The Spectator

“The Insane Root That Takes the Reason Prisoner”

Macbeth, Boston, and the two paradoxes of evil.

Alan Cumming as he stars in a one-man interpretation of "Macbeth," directed by John Tiffany and Andrew Goldberg.
Alan Cumming as he stars in a one-man interpretation of Macbeth, directed by John Tiffany and Andrew Goldberg.

Photo by Jeremy Daniel/The Publicity Office via Getty Images

“WARNING.” So say the signs stenciled on the exterior doors of the Barrymore Theater on Broadway in block capitals. Then: “The producers ask that you please refrain from speaking the name of the play you are about to see while within these walls.”

The play we were about to see is Alan Cumming’s sensational one-man version of Macbeth, Shakespeare’s most complex meditation on the nature of evil. The play has long been considered—by actors, directors, even many scholars—to be so fraught, so teeming, so radioactive with evil and the supernatural that to utter the name of the play beyond the fragile perimeters of the stage is to unleash a vicious curse upon whomever makes the fateful mistake. Instead one is supposed to refer to it as “the Scottish play.” I’m sure that helps.

It’s a great theatrical gimmick putting that WARNING sign on the entrances. But there’s something more to it, the tribute that virtue pays to the power of vice, this taboo. It reflects the fear that the evil adumbrated in the play cannot be contained, cannot be explained even within the structure of tragedy. That it is beyond tragedy, an uncontrollable encounter with the unnamable thing—evil itself. While I’m not that superstitious a fellow, it does help explain why I have never seen a Macbeth production that I felt lived up to the unutterable darkness of the language, a torrent of Shakespeare’s most potent and poisonous verbiage, which, I’ve found overwhelms puny actors’ ability to embody—or more often futilely psychologize it.

I used to think the superstition surrounding the taboo name of the play was not really serious, until I spent some years researching my book on Shakespearean controversies. Talking to sophisticated contemporary scholars and theater people, I was recurrently taken aback by the casual, almost automatic way they would substitute “the Scottish play” whenever Macbeth came up in conversation. They didn’t want to take any chances! You probably know about the version of Macbeth Roman Polanski was preparing when Charles Manson’s gang murdered his wife, Sharon Tate. Like I said, I’m not a superstitious guy. But I do recognize that the superstition pays tribute to a truth: that the play forces us to face our inability—the inability of our greatest playwright even—to define and confine the felt reality of evil.

Which is why I had wanted to see Alan Cumming’s unique way of embodying it—he sets the play in a lockdown mental hospital and plays a suicidal psycho who performs all the parts. He’s both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth and all their victims, and the witches (or more accurately “the weyard sisters”) too. It sounds like a gimmick, yes, but I’d seen some acclaimed Macbeths before (Trevor Nunn’s version with Ian McKellan and Judi Dench, Anthony Sher at the RSC, among others) and they’d left me cold. (Only Orson Welles’ glowering film version of the play caught something of the abyss it spoke from—and may have cursed him ever after.)

But I wanted to see how Cumming’s version comported with the unresolved, schismatic contemporary discourse in our culture over evil—another word the uttering of which is almost as taboo among soi disant sophisticates as “Macbeth” is.

And then as I was getting ready to order tickets, Boston happened. Which at the very least reinvigorated the question of what we talk about when we talk about evil. And let’s not neglect the fact that, as Gary Wills reminds us in one of the best recent books on Macbeth (Witches and Jesuits), the play was written in the dark aftermath of a barely averted act of terrorism—the 1605 Guy Fawkes Gunpowder Plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament—and bears the imprint of that attempted regicide in the tale of the murder of the Scottish ancestor of the real target, King James I.

By the time I passed through the WARNING doors of the Barrymore that night, the debate over evil and terrorism had once again divided the culture, and I wondered if there was anything further to be gleaned from seeing this Scottish actor’s idiosyncratic, psych-ward version of the Scottish play.

The schism in our psyches over evil after Boston was evident in the New York papers the day after the pressure cooker explosions.

That morning the New York Daily News splashed a photo of 8-year-old Martin Richard, one of the three dead at the finish line on its front page, along with a cover line: “Evil took his innocent life.” But what is this thing called evil? That same day on the Times op-ed page, Boston crime novelist Dennis Lehane had a different view, belied by the bluster of the headline (“Messing With the Wrong City”): “When the authorities find the weak and maladjusted culprit or culprits we’ll roll our eyes at whatever backward ideology they embrace and move on with our lives.” (Unless you’ve lost a leg or a child, of course.)

Wait a minute here: “weak and maladjusted”? This isn’t evil—that profoundly wicked thing that makes some fear to utter the word “Macbeth” inside the Barrymore. “Weak and maladjusted” is a modern psychological explanation, though with a ring of somewhat antiquated ’60s sociology. Weak and maladjusted is nothing to fear, so much as something to cure, societally, requiring not exorcism but therapy, good ol’ “community outreach” and the like. Move along, people, nothing to see (or fear) here.

You could see the schism over what to call the Boston act widening into a cultural chasm in the days that followed. There was the Party of Evil, emblematized by the Daily News: “Evil Backpack Duo” was the running headline on the following day’s coverage (oh, so the backpacks were evil too?). And the News delivered itself of a huge Sunday front-page hed: “INSIDE THE DEVILS’ LAIR” (which reported the two “devils” had left a “half-eaten sandwich” behind in their apartment when they left to kill—the shocking food waste apparently a key symbol of Satan’s presence).

For some reason the News, generally the more liberal tabloid in the city, made the New York Post seem restrained (if embarrassingly inaccurate at times). The Post was content to call its running hed on the Chechen duo “THE AMERICANS” while replacing the “C” in “AMERICANS” with a hammer and sickle—curiously anachronistic symbol of the Soviet communism or clunky tribute to the TV series?

Further countering the Party of Evil on behalf of the Party of Maladjustment was New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik, who downsized “maladjustment” in his blog post to mal-assimilation, while sneering at the rest of America for succumbing to “the national epic of fear” to which he was staunchly immune.

That Sunday, the Times front-paged a further downsizing from the vocabulary of evil, psychologizing the murderous Chechen bros with what seemed like existentialist anxiety, by speculating that “signs of alienation” may explain the crime. They were Camus and Sartre!

“Maladjustment,” mal-assimilation, alienation? Or evil? Then David Remnick scored one for the Party of Evil by using the word in this week’s New Yorker. He began by finding in Bro No. 2’s Twitter feed “a bewildering combination of banality and disaffection” but concluded with an unequivocal calling out of “their cruelty and evil” in a way that made it seem inexcusable by psychologizing terms like alienation and assimilation.

A word should be said here, I believe, about how President Obama’s initial characterization of the perps—even before they were ID’d—managed to thread the needle between the Scylla of “evil” and the Charybdis of “maladjustment.” The words he used for them, even before they were identified, were “weak and stunted.” Not “weak and maladjusted”—“weak and stunted.”

And I think because of its brief, blunt force it’s possible to underestimate the subtlety and sagacity of what he’s really saying in this, one of the many short-notice, tragedy-tinged, or anger-inflected public utterances he’s recently been called on to make.

Think of the many ways he could have characterized the perps before their identity was known. And look more closely at “weak and stunted.” At first all it seems is a kind of low-level insult to the unknown figures behind the Boston blast, and at the moment it was somehow necessary to a certain degree to give us some sense of striking back. But there was more to it than that.

He wasn’t just ridiculing them like a schoolyard bully. He wasn’t disparaging their physical weakness, their stunted physical stature, was he? That would be almost facetious. He wasn’t calling them stupid or intellectually stunted. Nor was it just maladjustment or alienation or assimilation problems, which probably shouldn’t be condemned as evil. Morally weak and stunted was what he was saying, legitimizing the vocabulary of moral condemnation rather than the psychologizing so many pundits were implicitly exculpating them with.

Part of the problem we all face in sorting out what to call these acts is what I’d call the two paradoxes of evil. First, we have to get past the idea that all evil acts are always committed by evil or evil-intentioned people. Let’s call it the Trevor-Roper paradox, because it was brought home to me by a short sharp remark uttered by the British historian H.R. Trevor-Roper. I will never forget the scene: the genteel lounge of the Oxford and Cambridge Club in London, where I was interviewing Trevor-Roper, in the course of researching my book on Hitler explainers—he was one of the first and most influential Hitler biographers (his still-perceptive The Last Days of Hitler is really an assessment of Hitler as a whole—or as a hole).

I had asked Trevor-Roper a deceptively simple question I had asked other Hitler scholars and explainers: Did Hitler know he was doing wrong when he was committing his crimes against humanity? I found myself stunned when Trevor-Roper shot back: “No, Hitler was convinced of his own rectitude.” Hitler! Convinced of his own rectitude! Yet it was hard to deny (though some did). Trevor-Roper believed the historical record such as it is shows that Hitler was a true believer in the justice of his acts, considered himself a highly moral savior of humanity from evil, compared himself to a doctor like Pasteur fighting an infectious plague who must exterminate every one of the deadly bacilli threatening the human race (guess who?).

This is almost intolerable to entertain, but it says something almost universally true. Most people who commit acts of terrorism believe they are doing so—by reason of ideology or theology—for a good reason.

Which brings us to the second paradox—the Post Enlightenment paradox—that subverts the use of evil. No ideology has a right to dictate absolute truths to us, but it also makes it difficult to judge absolutely which ideologies and theologies are evil or productive of evil acts and which just differ from ours. It’s the paradox of moral relativism: Must we tolerate even intolerant cultures? Is female genital mutilation just a “cultural tradition” valid as any of ours?

Perhaps the best response to laying off the blame for evil to ideology or theology comes from Murray Kempton, most well-known as a newspaper columnist, though to my mind the greatest American nonfiction stylist of the past century and perhaps the smartest and shrewdest judge of mankind I’ve ever met. (His book Part of Our Time may be the best thing written about ideologies and theologies and their adherents, portraits of communists and ex-communists he knew. You must read it!) Anyway, in a conversation with him you can find in The Secret Parts of Fortune he tossed off one of the single wisest things I’ve ever heard said about ideology and evil: “It took me a while to discover this,” he said, “but the biggest mistake you can make is to follow your ideas to their logical conclusions. You can make a lot of other [mistakes], and every now and then you can be right. But when you follow your ideas to their logical conclusions you are always wrong.”

Wish the Chechen bros had read Murray. It’s what fanatics, Inquisitionists, backpack bombers always do: carry their ideas to their allegedly logical conclusions.

 So does that mean we do have ground to stand on when we use the word “evil”? Millions of words have been devoted to the subject by academic philosophers and I have only read a few hundred thousand at most, but I can say that the centuries-old evolution of the debate over human evil has narrowed down to focus on a certain kind of choice. Do we or do we not believe it is possible to commit an evil act knowing it is evil, not just sanctioned or sanctified by ideological or theological authority?

In the technical language of academic philosophy such acts are classed as “malignant evil” or more often, “wickedness.” Doing evil knowing that it is evil. Wickedness sounds so medieval, so Grimm’s—a throwback to the era of Macbeth, in fact—but it remains a subject of serious debate among sophisticated contemporary moral philosophers such as Mary Midgely and John Hick. The seriousness with which this old-fashioned term takes the question blows away the dimwit pop sophistry of pundits forever citing Arendt’s “banality of evil” as if it were profound, when, in fact, that argument no longer deserves serious discussion—based as it is on a blundering misconception of who Hitler’s executioners were.

Strictly defined, wickedness is more often found in literature than life. Pure wickedness is found in Shakespeare’s Richard III (please don’t give me the disability excuse he wickedly tries to elicit sympathy with) and most floridly, most terrifyingly—because it is seems to prey on otherwise previously nonwicked souls—in Macbeth.

And so what does Alan Cumming’s Macbeth have to say to us about all of this? Now, I’ll warn you: I’m writing this while I’m still under the spell of what I consider one of the great Shakespearean stage experiences I’ve had. It solved finally my puzzlement at why I had never before been taken by any staging of Shakespeare’s most intense and highly charged work of dramatic tragedy. So intense and highly charged, I’ve realized, that the language may be too powerful for any actors or actresses to embody. I recommend you read the exceptionally savvy Jonathan Bate’s paperback edition of the play, not just for his smart introduction but for the after-matter, which largely consists of actors and directors twisting themselves into pretzels trying to psychologize the characters. And in the process diminishing the dark and numinous power of the words and the wickedness that pervades the iambic pentameter.

Here’s Gregory Doran, who directed Sher’s Macbeth: “… in other words Lady Macbeth is haunted by her conscience, and what Harriet [Walter] made clear in the sleepwalking scene is that here is a woman who has insisted that her husband do this terrible deed [murder the King, Duncan] in order to get the crown, and then immediately finds both the emptiness of the role and also that her relationship with her husband has somehow diminished. And I think that is very poignant.”

So it’s a poignant domestic drama! No, this won’t do, but that’s the problem with getting top-notch actors and actresses: They’re always looking for “psychological depth.” There’s far more to Macbeth than that level of playing it. More than psychological depth, the play explores metaphysical depths.

Consider just a random selection of lines I’ve “untimely ripped” from their context:

“… Have we eaten on the insane root
That takes the reason prisoner?”

“… the heavens, as troubled by man’s act.
Threatens his bloody stage …
And yet daylight strangles the traveling lamp.”

“O, full of scorpions is my mind …”

“… Magot-pies and choughs and rooks brought forth
The secret’st man of blood …”

“Not in the legions
Of horrid hell can come a devil more damned
In evils to top Macbeth.”

And of course his ultimate metaphysical despair:

“Life’s … a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.”

No day at the beach there in old Scotland, no domestic drama. Instead, it’s a bloody landscape little changed in any but superficial ways from ours.

Alan Cumming’s performance—and the direction of John Tiffany and Andrew Goldberg—is brilliant because Cumming radically reframes the locus of evil to the very framework of being—and to its framer, whoever that is. From evil in the individual psyche to the evil built into the very structure and texture of the world, we are locked down and tortured in. He gives us the Macbeth that Shakespeare ripped untimely from his brain before he wrote it, the Macbeth he instantiated in ours. The one we absorb when we read it alone, or a superbly skilled actor like Cumming burns into our brain, and it enters our head the way it has Cumming’s, all at once, full of sound and fury, signifying everything.

He doesn’t make it smaller by reducing it to one character; he makes it larger by playing it as if all the characters were inside us. We’ve all got Macbeth and Lady Macbeth within, as well as the demons that torment them with the reality of an evil universe. Watching it without the distractions of a host of “poor players strutting and fretting their hour on the stage,” we are forced to face the truth: We’re in a world more like a psycho ward than anything else, a world haunted by demonic forces beyond our ken, evil and good, contending unequally for our souls. He makes Macbeth the metaphysical tragedy it should be. An even deeper incarnation of evil than we could have imagined.

And he recites the iambic pentameter with astonishing, electrifying precision and finesse, leaping in one shift of facial expression (and discreetly placed towel) from Macbeth to Lady Macbeth in a tour de force of higher Shakespearean consciousness of the sort I haven’t seen since Peter Brook’s life-changing Midsummer Night’s Dream and his film of Lear. (OK, and Welles’ Falstaff film, too.)

This Macbeth acknowledges the evil within us but suggests that there is an evil pervading the very structure of Being itself in this world—a world ruled not by morality but by bloody insanity. A world that comports more with the Gnostic vision that this world was created not by any benevolent God but by an evil demiurge posing as God, beyond God’s control, or worse, doing God’s bidding.

It is the Scottish play suited to a time when the president—when he’s not ordering blowback-generating drone strikes—basically does nothing else but shuttle from one scene of mass murder, tragedy, and terror to another, trying his best to utter the words to describe the blasted heath he’s found himself on.

One word he shouldn’t utter: “Macbeth.”