Saturday, April 16, 2011

Overlapping Scenes (Or, Who Knocks That Long?)

Watching a bit of Patrick Stewart's Macbeth yesterday, I was reminded of something I don't like about the Porter's scene. Whoever is at the door knocks *10* times. That's an awful lot of knocking. If you were at somebody's front door, you'd almost certainly give up before knocking 10 times. I realize that this is a castle, not a house, and that someone is surely home and just needs to wake up. That doesn't change the fact that the amount of knocking is jarring to me, it takes me away from the scene and makes me think "Somebody answer the damn door!"

Here's what came to me, though. The Macbeths hear 4 knocks before exiting, and then the porter hears 6. But what if the first knock that the Macbeths hear is really the same first knock that that the porter hears? They are almost certainly in two different parts of the castle, after all. See what I'm saying? What if these two scenes actually take place simultaneously? It's a common enough trick and you've probably seen it in any number of novels: one chapter shows you that a situation has changed unexpectedly, and then the next chapter, written from a different character's perspective, goes back in time a little bit and shows you how that character caused the change in whatever situation.

How might such a technique play out on stage? Could you even attempt to put both the Macbeths and the porter on stage at the same time, or would they step on each other's lines? If you don't, though, how do you explain that this is not a sequential series of events, but a simultaneous one?


Christian H said...

Have you read Thomas De Quincey's "On the Knocking at the Door in Macbeth"? Not only is it an excellent essay, even so long after it's publication, but it might have a bearing on your question.

However, that's not to say your question isn't a provocative one. I think it is. How does one present simultaneity on the stage? More importantly, how would (could) Shakespeare present simulataneity? I suppose one could use similar spoken references to the moon, constellations, etc., which are common enough in Shakespeare.

Alexi said...

It's an interesting thought Duane. It would certainly be workable in a film. The idea of simultaneous scenes presented sequentially, however, seems to be alien to early modern theatre (somebody correct me if they think of a counter example). The closest example I can think of is Richard III Act 5, Scene 3, which turns the two sides of the stage into different locations so that concurrent scenes can happen on each side (usually performed, as the text indicates, by alternating which side is talking at each point in time.)

The other thing to keep in mind is that Macduff really, really wants to get inside. The night outside is terrible: downpouring rain, screams of death in the air, chimney-toppling winds. Not a night you want to be outside in. Macduff's first line to the Porter, "Was it so late, friend, e'er you went to bed that you do lie so late," also suggests he resents being kept waiting. So I think it's quite believable that he would keep knocking until the gate was opened.