Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Macbeth? Meet Barry. Barry—Macbeth. . . . How the Dark Comedy Barry uses Shakespeare Successfully

“Chapter Five: Do Your Job.” By Ben Smith. Perf. Bill Hader, Sarah Goldberg, D'Arcy Carden, and Henry Winkler. Dir. Hiro Murai. 
Barry. Season 1, episode 5. HBO. 22 April 2018. DVD. Studio Distribution Services, 2018.

Barry is a dark comedy about a hit man who decides that he'd rather pursue a career in acting. Unfortunately, he's caught up in such a complicated web of alliances and promises that he is unable to break away from his former profession.

It's not a show I can recommend wholeheartedly. It starts dark—darker than Harold and Maude or Better off Dead, but not as dark as Fargo. Perhaps it's on the level of What We Do in the Shadows at first. But as the episodes progress—and even more so as the seasons advance—it gets darker and darker and, for some viewers (yours truly among them), the humor suffers from diminishing returns until it's all but absent.

The language also seems to grow more frequent and coarser as the show develops. Oh, and it also gets more and more bloody and more and more violent.

With all those caveats, I'm sure you're wondering why I'm bringing Barry to Bardfilm at all. But you know the answer already, don't you? It's the Shakespeare.

More specifically, it's the Macbeth. I'd like to trace how Macbeth is used over three episodes of Barry's first season.

In "Chapter Five: Do Your Job," we explore a developing relationship between Barry and an ambitious actor named Sally. They're both part of an acting class taught by Gene Cousineau (played brilliantly by Henry Winkler). Mr. Cousineau is something of a charlatan, but he has some charisma, and he's able to get results from some of his student. Barry (played brilliantly by Bill Hader) and Sally (played brilliantly by Sarah Goldberg) have been put into a group performing a scene from Macbeth—and Sally is immediately disappointed that Natalie (played brilliantly by D'Arcy Carden) has been cast in a bigger role. Oh, and hanging over the entire enterprise is the sudden and unexplained murder of a fellow student. It turns out that the reason Barry became interested in acting in the first place was that he followed a man he was hired to kill to the class, saw what the class was about, and wanted in. He does make the hit he's been hired to make, but the police investigations are becoming worrisome.

In the clip below, I'm taking you into the world of the show in general and then to the students working on Act V, scene i—the sleepwalking scene. As they work, they start to talk about the significance of the scene, and that eventually touches a nerve with Barry. Let's take a look. Note: I've censored the profanity, but use caution: You may still be able to lip read some of the words.

I'm very fond of Natalie's reading of Lady Macbeth. Here's my phonetic spelling of her speech:

Out, damned spot! Out, I say! One—two—why then ’tis time to doot . . . . What, will these hands ne’er be clean? No more of that, [o] lord, no more oh that. (V.i.35–36, 43–44)

I also like just how obviously (and obliviously) ambitious Sally is. Readers who are actors doubtless have someone they know who is just like that (and it may even be themselves).

I also like the discussion afterwords. The students' argument is that the sleepwalking scene demonstrates Lady Macbeth's (and, by extension, Macbeth's) guilt. "Once you start killing, you can never go back," one student says. 

Barry takes the stance that Macbeth was just doing what Lady Macbeth told him to do, and therefore there's a possibility for redemption for Macbeth. Barry, after all, has been killing people because he's been ordered to, and he's trying to quit that job and move forward. The students protest, pushing Barry into the outburst you saw above. Forgive me for not telling you that when Barry says that he's killed people when he was ordered to, he means it on one level—his job as a hit man—but also on another—his military service. I didn't tell you so that you could have the same reactions as many of the students. Mr. Cousineau knows about Barry's military service, but most of the students only learn about it after Barry's outburst.

At the end of the scene, Barry is left considering whether Mr. Cousineau is right that he, like Macbeth, is irredeemable.

This, in my opinion, is the ideal use of Shakespeare in a modern medium. It is not tacked on and ultimately irrelevant. They're not doing a scene from Shakespeare just because they're actors and that's what actors do. They're doing a scene because they're actors and that's what actors do—but the scene is deeply revelatory of other concerns the show is addressing.

It's also deeply funny. Mr. Cousineau's inadequate thanks to Barry for his service (and Natalie's muttered "Thank you, Barry") are disturbingly hilarious.

And it's also ideal because it doesn't stop there. The next episode provides us with a bit more.

“Chapter Six: Listen With Your Ears, React With Your Face.” By Emily Heller. Perf. Bill Hader, Sarah Goldberg, D'Arcy Carden, and Henry Winkler. Dir. Hiro Murai. Barry. Season 1, episode 6. HBO. 29 April 2018. DVD. Studio Distribution Services, 2018.

In "Chapter Six: Listen With Your Ears, React With Your Face," work on Macbeth continues. Barry is desperate to be an actor, but he's distracted by the complicated life he's living. He's also not quite getting it.

In the clip below, we have two scenes. In the first, the ambitious Sally has achieved her goal of taking the role of Lady Macbeth from Natalie. But working with Barry is proving difficult. In the second scene, Sally presents an idea to Mr. Cousineau that will change everything.

In the first scene, I love Sally's "I'm acting my heart out, but my acting partner is a disaster, but what are you going to do?" look. I love Mr. Cousineau's condescending questions that are designed to get Barry to think about his scene. And I love his "Stay out of this" delivered to Sally. And I love Barry's "I—I feel like I am listening ’cause that's why I know when to say my lines." 

In the second scene, I'm very fond of Sally's ambitious plan and Mr. Cousineau's skepticism about it. We also have a wonderful seed planted: Barry will play Seyton, who has one line in the middle of Macbeth's (and Macbeth's) most famous speech.

In terms of doing something with Shakespeare and not just tacking it on, this episode's Shakespeare scenes, though limited, are significant. Sally, an ambitious actor who wants to make her name in Hollywood, has just been dropped by an agent, and she's willing to do nearly anything to achieve her ambitions. Sally has been playing the role of a likewise ambitious woman—but now her ambition leads her into the role of an (arguably) more ambitious man. The use of the material is smart and subtle.

We get even more smart, subtle Shakespeare in the next episode.

“Chapter Seven: Loud, Fast, and Keep Going.” By Liz Sarnoff. Perf. Bill Hader, Sarah Goldberg, D'Arcy Carden, and Henry Winkler. Dir. Alec Berg. 
Barry. Season 1, episode 7. HBO. 6 May 2018. DVD. Studio Distribution Services, 2018.

The culmination of all this sophisticated, significant, layered Shakespeare comes in "Chapter Seven: Loud, Fast, and Keep Going." And this clip is the one most in need of a content advisory.

Barry's non-acting life is getting increasingly complicated. Chris, an old buddy of Barry's from his days in the Marines, joined him in a hit (I'm oversimplifying, I know, but most of you will appreciate it, I promise you), but he's feeling a need to turn himself in. Barry is worried that Chris' doing so will implicate him—just as he finally thinks he's free of the murder profession and on his way to becoming an actor.

His other life is also making its way into the theatre. The actor he killed at the beginning of the season is now suspected of being part of the mob, and an actual member of a drug cartel was chased away from the theatre and shot by the officer investigating the actor's murder. But Barry seems even more upset at the other news Sally gives him: That she's now playing Macbeth, and Barry has a new line.

The first half of the clip below shows the difficulty Barry is having with that new line. Let me give you some context for it. It's Act V, scene v. Macbeth is in Dunsinane castle, but he's surrounded. He hears "A cry within of women" (V.v.7.s.d) and asks Seyton, "What is that noise?" (V.v.7). Seyton, having read the stage direction, says, "It is the cry of women, my good lord" (V.v.8) and exits. Macbeth speaks:

I have almost forgot the taste of fears.
The time has been, my senses would have cool'd
To hear a night-shriek, and my fell of hair
Would at a dismal treatise rouse and stir
As life were in't. I have supped full with horrors;
Direness, familiar to my slaughterous thoughts,
Cannot once start me. (V.i.9–15) 

At that point, Seyton re-enters, and Macbeth asks, "Wherefore was that cry?" (V.v.15)—note that all the Barry versions of this scene cut that line. Seyton's reply is at the core of Barry's use of Macbeth:

The Queen, my lord, is dead. (V.v.16)

Macbeth delivers this speech at that point:

She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing. (V.17–28)

I told you that (as my Grandmother Jones used to say) to tell you this. All that background information I've provided will prepare you well for the first part of the clip below. In working through those speeches (especially Barry's "The Queen, my lord, is dead), we have a lot of humor mixed with the tension of Barry's non-acting life getting closer and closer to his theatrical life. When Sally delivers Barry's clue, Barry's on the phone with his Marine buddy. When, after Sally loudly repeats his clue, he finally says, "I gotta go" and enters, he muffs his line: "My Queen, the lord . . . my lord, the Queen is dead," explaining "I just got the line" when an exasperated Sally exits. We then get a cautionary tale about how Mr. Cousineau, unfortunately on drugs at the time, was able to bring in a thirty-seven-minute Long Day's Journey into Night.

The second part of the clip takes the plot in a very dark direction indeed. 

After rehearsal, Barry meets up with his friend from their military days and, once again, tries to persuade him not to turn himself in. But Chris is adamant, though he's also reluctant to put Barry in danger. Barry sees no other way out than to kill him and make it look like a suicide. I'm not including that scene in the clip below (apart from one brief flashback that does not show a gunshot or a corpse), but a content warning is still not out of place. 

We'll see the various actors getting ready for the performance of "Gene Cousineau Presents . . . A Festival of Shakespeare." We'll see the audience gathering, and we'll learn that an important agent is in attendance. We'll find out that Barry hasn't shown up and that Sally is desperately anxious that she won't get a chance to get the agent's attention.

Then we'll see Barry on his way to the theatre after having murdered his friend and staged it as a suicide. When he finally arrives at the theatre, he's completely out of it ("I'm supposed to wear a costume?"), but he almost listens when Sally begs him to "just give me something to work with" when he delivers his one line.

Backstage, waiting for his cue, Barry is muttering his line to himself. As usual, it's incorrect, but it's not as incorrect as it could be: He's saying "My lord, the Queen is dead" instead of "The Queen, my lord, is dead" (V.v.16). But as he's doing that, his brain is full of images of his Marine friend and his Marine friend's happy family and his Marine friend's wife happily answering an ordinary phone call and getting the news that her husband has committed suicide. And his imagination shows him some images of the funeral to come. And then it's back to the phone call. And the wife collapsing in grief. And repeat.

Then Barry enters and delivers his one line.

I wanted to prepare you for most of that (especially the troubling images that run through Barry's mind backstage). But I wanted you to experience some of it for yourself. I didn't mention the "Alapse, Poor Yorick" bit or the "I'm the agent who will demonstrate that he's impressed by looking up from his cell phone" trope. That's also why I didn't mention the dream sequence where Barry imagines one version of his delivering the line. That version is pretty much devoid of subtext. Everything is delivered as straight as possible (including an American Actor Overdoing The British Accent layer). And Barry delivers it, for once, in the right order: "The Queen, my lord, is dead" (V.v.16). After he exits, Barry seems quite pleased with his performance.

That imagined version of the scene serves as a foil to the actual performance. When Barry delivers his line, his mind is full of how someone might react to the sudden news of the death of a dearly-beloved spouse. I've never seen the line delivered with much more than "Here's some bad news so that you can deliver the 'Tomorrow and' speech." But here, there's genuine anguish in the line. And that one line—"It's one line, Barry"—unlocks a deeper, more meaningful delivery of the "Tomorrow" speech. Even delivering it in the incorrect order ("My lord, the Queen is dead") shifts the emphasis in such a way as to stress the unhappiness—the injustice—the desolation revealed by the death.

Then there's that terrific moment of dark humor where Sally says, "Whatever you did tonight to get to that place, that's your new process, okay? All you have to do is do that every time." And we're left with a Barry who is thinking over the process that got him to deliver that line in that way.

Barry uses Macbeth to find extraordinary depth in both its characters and in Shakespeare. Since the show is about actors, it could all have been on the "Alapse, poor Yorick" side. Instead, Shakespeare is brilliantly layered over and under the concerns of the show, expanding what can be done with Shakespeare in surprising and significant ways. 

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Bardfilm is normally written as one word, though it can also be found under a search for "Bard Film Blog." Bardfilm is a Shakespeare blog (admittedly, one of many Shakespeare blogs), and it is dedicated to commentary on films (Shakespeare movies, The Shakespeare Movie, Shakespeare on television, Shakespeare at the cinema), plays, and other matter related to Shakespeare (allusions to Shakespeare in pop culture, quotes from Shakespeare in popular culture, quotations that come from Shakespeare, et cetera).

Unless otherwise indicated, quotations from Shakespeare's works are from the following edition:
Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare. 2nd ed. Gen. ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
All material original to this blog is copyrighted: Copyright 2008-2039 (and into perpetuity thereafter) by Keith Jones.

The very instant that I saw you did / My heart fly to your service; there resides, / To make me slave to it; and, for your sake, / Am I this patient [b]log-man.

—The Tempest