The Play In Performance

To this day, historians still debate the exact date of the premiere of Macbeth. It is widely agreed on that the play was acted after 1606 as it references many events that occurred that year. The first reference to Macbeth being performed describes a performance at the Globe Theater on April 20, 1611 – there is no further record of performances for many years.

In 1660, William Davenant adapted the play, making several major changes, including the introduction of dancing, singing and gibberish into the roles of the witches – who flew across the stage on machines. He also altered a great deal of the original text, adding entire scenes for Lady Macbeth. His adaptation remained popular until 1744.

In 1744, David Garrick revised Macbeth “as written by Shakespeare.” He cut many of Davenant’s additional scenes, but also added a few of his own, including an eight line death speech for Macbeth. He starred in the production as well. Worried that critics would not like his new adaptation, Garrick released an anonymous pamphlet, before the opening night, criticizing his own performance.

Sarah Siddons is the most famous of the English Lady Macbeths. She first played the part in 1785 and continued to do so until her retirement in 1812. Unlike actresses before her, Siddons reimagined the character and was able to arouse sympathy from the audience. Siddons’ performance remained legendary, even after no one alive had seen it. In 1888, over 100 years later, Ellen Terry played in the same role. Fearing comparisons to Siddons, Terry – who like Siddons was considered to be one of the best actresses of the time – brought femininity and grace to the role.

On May 10, 1849, rival actors William Charles Macready (British) and Edwin Forrest (American) played the role on the same night. That evening, a riot broke out between the rival fans, killing over 20 and wounding over 100. This infamous event would become known the Astor Place Riot.
Laurence Olivier performed Macbeth in 1955, starring with his real life wife, Vivian Leigh, who played Lady Macbeth.

Before he was a mutant or a wizard, Ian McKellen (Magneto in the X-Men franchise and Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings franchise) took on titular role in 1976. He would later go on to play the role again – this time on film – in 1979. X-Men co-star, Patrick Stewart (Professor Charles Xavier) played Macbeth in London’s West End in 2007.

Thomson Jaffe
Education Program Assistant