MacBird!: a history and feminist critique of Barbara Garson’s radical play

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Date

2009-05

Authors

Todd, Susan Gayle

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Abstract

Barbara Garson’s controversial play, MacBird!, was written and produced during the Vietnam War era and Johnson administration. The satirical Shakespeare adaptation equates LBJ with Macbeth, the villainous tragic hero who murders his king in order to gain the Scottish crown. The implication that Johnson was responsible for the assassination of JFK created a fury of controversy among critics and the public, as well as the political leaders who were parodied. The play was first published and circulated in 1966 as an underground leaflet. In 1967, it was produced off-Broadway with a cast that featured actors Rue McClanahan, William Devane, Cleavon Little, and Stacy Keach, who won an Obie Award for his performance of the title role. The show launched the careers of these actors. Critics were divided in their reviews of the play’s literary merit, but all seemed to agree that the piece was shocking and significant because it flew in the face of patriotism and of reverence for presidential authority. At the time of its production, acclaimed theater critic Robert Brustein named MacBird! “the most explosive play” of the Sixties theater movement. This dissertation presents the history of the play, within its social and political setting, from its inception through its production and abrupt disappearance at the peak of its success, which coincided with the assassination of Robert Kennedy. Relying upon methodology that includes primary and secondary sources, as well as interviews with the playwright and others involved in the play, this work presents the publication and production history of MacBird!, public and White House response to the play, a contextual analysis under a feminist lens, and a final chapter on MacBird! as a precursor to feminist adaptations of canonical works, Sixties-era Macbeth adaptations, and the notable women whose work intersected in MacBird! MacBird! was a tremendous event in theater history; it belongs at the fore of adaptation studies, particularly Shakespeare and feminist adaptation studies; it is a prime model of performance as a political tool and therefore earns a central place in performance studies; and because it is an attack on patriarchal power and a rare example of a Sixties radical play written by a woman, Barbara Garson needs to be recognized among remarkable women of theater.

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