Dunsinane: Language and Leadership

Last month, on a very short trip to Washington, D.C., I saw Dunsinane by David Greig at the Shakespeare Theater Company.  The production and performance values were exceptional, but what thrilled me most was hearing an intellectually stimulating, highly entertaining and politically provocative new script.

The play, in this co-production of the National Theater of Scotland and the Royal Shakespeare Company, explores the relationship between language and leadership.  The plot begins where Shakespeare’s Macbeth ends: Malcolm, son of murdered King Duncan, claims the throne of Scotland.  He is a puppet of the English, whose troops are led by Siward, Earl of Northumbria. They invade Scotland and hope to bring peace after conquering Macbeth’s stronghold at Dunsinane.

Greig’s reframing turns the Macbeth myth on its head. Shakespeare’s Macbeth is a villain and his death restores order.  In this play, he has ruled Scotland peaceably for years and when he is killed, chaos ensues. Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth is a childless virago who goes mad and dies.  Here, called Gruach, she is not a witch, but a powerful seductress with a lively sense of humor. Of royal lineage herself, she has ruled by her husband’s side. Her son from a previous marriage is next in line for the crown. And Malcolm isn’t of kingly stock; he seems to be a weak manipulator of words and people.

The ongoing troubled relationship between Scotland and England is woven into the plot. (Greig was one of the forty-five percent of Scottish people hoping to sever ties with Great Britain in the recent referendum.) The English invaders are unwilling to learn the Gaelic language spoken by the Scots. They disdainfully describe the local soldiers and their uniforms, the people, the politics, the food, the weather, the landscape. Misunderstandings increase, even when trying to speak a universal language of love. The Scots bring the invasion to stalemate with political maneuvers and guerrilla tactics.

As I watched and listened, I became aware that Grieg was writing about more than eleventh century Scotland or current Scottish/English antagonisms. He was writing about the failure of leadership in the coalition of western armies that invaded Iraq and Afghanistan.

The costuming, music and movement heighten this parallel.  The British troops wear the red cross of the crusades on their war torn uniforms.  I saw in these costumes the legacy of western invasions of the Middle East.  Malcolm wears a long white gown and soft slippers, clothing that could be worn by a sheik. Gruach’s serving maids wear black head coverings that look like the traditional hijab. The onstage combo plays a score with reverberations of Middle Eastern music.  The women dance with circular hand gestures that could be a part of either culture.

And then there’s the language. Grieg examines the ways language both determines and is an expression of how we see the world.  Gruach points out to Siward the simplicity of his language: “Your English is a woodworkers tool, Siward,” she says. “Hello, goodbye, that tree is green…. Always trying to describe. Throw words at the tree and eventually you’ll force me to see the tree just as you see it. We long since gave up believing in descriptions. Our language is the forest.”*

In Siward’s semantics, something either is or isn’t. Malcolm challenges this view:  “Usually the way we manage this sort of thing in Scotland is…to be very very careful about the way we hear and understand words – so for example – if a person in Scotland says ‘it seems a person has died’ we tend to hear that word ‘seems’ – ‘seems’ – and of course that word makes a difference. …it means that every discussion is fraught and people have to pussyfoot around….”*

After a crash course in clan loyalties, Siward travels through the countryside to find out where the Scottish lords stand on who should rule. Malcolm later takes him to task for not hearing what’s being said: “There are friends who say they’re friends but work against us and others who say they’re enemies but quietly help us…. And into that very delicate filigree you are putting your fist.”*

Understanding what’s at stake for each faction is an essential part of effective leadership. But if one doesn’t try to comprehend the semantic implications of the factions’ language, how can one understand the factions? Siward is surprised when events do not follow his binary thinking, just as we have been during our military and political efforts in the Middle East.

The effective leader must also know himself.  Siward is sure that he is a good and rational commander.  Again and again he insists that he is in Scotland to insure peace.  Even as he speaks these words, he orders ever more disturbing atrocities in the name of that goal.  To him, that is logic. This linguistic absolutism is at the heart of his failure.

Malcolm, however, describes his own role in the context of seems: “Do you ever ask yourself Siward if it’s possible that I might in fact  want to create the appearance of wallowing in venality? … The chiefs – they think – this king is easy – he won’t cause trouble for us – all he wants is to be left alone to enjoy his wine and his women – let him be king … better him than someone strong…. My weakness is my strength.”*

At the end of play, Siward is at loss. “What would you do – if you were me?” he asks Gruach.  She replies, “If I were you I would not be here…. I would be at home guarding my own land. Not fighting on behalf of some other man’s land. A man too weak and corrupt to hold his own land himself.”   Siward cannot let go of the word peace. “It’s in England’s interest to have peace in Scotland,” he continues. “We had peace,” Gruach replies, “until you came along…. Go home.  Don’t waste any more of your english lives here. Go home before you’re driven home…. Go.”*

David Grieg began writing Dunsinane as Saddam Hussein’s regime toppled.  He poses important questions to us now. Have we learned from our disastrous engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan how to listen?  Do we understand the semantics of what we hear?  Can we open our minds to another way of thinking? Can we shift from our either/or framework to one that encompasses the complexities of seems?

As Israel’s Netanyahu speaks to Congress, President Obama negotiates with Iran, and the loyalties in Syria become more and more difficult to parse, I hope so. Perhaps it will help us re-examine the language that drives us to spend lives and money in fruitless enterprise.

* Special thanks to Laura Henry Buda of the Shakespeare Theater Company for a copy of the script of Dunsinane by David Grieg.