The Comedy in Tragedy

macduff

Angela Chiment (Lady Macduff) and Robin O’Donoghue (Macduff’s Son) from Fairbanks Shakespeare Theater’s 2011 production of Macbeth.

I used to dream of being an actress. By the time I got my first chance at nine, it was already secondary to my dream of being a writer, but it was a dream none the less. I think all of us, once we’ve seen the allure of Hollywood, imagine ourselves enjoying the glamor and prestige of stardom. However, it wasn’t stardom that tickled my childhood fancy. There was something fantastic about being able to simply be someone else at a whim that always enchanted me. Even now, as a writer, I call myself a literary actress who merely stars in paper movies.

When I was in the 4th grade, before I truly grasped the extent to which Daddy would oppress my dreams, William Ferris Elementary developed a drama club, headed by Ms. Murdock, who was not my regular teacher. Ms. Murdock was one of those creepy old ladies who when you’re a kid, you swear you’ll never grow up to be; staunch, stuffy, overbearing, and just generally as unfriendly in appearance as she was in demeanor. She had the brilliant idea that a group of 4th and 5th graders, with no prior thespian experience beyond a kicking tantrum or two, should plunge head first into the depths of theatrical heritage known as William Shakespeare.

Mr. Lincoln, my regular teacher, had been concerned about my lack of attention in class and the impact it was having on my studies. I really wasn’t to blame. I was scolded for daydreaming at home, and so school just seemed the natural place to do it. Mr. Lincoln, as Mama explained, believed that school wasn’t challenging enough for me, and had convinced her that unspecified extracurricular activities might increase my interest. And so much to my delight, he volunteered me to join the cast of Ms. Murdock’s production of Macbeth – perhaps the least appropriate play ever selected for an acting company of 9, 10, and 11-year-olds.

Casting was almost a game of Duck Duck Goose, where Ms. Murdock lined the boys and girls up in two separate lines and went down the lines assigning roles by placing her hand on our heads. We called out our names in turn at her touch, and she assigned us each a part. There were more girls interested in drama than boys, so a few of us drew boys’ parts, but I was among the more fortunate.

“Annie, you’ll be Lady Macduff.”

Aspiration has always been my greatest inspiration. I dreamed of being an actress, and so long before we began our first reading, I was Hollywood’s next little Audrey Hepburn, lavishing myself in Elizabethan gowns and parading ballroom floors in elegance. I did express some momentary contempt at the boy selected to be my husband, but I calmed once I was assured we would never actually appear on stage together. I was excited beyond belief to play my part… and obviously… I had no idea what the play was about.

Act I. Scene I. My head was sent spinning into daydreams of witches, perhaps with a slightly different picture of them than the Bard of Avon intended. That was on a Wednesday. Friday found me bored stiff, certain that I never wanted to be an actress and angry at Mr. Lincoln for “making me” do it. We spent more time listening to Ms. Murdock lecture than we did reading! By the time we’d muddled our way through to Act IV on Tuesday, Ms. Murdock was so frustrated with me for not paying attention I’d convinced myself she was the real Hecate, Queen of the Witches.

Act IV. Scene II. At last! My part came and I finally got to read my lines, once Ms. Murdock woke me up from my hallucinations to a chorus of laughter that is. After a final warning that I could be sent back to Mr. Lincoln’s class had hung a crimson veil of embarrassment over my face, I read my first line and there – double, double – my real troubles began.

Trouble was named Ron, a boy I’d noticed often on the playground. We weren’t in the same class and he’d never spoken a word to me. Not a real crush mind you, I was too young for that, but I’d been quite excited when I found that we were to be in the drama club together and even more so when I learned he was also in the 4th grade. Much of my daydreaming involved staring at him absent-mindedly and then averting my eyes quickly before he could look my way. You can imagine how nervous I suddenly became when the boy playing Ross stepped back, and Ron stepped forward next to me to play the part of Macduff’s son!

“Sirrah, your father’s dead; and what will you do now? How will you live?” I barely choked the line out.

“As birds do, mother.”

“What, with worms and flies?”

That signed my demise. I often giggled when I was nervous. I was nervous about being thrust into a reading with Ron, and I began to giggle at the picture of him eating worms and flies that my mind had quickly concocted as a diversion. Ms. Murdock’s harsh reminder that I was reading the lines of a tragedy in which my husband had deserted me seemed more cause for celebration than concern, and I struggled mightily to contain my nervous giggling until I neared the end of the scene.

“Now, God help thee, poor monkey!”

It was too much for me. I was nine years old and from quite a strict upbringing. Calling someone a monkey amidst all this seriousness and murder was just too funny. All the pressure made it worse, not just from speaking in front of Ron, but from performing with him… I burst out laughing.

“Annie!” Ms. Murdock was not amused. “This is not a comedy! Start over again from the beginning and behave yourself!”

“What had he done, to make him fly the land?” I read, giggling again over the new images of flying monkeys from the Wizard of Oz now swirling in my head.

“From where Ronald’s lines begin!” Ms. Murdock shrieked.

I stared at her, frozen suddenly to dumb idiocy by her outburst.

“Sirrah! Sirrah!” She poked a finger at the page in her script where only she could see.

I found the spot with blind eyes and began reading again, but it was no use. I just couldn’t read my lines seriously and I giggled uncontrollably now. It didn’t matter what the words said anymore. The monkey line loomed at the end of them and I knew I would have to read it again.

When, “God help thee, poor monkey!” sent me into fits of laughter a second time, Ms. Murdock had had enough of me. She switched my part instantly with another girl named Clarissa, and so Clarissa played Lady Macduff, while I would play the part of the second witch (ironically a part I had envied once the play began) whose lines Clarissa had already read. I’m sure I understand Ms. Murdock’s reasoning. Don’t you? Second Witch has about the same number of lines as Lady Macduff, but they are mostly short, and sufficiently macabre to keep a young girl from giggling throughout her scenes. Right?

Act IV. Scene I. Double, double toil and trouble; fire burn, and cauldron bubble. Fillet of a fenny snake, in the cauldron boil and bake; eye of newt and toe of frog, wool of bat and tongue of dog…

Needless to say, I was not a part of the drama club anymore when the final cast performed Macbeth to an audience of very bored elementary school children, and their shocked, and somewhat outraged, parents.

© 2013 Anne Schilde

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About Anne Schilde

Image "Webster's Kiss" © 2011 Anne Schilde Thanks always for reading! ♥
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10 Responses to The Comedy in Tragedy

  1. joetwo says:

    We read Macbeth for our Leaving certificate English Exam. The teacher used to giggle to himself over some of the language that was used in it. It wasn’t just you Anne. Nicely done.

  2. rumpydog says:

    I would have laughed at the worms and flies too!

  3. I would have laughed too. Randy

  4. Nanda says:

    Annie,
    this is so great! I never wanted to be an actress.. And until now I have problems calling myself a writer. But you are both, yes you are! ❤

  5. Ermilia says:

    ‘Even now, as a writer, I call myself a literary actress who merely stars in paper movies.’ So awesome! It’s nice to think about it that way. Yeah, Shakespeare writes some pretty funny things. Even though the teacher had no sense of humor, at least Annie did. 😀

    – Ermisenda

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