Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Shh. . .Don't Say M*cbeth! The History of The Scottish Curse

by Kat Webb

Every actor knows better than to say the name "Macbeth" when in the theater.

It's a tradition, one I first learned in high school. While the reasoning was unclear, all that I knew was that when the name "Macbeth" was spoken during a  rehearsal of Guys and Dolls, we had a fifty pound sand bag fall from the catwalk and nearly take out our Adelaide. Such incidents are not isolated. Every actor I've met has a story about awful accidents happening after the uttering of "Macbeth." There's some discrepancy between actors as to the absolute nature of the curse--stronger incidence of misfortune seems prevalent in performance of The Scottish Play itself, while some are superstitious enough to believe that simply saying the name "Macbeth" while in a theater is cursed.

7 of the most famous tales of woe associated with performance include:

1. It is rumored that the inaugural performance of Macbeth in 1606  nearly fell through when the actor playing Lady Macbeth got incredibly sick and died. Shakespeare himself is said to have stepped into the role. Rumor suggests that the King at the time (a distant relative of Banquo) disliked the play so much that it was hardly performed in the century that followed.

2. The actor playing King Duncan was accidentally killed in a performance in 1672, when the actor playing Macbeth accidentally used a real knife instead of a prop to kill the king.

3. President Lincoln is said to have brought a copy of Macbeth along a trip down the Potomac River in 1865,  and read some passages that follow the scene where Duncan is assassinated. He was killed a week later within the theater. 

4. Laurence Olivier nearly died in a 1937 production of Macbeth, when a weight fell from the ceiling and just barely missed him. And, while he made it out all right, the unfortunate actress playing Lady Macbeth and their director were severely injured in a car crash on the way to the theater. 

5. In 1942, one particular production suffered a total five deaths: Duncan and two of the Weird Sisters, along with the suicides of the costume and set designer.

6. A 1970 production of Macbeth saw the lead get hit in the eye with a sword, and a Lady Macbeth with the flu that spread to the entire cast. Five understudies were needed.

7. Alec Baldwin, in 1998, managed to slice open the hand of his MacDuff during their Off-Broadway run. Ouch.

But why all the mishap and misfortune associated with this play? Some believe that the spells cast by the Weird Sisters contain magic enough to summon dark airs to the theater, that inviting magic on stage is enough to tempt fate. Inclusion of the character Hecate-- Greek goddess of witchcraft, ghosts, and magic--only seems to intensify the effects of this curse. The witches from whom Shakespeare borrowed the lines are reported to have seen the show and were so offended at their rituals being portrayed on stage that they cursed the show. Others believe that simple hazing among actors is what "curses" this play. Veteran actors, trying to spook newbies to the theater, make up stories of woe and tragedy. Others still believe that Macbeth was such a crowd pleaser, guaranteed to bring in an audience, that only a theater on the brink of financial ruin would pull out this show. As it was so popular, failing playhouses were guaranteed revenue from patrons--but only as a last resort. 

Whatever the origin and whatever the direct nature of the curse, actors are almost all aware of the curse surrounding Macbeth. I've been in many a production, and there's always that one person that insists on shouting "Macbeth" the second we're in the theater--and those who are just as quick to hush them. A few remedies exist to counteract the curse, though whether or not it's enough to combat the fated nature of this play remains to be seen. What can you do to counteract the ill effects of Macbeth? Precedent suggests that making the offender leave, perform a cleansing ritual, and then be invited back into the theater are enough to combat tragedy. This cleaning may include spinning around three times, spitting over one's left shoulder, pouring salt over the shoulder, or quoting lines from Hamlet--"angels and ministers of grace defend us!"--to oust any present demons. 

Whether or not the curse is real, I tend to veer on the side of precaution. I've seen enough happen to actors that I prefer not to risk it, though, given that we're in performance of the play itself, that may be unavoidable. Our own cast has already dealt with a hair coloring mishap and a rock cutting the leg of a board member and we're only two days into rehearsal. What else may follow remains to be seen. Let's cross our fingers something more dire doesn't befall this cast . . . or the audience. 

If you dare tempt fate, tickets can be found at

. . . Maybe bring a pinch of salt with you just in case . . . 

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