Nemerov talks new book, Macbeth and Lincoln

History of Art professor Alexander Nemerov’s new book, “Acting in the Night: Macbeth and the Places of the Civil War,” begins on the stage of a performance of “Macbeth” on Oct. 17, 1863 in Washington, D.C. — with Abraham Lincoln in the audience.

Nemerov — whose research for the book took him from an obscure battlefield to the grave of a Confederate colonel — sat down with the News on Monday to talk about his book, a “tale full of sound and fury,” signifying something.

Nemerov’s book documents a 1863 performance of “Macbeth.”
Nemerov’s book documents a 1863 performance of “Macbeth.”

Q Can you summarize the book for our readers?

A It’s about a single night’s performance of “Macbeth” during the American Civil War — a performance that took place in Washington, D.C., with Abraham Lincoln in attendance. (“Macbeth” was Lincoln’s favorite play of Shakespeare’s.) But it’s really not just about what happened; it’s about the spatial power of aesthetic acts.

Q Can you define that?

A Absolutely. What I mean by that is the pebble in the pond. The dropping of the pebble in the pond and the radiating outward … I’ve always been fascinated by the capacity of a work of art to shape a world around itself and the performance that night is the pebble.

Q Why “Macbeth”?

A Both [Lady Macbeth and Macbeth] have such great spatial imaginations. They are both very aware of the way their local acts will, you know, color the oceans, and that’s what I mean by spatial imaginations. That was part of it. I think, too, the palette of dark and light in “Macbeth” was really attractive to me, and I think the play between the candlelight and the torchlight of the play and the gaslight of mid-19th century in America was always really appealing to me. And part of the book is about gaslight and trying to imagine the whole theater lit up by gaslight.

Q Did you know you wanted to connect it to the Civil War?

A At first I was not thinking of the Civil War, and once I found out this about Lincoln, I was even a little disappointed because I didn’t really want to write a Civil War book. But I was led to it, and I’d always been interested in the Civil War, and some of the things this book allowed me to research were really fascinating for me.

Q For instance?

A A lot of it. Once you decide you are going to write about one performance, you are really saying, “Well, OK, I don’t know anything about this day in history, but now I really have to learn about it.” And so it’s an exercise in the serendipity of history. You know, what happened on this day and whatever happened on that day will lead me to certain things I would never otherwise know about in my life. It’s not just the bland accumulation of facts; it’s actually something that’s very intense and emotional to somehow be in the presence of these things.

Q What was it about “Macbeth” that made it Lincoln’s favorite play?

A Well, Lincoln was famously gloomy. I think that appealed to him. You know, a famous story about Lincoln is that five days before he was assassinated, he was coming back to Washington from Richmond, where he had been because Richmond was newly liberated. And he recited long passages from “Macbeth” to the other people on board the ship — [passages] including Macbeth’s speech envying King Duncan for being dead, for being in his grave, where nothing can touch him anymore. A very logical thing to think of with my book is that it must be about Lincoln’s assassination somehow, but it’s not — not really. It’s more about what I said is the spatial power of aesthetic acts.

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