After she was hired to “translate” Macbeth into an English that is “clear to the modern ear,” the playwright Migdalia Cruz took a trip to Scotland with her husband and daughter to visit Macbeth’s grave. “It took forever” to get to the Isle of Iona in the Hebrides where the Scottish kings are buried. When they finally arrived “we discovered that there were no particular graves; there were just mounds. So we went to the tour booth and asked them about Macbeth. They said ‘well, we’re pretty sure he is buried here.’
“So we went and visited 24 or 25 Scottish kings. One of them I trust was Macbeth and I paid homage to him. That is something I do a lot with my regular work, where I create altars of some kind to my characters. I wanted to know this person from the inside out.”
Cruz talked about her trip in the talkback after her translation was presented in a staged reading at the Classic Stage Company, one of the last of the 39 new Shakespeare translations presented at the Play On Festival, which ran through June 30th
In many ways the journey the playwright took to get to Macbeth, long before that trip to Scotland, was just as much of an adventure.
Growing up “poor and Puerto Rican” in the South Bronx, where Cruz says “we didn’t often go for entertainment,” she discovered Shakespeare when she saw Mickey Rooney playing Puck on TV (in the 1935 movie version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”) “I thought ‘What in the world is this?’” It wasn’t until high school “when I first was aware of exactly who Shakespeare was” and not until graduate school at Columbia when she felt she understood “the humanity” in the Bard’s plays. “The poetry can be daunting for Americans, who sort of look at that stuff and go ‘wow, it’s poetic.’ Even the English don’t understand most of it. It is just that the plays are performed so well by the actors, and the actors have done that background work of breaking down the script to make it understandable and human and emotional.”
She still has her notes from the class on the Semiotics of Shakespeare taught by Professor Bernard Beckerman “because it was so intense, so interesting to see how there were all these tropes in the plays that are resonant now – men dressed as women, mistaken identity, people being cuckolded, and the question: What is sexuality? Women can be attracted to women. It’s not just they think the women are men; they are attracted to someone who is gentle and kind.” It was through this course, she says, that she started feeling “entitled to Shakespeare.”
Before then, “it was easy to feel like ‘this is not for me.’ You didn’t typically see people of color invited in except as servants or spear carriers. People seemed to think it was impossible for a poor Puerto Rican to understand.”
So she was receptive a few years ago when Lue Morgan Douthit asked her to be one of the 36 American playwrights to participate in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s ambitious Play On project, a project I wrote about for TDF Stages. (How do you translate Shakespeare?) “She sent a list of plays that hadn’t been taken, and I was like
‘wow nobody took Macbeth.” Although she had never seen a production of the play, she had read it, “and that play resonated with me – the idea of a warrior; it was about ambition; I really love Lady Macbeth. I thought her part in the tragedy was unusual and extraordinary ”
Cruz focused on updating archaic phrases in the dialogue. For example, in Act IV, Scene 3 of the original text of Macbeth, Macduff says to Malcolm:
Let us rather
Hold fast the mortal sword and, like good men
Bestride our downfall’n birthdom.
Cruz translated this to:
Prince Malcolm, let’s
Hold fast our deadly swords, and like good men
Protect our fallen homeland.
Cruz left the famous speeches alone because she didn’t think they needed clarification. “Once you get into a monologue like, ‘Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,’ the emotion and heightened sense of urgency are there to make the language clear,” she explains
Engaging for some two years in the heavy lifting of translation – researching every single word, reviewing the historical context, working “often side by side” with her dramaturg, the Shakespearean actress, Ishia Bennison – Cruz came to several revelations. One of which came about because of the scene between Malcolm and Macduff, which is “a very dense, a very long argument” that is important to the plot — yet is often cut from productions. “I figured out that the reason people cut Shakespeare so often and cut it into shreds is because they don’t understand what the characters are saying. When you give clarity, it’s actually harder to cut . Now you understand why he put in a certain scene.”
This is one of the several defenses that Cruz shares with other participants of a project that has been criticized from the get-go for being at best unnecessary and at worst something close to a desecration. “It’s important for the plays to be clear so that they continue to be resonant in our time and for people who are new audiences. They can enjoy something not like we enjoy a museum, but like seeing a new play that is understandable and enjoyable and important.”
In truth, the Cruz version of Macbeth if anything felt more faithful to Shakespeare than any of the productions I can remember seeing of the tragedy over the last several years — such as the one starring Ethan Hawke upstaged by the set and three male witches, or the solo Macbeth starring Alan Cumming as a patient in a psychiatric ward, or the “Mac Beth” in May featuring seven teenage girls in parochial school uniforms.
Cruz admits she took some liberties with Shakespeare’s text. “I think that Lue understood that she had to give us some space in order to be creative. Otherwise, what was the point of asking playwrights? Why not just use Shakespeare scholars? We had to bring our own artistic integrity and flexibility to the project.”
Cruz wrote some new songs, she says, because Shakespeare took his songs from outside sources to begin with. “I had space to make changes in the witches because I felt that they were underwritten. They are powerful women who are controlling what’s happening, as opposed to weirdo hacks making predictions. I also wanted to give them a sexier language because I envision them as women of color who frighten people because of their sexuality.
“It’s a new gaze,” Cruz says. “I think the gaze of people of color and women and queer folk is very important for our time.”
If she took “Macbeth” on as an assignment, it clearly has bewitched her. She is now inspired, she says, to write a full-on adaptation (not a translation.) “I really want the witches to be in charge of the world.”