Macbeth Controversy
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           Michael Gwynn as King Duncan                                  The Weird Sisters

View the three films in John Barnes' Macbeth series:




John Barnes passed away on June 27, 2000. Two years before that time, I asked John to make an attempt to write his memoirs. In the ensuing months, he and I were in constant contact, John promising me that heíd have something for me soon, and a manuscript would arrive "as soon as I get this next idea written up". He soon encountered the challenge of his final illness, and was unable to write during his last difficult months. Frankly, I thought the memoirs issue a lost cause. In April of 2001, I visited John's wife Jeanne, who graciously allowed me access to Johnís files. John in fact had left a manuscript there, a wonderful document describing his career in film, keyed to seventeen letters either written by him or to him. The most intriguing of them were a series of letters describing the events surrounding his three Macbeth films (1964), starring William Squire and Michael Gwynn. Made for Encyclopaedia Britannica Films (EBF) , they offer a fascinating glimpse into the politics and pressures faced by filmmakers working at Encyclopaedia Britannica Films, and also are indicative of Barnesí personal involvement in quality film during his most productive years. 

I donít think Iíve seen any documents on the subject of the classroom academic film genre as impressive or informative as these; they are valuable to anyone interested in Shakespeare, the creation of an academic film, the forces surrounding the making and distribution of a film, or the battles fought by a creative artist in his stand for art against the exigencies of the corporate economic structure.

- Geoff Alexander

Additional note on the text:  I have left the grammar and spelling of these letters intact to as great a degree as possible.  Where additional identification of individuals is needed, I have [enclosed my comments in brackets] to differentiate from the parenthetical comments in the letters themselves.  Readers are requested to remember that these thoughts were put to paper by busy people in the height of passion, before the days of word processors... I can't imagine they ever dreamt that these letters would be under the magnifying glass of future historians or professors of grammar.  

The controversy begins with several paragraphs excerpted from a letter by EB president Maurice Mitchell to EB Films president Charles Benton on June 24, 1964:

Ö As for the Macbeth film, I feel more strongly about it now in retrospect than I did when I spoke up. In the first place, I repeat that I think the film was self-consciously photographed and edited, filled with optical tricks and self-indulgences that belong on commercial television with beer sponsorship and not in a highly professional series like EBF's Series. I do not think that [actor and co-director] Douglas Campbell was addressing high school students --- I feel that he missed the point of his audience entirely. He was a professional director --- a veteran of many years of theatrical experience --- speaking in professional terms to a professional audience. He was talking to John Barnes. To the EBF Advisory Board. To other playwrights and actors and producers --- never to high school students. This, more than anything else, offended me as I watched the film.

I know that there are great pressures from EBF's men in the field to keep these films entertaining, to make sure that we have lots of drama and action in them, to minimize the lecturing or to clothe it in attractive terms. I have already argued this case in another memorandum --- I remind you now that what happened with Macbeth is the inevitable result of a loose rein in this regard. It would be a great tragedy if the series degenerated into an entertaining Sunday evening lecture series for the whole family instead of the highly-disciplined attack on the Humanities that it started out to be. I will remind you also that your best friends can turn on you if this happens. It is not easy for most people to argue about the implications of an electronic microphotographic film shot showing chromosomes splitting in the process of mitosis. The audience takes everything you say in a film like this for granted, assumes that you know what you are talking about, accepts your judgments and says: "Gee Whiz!" when the big moment arrives on the screen. They simply don't do this in the Humanities field. Every English teacher is an expert on Macbeth, and after a while many students get to be experts too.

My observation has been that those in the high school and college faculties who deal in the Humanities have great inner tensions when they are faced with popularized versions of the materials they love and respect. Popularization is what I think is happening to the Humanities Series always assuming, of course, that the Macbeth I saw last Tuesday night is used as a symbol of a highly successful and praiseworthy film in that series.

___ . ___

Benton copied the above paragraphs from the Mitchell letter, and attached them to the following letter, which Benton sent to Barnes, written on June 29, 1964:

Dear John:

I send you the attached two memoranda with some hesitancy. Of course, a lot of this has nothing to do with the immediate project you are working on, but it occurred to me you might be interested in my thinking on some of the fundamental issues now facing the company.

I almost wrote you immediately after our management screening of the MACBETH films to tell you how great we all thought they were. As I mention in my memo to Mitch [EB President Maurice Mitchell], the praise was unanimous and vehement. I do feel, however, that Mitch may have a point in his question about the level of these films. We may love them, but will the typical high school student? Of course, we will know a lot more about this after a year's experience with them in the field.

The key question here is, why should we wait until after the fact? As you can see from the attached letter I have written to Kip [Clifton Fadiman, advisor to the Humanities series] our field Humanities consultant, Clark Burns, is going to set up a "reader" system on scripts with some of the most creative teacher-users we have uncovered through our efforts in the field. This should be very helpful to you.

In the meantime, I know you are working very closely with Kip as our Humanities "Editor and Chief" and I have been reading some of the critiques in making of your scripts as he has sent them on to me. I note particularly his comments to you of May 22nd on ĎThe Spirit of Romeí. Offhand, they make a great deal of sense. I am sure you will be discussing them with him in detail when he visits you in Rome this summer.

On this and subsequent films I think it would be most helpful if we had, in addition to the script, an outline of the basic objectives of each film and the structure by sequences, both

by ideas and visuals. I don't know whether you have seen the new Management Approval Procedures which Milan [Herzog, VP of Production] has circulated to his people here in Wilmette, but I do think they are not completely irrelevant to our efforts in the Humanities. I am attaching a copy for your information. While these general procedures must necessarily be adopted to the special needs and demands of your operation, I will require of Milan the above mentioned underlined points on all subsequent Humanities productions. This certainly should pose no problem for you.

I understand you will be returning to this country before the end of the year. I do hope you will let me know as soon as your plans firm up for your next trip to Wilmette. We would like to have you and Jeanne [Barnes, Johnís wife] over for dinner to get caught up on personal developments as well as those at work. I am very much looking forward to seeing you again before too long.

When you have time, I will be interested in your reactions to the enclosed.


Charles Benton-
cc: Mortimer Adler
Clark Burns
Kip Fadiman
Milan Herzog

___ . ___

Barnesí response to Charles Benton on August 10, 1964, is a forceful one, describing the steps he and co-director Douglas Campbell took to conceptualize and create the films;  it attacks people he perceived as dilettantes who could do very well at criticizing a film, while lacking the talent to create one of their own.  It is more than occasionally acerbic, and is an intelligent riposte to the verbal backstabbing, common at EB, that Barnes, from his home in Italy, could not easily deflect:

Dear Charles,

Thank you for sending me the copy of Mitch's memo concerning among other matters Macbeth.

You sent this to me "with some hesitancy" --- I reply with equal hesitancy, Nevertheless I reply.

I find [EB Board member] Newt Minow's proposal for a film on film (I suppose for the Humanities series) an interesting one, but my reaction is that one half-hour film will be totally inadequate to do any sort of justice to the subject. A qualified person can give a reasonable half-hour lecture on the film but to make a reasonable half-hour film seriously considering the film as an art form is next to impossible. It could be entertaining, of course, if properly paced and illustrated; but if any effort were made to present what ought to be presented it would be so packed with material as to be indigestible.

You may remember that the subject was on one of the out-dated lists of film for the Humanities Series . I believe the idea was to have four films. Certainly, nothing of much value can be done under two half-hour films

As for Mitch's comments on Macbeth, I can't quite see what he's driving at.

On the one hand he writes that Douglas Campbell was never talking to high school students, but to me, the EBF Advisory Board, other playwrights and actors and producers.

But, on the other hand, he says that the approach was "popularized" --- and belongs on television with beer sponsorship; meaning, I guess, that it just wasn't "a highly disciplined attack" on the play, and was superficial.

I suppose that Mitch is questioning the idea of having a professional classical director present a subject in the Humanities series, but as I recall, he and Warren sat in on the meeting in which the present batch of films --- Mortimer Adlerís, Gilbert Highet's, [scholars who had contributed to Barnesí Greek films] etc. --- was discussed, together with Macbeth. I presented a case for a director's interpretation of Macbeth --- rather than the scholar's (which we have had and will have again) on the basis that Shakespeare's plays are still living --- on the stage.--- and that it is in this way that interesting and often profound ideas about his plays are developed. Read the best scholars on Shakespeare --- Johnson, Coleridge, Chambers, Bradley, etc., --- and you will find them making constant references to what this or that actor or actress did in the part of Falstaff or Lady Macbeth or whatever; and since today's theatre is a director's theatre largely, contemporary Shakespearean scholars, if they are any good, know what Tyrone Guthrie or Michael Langham or Peter Brooks or Douglas Campbell do with the old boyís plays.

As for Campbell's ideas about Macbeth, they are, in my opinion, brilliant; he solves several problems --- seeing the play as a director --- which the scholars have never been able to solve. I could point them out to you, if I wanted to make this letter longer, but I have studied all the major commentators an the play and they simply haven't got a clue to some of the play's difficulties.

Campbell, incidentally, is by training --- and later marriage --- related to one of the great theatrical families of England. As a youth, he toured with Sybil Thorndike and Lewis Casson in Shakespeare, year after year, thinking about the plays, literally learning them by heart, trying this and that solution, this and that interpretation --- not as "self-indulgence and tricks", but as highly-disciplined, professional attempts to get at the heart of the matter. Later he became Tyrone Guthrie's associate, and is now with Guthrie in Minneapolis, where he has directed their best productions. The pupil has surpassed the master, some say.

Be that as it may, it was Campbell's theatrical background which gave him clues to several problems in Macbeth which are simply blind-spots to the scholars. For example, the text of Macbeth is one of the most difficult of the Shakespearean plays. It is full of holes, scenes are out of order, a lot of the speeches simply aren't by Shakespeare. It is Campbell's idea that the play was not printed by a manuscript --- or even a playscript --- but rather was written down as dictated by a group of actors --- Shakespeareís contemporaries --- in whose memories alone the play lived. If you start with this premise, you are likely to discover some interesting things about the play --- which Campbell in fact did.

So, if Mitch's idea is that a director cannot have anything interesting or significant to say to high school students about Shakespearean plays, he can say so of course; perhaps we ought to have got this reaction specifically to begin with on the scripts. But if he says that what Campbell has to demonstrate about Macbeth is not serious --- I feel that he simply wasn't looking at the film with an open mind. Campbell's approach is highly serious. It is not at the level of beer commercial or Sunday evening lecture. That just ain't true.

But, frankly, trying to understand Mitch's position has me confused: the film evidently is too difficult --- it's aimed at the intellectual level of the EBF Board of Directors, and not at the high school student, which seems to equate the Board of Directors with the average TV beer audience!

Well, anyway...

As for the problem of whether our Macbeth is above the level of the high school student. First of all, I can say that our Committee --- which includes three high school men (two of them principals who bring in their teachers to consider scripts) --- didn't think it was over the heads of teenagers. In fact, they thought it a highly instructive and stimulating approach. As for our other Advisors, a sample reaction to the scripts came from Dr. Hutchins [Robert Hutchins, Chairman of the University of Chicago, and advisor to Encyclopaedia Britannica]:

I think Mr. Campbellís scripts are highly instructive, as well as exciting. I would like to see these films made. I believe they would be widely used and much appreciated.

Another, from Dr Adler:

I read the Macbeth scripts yesterday afternoon with mounting pleasure and interest.

As a many-times reader of the play, I learned a great deal from them. They are genuinely instructive. I think they should be excellent teaching films at the high school level. A director's approach to the reading of Shakespeare has novel twists in it that make these scripts more interesting --- at least to me --- than an ordinary teacherís approach would be.

As for the problem of just what is, and what is not, an the level of the high school audience: I'm quite sure I am correct when I claim to have sat in on more screening of the Humanities films with high school audiences (from "under-achievers" to honors students) and never once did I hear that any of the films were intelligently too difficult; nor [did] I ever see any evidence of this. On the other hand, I did hear convincing comments that some of our teachers were on occasion "talking down" patronizing, insincere, over-simplifying --- in a word, phony at times. High school kids, I believe, can spot this instantly; a man is awfully exposed up there on the screen. Unless he's "leveling" --- intellectually and other-wise --- with his audience, they spot him at once.

I didn't feel that Campbell's approach was too difficult, and neither did any of our advisers. I think that he comes across as a highly serious and intelligent man, dedicated to his profession and highly competent in it. And the high school audience will go for him.

As for experts, I believe we can buy whatever opinions we care to buy on this matter of what is the "high school level". Our current batch of experts didn't think the scripts too difficult; I'm sure we could find others who would take the opposite view.

Mitch spoke glowingly of the EBF production on Wm. Shakespeare. When I proposed wrote, produced, directed, narrated, edited, and financed that film, I got the opinion of several experts and if I had listened to them I wouldn't have made the film. My opinion is that, as far as the Humanities go, if we (the Committee) don't know more about teaching on film than the miscellaneous experts we bring in from time to time we ought to get out of the kitchen and let somebody else do the cooking.  

We must trust our tastes and hunches and judgments --- and we must be willing to take a chance on making mistakes. I seem to recall that when I was making Shakespeare it was pointed out that how wrong I was.

I come now, at length to the subject of how Macbeth was produced.

Mitch writes that it was "self-consciously photographed and edited, filled with optical tricks and self-indulgences that belong on commercial television with beer sponsorship and not etc." 

In a word, I take it, "popularization".

Well, I donít know. Mitch has shown in the past that he is fairly well qualified to criticize the techniques of film-making. But obviously I don't agree with him in this case. Some of the things didnít turn out as well as I had hoped Ė that happens with every film; in fact, the only film which I ever really like is the one Iím going to do next.

But as far as the film being made as a "self-indulgence" --- thatís a rather harsh thing for Mitch to say. It was also reported to me that he said at the Board Meeting that I was trying to prove that I was a genius, or something of the kind. Since this is only a report, and may not be true, I will confine myself to the comment that if Mitch did say it at the Board Meeting I consider his conduct (in Peter Arno's words) unethical and lousy.

As for the techniques used, I don't t recall single one that has not been used in other films in the series.

There are, as a matter of fact, only three "opticals" in the films. We see the Apparitions through Macbeth's eyes: distorted, floating, dream-like. The result may be a failure, but we did not indulge ourselves in the attempt; we did our best to get across a point of view.

We see the Witches as Macbeth experienced them --- they appear in the room, materializing out of his black mood; he sees them now here, now there --- all around him. We cut quickly to give this impression. The results may be a failure, but certainly aren't evidence of any "loose reins".

When Lady Macbeth leaves Macbeth following the banquet --- the camera draws back and high to show Macbeth alone in his vast empty castle. The camera movement and the. Height, in my opinion, emphasize his terrible aloneness. The results may not come off, but not because we were indulging in filming masturbation.

The results may not come off --- but to accuse Campbell and me of playing with the medium simply to indulge ourselves doesn't "seem to me to be the sort of considered opinion Mitch generally comes up with. Campbell and I may have failed, but I don't think you could find two men more seriously trying to come to terms with a difficult masterpiece or working harder at it under conditions which most qualified film-makers would consider difficult at best.

But, --- in spite of the fact that I see many faults in the Macbeth films --- I still feel that they re the best in the series so far. I believe that this more or less was the opinion of all who saw the films at EBF; Milan wrote as much. It would seem that if Mitch is right --- and everybody else is wrong --- heís left behind in the film company a pretty sorry management group as far as the ability to judge films is concerned, But I prefer to think otherwise

With best wishes,


John W. Barnes
Executive director
Mr. C. Fadiman
Milan Herzog

___ . ___

Regarding the letter above, John Barnes wrote this memo to Geoff Alexander, some time in 2000:

Reading this over now, after these many years, I wish I had never written it. I'm not in the least proud of it, and perhaps should have simply written Mitch that I'd always respected his ideas and reactions (which was true) and would appreciate the opportunity to go over his criticisms with him -- and perhaps screen the film together. I would have learned something. I'm convinced of that. On the other hand, this was his first (and only) severe criticism, as I recall, of one of my productions. I could wish that he had taken it up with me before speaking of it to others. No reason he had to, of course.

Barnes' remorse is misplaced; I think he was proud to have written a letter that probably no one else at EB had the courage to write, and felt it important enough historically to include in his memoirs.  The plot soon thickened, as indicated below...

___ . ___

Charles Benton enthusiastically copied Barnesí letter to Mitchell, who responded to the director on September 15, 1964:

Dear John:

Charles Benton has sent me a copy of your August 10 letter which is concerned with your reaction to his report of my comments on the film we saw at the June Advisory Board Meeting.

I'm afraid I don't recognize my comments from the ones you make in your letter, which suggests that it is probably a dangerous thing to try to transmit anything of this sort through a second party. Since I should imagine that, having worked with me over the years, you would understand my approach to criticism reasonably well, I'll confess that I am disappointed in what I read in your August 10 letter.

I do believe that the Macbeth film is subject to some criticism, and perhaps the day will come when we will be able to discuss this face to face. As I've said above, it does seem to be the best way --- perhaps it's the only way.

I see nothing wrong with having a producer or director present a subject in the Humanities Series. I am troubled when the level of presentation seems to me to be different than the level which we have established in other films in the series. We do not believe that every school system interested in teaching the Humanities is going to use all these films. By producing a series on Macbeth as well as one on Hamlet [another Barnes series, produced in 1959], we offer some schools a chance to use one instead of the other. Since the Hamlet films were aimed at students who, broadly speaking, had three levels of understandings, it did seem to me that the Macbeth Series might very well follow that same pattern. You will remember that we assumed that some of the students who saw the Hamlet films would be able to read the play with great understanding and derive much stimulation from the lectures and the dramatic sequences. Some others would be able to read the play with some difficulty but with a great deal of understanding, and they would round out their response to the play by seeing the films. Others would not be able to read the play at all --- at least with very little understanding --- and would get their communication primarily through the films.

This does sound like a dreary cross section, I'll confess, but you will remember that we wrote the Teacher's Guides for the Hamlet and Oedipus Rex Series with this in mind, and these are, generally speaking, the most widely used films in the series. I have always liked them because they were so beautifully done and so faithful to their teaching assignments.

My objection was not to anything that Mr. Campbell said. It was simply to the fact that Campbell --- and the films --- tended to ignore the teaching requirements we established when we made the Hamlet and Oedipus films. I suppose that if we had made a Macbeth Series that paralleled in its treatment and teaching objectives the Hamlet films, the Campbell films would be a splendid second experience. I just couldn't see where a youngster who had struggled through Macbeth without getting much out of it could do much more with the Campbell films. You will agree that your own description in your August 10 letter of what Campbell was up to assumes something more than a struggle on the part of the viewer to understand what the play was about in the first place.

By the same token, my feeling is that certain filmic techniques might better be left out of these films --- particularly those that deal with dramatic material. I am referring here to special effects and tricks of the kind that were used to excess, in my opinion, in the Macbeth film I saw. I will agree that this is a matter of opinion and tastes, but you will agree that at screening sessions of this kind it is useful to have people express their opinions and indicate their tastes. I think you will also agree that I have not, in the past, taken any arbitrary attitude toward variations in taste and technique in Britannica's films. What troubled me in this particular film was the difficulty that I thought some students might have in understanding the use of these tricks. They are not suggested by the text. It is not always clear what you are trying to say, over and above what Mr. Shakespeare has said and what Mr. Campbell has said, when you toss them in. I think that learning is difficult, that the Humanities tend to seem overwhelming to many students, and that anything which disorients them or makes them feel that they should understand something that they don't, is detrimental to the effectiveness of the film.

I do feel that it is a proper function of the Britannica management and its screening group to raise questions of this kind. If I were producing Britannica's films, as you are, I would frequently indulge myself in special effects and other demonstrations of my own particular taste and interpretation, as a producer, of the visual material I was presenting. I would assume that some editorial opposition would develop, that some discussions would take place about this, and that, as in any well ordered editorial operation, there would be an application of the best editorial judgment. I do not regard your insertion of material in the films as being sacred and beyond criticism and discussion, and I think it is not only reasonable but quite understandable to suggest that you do indulge yourself. What creative artist doesn't?

Anyhow, I see no point in laboring the issue any further. I will confess to a deep disappointment in your suggestion (even behind the shield of Peter Arno) that my conduct in criticizing your film was "unethical and lousy." If you would like to avoid criticism, this is certainly the best way to do it. I have nothing at all to gain from criticizing any film --- the atmosphere when the Macbeth film was finished at the EB Films Advisory Board was one of great approval and it was not easy for me to introduce an element of critical comment --- and the work I do around here produces plenty of abuse without my seeking any gratuitous additions to the heartaches.

In a postscript to his reply of August 17 to your August 10 letter, Charles advises me that I should be happy to lose this argument, presumably because "we will sell more of the Macbeth films than any of our Humanities films for the next five years." This, of course, equates the Macbeth film with ĎBunny Rabbití [an elementary school film, one of its best sellers] --- and it seems to me to be a ridiculous comment. I still think that some of the greatest films you have made are not going to be the best sellers, but I would still make them again in exactly the same way and for the same reasons that supported the efforts in the first place.

I guess I'll just leave my glasses home next time.


Maurice B. Mitchell

P.S. Incidentally, I am not flooding the organization with carbons of this. This may make this a collector's item. It will surely be the only communication on this subject that doesn't have a circulation almost as great as the Chicago Tribune.

___ . ___

Barnes responded to Mitchellís letter on October 28, 1964:

Dear Mitch,

Sorry I haven't got to your thoughtful letter of September 15 sooner, but Mortimer [Adler, scholar, and sometimes Barnes' on-screen host] has been in town and we've been concerned with Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus.

Just as you don't recognize your comments from the ones in my letter to Charles so I don't see much resemblance between what was reported to me as your comments and your letter!

Mortimer, I think, placed the trouble -- and he said that no one else seemed to think of it. The third (and last) Macbeth film was shown by itself. The three Macbeth films build as a unit, and are closely inter-related. I believe that in the earlier films -- which are on a simpler level than the last -- there is something for all students, bright and dull alike; and that most students will be carried along through all the films, and will get a good deal from the last film.

Anyway, before we meet to discuss Macbeth I hope you will be able to see the three films in sequence.

I've always felt the after-dinner screenings for the Board not far removed from the level of a farce. I've seen many people doze through perfectly creditable films, and others wish they were. It seems to me that if the Board is to view films, they ought to do so when they're fairly bright and in a good screening room.


John W. Barnes

Executive Director
The Humanities Unit

___ . ___

After word from Geoff Alexander:

We'll probably never know how many copies Macbeth sold, but it was an artistic success of the first rank.  It remains, more than 35 years later, an uncompromising treatment on the theme, and exciting to watch.  The above letters prove that Barnes had to fight tooth-and-nail for the right to make films as he saw them; based on comments he made on other occasions, his terse and heartfelt letter, written to Mitchell on August 10, 1964, appears to be written as much to future viewers of his films as it was to the president of Encyclopaedia Britannica.

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