. They become annoyed when I tell them that the show they’re in wasn’t in any way dramatic or that it failed the test of the objectively dramatic situation.
What’s happened to contemporary theatre, particularly in Australia (with its parlous arts funding state and the obvious cultural issues surrounding language-based performance art), is that it has become a mish-mash of styles and genres. This has essentially occurred, not because humankind has developed greater or finer means of artistic expression in the theatre, but because the opposite has occurred, in an age that has never been more accommodating to and inclusive of the mediocre, and more prepared to accelerate or fast-track the incomplete project due to process-based endeavour becoming increasingly, or generationally, unfashionable. It’s cruel to judge some of these projects too harshly: there is precious little assistance provided from above, and many of these projects exist purely because they are manageable and lack rehearsal and script-based complexity.
In eighteenth century Austria, if you purported to be a violinist, but couldn’t play, you were presented with two choices: starve to death or find a different occupation. However, in a wealthy, semi-literate country, the singular acts of writing, directing, and performing dramatic, language-based stories have been rendered less important, culturally, because they are less achievable and/or less attainable by the theatrical participants of the culture. An unconscious morphing or dilution of these artistic processes is the result in so many instances, manifesting as a kind of substitute theatre of not easily discernible artistic identity that seeks to accommodate, and to hide, the aforesaid deficiency. To sustain the above analogy: the contemporary Australian theatre landscape is replete with appalling violinists.
Theatre-makers, writers, directors, and actors: if audience members are leaning back in their chairs (or if they are not suspended in the liminal state between leaning forward and leaning back), it is because you have failed to ask dramatic questions, such as what occurs in the scene above from Macbeth. What has likely transpired is that you have become so enamoured with a scene or idea; you have said that it is important. The mistake you have made is that sociological importance has never naturally equated dramatic potential. I’ll say that in a different way: we can’t assume that just because something is important, sociologically or historically speaking, that it lends itself to being communicated in an objectively dramatic fashion.
The importance that you have placed upon the scene, moment or idea has likely meant that you have expressed this moment or idea in a way that rather loudly tells the audience. You know it so well. It’s so important. The absolute importance of this idea or moment, as you see it, has meant that you are likely to have killed the discovery by being overly literal. Killing the discovery kills the mutuality between stage and audience. It is probable that your production is some kind of biopic, perhaps a one-person show, or one that, nonetheless, takes advantage of pre-existent literary fame and populism; or one that explores a vital issue in society, or an injustice, in which because of your steadfast devotion to the idea of its importance, you have mistaken it for the collision of physical moments that are driven by credibly motivated dramatic potential.
Perhaps you are involved in the staging of an adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s plays, again chosen because of its importance. The mind-set of ‘why this play, why now’ is likely to have escaped you, too, because it is unlikely that you are familiar with any form of pre-production planning rigour. You will justify the staging of Macbeth because it’s important. This cultural absence will see you trot out familiar tropes, and repeat or regurgitate the populism of the Bard, in large part because you are in a see play, do play culture that doesn’t have time or doesn’t understand the important role that time plays in the evolution of vision. Setting the play in 1960s Havana or reaching for some other historical hook or aesthetic is not the same as creating an overarching metaphorical blueprint. It is a cheap cosmetic or distraction that attempts to mask the lack of originality of the production: a trick that only works on the majority.
Either way: you will go to war about the importance of your subject, sadly chosen perhaps because you overestimated its shock value or because you anticipated its popular appeal against a range of measurables. You feel that it is a story that has to be told. This makes you particularly self-indulgent (all participants in art are self-indulgent). You say that it’s a deeply moving or emotional devised piece. You assert that the emotions you present on stage are deeply relevant because they are felt by real people who are experiencing things. The possibility that emotional restraint on stage is linked to dramatic potential has quite possibly escaped you. The possibility that withholding emotions, from time to time, when emotions are justified or anticipated, asks a dramatic question that encourages the leaning forward of audience members has also, quite possibly, escaped you. Moreover, it’s a self-driven project because no-one gave you money. However, in telling it, what you have in fact done is to offer up the didactic regurgitation of information and the presentation of behaviour. This is the opposite of drama because it pushes people back in their seats. It is a type of answer; not a question. It makes the audience passive: they begin to wonder if they couldn’t have found this content online. And although it is likely that your sound design is excellent; you’re only fooling the people with the keys in this age, and the subscription or season ticket holders (who need to be fooled).
An old man yelling at clouds? No doubt. But don’t mistake being on the stage for being involved with drama. You are on the stage to play a role in communicating the dramatic situation. Nothing more. If there isn’t a dramatic situation in the work that you are doing, no amount of participation, wellbeing, texture, or singing will change the fact.
Drama is the tension between presence and absence.
Macbeth, Stage Direction & the Dramatic Situation – a Summary:
The feature of all great plays is that they involve key moments of meaningful and logical change and transformation that are transferred viscerally. There is inhalation and exhalation, expansion and subtraction, movement and retreat on a physical and visual scale. They are human accounts of evolution and devolution, and they are live. The great play is as vibrant today as it was four hundred years ago, or in times of antiquity.
The apparatus, scaffolding, or code by which these immense stories are guided and illuminated, and through which such meaningful change and transformation can be grounded is the compressed language that conveys the geography of the play’s dramatic world, and the direction of those within it. In this respect, a play’s extant non-verbal, physical, and metaphorical features provide a gateway for the verbal and the textual.
To put it another way: understanding the context of place – the principle of where we are – will complement and clarify meaning for all participants. As actors and directors see the world of a play and absorb language in the body by doing, so will all participants stand a better chance of perceiving textual information by exploring the symbolic, non-verbal relationship between people and properties occupying a space and the material constructs that bind them together.
Many participants will be inexperienced in the art of perceiving the language of geography and stage direction that so often foreshadows theme, meaning, and character in a dramatic text. In spite of time constraints in the contemporary world, preliminary lessons on the symbolism in stage direction and other visual cues in the geography of a dramatic text should form a crucial part of the exploration, and will save time in the long run.
Rodenburg, P. (2002) Speaking Shakespeare. London: Methuen.
Shakespeare, S. (1988) Macbeth. Toronto: HBJ.
Copyright © Cameron Sievers, 2021