"Your Leafy Screens Throw Down": Act 5, Scene 6 in the Macbeth Prompt Books

By Douglas Reside, Curator, Theatre Collection
May 24, 2022
The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts
Raul Julia as Macbeth (New York Shakespeare Festival 1989)
Photo by Martha Swope. NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID: swope_1317693

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.

The "press script" for the current Broadway production indicates that the lines of Act 5, Scene 6 are spoken off stage. This has been a popular solution over the past two centuries, as it preserves Shakepeare’s text without the tone-breaking visual. 
This prompt book, which Shattuck identifies as actor John G. Gilbert’s personal copy from an 1851 Philadelphia production (Shattuck #45), notes that Malcom’s lines are spoken "without" (that is, "offstage"). Gilbert ran out of room to write the full word, though, and so "out" was written above "with."
This anonymous 19th-century prompt book (Shattuck #77) follows the same approach, but the annotator was better at estimating the space needed for the word "without."
This 1852 prompt book (Shattuck #47) has notes on the final page indicating that it is "marked as played by Messrs. Forrest–Macready–Booth [etc.] by George W. Lewis, Prompter at the Broadway Theatre, New York." In this version, apparently performed by many of the foremost Shakespearean actors of the 19th century, the line, "Now near enough; your leafy screen throw down / and show like those you are” was "spoken outside," but the rest of the scene was performed on the stage. Once the "leafy screens" are disposed of, the rest of the scene can be performed without unintentional comedy.
At times, the scene is simply cut altogether. Robert Jones’s prompt book (Shattuck #46) for the Boston Atheneum in 1852 (the same year as the previous, all-star production in New York) excises it. Erica Schmidt’s 2019 adaptation for Red Bull Theater (Mac Beth, now streaming until May 29th) also ran Scene Five directly into Scene Seven, although during these scenes, soldiers marching in a line upstage carried sticks that may have been meant as branches.
This early 20th-century prompt book (Shattuck #108) compiles descriptions of various 19th-century productions into a single volume. The annotator, Hallam Bosworth, who went on to act on Broadway in the 1920s and '30s, notes that directors have struggled with the scene over the years, writing, "Should think this scene might be cut but Forrest did it. Others cut it."
In the 20th century, some directors took still different approaches. In a prompt book (Shattuck #119) used by famed early 20th-century stage actor Julia Marlowe (and her frequent stage partner and later husband E.H. Southern), the first word of the scene is changed from "Now" to "When," thus "When near enough; your leafy screens throw down." Malcolm is instructing his troops on what they should do in the future, so they need not be seen actually carrying the shrubbery.
The Library also preserves this Hungarian translation by Eugene Dernay from around 1959. It is not clear how this was staged, but the scene seems to have been fully translated.
We continued to collect prompt books after Shattuck finished his work. For instance, this prompt book for a 1983 production at the Ark Theatre Company in lower Manhattan documents that the director staged the scene so that the actors "All ent[er] black slowly w/ boughs. Cross to center circle." Lower lighting perhaps made the movement of the trees more sinister than silly.
A similar approach was used in a production at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington D.C. in 1995. The prompt book notes that the soldiers are all "up center" and advance only after being told to throw down the branches. A video recording in the Theatre on Film and Tape Archive shows that the first line is spoken with the branch-carrying soldiers silhouetted against bright backlighting. They become truly visible only when they throw down their "screens."
Finally, the 2013 Lincoln Center production starring Ethan Hawke (the most recent Broadway version of Macbeth until this year), also included the scene with the actors carrying the trees. A note at the end of Scene Five also calls for projections. A recording of this production in the Theatre On Film and Tape Archive shows that the scene begins with the soldiers gathered together to form one "bush" on which a shimmering projection is thrown. They then disperse to throw down their "leafy screens." Improvements in theatrical technology over the course of the 20th and 21st centuries, it seems, has provided another way to keep the scene intact.
As demonstrated by the last few examples, video recordings now provide another way of documenting what happened on stage, but the Library continues to collect theatrical prompt books (though now more often in larger archival collections than as individual items). A video recording typically captures a single perspective at any one moment, but prompt books have the potential to offer a bird’s-eye view of the entire stage. Used together, though, video recordings and prompt books provide remarkable insight into the history of the theatrical event.