MACBETH AND THE GHOST OF SUCCESS
The reputations of performers and performances have a marked tendency to ossify in the afterlife. The starting point for this discussion of the memory of six Macbeth actors is an assertion made by A. R. Braunmuller in the introduction to his Cambridge edition of the play. Braunmuller writes: ‘David Garrick’s performances as Macbeth were supported by those of Hannah Pritchard as Lady Macbeth – he effectively abandoned the rôle after her retirement – and he remains perhaps the only English actor to have conquered the part.’ There is some virtue in that ‘perhaps’, but the fundamental sentiment invites controversy. As if to substantiate his claim, Braunmuller continues:
Almost two centuries later [after Garrick], a distinguished critic succinctly praised and faulted Laurence Olivier by comparing him to Garrick: ‘Since it would seem that with the exception of Garrick a great Macbeth has never been in the calendar, it is reasonable to expect that the new one should be lacking in adequacy.’
That distinguished critic was James Agate responding to Olivier’s performance in 1937 and Braunmuller’s citation affords a good example of how habits of thought are reinforced through intertextual reiteration. The authority of Agate’s verdict and its value as evidence are not questioned, despite the fact that what Agate (like Braunmuller) knows of Garrick’s Macbeth is only, can only be, via the body of texts the performance generated.
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