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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.

Fig 6. Edith Sitwell as Lady Macbeth, by George Platt Lynes.<br/><br/>© Estate of George Platt Lynes.
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Fig 6.

Edith Sitwell as Lady Macbeth, by George Platt Lynes.

© Estate of George Platt Lynes.

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).

Fig 7. Edith Sitwell as Lady Macbeth, by George Platt Lynes.<br/><br/>© Estate of George Platt Lynes.
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Fig 7.

Edith Sitwell as Lady Macbeth, by George Platt Lynes.

© Estate of George Platt Lynes.

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, MoMA curator Monroe Wheeler and his longtime companion, novelist Glenway Wescott, who read the role of Macbeth for the MoMA performances (Post, “To Read,” 136). Lynes, known for his work photographing Kirstein’s School of American Ballet (and for his high fashion photography), has gained posthumous recognition for the hundreds of erotic nude male photographs he sold and donated to the Kinsey Institute. He was also, incidentally, a lover of Wheeler [End Page 25] and Wescott for fifteen years, though not at the time of these photographs.58 So when this group of intertwined, queer, New York high art cognoscenti collude with the most famous British virgin since Queen Elizabeth to create a truly awful performance, it is difficult to dismiss the fiasco as simply a case of bad judgment or failed sincerity. Rather, the performance suggests a deliberate withholding of the sincerity that marks bourgeois engagements with “high art.”

Lynes’s complete series of photographs shows Sitwell performing the sleepwalking scene, wearing a gilt crown and a brocade cloak. Her hands dominate many of the photographs. Decorated in Sitwell’s trademark costume jewelry, they cover her face in shame, reach out in anguish, clasp together in remorse. Yet her face remains blank. Posed like a mountain, Sitwell is static and monumental (fig. 7). There is no interiority here, no repressed selfhood bursting through to consume her with guilt, unlike the most celebrated visual representation of Lady Macbeth, J. S. Sargent’s 1889 portrait of the actress Ellen Terry. Sargent’s painting emphasizes the dynamism of a woman on the verge of great power. With her arms raised in the act of putting a crown on her own head, dressed in a glittering gown made famously from the wings of thousands of beetles in order to catch and reflect light, Terry’s Lady Macbeth is frozen in a moment of total, active desire. The painting shows no trace of the final act’s broken Lady Macbeth, who kills herself offstage; the hungry expression on her face, however, underscores the tragedy of how much she wants and how far she is about to fall.

Sitwell and Lynes’s interpretation, by contrast, insists on stylization over character development. The halo from Lady Macbeth’s gilt crown makes her resemble an icon of the Empress Theodora, or a Virgin Mary. And like any good icon, she is devoid of subjectivity, serving instead as a blank screen onto which her viewers project their own desires. In their queer refusal of a depth model of identity, Sitwell and Lynes offer us a camp Lady Macbeth who also refuses guilt or shame. For this would-be queen, “out damned spot” becomes merely an issue of make-up or a wardrobe malfunction.

When Sitwell claims Lady Macbeth as an “ancestress” she perhaps means that the Sitwells descended from the historical figure who briefly ruled as king of Scotland in the eleventh century. But, of course, this is much more interesting (and plausible) figuratively. To claim Lady Macbeth as your progenitor is to suggest that your fame comes from helping others rise to a power you can never access. We could generate many biographical readings from this assertion. We could think about it in terms of Edith Sitwell’s place in her family, where her gender precluded her from the inheritances and titles her brothers got, or in terms of her work as an editor, mentor, and impresario for so many other artists. We could also draw a parallel between Lady Macbeth’s refusal (or inability) to perform maternal tenderness—the play is rife with allusions to infanticide, abortion, and misbirths—and Sitwell’s legendary virginity, a queer sexual identity inasmuch as it rejects fecundity as a condition of normative female gendering.

But really, the loveliest reason to claim Lady Macbeth as an ancestor is to imply that you, too, are ruthless in your ambition, even if you can only access that ambition sideways. Perhaps Sitwell’s performance camps this ambition, this striving, in her American audiences. Or perhaps she plays to (and with) American anglophilia, as she [End Page 26] charges enormous fees to perform a fantasy of highbrow Britishness. (That she does so in a postwar moment of British cultural decline and American ascendency further complicates this cross-cultural transaction.) Rather than a failed performance, then, her Lady Macbeth succeeds as a rebuke to bourgeois American aspirations to sophistication. [End Page 27]

Melissa Bradshaw

Melissa Bradshaw, whose research focuses on publicity, personality, and fandom in twentieth-century American literature and popular culture, teaches at Loyola University Chicago. Her book Amy Lowell, Diva Poet won the 2011 MLA Book Prize for Independent Scholars. She is currently working on an edition of Amy Lowell’s collected letters and a book on early twentieth-century female poets and material culture titled “Collectable Women: Ephemera and the Poetry Archive.”