Orson Welles and the Voodoo ‘Macbeth’ that launched his directing career

Credit: Library of Congress
That’s a hot ticket! (Photo Credit: Library of Congress)

Can you feel the feverish excitement in the air? This photograph from April 14, 1936, shows the crowded streets outside the Lafayette Theatre in Harlem on opening night for the Federal Theatre Project’s Macbeth, directed by a young Orson Welles. (He was only 20 years old!)

The Federal Theatre Project’s Negro Unit was a New Deal program under the Works Progress Administration that generated jobs in the arts for the black community during the Depression. Set in 19th-century Haiti, this innovative take on Shakespeare’s play featured voodoo drumming, colorful jungle scenery, and an all-black cast. The wildly successful production launched Orson Welles’s directorial career; it sold out in New York and then went on tour around the country.

America’s Shakespeare, a Folger Shakespeare Library exhibition on the many ways that Americans have made Shakespeare their own, features the photograph above, a poster, a program, and a costume design for the character of Malcolm—all on loan from the Library of Congress.

Later in his career, Welles returned to Macbeth; this film still from the Folger Shakespeare Library collection (not featured in the exhibition) shows him in the title role for a 1948 film adaptation of the Scottish play, which he also directed.

Orson Welles as Macbeth in Shakespeare's "Macbeth." 1948. Folger Shakespeare Library.
Orson Welles as Macbeth in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. 1948. Folger Shakespeare Library.

Visit America’s Shakespeare at the Folger Shakespeare Library, on exhibit through July 24.