Originally written as a skit to be staged at anti-Vietnam War demonstrations in the 1960’s, MacBird evolved into a full-length play using Macbeth as a means of commenting on 1960’s politics. When Barbara Garson was unable to find a publisher, her husband, Marvin Garson, had five thousand copies printed at his own expense. After the book sold more than 100,000 copies, Grove Press—which had earlier turned it down—became its publisher. The play had similar problems with television: WCBS-TV had planned to screen a segment of the play, but canceled the broadcast without explanation.
Staging the play was also difficult. Roy Levine, the original director, withdrew for “personal reasons” and was replaced by Gerald Freedman, postponing opening night from February 8 to February 22, 1967. There were also problems with over-zealous city inspectors regarding building and fire regulations. With a cast of characters including MacBird (modeled on President Lyndon B. Johnson), Ken O’Dunc (assassinated president John F. Kennedy), and the Earl of Warren (Chief Justice Earl Warren), the play was regarded as political dynamite, dividing audiences along ideological lines. The New Yorker, which had never before turned down a drama advertisement, refused to advertise MacBird; the magazine feared offending readers. Although no violent incidents occurred in the theater, the play’s audiences were vocal during its performances and in print.
President Johnson was reportedly furious about Garson’s play; however, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy—who was depicted in the play as Ken O’Dunc’s younger brother, who deposes MacBird—liked it. MacBird enjoyed sell-out crowds; by early May its backers recouped their thirty-thousand-dollar investment. The lack of real political harassment reflected the liberalism of the late 1960’s.
The title of MacBird was a wordplay on MacBeth, Lady MacBeth and the names of Lyndon Baines Johnson and his wife, Lady Bird Johnson.