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Sam Wanamaker discusses the theater ; part 1

BROADCAST: Dec. 4, 1964 | DURATION: 00:28:15


Sam Wanamaker talks about the curtain of a stage being a barrier between the set and the audience. Wanaker says that with theater today, there are more theaters in the round and more thrusts of ramps built into the audience, so that the audience can feel they are a part of the production of the play.


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Studs Terkel That conversation took place a, a couple of years ago in the London apartment of Sam Wanamaker discussing his most unorthodox production of Verdi's "La Forza del Destino". Two years have gone by, two, three years, back in his hometown Chicago, directing and playing the role of Macbeth in the production at the Goodman Theatre with students, Sam of course being perhaps the most honored graduate of the Goodman Theatre. Sam, we think of this production itself that again has roused comments both pro and con.

Sam Wanamaker I'm afraid I'm fated to [pause in recording] the rest of my life as long as I continue working in the theater or any medium, for that matter, I guess. Now, I've tried to analyze it and I think it's mainly because I'm interested in extending the medium in which I work, extending my own talent, experimenting and reaching out for something that is fresh and vital and exciting to me. Now, the danger always of people who do experiment, who do search for new ways of saying something, of new ways of revealing the subject matter and in the particular field or craft in which they work, is always fraught with great dangers and difficulties and public acceptance, and critical acceptance, for that matter.

Studs Terkel You say it's laid in barbaric times. The time, a barbaric time was that has its own meaning to you, I'm sure. At the same time, the set, the central piece is this huge turbine, this machine of steel and iron and pipes and now.

Sam Wanamaker Well, if we are going to interpret barbarism in terms of our understanding of barbarism today, I think it's got to come in terms of what we consider to be barbaric and violent in our own times. And what do we discover as barbaric and violent in our own times? We discover that machinery can be violent. We discover st [pause in recording] -- a great torturous, sculptural architectural elements are barbarous in our own time. The great network of highways and roads and the machinery that go to make our industrial society is barbarous, is violent, is strong. It's full of strains and stresses. When we look around us in our daily life, when we travel on the transportation, we pass buildings that are being demolished, buildings that are going up, highways that are being torn up, highways that are being built, seeing factories going up, seeing factories coming down. We see this expressed in terms of steel and concrete and metal, stresses and strains, and they are violent. They are powerful, violent forces, and therefore the set in those terms expresses violence and barbarism in an understandable, recognizable way. One of the critics I read said, "You know, it looks like some machine for oil drilling, or it looks like some other kind of scaffolding element." Well, that's fine. That's exactly the impression we wanted to create. That tool relates the violence and strength and dehumanized factor that, that we see around us in this industrial society. Now, the next--perhaps I ought to explain that my attitude about the theater is that we are in a revolution in the theater. That is, first of all, an architectural revolution. The picture-framed stage is a stage of the 19th century. How it came about was, I don't want to go into the history of it, but it was to make a picture. It was not indigenous, really, to the stage as such, because the stage as such was a platform. It began in the earliest days as an arena, as a circus, in the Greek theater. It was a, an open space around which a number of people could sit or stand and see actors elevated, or looked down on actors in an arena. That's all it was. In Shakespeare's time, the Globe Theatre was a platform. It didn't even have a roof. The theater had no roof, and therefore the plays could only be enacted during the day and in good weather. It was merely a platform and there were inner parts of it which could be closed off with a curtain. Now the theater then went into some prettified romantic nonsense which gave you some phony impression of reality. But it was always false, because the audience was separated from the performers by this proscenium arch, and they were always back behind the picture frame. There was no contact with the audience. But today we have come to realize, and theaters are now being built all over the world which are destroying the, this barrier between the audience and the actors and the play. We are now getting theaters in the round, we're getting theaters which have platforms thrust out into the audience the way they have in Stratford, Ontario and Stratford, Connecticut and in England in Olivier's theater in Chichester, in Minneapolis with the Guthrie Theater, all over the world today the new theaters that are going up are theaters that are breaking away from the old 19th century convention of the, of the proscenium arch and the picture-framed stage. So I want to explain that I believe in that myself, I believe in the necessity of bringing the theater back into and around the public, not to sep -- not to separate the action of the play and the actors from the audience, but to make it all one indigenous part, so that what's happening in this theater house is happening in and around the audience in the way they did in Shakespeare's time and in the, the time of the Greeks. So starting on that premise, starting on the premise that the theater, that the stage is a platform, that we're not trying to fool anybody, that this is not scenery, that this is not a platform, but but quite the contrary, to say, "Look, quite frankly, this is a stage on which actors will perform." I never really believed in the first place, ever in the past that the audience could ever really forget that they were in a theater and this was all pretend. And if you never could really achieve the true illusion of characters and a place, because every time somebody would slam a door and the scenery would shake, you would know you were in a theater. You could never escape from that. So now the theater is being more honest. The theater is saying, "Look, we are in a theater. This is a platform. And now we are putting a play on the stage on this platform and we want you, like Shakespeare said, to let our words create the place and the time and the period. Use your imagination audience, and you will be in that place, in that time with us." And I believe that the, the stage platform can have many forms to represent in dramatic terms the kind of forces dramatically and theatrically that could play over and through the course of the evening. So we decided on having a stage platform which was broken up on several levels, which would lend a dramatic value visually and dynamically in terms of the movements of the people, and because it was in my opinion really, that is, the dynamic movement and the visual elements were best expressed. The play of Macbeth, which was a play of strong conflict, violent forces, and therefore the physicalization of the play in my, in my view had to be in the same dynamic, which was violent and strong and powerful, conflicting, so that the, the stage platform that we used gave us the opportunity to develop that in physical terms.

Studs Terkel So I'm thinking, too, of Macbeth, the platform, the stage platform that is obviously twentieth century, barbaric times you imply of course, I'm thinking about your production, your comments about your production of "La Forza del Destino", making it contemporary. Very much so. So the barbaric times are now as well as then, aren't they?

Sam Wanamaker Well of course, I mean the thing that makes any play great, and particularly Shakespeare's plays great, is the fact that he expresses a truth about the human condition, about human nature and about human beings in relation to other human beings. Because he reveals the truth about those elements in man that are universal. Therefore the objective of anybody producing a great classic today has to say to himself, "How can I make that play and that--those characters in that play understandable in our terms, not in terms of Shakespeare's time, and which society was different in many respects. But how can I reveal the values that are in that play in terms of today?" And therefore we have to use recognizable elements in our own life to communicate that play, and I believe that the, the things that I was striving for in this production were to do just that. Now what, the criticism that comes, that is, the controversy that follows, is a result of a kind of conditioning which an audience has to seeing theater or opera or art or listening to music or ballet or what have you in terms of the conventions of the past. Now, if you continue to give people the things that they're used to, it's comforting to them, because they're familiar with it. If you're familiar with something, you're, you're at ease with it. If you suddenly come on something that is unfamiliar, you're a little afraid of it. You're disturbed by it. It, it shakes you up a little bit, because it, it creates reactions in you which are new and disturbing. And that's exactly the thing that one wants to achieve in the theater, you want, not to shock for the sake of shocking, but you want people to have a new experience, a fresh experience, to think of the play, to see the play in completely new terms, as a fresh first-time experience. Now, everybody who comes to the theater, most everybody knows the play of Macbeth. They have, may have seen it once or twice, they certainly have read it in high school. They more or less know the play. But what is necessary for us to do is to rediscover the play for them, excite them, shake them up, shock them or get them involved with the issues at stake in the play. And that's what creates the controversy. Some people object to that. They are disturbed by it. Other people are excited and thrilled by it because they're seeing the play in completely new terms, which makes them understand and appreciate the value of that play in a completely different and fresh way.

Studs Terkel Thus we come to Wanamaker's Macbeth. Well, the man himself, but also your production. I can't help but think, Sam, as, as a preface to what you're about to say, your own interpretation of Macbeth, of the human, you spoke of Shakespeare and humanity, the human aspect that is Macbeth. Recently--this is a, a little anecdote, I think it's worth mentioning, Sam--an old Jewish people's home did a production of Macbeth, and the leading lady who did Lady, Lady Macbeth made her own gown. At the very end there's a discussion with the inmates of the home and their sons and daughters who come and, and support them there. And the leading lady came out and she said, "Look," Lady Macbeth says, "Look, did I do wrong? I wanted my husband to get ahead." And the old man who did Macbeth, he's about 85 years old, he says, "A castle wasn't good enough for her." So, in a sense they are making it contemporary,

Sam Wanamaker Yes, I must say I'm sure it must've been a marvelously exciting production for those people, because they understood Macbeth and Lady Macbeth in those simple terms. Now, my interpretation of Macbeth, the character of Macbeth and the play of Macbeth naturally came from my understanding of myself and my understanding of human nature and human beings. I can only begin from that source. I was interested, I've always been interested in Macbeth because I curiously enough have always identified with him very strongly in this way: my own personal negative instincts as a human being which I've always been self-conscious about, my own instincts in terms of ambition, in terms of getting ahead, in terms of, of achieving goals which I set for myself. Now, what's involved in, in, in this sometimes is that we compromise our sense of morality, we compromise our sense of right and wrong. All of us, I think, constantly do things which we sometimes are ashamed of. We sometimes close our eyes to our own sense of morality, our own sense of truth. We limit our honest comments because we are afraid we might offend certain people, or we say things that we know other people would like to hear, even though we don't believe them ourselves. We do things in life and say, excuse the things that we don't like doing because they are necessary, we must do them, otherwise we would not be able to survive, or we would not be able to get along with other people, or we would not be able to get that other thing if we didn't do this thing, and therefore we must subvert the things we believe in in order to get what we want, and so on. In other words, what I'm saying is this universal instinct that we have to improve our status, to get what we want, involves a subversion of our own better instincts very often. And this is the truth of Macbeth and this is what I recognize in Macbeth that's common to me and common to every other man. Therefore I say Macbeth is very much today, very much of our time. We live in a society which involves struggle, which involves acquisitiveness, which in-involves getting ahead, which involves achievement, which involves success. All these things we are dealing with constantly in our daily lives. At the same time we are told that we must be honest, we are told that we must be upright, we must -- are told that we must be moral, we are told that we must believe in God, we mu - we are told that there are the Ten Commandments and thou shalt honor thy mother [pause in recording] not do this and not steal and so forth, and yet even though we pay lip service to all these values, moral, aesthetic, religious, and so on, it is common knowledge that these values are violated constantly, more in the breach are they honored than in the actual doing of them, so that we are constantly in conflict with ourselves, between our good instincts and our bad instincts. And this is what I try to reveal in the playing of Macbeth and this is why I think I can identify with that character when I play him on the stage and why I think I can communicate this inner struggle that goes on in all of us in the same ways it goes on in Macbeth, because Macbeth knows that he commits evil, and yet he commits it. Macbeth feels guilt, and as a result of guilt and trying to evade his own guilt, he goes on and commits more evil, and more crime, in order to escape from his own knowledge of his own guilt. And this is what is the core of my performance of Macbeth.

Studs Terkel Thus, too, as you say this, Sam, making it very contemporaneous in its effect, its impact. You say it is now, though Macbeth kills, literally kills, you're implying, too, that we kill, too. There are many ways of killing. As well as killing himself, too, does he not, Macbeth in killing Duncan and Banquo actually murdered something else in himself, did he not, as we do each day, it

Sam Wanamaker Well, every act that we commit in our own daily life that we know is wrong or is immoral or is dishonest, we are killing our own self-respect, losing our sense of right and wrong, and I think this is the unfortunate nature of our times, that we are losing a real sense of morality in our society.

Studs Terkel Sam, in seeing you, a twentheth century actor and producer. In England, by the way, the director is called the producer, so we call you producer of this play, someone of now whom, with whom we in the audience identify, this man Sam Wanamaker, this performer, the director is also Macbeth, because you say you use all that is inside you. The ambivalence in you, the, the, the, the touch of violence that's in you, the, the striving that is in you, at the same time the consciousness--

Sam Wanamaker And it's this conflict in him that is sympathetic, because a man who at least is struggling with himself in terms of right and wrong, in terms of evil and good, [at least to give you another?] is some hope for him. Once he has gone so far, as he says, "I am in blood stepped in so far that were I," you know, to go, you know, "returning were as tedious as go o'er", as to go on, he can't go back any more, and that is a pitiful state. That is a tragic state, that he cannot go back anymore to the man that he was. He cannot go back to good anymore, and it's this struggle in him that makes him pitiable, makes him understandable and recognizable.

Studs Terkel Well as you say this, we think of some of the scenes involving Macbeth and the lady, and now she too, I suppose you'd call a twentieth century woman, as Hedda Gabler is a twentieth century woman, too.

Sam Wanamaker She is a twentieth century woman insofar as she wants everything that her husband wants, and very often there are women who feel their role in life is secondary except insofar as they can help their husband achieve what they wish to achieve, and what they believe is in their husbands to achieve, and their great determination is to help him do it. And if he isn't strong enough to do it, they're going to push him into it. And as Macbeth says about her, you know, she is so strong, she is so powerful, he says, "Bring forth men children only, for thy undaunted mettle should produce nothing but males." What he's saying in effect is that she has in her such a strength of character that generally is attributable to the masculine sex and in this case, I mean she is a woman who is deeply in love with her husband and is so unified with all his ambitions and desires that she only wants to do what he wants, basically, and, and, and by virtue of his greater sense of morality, can't do. But she says, "All right, you want, you want that, but you won't do the dirty work necessary to get it. Well, I will help you to get it. I will help you and make you do the dirty work that's necessary, because I think you should have, you know, what you want." And in that sense they are very much in love. It's like that Jewish man and, and his, his wife, he says, "You know, I've only wanted to get her a better castle." [laughing]

Studs Terkel She says, "Did I do wrong? I want him to get ahead." But too, something happens to her as a woman. Womanliness, doesn't she in an early soliloquy say, "Unsex me," and thus, perhaps less of the feminine or whatever it might be in it, too, make her this strong and ruthless, more than Macbeth

Sam Wanamaker Well, yes, I think the "Unsex me" there deals not so much with the word "sex" as we understand it in modern terms with the, with the concept that the, her female sex which is basically softer, more human, more gentle with all the affecting human qualities, more feminine elements, she's asking the forces of evil to eliminate all these gentle human qualities in her to allow her to push through this evil act and not to be restricted by any sense of conscience.

Studs Terkel So we come to the matter of Macbeth, Macbeth and conscience. You mentioned conscience, you know. Somehow there's a similarity here to Boris Godunov too, who after he reaches the throne as a result of murder, it becomes, then, a play of conscience and there are several, several very memorable moments in the play itself where you have this particular, you get lost and she brings you back to the reality of "Live with it."

Sam Wanamaker Yes. Well, conscience of course is the, is the understanding of evil. I mean, you can't have a, a conscience about an evil act unless you know that it's evil, and therefore it's the conscience factor which shows us that Macbeth really, basically, is a man with good instincts as well as bad, and the good--and the bad instincts merely have got the upper hand, and his wife has actually forced his bad instincts to be fulfilled, and to -- and he, and forced him to act on those bad instincts, and conscience merely is the revelation of the fact that he knows all these things that he's doing and has done are evil. And the more he does them, the greater he recognizes they're evil, the greater sense of guilt he has. Very often, you know, it, it has been said about Macbeth that it's a play about fear. I don't believe it's a play about fear. He says, "I am afraid that Banquo will dethrone me, and I'm afraid that his sons will, will wrest the crown from me." But he uses this as an excuse. This is his rationalization. It's basically his guilt that he feels, and he wants to eradicate that guilt from himself. And he merely excuses, you know, this state of conscience that he has, this sense of guilt that he has, by calling it fear. And so he uses the fear as an excuse to go on committing further crimes. But what he's really trying to eliminate is his sense of guilt. What he's really, really trying to escape from is his sense of conscience, and that is what continues to destroy him.

Studs Terkel Thus we come to Macbeth and the man today, the man of the twentieth century, the element of guilt as a result of what has been done, what is being done daily. So there's the Macbeth, again the greatness of Shakespeare, the Macbeth in all of us.

Sam Wanamaker Yes, well, as I said earlier, I think that we all commit acts in our daily lives, small ones if you like, tiny little ones just in the way of the conversations with people, the, the little lies we tell, the little evasions we make, all the time that we are really ashamed. And the fact that this has become accepted in our society, the fact that you know, we can excuse our sort of immoralities of living on the basis of the necessities of life, that this is the way things are, that's the way you have to be. Here I am in Chicago and I read about corruption and politics and in the police and crime and the crime syndicate and things like that, and I, I just read today how a mayor was sent to prison for four years. You read about the Bobby Baker case and so on in the federal government, and you say, "Well, how does this go on?" It goes on all the time because people accept this as a way of life, that even though we say -- believe in democracy or we say we believe in democracy, we say we believe in equal rights for every man, and yet do we practice it? No, we don't really practice it. There is racial prejudice in our society and we know it. There is a class distinction and we know it. We know that there is a, a toadying to the man in the superior position because we got to keep our jobs, or we want to get a better job. We say the right thing because we want to improve our status, or we're afraid to lose our status. So all the time, every day of our lives, we are corrupting ourselves one way or another, and we go to church, regularly or irregularly, and we pay lip service to all the good things that man is supposed to aspire to. But then the moment we leave the church or the moment we get off the platform speaking and spouting the platitudes of democracy and so forth, we turn right around and we find evidence all the time in all walks of life of one kind of corruption or immorality added to another one. And in this sense Macbeth is very contemporaneous. In this sense the play reveals something to--