By Stanley Kauffmann
It is at least seventy years since I first
read a whimsical one-act comedy called The Rehearsal,
but it still lingers in my mind for a reason that the playwright
possibly did not intend. He was Maurice Baring, a well-known English
author a hundred years ago. (His play is not to be confused with
three others of the same title, one written three centuries earlier
by the Duke of Buckingham and two twentieth-century plays by Jean
Anouilh and Jack Gelber.) Baring's little play, published in 1919,
takes place during a rehearsal of the very first production of
Macbeth at the Globe in 1595. Later scholarship puts
the premiere in 1606, but whatever the correct year historically,
Baring's characters speak in the diction of his own early twentieth-century
time. The author and the leading actor, Richard Burbage, are of
course present, and they too speak 1919 English.
Burbage is dissatisfied with his role in
the last act. He complains that, after Macbeth learns that his
wife is dead, the author has given him only two lines:
She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
Baring's Burbage says: "I should like a
soliloquy here, about twenty or thirty lines, if possible in rhyme,
in any case ending with a tag. I should like it to be about Lady
Macbeth. Macbeth might have something to say about their happy
domestic life. . . Could I have that written at once, and then
we could rehearse it?" The director (called here the producer)
agrees and says, "Will you write it yourself, Mr. Shakespeare,
or shall we get someone else to do it?" Shakespeare agrees to
do it and withdraws to work on it while the rehearsal proceeds.
In a few minutes he returns. "I've written that speech," he says.
"Shall I read it?" "Please," says the director. Shakespeare then
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
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,
Burbage is enraged. "Well, you don't expect
me to say that, I suppose," he scoffs. "It's a third too short.
There's not a single rhyme in it. It's got nothing to do with
the situation, and it's an insult to the stage. 'Struts and frets'
indeed!" He is so angry that he withdraws from the role and storms
out. The others try to proceed with the rehearsal. We are left
to infer that, in time, Burbage changed his mind both about the
role and that new speech.
One of the reasons we laugh is that Burbage
is deriding what is now generally held to be one of the most beautiful
passages ever written in the English language. But there is something
else, and it is not a laughing matter. We can see that, in this
new speech, Shakespeare has moved out of the scene, has left the
specific of the lady's death for a larger universal insight --
a perception of futility and inevitability. Burbage makes more
of a point than he knows. He objects to the speech in narrow actorish
terms; he hasn't seen what Baring arguably implies -- that Burbage's
purely professional objections are unwitting reactions to a profound
The new speech, which Shakespeare scribbles
in a few minutes, is utterly unlike almost all the rest of Macbeth
in idea and diction. Burbage's comic disgust has stayed in my
mind for decades because, willy-nilly, it underscores the resonant
strangeness of that speech. Macbeth is one of Shakespeare's
most wondrous plays, packed with poetic marvel in almost every
line, continually near bursting with the power of its imagery.
Yet I can't find another passage in this play that seems to have
been written by the author of this "new" passage. The closest
to it comes in Macbeth's first scene, where he says that his thought
of the murder yet to come
Shakes so my single state of man that
Is smother'd in surmise.
That phrase, "smother'd in surmise," is
by the man who wrote "tomorrow and tomorrow." The rest of the
play was written by a certainly equivalent but somewhat different
Consider the changes in the "tomorrow"
speech. Up to now we have had a Macbeth who has faced an enemy
in battle and has, with his sword,
Unseam'd him from the nave to the chaps
And fix'd his head upon our battlements,
and who has then murdered his way to a
throne. This man, in all regards a creature of his age with warrior
values, this fierce sword-wielding warrior, now tells us that
"Life's but a walking shadow . . . a tale/Told by an idiot, full
of sound and fury,/Signifying nothing." This is a quite different
Macbeth from the unseaming swordsman, different even though we
know that he has been altering through the play, that blood seeps
through his mind continually like a spreading stain. ("It will
have blood they say; blood will have blood." "I am in blood /Stepp'd
in so far that, should I wade no more,/Returning were as tedious
as go o'er." ) Stark as those lines are, they do not have the
freezing-thrilling bleakness of the "tomorrow" speech.
A. C. Bradley says that, at the moment
when Macbeth hears of the lady's death, "he has no time now to
feel. Only, as he thinks of the tomorrow when the time to feel
will come -- if anything comes, the vanity of all hopes and forward-lookings
sinks deep into his soul with an infinite weariness, and he murmurs"
the tomorrow speech. The word "murmurs" may or may not be apt,
but the fact that Bradley could even think to use it reveals that
Macbeth has changed. Could the earlier Macbeth have "murmured"
The moment in which he speaks these words
is a lull in a huge battle, yet this speech is not that of a man
in the midst of such a battle. And it is the very words of the
speech that escape Frank Kermode's notice in Shakespeare's
Language. He says of the "tomorrow" speech that Macbeth is
"at last confronting the mere successiveness of time," but, though
this is a book on language, Kermode says nothing about the words
in which the warrior Macbeth does the confronting.
This linguistic contrast in Macbeth is
soon emphasized. His next substantial speech, his reaction to
the messenger's news about Birnam Wood, returns to the earlier
Macbeth, the soldier.
Ring the alarum-bell! Blow, wind! Come,
At least we'll die with harness on our back.
Far, far from the tenor of the "tomorrow"
Baring's Richard Burbage, in a comedy meant
to show how an actor's ego blinded him to the arrival of majesty,
at least had the instinct to discern that the new speech was not
in character, the character he had been playing. Perhaps -- pure
fantasy -- the speech that Shakespeare scribbles so quickly offstage
during the rehearsal was in fact something that was left over
from Hamlet, done five years earlier.