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Kind words about ultimate wordsmith



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April 29, 2014 | 01:37 PM
I know it’s spring, but Wednesday was William Shakespeare’s 450th birthday, and it seems appropriate to share the following account of a rainy September evening several years ago when my wife and I attended the American Players Theatre near Spring Green to experience “Macbeth.”

That is the play taught in most American high schools which delivers a universally important message. It’s about ambition, fear, conscience and the horrors of having to cover up a serious crime.

Though the play was first produced more than 400 years ago, its relevance today is strikingly scary to think about. The power of “Macbeth”: was not lost on anyone on that September Saturday.

Tucked away in the woods on a hill above the Wisconsin River near Spring Green is the American Players Theatre. If you’ve never been there, descriptions will not suffice.

You have to climb the hill on the winding paths to reach the open-air bowl in which over 1,100 people breathe in the woodsy atmosphere while watching the players breathe out the human drama of great plays.

But this night, a fourth Saturday in September, rain gear was in style. It was one of those misty, damp early autumn evenings. Who would ask for a night better suited to “Macbeth?”

Light rain commenced as the play did. You could see the actor’s breaths in the shafts of floodlights. When Macbeth pronounced his dagger speech, the rain began in earnest. Drops of moisture glistened as they fell from his chin. It never was a drenching downpour, yet APT had produced a night when play and nature conspired convincingly.

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Why are we drawn to tragedy? Because when menacing things happen we want to know about them. Newspapers regularly deal in grim and threatening news, and we complain about their being negative. When we choose movies and TV shows, on the other hand, it is often violence and its tragic results that attract us.

In literature, stories would not produce widespread attention if it weren’t for conflict or the threat of harm.

We assume good news but are drawn to bad. The most powerful works of literature are replete with humanity’s problems. These works do not necessarily solve problems as much as produce deep thinking about them. It would be hard to find a work that achieved these ends more thoroughly than Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.”

And in the woods on a September night, the Bard’s magic elixir worked its wiles. And Mother Nature came up with an appropriate environment.

As plays go, “Macbeth” is grim, dispiriting, cheerless. Set in the drears of Scotland in the dark ages, it is the story of a soldier whose good and noble nature manifests itself immediately. His bravery in battle and loyalty to his king are clear.

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In a period when primogeniture (in which a king’s eldest son succeeds him) was not the rule, Macbeth had every reason to believe he had an inside track to kingship. That’s important because he knew ambition, in fact was obsessed by it. So when the elderly king in the ecstatic moments following Macbeth’s two great victories announces that his son will succeed him, a sequence is set in motion leading to the complete disintegration of a human soul.

No, make that two souls. Macbeth is in need of a catalyst, because the good in him makes him hesitate. This comes in the form of Lady Macbeth, who is as determined and ruthless as anyone could be. It is interesting to note we do not learn her female name, which must say something about her nature.

Together, in some of Shakespeare’s richest and most poignant poetry, the two decompose right before our eyes.

“Macbeth” is indeed a gloomy and forbidding play. But as always the Bard manages to make the whole thing into an uplifting human experience. To truly appreciate the fact, you must see the play.

So in a southwest Wisconsin woods of a dreary fall evening, Macbeth plays out his tragic narrative. At time it was almost a marriage of language and nature. Let me explain.

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To impress the level of elemental instincts Macbeth has to assume to defend himself, he conveys images of animals, nearly all of them predatory, unpleasant or fierce. Macbeth invokes scorpions, snakes and the “shrieking owl.” There is talk of bear-baiting. And a tiger, vulture and rhinoceros send less than pleasant vibes.

And in the night over the stage of a theatre in the woods, a bat darted over the heads of the players. Its flight seemed timed to accompany Macbeth’s inner turmoil.

And deep into the play and far off in the trees, crickets cranked out their night talk. At least there were no mosquitoes.

What made this “Macbeth” production particularly appealing was clarity, one of APT’s cardinal principles. This was indeed a clarion call. The syllables of the Bard’s blank verse made understanding as easy as listening. Articulation is primary at American Players Theatre.

Some might say Shakespeare could never be easy. This playgoer would counter that life is never easy, and the Bard’s mark, his goal, is life itself. The test of 13 generations can’t be wrong.

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That said, all power and prerogative to the sustaining of this Arden adventure on a Wisconsin hillside.

Johnson is a retired Badger High School English teacher.

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