Today in History

Today in History: July 25

Macbeth

Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

William Shakespeare, Macbeth (external link), Act 5, Scene 5 (external link)

Federal Theatre WPA Presents

It overwhelms you with its fury and its phantom splendor.

Brooks Atkinson,
The New York Times,
quoted in the playbill
for the Bridgeport, Connecticut,
performance of Macbeth.

On July 25, 1936, after a five-night run, the audience at the Park Theatre in Bridgeport, Connecticut, applauded the closing night performance of Macbeth, produced by John Houseman and directed by Orson Welles for the Federal Theatre Project (FTP) of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The FTP was one of five arts-related projects established during the first term of President Franklin D. Roosevelt to assist unemployed writers, actors, and artists during the Great Depression.

Macbeth Costume Design #1
Costume Design from New York production of Macbeth (Sketch #1 (front)),

Macbeth Costume Design #2
Costume Design from New York production of Macbeth (Sketch #2 (front)),

Macbeth Costume Design #3
Costume Design from New York production of Macbeth (Sketch #3 (front)).
The New Deal Stage: Selections from the Federal Theatre Project, 1935-1939

John Houseman came to the Federal Theatre Project from an already established career that included directing the avant-garde opera, Four Saints in Three Acts, by Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson, in New York.

Welles, just twenty-one years old at the time, began his theatrical career directing Shakespeare's Macbeth and Christopher Marlowe's Tragical History of Dr. Faustus for the Federal Theatre Project.

Welles' designs for the plays were characterized by the creative risk-taking that exemplified his dramatic work. His use of racially integrated casting and "alternative" settings for these masterpieces was an innovation.

For the former play, Welles cast African-American performers in all the roles, moved the play's setting from Scotland to the Caribbean, and changed the witches to Haitian witch doctors.

Photographic Print from New York Production of Macbeth
Photographic Print from New York production of Macbeth,

Photographic Print from New York Production of Macbeth
Photographic Print from New York production of Macbeth,

Photographic Print from New York Production of Macbeth
Photographic Print from New York production of Macbeth,

Photographic Print from New York Production of Macbeth
Photographic Print from New York production of Macbeth,
Production Photographs for the New York City Performance of Macbeth,
Directed by Orson Welles, New Lafayette Theatre, April 14-June 20, 1936.
The New Deal Stage: Selections from the Federal Theatre Project, 1935-1939

Critics hailed the results as "startling," "splendid," and "colorful." After a series of sold-out performances in Harlem, Welles' "Voodoo Macbeth" took to the road, traveling to several cities on the East coast.