What Would You Do With an Invitation From the Macbeths?

On May 31, Kenneth Branagh will play the title role in a three-week run of Macbeth at the Park Avenue Armory in the Big Apple. If anyone invites you to that show, you'd be crazy to say no. On the other hand, you might think twice before accepting an invitation from the Macbeths themselves.

Do you remember what happens to the Scottish King Duncan while spending a night at Macbeth's castle? Though the sleeping king has two bodyguards, Lady Macbeth gets them both so drunk that Macbeth can butcher all three and then blame the guards for killing the king so as to justify his killing of them.

And that's just for starters.

A few nights later, just after becoming king himself, Macbeth hosts a banquet for various Scottish lords including one named Banquo. But since he's been told that Banquo's heirs will inherit the throne, he has Banquo murdered on the day of the feast. When Banquo shows up anyway--as a ghost--Macbeth alone can see him, rages at what looks to everyone else like thin air, and thus drives the ghost away--but also breaks up the party. After that, his reign is mercifully short.

Macbeth is surely one of the worst hosts ever dreamed up by a playwright, but as I explain in my latest book, Hospitality and Treachery in Western Literature (Yale University Press, $65.00), he has plenty of company in literature as a whole.

At the head of the line is a one-eyed giant named Polyphemos, who turns up in the middle of Homer's Odyssey, the epic story of how the ancient, legendary Greek king Odysseus made his long voyage home after the Trojan war.

Having stopped at an island populated only by savage brutes, Odysseus and his men step into a cave, build a fire, and then help themselves to the cheeses they find there. When their absentee host--Polyphemos-- returns with his sheep and goats, he is furious to find intruders in his cave. But instead of chucking them out, he blocks the exit with a vast boulder so as to make them his prisoners, which is one of the many nasty things that hosts can do to their guests. (Ever felt trapped at a party? Welcome to the club.)

When dinner time comes, Polyphemus doesn't fret about what to serve his guests; he just eats two of them. And since he plans to do the same thing every night until he's gobbled up all of the Greeks, Odysseus has to act. But instead of trying kill their host, which would leave them all trapped in the cave, the Greeks get the giant so drunk that he falls into a stupor--whereupon they drive a burning stake into his eye. The next morning, when the giant rolls back the boulder to let his livestock out of the cave, the Greeks sneak out by clinging to the underbellies of the sheep and then sail away.

You might say that Odysseus makes Polyphemos pay a bloody price for his brutal hospitality, but that's exactly the point. When hosts or guests mistreat each other in works of literature, the benign reciprocity of hospitable payback--whereby your guest later becomes your host --gives way to malign reciprocity, where payback means retaliation.

In The Inferno, where treacherous hosts and guests are stuck in the deepest circle of hell, Dante recycles a true story of retaliation--the story of a Guelph lord named Alberigo, whose political power was threatened by a close relative named Manfred. Struck by Manfred in the midst of a dispute, Alberigo pretended to forgive the blow as an act of youthful impetuosity and then invited Manfred and one of his sons to a banquet. When the host said, "Bring the fruit," armed men came from behind a curtain and butchered the guests. As a result, Alberigo is stuck forever in ice right in front of another treacherous host: Branca d'Oria, who killed his father-in-law after serving him dinner.

In more recent literature, treacherous hospitality takes more subtle forms. Near the end of Marcel Proust's great novel, In Search of Lost Time, a Parisian hostess takes brutal revenge on the Baron de Charlus. Though she draws not a single drop of blood, she is driven by a malice worthy of Dante's Alberigo.

Desperate to meet the grandest people in Paris, the social-climbing Madame Verdurin holds a party to which--at her urging--the Baron invites all of his titled friends. But when they arrive, they fawn over him as their host and turn their backs on her. Worse still, none of them thanks her as they leave, much less invites her in return. So at the end of the party Madame Verdurin retaliates. She arranges for the baron's boyfriend Charlie to be drawn off and fed a toxic cocktail of lies and insinuations about the baron. When Charlie returns to denounce the perversity of the baron, his normally irrepressible arrogance deserts him. Speechless and dumbfounded, he feels "struck as if by the Revolutionary guillotine": a guest betrayed. She wounds him so deeply that it's hard to know which of the two is more treacherous.

The stage, of course, is the perfect place for hospitality and treachery to intersect--especially when a play is set in a living room, as in Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? When an older couple named George and Martha invite a younger couple named Nick and Honey for an evening of drinks, they play a series of games whose titles suggest just some of the ways in hosts and guests can do each other in. Superfueled with drink, George and Martha soon unmask the witlessness of Nick and the mousiness of Honey: that's how they play Get the Guest. They also goad Nick into thinking that he can Hump the Hostess, which is one way of Humiliating the Host; but when Nick proves too drunk to perform in the bedroom, it's he who's humiliated--cut down to a houseboy. In all of these games the host and hostess use their guests as weapons in a war they have been waging with each other for years.

On top of the other examples I've noted, a play such as this might make you wonder if you should ever again accept or extend an invitation. I see no reason why not. But you might be just a bit wary of entertaining--or being entertained by--anyone named George, Martha, or Macbeth.