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Thus John F. Kennedy becomes "Ken O'Dunc", Lyndon Johnson becomes "MacBird", Lady Bird Johnson becomes "Lady MacBird", and so forth. As Macbeth assassinates Duncan, so MacBird is responsible for the assassination of Ken O'Dunc; and as Macbeth is defeated by Macduff, so MacBird is defeated by Robert O'Dunc (i.e. Robert Kennedy). This action is significantly influenced by the Three Witches, representing Students, Blacks, and Leftists.
Garson says she was not seriously accusing Johnson of complicity in the Kennedy assassination:
"People used to ask me then, 'Do you really think Johnson killed Kennedy?' " Garson, now 65, recalls. "I never took that seriously. I used to say to people, 'If he did, it's the least of his crimes.' It was not what the play was about. The plot was a given."
The play parodies sequences from Shakespearean tragedies including Macbeth, Hamlet, and Richard III, albeit with Texas and Boston accents. The action follows MacBird from the Democratic Convention of 1960, when he becomes Ken O'Dunc's Vice-President ("Hail, Vice-President thou art!"), to Ken O'Dunc's assassination (at the urging of Lady MacBird), to Robert O'Dunc's victory over MacBird at the next convention.
Macbird! started out as a short satirical sketch by Garson, a recent graduate of the Berkeley anti-Vietnam war movement. It was developed into a full-length play with help from writer/director Roy Levine (and Shakespeare).
The production, which opened a mere three years after the Kennedy assassination, was quite controversial. It has been said that pressure from local authorities was applied to theaters in New York who were considering it. The Village Gate was the only theater willing to defy this pressure and mount the play. Macbird opened there on February 22, 1967, and closed on January 21, 1968, after 386 performances.
Roy Levine, who worked with Garson to develop the work from what was essentially a sketch to a full length play, was the original director of Macbird! His bold and unique theatrical vision marked the production throughout the run, although, near the end of the almost-complete previews, he was suddenly replaced by Gerald Freedman. Set design was by Clarke Dunham, costumes by Jeanne Button, and lights by Robert Brand. The stage manager was Joel Zwick.
The opening night cast included:
- Stacy Keach as MacBird
- Rue McClanahan as Lady MacBird,
- Paul Hecht as John O'Dunc
- William Devane as Robert O'Dunc
- John Pleshette as Ted O'Dunc
- John Clark as Earl of Warren
- Cleavon Little as Witch 2
John Clark left the cast early to marry Lynn Redgrave. Cleavon Little made his professional acting debut in the play. It went on to a long engagement in Los Angeles but with a different cast. There was also a production by San Francisco's Committee Theater circa 1968.