With the first lines of Scotland, Pa
writer/director Billy Morrissette simultaneously recognizes the powerful heritage of MacBeth's witches and the pressing need to distance his depiction from traditional representations in order to reclaim the complex and subtle significance of these characters. In this paper, through examining the ways in which Morrissette transforms MacBeth's witches, I hope to elucidate the significance of adaptation as an act of radical reinvention, an act that extends far beyond the retelling of a story to the status of reclamation. I argue here that in Morrissette's reconstructing of MacBeth's weird sisters, he attampting to reclaim an originary sense of these characters and their role within the tragedy that has been largely lost to current audiences.
The film opens. We follow an anonymous man as he closes a gate at a now empty traveling fair. We are left alone in the dark at the platform of the Ferris wheel. A bucket of fried chicken falls from above and we hear voices, presumably from unseen people perched in one of the ride's cars, mumbling laments for the loss of the chicken. The camera pans upward and finds three hippies -- played by Andy Dick, Amy Smart, and Timothy Levitch -- seated tightly together with what we must assume to be marijuana smoke circling their heads. One speaks, "The fowl was foul." Another, "And the fair was fair." They proceed to play with verbal variations back and forth. "The fowl was fair, The fair was foul," until Andy Dick interjects "My ass hurts," To which Timothy Levitch responds, "I don't think that one works," and we proceed to the opening credits.
These are Billy Morrissette's witches, reincarnated in small-town Pennsylvania in the 1970s. MacBeth's witches, as constructed in the early 17th century can no longer be our witches. Let us put aside the problem of the five-hundred years of reading and performing this play that has firmly positioned Shakespeare's weird sisters, along with their double-speaking prophecies, in the cultural consciousness of the English speaking world. If for no other reason, we cannot see MacBeth's witches because we have dressed up for Halloween, read Grimm's Fairy Tales, and seen the Wizard of Oz. We know ugly witches and old crones, and we know their attending evils. These can never be the liminal creatures cloaked in the ambiguities of the world that Shakespeare provided to audiences. Thus Morrissette provides us with his own marginal beings living on the outskirts of society, the hippies as a reclamation of the position and sense of Shakespeare’s trio rather than their being.
In this first scene we find Morrissette adapting the seemingly paradoxical initial riddle of the weird sisters to a new ambiguity, one which reinvests the audience within the language play, and its cultural position that is in many ways rendered ordinary to us in the original riddles. In the act of playing each word, "fair" and "foul," against itself, rather than against each other, Morrissette places us within an uncertainty with regard to words in a way the oft-memorized final couplet of the witches — "Fair is foul and foul is fair, Hover through the fog and filthy air" — no longer can. The riddle is no longer how something can be simultaneously fair and foul; instead we are thrust into a consciousness of the multiple significations of words themselves. Language, in its very being, is our riddle. At the same time, though this overt reference to the original we are resolutely assured that this film is indeed, at its core, MacBeth, signaling us to be aware of the processes of adaptation to follow.
So, who are the weird sisters? As Stephen Orgel writes in his introduction to the play, "The witches live outside the social order, but they embody its contradictions." As Banquo observes, "You should be women, and yet your beards forbid me to interpret that you are so." They are of indeterminate gender, which functions as an outward sign of both the ambiguity of their language and of their being. This is the essential position of these characters, that they are indeterminate, again a position the ugly witch — as we see her today — cannot hold, a position Morrissette must reinvest them with if they are to hold the pivotal position they once held.
Let us skip forward to the initial meeting of Morrissette's MacBeth and the hippies to follow the reconstruction of these characters. MacBeth, called Mac by his friends, leaves the local bar — The Witch's Brew — drunk. He wanders through a field to find, apparently to his surprise, the seemingly empty fair. Our two male hippies are playing with the syllable "Mac" terminating in a tangential digression concerning macramé until they greet Mac, "Hey Mac, would you like some wacky tobacky, Macky?" Mac declines, citing his drunkenness, but smokes anyway. One hippie advises "Next time you should go home with your wife, Mac," the other chimes in, "Or any loved one," which leads to yet another digression playing on Stephen Stills'song Love The One You're With
This lyrical quotation, within the reconstruction of the witches, is doubly important. First, it brings a new form of ambiguity to these characters. Are the words in this song of any real significance here, or are they merely the mimicry of a piece of popular culture? For Morrissette's hippies, the line between original speech and mimicry is perpetually blurred, a phenomenon that will recur throughout this encounter, carefully placing the hippies outside of society but deeply embedded within culture. Secondly, Morrissette recognizes the entertainment value the witches originally held. As Orgel points out, "By 1610 or so witchcraft, magic, and the diabolical were good theatre business." Audiences would have been entertained by these witches even as they played their mystical part, which may in part explain the two expanded songs that were added to Shakespeare's original text sometime after the original writing of Macbeth. Here Morrissette nods at these songs and reinforces the hippies' dual role within the framework of this tragedy.
This song also leads us to a further revelation of the hippies' ambiguity; it prompts Mac to ask of them, "You guys together?" To which Andy Dick responds, "Ha. He wishes. No, our girlfriend is here." The gender ambiguity of the original witches is reconfigured here as a sexual uncertainty. While the hippies are quite definite in their gender, they present a uniquely ambiguous sexual entanglement, one which involves possible, if not actual, homosexuality — a position firmly reinforced by the casting of the openly bisexual Andy Dick — as well as an indeterminately shared heterosexuality. How should the audience define this sexuality of the hippies? Further, how should Mac himself interpret this relationship? For us, the ugly witch is still a witch, hence a woman. We have a strong witch/warlock division. In fact, for current audiences, homosexuality, cross-dressing, or transgender are all known, and, at least superficially, categorizable. While these positions may be marginal for a mainstream audience, they are recognizable, and for this adaptation to work the hippies must resist any such categorization, float between positions, or at the very least perpetually hold multiple positions.
As Mac is brought into a carnival tent to have his fortune told by the third hippie — Amy Smart, the ambiguously shared girlfriend — the language problematics developed by Morrissette begin to fully reveal themselves. While Mac sits before the fortune-teller, the two other hippies are calling out the name Anthony. Though through the internal logic of this encounter they would seemingly have no reason to have plucked this name from the air, it would appear that they are invoking the missing Banquo who, by rights, or at least via the original text, ought to be present. Instead, our Banquo, Anthony Banconi, is passed out drunk in the back of his truck. While this invocation would appear to lend credence to the mystification of the hippies, or at least their prophetic powers, Morrissette later frustrates this interpretation by slipping in the famous Prince Pasta commercial of the time in which an Italian mother is heard calling her son home from the streets of Brooklyn for dinner with sonorous calls of his name from her apartment window, “Anthony! Anthony!” The very texture of the mother’s call is mimicked by the hippies, again calling into question the origin and purpose – or perhaps purposelessness – of the hippies’ speech.
This invocation of Banquo also links itself to the seemingly coincidental recognition of Mac at the beginning of the scene, which Mac himself considers as he is being led to the fortune-teller’s tent. He asks of the hippies “How did you know my name? Which stops the pair of male hippies for a moment. “Wait a minute. You mean your name is really Mac?” “I thought we were just saying it like you say it.” “And the hippies banter back and forth again, “I know. Like watch your step Mac.” “Or up your Mac.” Etcetera, etcetera… Morrissettte carefully constructs moments of apparent omniscience for his hippies to reclaim the inherent mystification that, to again quote Stephen Orgel, “for Shakespeare’s audiences,” would already be build into the weird sister’s “physical appearance.” In order for Morrissette to produce genuine uncertainty with regard to his hippies this mystical potential must be plausible at the same time that it is rendered accidental, the fragmentary meanderings of minds under the influence; their speech must be inexplicable at the same time as it is explainable.
Let us move back to the fortune-teller’s tent and the third hippie’s prophecy. Here, in Scotland, Pa
, there is no kingdom. It is the seventies in a small town in Pennsylvania and Mac and his wife work at the local burger joint, Duncan’s. While there is indeed a prophecy here which seems to set into motion the killing of Duncan (the owner, and figurative king, of the restaurant) along with the flight of his son Malcolm, what is most interesting within the scope of this paper about this prophetic encounter is the manner in which it establishes Mac’s relationship with the Lady MacBeth, Pat. The fortune-teller asks, ”You haven’t been very happy have you Mac?” – not a hard call when presented with a married man wandering drunkenly through the woods and field before stumbling upon a long closed fair. “Failure’s kinda cute in your twenties. Even though you ain’t got money, She’s so in love with you honey…” Here we have the second invocation of a song by the hippies – Anne Murray’s Danny’s Song
– perhaps a further nod to the witches' two songs in the play, but also, and more importantly, a deeper investment of the hippies’ words into the popular cultural fabric of the world around them, further problematizing the originality of the hippies’ speech, the authenticity of their prophetic abilities.
“Not so cute in your thirties is it Mac!?” shouts the fortune-telling hippie, but these words are not in her own voice. She speaks in the voice of another of the hippies. Is this an introduction of a gender ambiguity? The fortune-teller can seemingly speak as either male or female. Or is this a further entanglement of the hippies’ relationship extending beyond their complicated sexual manifestation to shared voices, an interchange and exchange of positions that parallels the weird sisters’ ability to finish each others’ lines in an extrasensory communication at the same time that it subtly links these hippies to the Graeae with their shared eye, further enhancing the hippies’ mystification.
The fortune-teller continues, “Now honey wants the money and there’s no reason to stop now. Screw management; you can do better. Don’t you think you deserve better? Don’t you think she deserves better?” Again, none of this demands a particularly prophetic explanation; any half-decent fortune-teller of the parlor trick variety would say much the same to a man in Mac’s position – though probably not in the psychedelic verging on surreal manner of this encounter, but this scene deftly invokes the complex relationship between MacBeth and Lady MacBeth which leads to regicide, her desire and his impotence; it quickly invests Mac’s situation with a sense of the fatedness that is necessary within the weird sisters’ prophecies; it calls forth the overleaping of position “Screw management; you can do better” which demands the death of Duncan, and does so within the context of that seemingly mystical omniscience which Morrissette has carefully constructed for the hippies.
Though this scene contains interesting degrees of fidelity to the original text – a full discussion of which is beyond the scope of this paper – what may be most significant is Mac’s final response to the fortune-teller’s words, “What is this?” While Mac earlier in the scene remarked, “This is kinda weird,” (Of course it is weird; these are his weird sisters in all the richness of the word weird). His response also foreshadows a significant future possibility with regard to the hippies: are they really there? We must remember that Mac is currently drunk, not just inebriated, but mind-shatteringly intoxicated. As the film progresses the reality of the hippies becomes more and more implausible: they appear out of thin air and vanish; Mac answers a phone and speaks to them though the phone never rang; others apparently cannot see them. While this may be because they are in fact mystical creatures – they do seem to have a preternatural comprehension of Mac’s circumstances – it is also the case that they only appear to him when he is staggeringly drunk. After developing a carefully elaborated ambiguity between the mystical and the mundane surrounding the hippies in the early scenes of the film, Morrissette then pulls the audience along another axis of possibility, an uncertain relationship between the magical and the delusional. While Banquo was present to bear witness to MacBeth’s witches, characters whose existence for Shakespeare’s audiences would be unproblematically real, within the rational space of the twentieth century their very being must be subverted, or at least be made unclear. Morrissette doubles the outward interpretive ambiguity of the hippies' words around this second indeterminacy that revolves within the inward problem of Mac’s mind. Thus our understanding of Mac's madness becomes more uncertain, which in turn complicates our understanding of the relationship between MacBeth and Mac. While Mac’s murder of Duncan, along with his subsequent murder to protect his secret, outwardly seem to cause his madness and eventual death, in this new framework that Morrissette constructs, one in which the arrival of the possibly hallucinatory hippies precedes the madness-inducing murders, we are left in a further level of ambiguity. At every turn Morrissette frustrates our ability to synthesize an ultimate determination.
Even as the film speed towards its inevitable conclusion with Mac’s death at the hands of MacDuff, Morrissettee maintains the hippies’ ambiguity. Whereas MacBeth has his seeming assurances for the witches of Birnam wood and men of woman born, Mac simply assures us, through speaking to Pat – the Lady MacBeth – that “They told me everything is going to be okay.” Here Morrissette verges on playing coy with the audience by offering an unmistakably ambiguous ethical position for the hippies. Of course it will be okay, but for whom? Just as a battle is, indeed, lost and won, here Morrissette insists on reinforcing this ultimate aloofness on behalf of the hippies, as is finally exemplified as the hippies appear and watch with amusement as Mac dies at the hands of the police Lieutenant MacDuff – though seemingly innocently unaware of the mortal problematics, as if it were, indeed, merely a theatrical spectacle. Here again we see Morrissette’s reclamation; for us witches, at least the ugly ones, are evil, and, as such, must in part be the root of MacBeth’s downfall, but here, in Scotland, Pa
, the hippies relationship to Mac is rendered ultimately ambiguous: they do not speak in riddles, but we cannot be sure what they mean; we can recognize them, attempt to categorize them, but can never be sure who, or what they are. Indeed this reclamation of Shakespeare’s witches allows current audiences all new access to the intricacies of the original text, to the problematic circumstances of Mac as MacBeth.
Hence we can see that the hippies of Scotland, Pa
are able to reclaim the weirdness of Shakespeare's weird sisters, as well as the linguistic complexity at the core of the word "weird" itself, derived from the Old English "wyrd" which ranges in meaning from "inescapable fate" to simply "stuff that happens." The hippies incarnate this original ambiguity, their cultural liminality allowing them to function as indeterminate signifiers in a way similar to Shakespeare's originals. Morrissette's hippies exemplify radical adaptation's capacity to restore the original significance of a source text, clearing away centuries of accrued assumptions while updating the text for a new cultural moment.