- Lady Macbeth Goes to Hollywood
An iconic photograph taken at a party at New York’s Gotham Book Mart commemorates Edith and Osbert Sitwell’s first lecture tour of the United States in 1948, and, more specifically, Edith Sitwell’s triumphant performance of Façade at the Museum of Modern Art. The Sitwells, seated on chairs, stare with great dignity into the camera, relics of a high modernist moment several decades past, while American literati, including Marianne Moore, Tennessee Williams, and Elizabeth Bishop, gather around them, standing, kneeling, leaning against bookshelves, even hanging off a ladder, to fit into the frame. By all accounts, the tour was a success, with the Sitwells giving readings and interviews and being feted as literary royalty in parties around the city and across the country.
When Edith Sitwell returned to the United States two years later for the second tour, she had even bigger plans: more dates, and more cities, including a trip to Hollywood, where she would meet with George Cukor, who was considering a film based on her 1946 Fanfare for Elizabeth. Importantly, the attention would all be on her this time, as Osbert was by then too weak from Parkinson’s to participate. Lincoln Kirstein planned a staged spectacle starring Sitwell for the opening of her tour at MoMA, centered on a new poem he had commissioned her to write about the role of England in poetry, set to an original score and accompanied by dancers from his School of American Ballet. As Kirstein envisioned it, Sitwell would appear as “an Elizabethan Queen figure, partly conceived as a chess piece, partly out of Zuccaro.”56 When these plans fell through, in part because Stravinsky, Sitwell’s choice of composer, declined to participate, Sitwell insisted on taking the stage as Lady Macbeth to perform [End Page 23] the sleepwalking scene among others, though she was warned that this would be a bad idea. Asked why she chose to portray Lady Macbeth, Sitwell responded, “because she amuses me. Because the part suits my voice. And because she was one of my ancestresses” (Pearson, The Sitwells, 419). On stage, Sitwell declaimed Shakespeare’s lines in a loud, trilled monotone.
Sitwell’s baffling performance as Lady Macbeth, as well as photographer George Platt Lynes’s portraits taken in conjunction with that performance, offer provocative possibilities as camp modernism (fig. 6). The reviews were uniformly bad. John Mason Brown, for example, described her performance in the Saturday Review of Literature as “all boom and incantation, less designed for dialogue than for a Gregorian chant,… lacking in any emphasis except a maintained and indiscriminate overemphasis,” and complained that “Shakespeare had been murdered along with Duncan and Banquo.”57
The spectacle of the distinguished visiting British poet onstage at MoMA, costumed as a queen, both as Kirstein originally planned it and as it eventually went down, reads as campy in all the obvious ways: the elaborate costumes, the hammy overacting, the disconnect between Sitwell’s age and the role she’s playing (Sitwell was sixty-three). [End Page 24] She takes morbid pleasure in the doomed, crazed Lady Macbeth. Surely this meets Susan Sontag’s famously depoliticized definition of camp as a “love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration” and might also be an example of what she calls naïve camp, that is, art that attempts “a seriousness that fails” (“Notes on ‘Camp,’” 275, 283). But I find more fitting Moe Meyer’s assertion that camp is always, and only, a queer cultural critique, whose function is “the production of queer social visibility” (introduction to The Politics and Poetics of Camp, 5).
The camp spectacle of Edith Sitwell performing Lady Macbeth to an audience of elite New Yorkers (and later, Hollywood royalty) becomes even campier when put in context as a queer collaboration between Sitwell, George Platt Lynes, Lincoln Kirstein, and New York’s reigning power couple...