White Trash Macbeth: Scotland, PA and the Deadly Seriousness of Comedy

[slightly re-tooled version of a paper presented at the 48th Annual Meeting of the Midwest Modern Language Association; 9-12 November 2006 in Chicago, Illinois]

To be human is to know both what one is doing and why one is doing it.
—Anthony Giddens, Modernity and Self-Identity

Sophocles said, “To never have been born may be the greatest boon of all.”
—Jonathan Rhys Meyer as Chris Wilton, Match Point

[view: clip from Woody Allen’s film Melinda Melinda, from beginning of movie, set in Pastis—restaurant in New York City—where two playwrights, played by Larry Pine and Wallace Shawn, are arguing about tragedy versus comedy. Their dialogue is as follows: “The essence of life isn't comic. It's tragic. There's nothing intrinsically funny about the terrible facts of human existence.” “I disagree. Philosophers call it absurd because, in the end, all you can do is laugh. Human aspirations are so ludicrous and irrational. I mean, if the underlying reality of our being was tragic, my plays would make more than yours, because my stories would resonate more profoundly with the human soul.” “But, it's exactly because tragedy hits on the truly painful essence of life that people run to my comedies for escape.” “No, no.” “Tragedy confronts. Comedy escapes.” A female companion interjects: “Look, you guys, what are we discussing here? Is there a deeper reality in comedy or tragedy? Who can make such a judgment?”]

My talk today is partly the result of my wanting to work out my guilt over the fact that, for several years now, in literature survey courses, I have just about stopped teaching literary conventions altogether, especially dramatic genre conventions, partly because I just don't think that's the right approach to get students enrolled in general education courses interested in literature, and partly because I have bored myself to death with the usual litany of classic definitions of things like comedy and tragedy. When I am teaching Sophocles or Euripides or Shakespeare, I just can’t bring myself anymore to have conversations with my students that begin something like, “so, a tragedy is a play in which everyone ends up dead at the end, but in a classical comedy, instead of death, you get . . . marriage!” Or, “in a tragedy, the main characters are kings and princes and generals who are really stubborn and arrogant and kill the things they love, whereas in a comedy, it’s just average people cross-dressing and swapping identities and getting lost in the woods, or at sea, and then clicking their red-shoed heels together and saying, ‘there’s no place like home’.” Another way of putting it is, “Tragedy is when bad things happen to basically good people, seen from the vantage point of those standing on the ground, alongside the victims, whereas comedy is the same situation seen from the vantage point of the lip of the heavens—situation drama for the gods, so to speak, who are laughing out loud at us and how absurd we really are when we get upset over love and death." As Alan Rickman, playing an angel in Kevin Smith’s film Dogma says, “of course God invented sex as a joke. Do you know what you people look like when you’re doing it?” This is also the comedy of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, when Troilus, after having caused a lot of suffering for himself and others, dies and ascends to heaven where he looks down at, in Chaucer’s words, “this litel spot of erthe, that with the sea / embraced is . . . and in himself he lough right at the wo / of hem that wepen for his deeth.” From my own days as an English student, the only information that I really retained on the subject was that a tragic character was someone who fell from a great height and therefore made a louder sound than anyone else when he crashed. Apparently, this fact was supposed to produce greater feelings of empathy in the audience, but I could never quite figure that out. As a twenty-something stoner, I could have really cared less about kings, or how much noise they made when they fell over. I just wanted Lear to put his clothes back on and stop whining.

Of course there are more sophisticated ways in which to discuss the matter. You can bring in Aristotle and talk about fear, pity, catharsis, and even the beauty of the tragic spectacle and the awe it produces. This can lead to some pretty nifty conversations with students about the uses, ethical and otherwise, both in the past and in our own time, of staged violence. You can discuss comedy as a form of gentle socio-ethical critique (and ludic, sexualized play) that, for all its Bahktinian upside-down energies, emphasizes community over division and chaos, and love over rancor and despair (and perhaps, à la Foucault, discipline over punishment, tradition over revolution), but in the end, whatever you can say about genre seems ultimately inadequate to the occasion of whatever play you might be reading at the time, which, if it’s any good, always exceeds the bounds of its so-called generic conventions, and can even be purposefully in tension with them. As Stephen Greenblatt has written, “It is possible for a playwright to be in tension with his own medium, hostile to its presuppositions and conditions, eager to siphon off its powers and attack its pleasures.”[1] Genre, finally, is just for the clerks at the video store who need to know where to shelve the videos. And if you want to have a discussion with students about genre in their own culture, you can stay in that video store and point out to them that the two most lucrative genres of video rental are horror and porn, which means they aren’t as far removed from Oedipus Rex as they like to think. And that about sums up genre for me on most days—in the classroom, at least, where, for the most part, I’ve learned to stop talking about it. Woody Allen, of course, has made humor out of the question and turned it on its head in his film Crimes and Misdemeanors, when the smug and arrogant television sitcom producer Lester, played by Alan Alda, says, “comedy is tragedy plus time. . . . Oedipus is funny—that’s the structure of funny. ‘Who did this terrible thing to our city?’ ‘Oh my god, it was me.’ See? That’s funny.”

It wasn’t until I first saw Billy Morrisette’s hysterical parody of MacbethScotland, PA (2002)—which is set within the “empire” of the 1970s fast food industry in the kind of economically depressed town where people never get out, that I began to sense that the question of genre was a much more deeply philosophical and important matter than I had so far taken it to be. It is, as the playwright’s friend says in Melinda, Melinda, a question of reality (“Is there a deeper reality in tragedy or comedy—who can make such a judgment?”), but it is also a question of morality, in the sense Terry Eagleton gives to that term in his book After Theory, where ethics “is about excelling at being human, and nobody can do this in isolation.”[2] Macbeth is, if anything, a play about morality, and it seemingly answers the question of morality in the soothing way audiences often want—murder someone, and you will get caught in one of two ways: either Macduff will chop your head off, or your conscience will get you and you’ll go insane. The act of murder itself is sane, even moral on occasion, and it can be justified any number of ways, as Lady Macbeth demonstrates, but it’s in deciding afterwards if you can live with yourself that the real fun begins. Or, as Diane Keaton’s Sonia says to Woody Allen’s Boris in Allen’s film Love and Death, as they’re arguing over whether or not to assassinate Napoleon, “You yourself said there is no right or wrong; it’s what you choose.” For me, though, the real tragedy of Macbeth has more to do with, not the murder of a king, but the murder of friends and the willful hardening of one’s heart that it requires. It’s that moment in the play when, upon hearing that Lady Macbeth is dead, Macbeth says “She should have died hereafter; / There would have been time for such a word”—for such a word. It has been said by many of the Hutus who participated in the Rwandan genocide that the first person they had to kill was very difficult indeed, even terrifyingly so. But after that, it was like chopping wood.

But what of Scotland, PA, in which, as the trailer tells us, murder is served up with a side order of fries? As it turns out, Scotland, PA is that rarest of forms: the tragi-comedy. It is lowbrow and highbrow combined—Shakespeare, as the director Billy Morrisette puts it, for high school stoners who read the Cliff Notes version—and much of the humor derives from the socioeconomic status of the Macbeths (Mac and Pat, played by James LeGros and Maura Tierney, respectively) who are, to put it mildly, complete losers working in a rundown diner, "Duncan's," or as Pat herself states it in the film, “We’re not bad people, Mac, we’re just underachievers making up for lost time.”

[ex tempore: discuss how film accentuates Mac’s powerlessness around Pat; how dark vision of original is lessened by Duncan, the owner of the rundown diner, "Duncan's," where Mac and Pat are employees, being “accidentally” murdered when, after being tied up and gagged by Mac and Pat in the course of a robbery, slips and falls face-first into the french fryer, and by how Mac does not kill Macduff’s wife and children, although he thinks about it, but “it’s not like in the old days; you can’t just go around killing everyone”; but the film is also darker in other respects: Mac kills Banquo himself with a shotgun, and we see Pat chop off her own hand, Titus-like, with a butcher knife; comedy comes in the form of lowbrow settings/kitschy 1970s atmosphere (Macbeths live in a trailer, hang out at a bar called “Witches’ Brew”), Bad Company soundtrack, Donalbain’s homosexuality (listens to Janis Ian), slapstick murder of Duncan, stoner “witches,” the Columbo-style police detective Macduff who is vegetarian (Mac tries to kill Macduff by stuffing a “Big Mac” down his throat and Macbeth dies after falling off the roof of the new, more slick restaurant, "Macbeth's," and being impaled on the bull steer horns on the hood of his Mustang), Macduff taking over restaurant and making it vegetarian —"home of the garden burger"—and the closing scene: a streaker runs by with an American flag while Macduff, in chef's hat, is chewing on a carrot]

I always tell my students that the moral of the movie is “meat is murder, and the vegetarians will inherit the earth,” but I tell them to note, too, that at the end of the film, the parking lot of “Macduffs,” “home of the garden burger,” is empty—therefore, it’s a hollow victory; ultimately, for all of its comic riffs on the original, the movie still contains at its core a tragedy (piles of dead bodies, uselessly murdered and self-mutilated) and the comedy mainly relies on relics of 1970s kitsch and lowbrow culture, as if to say, when you murder your king, who’s also your cousin, in medieval Scotland, that’s a tragedy, but if you murder your boss who owns the fast food restaurant in Nowheresville—the bad boss whom everyone dreams of killing—then it might be funny, but we sometimes forget, the Scotland of Shakespeare’s Macbeth is also Nowheresville, and saying that the character of Banquo is modeled on one of James I’s ancestors doesn’t make the stakes any higher than they are in Scotland, PA—if anything, both play and movie show how easy murder is, even when there is really nothing of substance to be gained, but we can all go to sleep at night knowing that murderers will always pay some sort of price for the terror they’ve wrought.

I began with Woody Allen, who, I have to confess, is my favorite modern philosopher, and I would like to end with him, especially because I think he has explored with his movies the essence of the comic and tragic vision of life in a profound way not really hit upon by either Macbeth or Scotland, PA, which, in the end, both lapse into the clichés of their respective genres: seemingly good guys go bad and kill, can’t rest content with the ill-gotten gains, get anxious and multiply their crimes, get caught and punished (often by execution), end of story. I want to conclude with a nod to Allen's two tragic masterpieces, Crimes and Misdemeanors and Match Point, in which people—both literally and figuratively—get away with murder. In Match Point (2005) a kind of take-off on Dreiser’s American Tragedy and Billy Wilder’s A Place in the Sun combined (with a little Zola and Dostoevsky thrown in), we have Chris Wilton, played by Jonathan Rhys Meyer, a tennis pro who ingratiates himself with a wealthy family in London and marries their daughter, Chloe Hewett, but not before also having a torrid affair with his wife's brother's ex-fiancee, Nola, an American actress, played by Scarlett Johannson, who gets pregnant and threatens to reveal the affair, which would upset Chris’s so-called perfect life (that he doesn’t really love his wife is beside the point, because they have such a beautiful apartment overlooking the Thames and high-priced original art on the walls). Chris kills Nola, of course, as she is coming home to her apartment after work, as well as an elderly downstairs neighbor (to make it look like a botched robbery), and with a double-barrel shotgun, no less, borrowed from his father-in-law’s estate. In other words, this is murder with a big bang, and Chris shakes and sweats almost hysterically as he squeezes the trigger more than once, and also weeps afterward as he is riding in a taxi to meet his wife at the theater. He gets away with it, but in a kind of dream sequence (which is also dramatization of the spectral pangs of Chris’s conscience), Nola and the neighbor appear in his study and ask him to account for what he did to them. Chris’s response is that, “It wasn’t easy, but when the time came, I could pull the trigger. . . . You can learn to push the guilt under the rug, and go on—you have to.” As to the neighbor’s claim that she was a complete innocent in the whole affair, Chris’s response is that “the innocent are sometimes slain to make way for a grander scheme.” To Nola's taunt that the murder was so clumsy, that he should “prepare to pay the price,” Chris says, “It would be fitting if I were apprehended and punished; at least there would be some small sign of justice, some small measure of hope for the possibility of meaning.” Chris is not, in fact, caught, and his final words on the entire matter, which actually serve as a voiceover at the beginning of the film, are, “The man who said I’d rather be lucky than good saw deeply into life.” Chris acknowledges that there is guilt, but also that it can be discarded or shoved "under," with some effort. Which is also to say, that if we want to or believe we have to, we can discard each other and what we mean to each other.

In Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), Judah Rosenthal, played by Martin Landau, is a successful opthamologist who also has a little mistress problem, which he solves by asking his brother, a thug, played by Jerry Orbach, to “handle the matter.” This involves hiring someone to kill her in her apartment and make it look like a robbery. Just before calling his brother to authorize the killing of his mistress, Judah imagines a conversation with his rabbi, Ben, played by Sam Waterston, who is trying to talk him out of making the call. He says to Judah, “I couldn’t go on living if I didn’t feel it with all my heart—a moral structure, with real meaning and forgiveness, and some kind of higher power; otherwise there’s no basis to know how to live.” Further, he says to Judah, “It’s human life. You don’t think God sees?” To which Judah responds, “God is luxury I can’t afford.” “But without the law,” Ben says, “it’s all darkness.” Because Judah was raised in a deeply observant family, he does have attacks of conscience . . . at first. After the murder is committed, and while feeling the guilty pangs of what he has commissioned, Judah visits his childhood home in Brooklyn and Allen inserts a fantasy sequence whereby Judah can see himself as a young boy at a seder dinner from his past, where his aunt May, an atheist school teacher, is arguing with his father, Saul, a devout Jew, about god and morality:

May: Are you afraid if you don't follow the rules God's going to punish you?

Saul: He won't punish me, May. He punishes the wicked.

May: Oh, who, like Hitler?

Saul: May, how can you say that?

May: Six million Jews burned to death and they got away with it!

Saul: How did they get away with it?

May: Ah, come on, Saul, open your eyes! Six million Jews, and millions of others, and they got off with nothing!

. . . .

Relative 2: So, what are you saying May? You're saying you challenge the whole moral structure of everything?

May: What moral structure? Is that the kind of nonsense you use on your pupils?

Relative 2: Do you not find human impulses basically decent?

May: There's basically nothing!

. . . .

Relative 2: What are you saying, May? There's no morality anywhere in the whole world?

May: For those who want morality, there's morality. Nothing's handed down in stone.

Saul's Wife: Saul's kind of faith is a gift. It's like an ear for music, or the talent to draw. He believes, and you can use logic on him all day long, and he still believes.

Saul: Must everything be logical?

[at this point, even though this is a fantasy sequence, Judah enters the conversation, while standing in the doorway]

Judah: If a man commits a crime, if he kills?

Saul: Then one way or another, he will be punished.

Relative 3: If he's caught, Saul.

Saul: And if he's not caught, that which originates from a black deed, will blossom in a foul manner.

Relative 3: You're relying a little too heavily on the Bible, Saul.

Saul: No, no, no--whether it's the Old Testament or Shakespeare, murder will out.

Judah: Who said anything about murder?

Saul: You did.

Judah: Did I?

May: And I say, if he can do it and get away with it, and he chooses not to be bothered by the ethics, then he's home free. Remember, history is written by the winners. And if the Nazis had won, future generations would understand the story of World War II quite differently.

At the end of the film, and after some time has passed and Judah is obviously not going to "pay" for the murder of his mistress, Judah recounts his own story, as a third-person impersonal narrative, which he thinks would make a great movie, to Woody Allen’s character, Cliff Stern, a documentary filmmaker, whom he has just met at the wedding of the rabbi Ben's daughter, where they are both guests:

Judah: My murder story has a very strange twist. [After the murder], suddenly it’s not an empty universe after all, but a just and moral one. Now he’s panic stricken . . . . an inch away from confessing, but, he’s not punished. In fact, he prospers . . . . Now he’s scott-free; his life is completely back to normal, back to his protected world of wealth and privilege.

Cliff : Yes, but can he ever really go back?

Judah: Well, people carry sins around with them; maybe once in a while he has a bad moment, and in time, it all fades.

Cliff : Well, then his worse beliefs are realized.

Judah: Well, I said it was a chilling story, didn’t I? . . . This is reality—in reality, we rationalize, we deny, or we couldn’t go on living.

Cliff : Here’s what I would do: I would have him turn himself in, because then your story assumes tragic proportions, because in the absence of a god, or something, he is forced to assume responsibility himself. Then you have tragedy.

Judah: But that’s fiction, that’s movies—you’ve seen too many movies.

It all goes back, finally, to whether you define your ethics as a lone actor who can choose not to be bothered by the suffering of others, or as Eagleton, argues, with others who are bound to each other in a “privileged realm in which the Other turns his luminous face to us and places upon us some inscrutable but ineluctable claim.” Tragedy is, finally, about the willed, if even pained, refusal of this claim.

1. Stephen Greenblatt, Shakespearean Negotiations (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), p. 14.

2. Terry Eagleton, After Theory (New York: Basic Books, 2003), p. 142.