My father was a Shakespearean actor. He played Macbeth.
My father is elderly and not allowed in New York. He was called on the phone by Maxine Doyle. We used an old telephone with a plastic receiver.
—is this Pat Barba?
My father held the phone and stood by the glass. We had a large window in the house. My father watched me for my eyes. After a deal of struggle, I affirmed.
—we have a ticket to Shanghai.
My father often wears his many rings, each representing a performance with his theater. They crackle against the telephone receiver, like many metal little spiders. My father’s eyes have hollowed. His lips move like the birth of life at recognition, and then his eyes in an instant flash white like the heads of two trains.
—petty pace, petty pace, petty pace, says my father.
“Sleep No More”, which premiered in New York City in 2011, is a production of Macbeth split between five floors in the New York, the McKittrick Hotel, 530 West 27th Street, New York City. “不眠之夜,” which premiered in Shanghai in 2016, is a production of Macbeth split between five floors in the McKinnon Hotel, 101 West Beijing Road in the JingAn District of Shanghai.
“Audiences move freely through the epic world of the story at their own pace, choosing where to go and what to see, ensuring that everyone’s journey is different and unique. Sleep No More features a cast of 30 performers. The show plays out across three hours in 90 cinematically detailed rooms ranging across the five floors of a vast disused building in the Jing’an district” (smartticket.com).
Guests wander at their leisure floor to floor, while each floor imitates a different scrap of Macbeth. Sleep No More is “deprived of nearly all spoken dialogue” (Wikipedia). “Deprived of nearly all spoken dialogue.” What if it weren’t? What if “Sleep No More” were word for word? What if Macbeth, Macbeth itself, were split through five floors?
We arrived in Shanghai. My father found himself in a mirror and asked for my help. My father heard his own voice in a vastly empty room. I took my father in a cab and he could not take his eyes off his own fingers in his own lap. He has a ring for every Banquo. It is like he is grabbing a pile of coins. He does not understand if it rains on his head. Given his frequency for need of the bathroom, I have given him to wear beneath his charming corduroy trousers. I routinely hold his hands, though always doubtful whether they are clean. Moments of lucidity include: speaking into the eyes of a young black-haired porter, “Though bladed corn be lodged and trees blown down;” and to a woman frying meat, “Though castles topple on their warders’ heads,” and to a wall, a blank wall with nothing on it, around it or behind it, a wall of white, limitless proportion, my father stared and said, “Even til destruction sicken; answer me.” He is seventy-nine years old, my father.
If the Shanghai production is split between five floors, then Macbeth would need to be split in five parts. There are five acts in Macbeth. Each act might be played on loop on each floor. Act 1; Floor 1. Act 2; Floor 2. And on. But these noir productions are split in an insanity between many rooms. You may enter at any time, shut your eyes at any time, plunge through the door at any time, slink away at any time. Actors on each floor must continually act out their fifth of Macbeth, must play simultaneously their own fifth from start to finish, running again and again, every twenty-four minutes.
If we went into each floor and watch each fifth of Macbeth, bottom to top, we would see the entirety of Macbeth in the order Shakespeare intended (only missing thirty seconds in between on your way up each flight of stairs). Two hours total, two hours standing, two hours wandering, completely disjointed: the murder of Young Siward, then the murder of Duncan, then into the murder of Banquo, then the death of Macbeth, then of Lady Macbeth.
I dried my father’s head upon exiting the cab at West Beijing Road and led him into an awning of steam. There, I asked as to the entrance of the McKinnon Hotel.
Wikipedia: “Guests enter the hotel through large and (save for a small plaque outside) unmarked double-doors on W. 27th Street, and travel down a dark hallway, where they check their coats and bags. Giving their name at a check-in desk, they receive a playing card as a ticket and are ushered upstairs to a brief, dimly-lit maze. Many guests see this maze as the ‘portal’ back in time, for upon exiting they find themselves in a gaudy, richly decorated and fully operational 1930s hotel jazz bar, the Manderley. After a time, numbers corresponding to guest’s cards are called. They receive their masks and file into a freight elevator, where their journey begins.”
My father, entranced by the atmosphere of Macbeth, plummeted with more verve than I had known in thirty years, into the red and velvet of the McKinnon hotel and I lost track of him completely. I ran after him, scaling the stairs, seeing the production of actors in silence and spectators in Chinese, which my father speaks no word of. I plunged in after him, but was lost immediately to the blending shadows of Chinese fairy tales, noir, and Macbeth. My father, however, was completely at home. Whatever floor he travelled to in that time, I am sure, he blended in completely, maybe even overshadowed other Macbeths.
If the Shanghai production were not split by act but by scene, then we would need twenty-eight floors for twenty-eight scenes. Because Macbeth appears in seventeen of those twenty-eight scenes, we would need seventeen actors playing Macbeth, each acting his own scene on his own floor. There should be no actor Macbeth on floor one because there is no character Macbeth in scene one. Scene three, floor three: enter Macbeth.
Would we have enough space?
I consulted with a woman in the steam and found that there are at least ninety-four commercial buildings in Shanghai with over thirty-five floors:
-Shanghai Tower has 128 floors.
-Shanghai World Financial Center has 101 floors.
For the twenty-eight-floor, floor-by-scene production of Macbeth, audience members climb up to the seventeenth floor to see scene seventeen. And climb down to the sixth floor, to see scene six.
If the play were broken up by line, at 2,162 lines, we would require a skyscraper with 2,162 floors. If each floor is typically fourteen feet tall, this skyscraper would be 30,268 feet, or 5.7326 miles tall. Commercial aircraft fly between 31,000 and 38,000 feet, or about 5.9 to 7.2 miles high, so if we build the building for the floor-by-line production of Macbeth, flight patterns in the area must change.
The floor-by-line production of Macbeth, requiring one Macbeth per every floor playing a scene with Macbeth (60% of the total scenes), would require not 2,162 Macbeths, but 60% of 2,162, or 1312.64 Macbeths.
Would we have enough actors?
“The Year of Macbeth,” 2018 in the UK, saw nineteen major productions of Macbeth in the major theaters and thirty-eight (including understudies) Macbeths. If we included all major and minor stagings of Macbeth, including high school and community theater, we might estimate upwards of a thousand Macbeths in the UK alone. Add Ireland’s 2018 productions and we easily have two thousand Macbeths. Or consider all the Macbeths in other countries. Consider all the retired Macbeths, the fires of which we might reignite with this floor-by-line 5.7-mile-high production.
Why stop at the line? Why not go by the word?
There are 16,666 total words in Macbeth.
We need a building with 16,666 floors.
At 16,666 floors, that building must be 233,324 feet, or 44.1902 miles tall.
Doesn’t this floor-by-word production interfere with air traffic?
The Karman line–at which scientists claim the earth’s atmosphere meets the edge of outer space–is 62 miles above earth’s surface. 62 miles versus 44 miles–The Karman line is still about twelve miles higher than the floor-by-line production of Macbeth.
And if the production were broken up by letter?
If the production were instead broken up by letter, the building would necessarily be 68,215 floors tall, as there are 68,215 letters in Macbeth contained within the words spoken by the players.
A “letter” in the floor-by-letter production of Macbeth, only includes letters within words intentionally produced by the actors in the production of the play. It does not count any characters in stage directions, in headings, punctuation, or in spaces. In this way, the line “LADY MACBETH: Out, damned spot! out, I say!–One: two: why,” contains not 59 characters, but 29 characters.
So at 68,215 floors tall, the building of the floor-by-letter production of Macbeth would then be 955,010 feet tall, or 180.8731 miles tall.
We will then need an estimated 40,929 Macbeths (60% of 68,215), again, one Macbeth per floor per every floor playing a scene which includes Macbeth.
And the implications for the actors on each floor?
The actors must never move and must only utter one sound again and again as rapidly as they can. The actors will only appear to move as the audience members ascend because each floor will have the actors staged slightly differently floor-to-floor, in order to create an illusion of fluid movement in a play divided by many, many layers in time. For instance, if we begin at the beginning, we set the first floor with three players: FIRST WITCH, SECOND WITCH, THIRD WITCH.
The first floor contains only three actors: one to play FIRST WITCH, one to play SECOND WITCH and one to play THIRD WITCH. The second floor contains only three actors: one to play FIRST WITCH, one to play SECOND WITCH and one to play THIRD WITCH.
The three actors on the first floor, play the same three characters as the three actors on the second floor, same as the actors on the third floor, same all the way up to the 253rd floor.
Act I scene I contains 253 characters. The first and second lines, both spoken by FIRST WITCH: “When shall we three meet again” (25 characters, excluding space and punctuation marks) and “In thunder, lightning, or in rain?” (26 characters, excluding space and punctuation marks).
For the floor-by-letter production of Macbeth, in ACT I, SCENE I alone, we would need both the Oriental Pearl Tower (153 floors; 1,535 feet) and Shanghai Tower (128 floors; 2,073 feet), leaving us with 28 extra floors for green rooms, coat rooms, reception rooms, etc.
For the floor-by-letter production of Macbeth, in Act I Scene I, we would need to employ 759 actors, 253 actors playing FIRST WITCH, 253 actors playing SECOND WITCH, and 253 actors playing THIRD WITCH. For all 253 floors, we need, set: a desert place; characters: three witches, effects: thunder and lightning.
For floors one to fifty-one, only FIRST WITCH speaks (see lines above), while SECOND WITCH and THIRD WITCH are present but silent.
For floors fifty-two to ninety-eight, only SECOND WITCH speaks, while FIRST WITCH and THIRD WITCH are present but silent: “When the hurlyburly’s done,” (22 characters, excluding space and punctuation marks) and “When the battle’s lost and won.” (24 characters, excluding space and punctuation marks).
For floors 99 to 123, only THIRD WITCH speaks, while FIRST WITCH and THIRD WITCH are silent: “That will be ere the set of sun.” (24 characters, excluding space and punctuation marks).
Taking the very first line of act I scene I, “When shall we three meet again,” we see that, on the first floor, the only character uttered is “W,” while on the second floor, “h,” the third floor “e” and the fourth floor “n.”
The actor on the first floor playing FIRST WITCH will continually utter “W W W W W W W W,” (phonetically the ‘w’ sound), while the actor on the second floor playing FIRST WITCH will continually utter “h h h h h h h h,” (phonetically a continuation of the ‘w’ sound) while the actor on the third floor playing FIRST WITCH will continually utter “e e e e e e e e,” (phonetically the ‘ɛ’ sound) while the actor on the fourth floor playing FIRST WITCH will continually utter “n n n n n n n n” (phonetically the ‘n’ sound).
The actors on the first floor should be positioned almost in precisely the same way as the actors on the second, third and fourth floors, because one does not move their body much in the time it takes to say “When.” But gestures move quite quickly. I can move my hand from my belt to my eye in the time it takes to say when. In ACT IV SCENE I, “a cavern. In the middle, a boiling cauldron,” the witches cast things into the cauldron. If each witch is able to cast Adder’s fork in the time it takes to say “Adder’s fork,” then the Adder’s fork will be thrown in over the course of ten floors. The movement, from grabbing to throwing, will be broken up into ten floors, each stage “a” “d” “d” “e” “r” “s” “f” “o” “r” “k” the witch’s hand with the Adder’s fork gets closer to the cauldron as the audience member ascends ten floors from “a” to “k.”
If the audience member is capable of scaling four floors within the half-second it takes to utter “when” (phonetically ‘wɛn’), and can continue this pace for the first fifty-one floors, he or she will hear, floor-by-floor, “When shall we three meet again / In thunder, lightning, or in rain?” though with slight modulation due to the words forming over the course of fifty-one different voices.
If an audience member maintained a steady rate up the stairs (say, ten seconds per floor), it would take them 682,150 seconds, or 11339.16 repeating minutes, or 189.48 hours, or 7.895 days to experience the floor-by-character production of Macbeth.
The idea of pilgrimage and trial is thrilling, but this experience, because of the audience member’s travel rate, will wreck the play, or, I should say it more impartially, ‘change the experience of the play so radically it cannot remotely resemble what Shakespeare had intended.’
What I mean is: If it takes ten seconds on average to scale one flight of stairs, then the first actor playing SECOND WITCH would need to utter the first ‘æ’ sound of “adder’s fork” for twelve seconds, stopping her throat, breathing, and beginning again every ten seconds. To see just the chant then, “Double, double toil and trouble; / Fire burn and cauldron bubble,” the character-by-floor production would need three witches on fifty-one floors times three because the chant is uttered three times. For this chant alone, the character-by-floor production would need one-hundred fifty three of each witch, or 459 actors split between one-hundred fifty-three floors.
If the audience member walks consistently at ten seconds per floor (without rest) for the entire 7.895 days of the floor-by-character production of Macbeth, he or she experiences Macbeth not as Shakespeare intended. But if the audience member sprinted at a rate of 8 floors per second, or 480 floors per minute, or 28,800 floors per hour, he or she could see the floor-by-character production of Macbeth in 2.369 hours, which would be about the average length, estimated between 2 to 2.5 hours, of a regular production of Macbeth, and every line would come out at a more or less regular speed.
There are two ways of achieving the floor-by-character production of Macbeth:
- City-by-act scenario: we use the buildings available to us within a particular location with a high-density of buildings with more than thirty-five floors, such as Shanghai which, within just the ninety-five tallest buildings of Shanghai, there are between them shared a total of 4,712 floors. This is double what we need for the floor-by-word production of Macbeth, but only 16 percent of what we would need for the floor-by-character production. Because we are 24,088 floors short in this scenario, we would need to use another 803 of Shanghai’s 30-floor average buildings. This or we split the floor-by-word production of Macbeth between five cities with high skyscraper (skyscrapers are buildings higher than 492 feet) density, e.g. Hong Kong (355 skyscrapers), New York (282), Shenzhen (270), United Arab Emirates (199), Shanghai (163). This then might be called the city-by-act, or act-by-city, production of Macbeth.
- Space-elevator scenario: 68,215 characters, 68,215 floors, 955,010 feet high, the floor-by-character production of Macbeth would bring us 180.8731 miles higher than the earth’s surface. Again, if the Karman line is 62 miles above the earth’s surface, Macbeth takes us higher than three times the distance of the atmosphere. Audience members ride in an elevator (without a front door) within the 180.8731 mile high skyscraper and watch Macbeth in 2.369 hours. If the structure of the elevator permitted rows of seats, they could even sit down. If on average, each scene contains six players, and if there are twenty-eight scenes in Macbeth, then we can estimate the floor-by-character production of Macbeth will employ 11,460,120 actors.
The 180.8731 mile high staging of Macbeth will make it .07% of the way to the moon, which is 238,900 miles from the earth. Hamlet, which is 4,000 lines, nearly twice as long as Macbeth, would then, in the floor-by-character production, reach to about .14% of the way to the moon. Together, Macbeth and Hamlet, if staged in this way, would read .21% of the way to the moon.
In the Globe collection of Shakespeare’s theatrical works, the plays average 2,794 lines a play (since Macbeth’s 2,162 lines, are only 77% of the average length, each play would work out closer to 222.473 miles), or 222.473 miles, the floor-by-character production of Shakespeare’s collected theatrical works (37 plays) would require a building something like 8231.501 miles high, or 3% of the way to the moon.
If audience members travelled at a rate of eight floors per second, or 112 feet per second, they would see Shakespeare’s collected works 33.33 repeating times, simply by riding in an elevator.
The play-by-space production of Shakespeare’s collected works (based on the floor-by-character production model) would employ, if each play contained an average of thirty-four scenes, six characters per scene, thirty seven plays, and 75,000 characters per play, would employ an estimated 566,100,000 Shakespearean actors per cycle.
As there are 33.33 repeating cycles (so, for simplicity’s sake, let us say 33 cycles, while the .33 repeating may be a rest period, a history lesson, or an audio-recording of Shakespeare’s sonnets), the entire play-by-space production will employ 18,681,300,000 Shakespearean actors, about 2.395 times the world’s total population which, today in 2020, is 7.8 billion people.
If I put my father anywhere in the play-by-space production of Macbeth, he wouldn’t need to remember any line, or any word or even the year he was living in. He wouldn’t need my face, or his name, or his address or his coat. He wouldn’t even need “out, out,” or “brief candle.” He would need only continuously, repetitively, eternally ‘æ, æ, æ, æ, æ, æ, æ, æ, æ’ or ‘ə, ə, ə, ə, ə, ə, ə, ə.’ How long would it take to find my father? I would have to spot him through the glass of the elevator, one in 7.8 billion Shakesepearean actors, one in 1.3 million Macbeths.
I found my father in the culminating orgy of the witches. He had made friends with the bartender. I rustled my father’s shoulder and he said, “Heaven’s breath smells wooingly here.”
Dr. Maev Barba attended the Puget Sound Writer’s Conference in 2018. She is a PNW native and a great lover of books. She used to sell books door-to-door. A doctor of astronomy, Barba looks into space and considers neither the small as too little, nor the large as too great, for the lover of stars knows there is no limit to dimension.