24 Jan 2013

Missing Screenplays Unearthed in the Archive: Laurence Olivier's lost Macbeth

Exeter English academic Jennifer Barnes has recently stumbled across the kind of thing everyone secretly (or not so secretly) hopes to find in the archive -- a missing piece, a lost treasure. Very much in the manner of Possession's Roland Michell (although very much minus any hint of cheekily pocketing said lost treasures) Jennifer discovered 13 previous unstudied versions of Laurence Olivier's 1950s screenplay of Macbeth, a film that was never made, in the Laurence Olivier Archive at the British Library whislt working through production notes for a different Olivier production. Jennifer has subsequently brought to light this body of scripts previously thought to barely exist let alone be 'lost' (Olivier claimed that the only existing script planned for the production was 'not any better than a sketch').
Jennifer explains of the 13 manuscripts:

'... the final shooting script certainly does not correspond to Olivier’s reference to the project as a mere “sketch”. Rather, it offers intricate timings, set plans, set designs and technical notes alongside a finalized script. A reading of all of the catalogued manuscripts confirms that Olivier’s cuts to the play text (unlike those of Hamlet) are minimal. It also reveals that the running time for Macbeth would, like that of Henry V,Hamlet, and Richard III, reach approximately 155 minutes. I can only conclude that Olivier did not want the screenplays to be seen following the failure of the film to make it to the screen. But these documents are worthy of study in their own right, attesting to Olivier’s cultural significance as a Shakespearean icon in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.'

The details of this rather wonderful find and an exploration of the light it sheds on Olivier and his oeuvre can be found in Jennifer's recent article: “Posterity is Dispossessed”: Laurence Olivier’s Macbeth manuscripts in 1958 and 2012.’ Shakespeare Bulletin. 30:3 (2012): 263-297. A link to her academic profile can be found here.