The new Broadway production of Macbeth starring Daniel Craig and Ruth Negga is one of the hottest tickets on Broadway. The 400-year-old ghost story is a regular tenant in Broadway houses, even if there is a reluctance to speak its name (some, I suspect, have thrown salt over their shoulders after simply reading the title and first sentence of this post). No matter how often the “Scottish Play” visits Broadway, there always seems to be an audience interested in how a new director, designers, and cast will interpret Shakespeare’s text.
Shakespeare has long been in the public domain, and so the text of his plays may be modified to suit the needs of each production. Often this includes cutting lines, adding songs, or (as in the current production) changing a few pronouns to fit the characters’ genders. In the Billy Rose Theatre Division at the Library for the Performing Arts, we have an extensive collection of Shakespearean prompt books—copies of the scripts used in past productions, usually with markings indicating cuts and staging.
Individually, many are precious objects, each representing a small piece of Shakespearean history. In the aggregate, they are a gold mine for understanding how directors have solved the challenges Shakespeare’s text presents. In the 1960s, Shakespeare scholar Charles Shattuck created a catalog of many of these prompt books, and in the last few years Theatre Division Librarian Suzanne Lipkin added Shattuck’s descriptive information and classification numbers to our online catalog records, as well as writing a fascinating piece about the collection for BroadwayWorld.
The text of Macbeth demands witches that appear and disappear in an instant, a ghost that passes through a banquet, bloody battles, and nightmarish conjured apparitions. Each presents a challenge for a director, and the choices made for these moments likely define the overall aesthetic of the production. A less glamorous but more difficult challenge is in Act 5, Scene 6, when Malcom and Macduff camouflage themselves with branches from the trees of Birnam Wood as they approach Macbeth’s castle, thus realizing the witches’ prophecy of Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane.
Although dramatic on the page, when staged, the image of soldiers carrying bits of shrubbery and stealthily approaching a castle can feel a bit like a Monty Python sketch or a Looney Tunes cartoon. Even in the 19th century (before animation or television), directors often cut the scene altogether. The prompt books give us a fascinating glimpse into how directors from 1806 to today staged the moment.