Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Play That Dare Not Speak Its Name

Posted by Bruce Miller
This whole "theatre superstitions" thing is old hat for many of you, I know. But for those who participate in theatre more as a spectator sport, here's a second taboo you may want to consider. For centuries, it has been considered to be in very bad form to say "Macbeth" when you are inside a theatre.

According to time-honored tradition, you must not say that name on stage, unless of course you are rehearsing or performing a line from the actual play. You're not supposed to say the name backstage, in a rehearsal hall, dressing room, costume shop, green room or lobby.

You may say "Macbeth" in the administrative offices of a theatre, but only if they are in a separate building from the theatre itself.

When you feel you absolutely must discuss the character or the play Macbeth, you have to leave the theatre before doing so. If a quick exit is not practical, you may stay put, but you have to refer to the character as “The Scottish Lord” (or “The Scottish King”) and call the play “The Scottish Play.”

Trust me. You can use these euphemisms instead of the real name, and every theatre pro in the world will know exactly what you mean.

If you forget—and I’ve seen this happen many times—and you actually speak “Macbeth” inside a theatre, you must immediately leave the facility, spin around three times widdershins (counterclockwise), spit over your left shoulder, utter a curse or a “peaceful” line from Shakespeare (preferably from Hamlet), knock three times on the theatre’s door, and then wait to be invited back inside.

If you fail to honor this antidotal ritual to the letter, then all hell will break loose and it will be entirely your fault.

You’ll hear any number of reasons for this superstition, but the one you’ll hear most often is this. When Shakespeare wrote the scenes for the three witches (the weird sisters) in Macbeth, he researched diligently and included several actual curses that he had obtained while visiting a coven outside London. Witches were serious business in Shakespeare’s day. King James, for whom Shakespeare wrote Macbeth, actually authored a book that was used throughout the 17th century to identify witches for imprisonment or worse.

When the witches from the coven that Shakespeare had visited learned that he had included exact quotes from their sacred incantations in his script, they were highly offended. They issued a curse on the name Macbeth that continues to this day.

It’s easy to understand why some people believe that Macbeth is cursed. There have been several high profile instances when tragedy has struck immediately following or in conjunction with a production of The Scottish Play.

Tradition has it that in the very first production of Macbeth (approximately 1606), the young boy playing Lady Macbeth became ill. Shakespeare stepped in to play the role himself, intending to fill in for only a performance or two. The next day, the boy who had been cast as Lady Macbeth died.

In 1672, during the first production of Macbeth played outside England, a Dutch actor playing Macbeth was so in love with his female costar, he actually murdered her husband, who was playing Duncan, during a live performance.

In 1773, a production of Macbeth ended the career of revered English actor Charles Macklin (a street named in his honor branches proudly off Drury Lane in the Holborn area of London today). Already in his 70s, Macklin decided to play Macbeth, but this time with a difference. He dressed the cast in traditional Scottish attire, including kilts and highland plaids. Prior to this novel idea, which was way ahead of its time, actors dressed in contemporary English clothing, no matter what the locale or century of the play. Reviews were decidedly mixed, and when Macklin brought a handful of the notices onstage with him to argue his case before the second night's audience, he was hissed offstage by the unimpressed crowd. A riot ensued. His production of Macbeth, now considered a landmark due to its introduction of costumes, closed within the week and ended his career.

In 1808, John Philip Kemble opened the new season at Covent Garden with Macbeth, starring himself and his renowned sister, Sarah Siddons. Eight days later, the theatre burned to the ground, costing Kemble nearly every penny he had.

In 1809, Covent Garden was reopened after being rebuilt at great expense. The new management tried to recoup its losses by raising ticket prices. This prompted the Old Price Riots, which continued nightly both inside and outside the theatre, suspending performances for nearly 3 months and practically bankrupting the new management. The production that was suspended? Macbeth, of course.

In 1849, dueling productions of Macbeth in New York City, one starring British actor Charles Macready and another starring American actor Edwin Forrest, caused the Astor Place Riot, at the time the deadliest civil disturbance in U. S. history. At least 25 people died and 120 more were seriously injured. For the first time in history, the National Guard was called out and they fired shots directly into the crowd to "maintain the peace."

In the early 1900s, the great Russian director Konstantin Stanislovsky was staging a production of Macbeth at the Moscow Art Theatre. When the actor playing Macbeth forgot a line, he approached the prompter's box for a cue, and heard nothing. After the actor again signalled that he needed a line, and again none was given, the actor looked into the prompter's box and saw the aged stagehand clutching a script, and quite dead. Never one to tempt fate, Stanislovsky cancelled the rest of the run on the spot.

In 1936, a 20-year-old Orson Welles directed Voodoo Macbeth for the Federal Theatre Project. Critic Percy Hammond was unimpressed by the all-Black cast and the Haitian setting. The voodoo witch doctors hired by Welles for the play put a public curse on Hammond, who unexpectedly died several days later.

In 1937, a 30-year-old Laurence Olivier was almost killed during a rehearsal of Macbeth at the Old Vic, when a heavy stage weight fell from the flies and missed his head by inches.

In 1942, a production of Macbeth starring John Gielgud (pictured to the right) was shaken when three cast members died—the actor playing Duncan and two of the weird sisters—and the costume and set designer committed suicide.

In 1953, Charlton Heston was playing Macbeth in Bermuda when, on Opening Night, the onstage castle caught fire and Heston himself suffered severe burns in his groin and leg area because his tights had been cleaned using kerosene.

In 1998, the Broadway revival of Macbeth starring Christopher Plummer lost three directors, five Macduffs, six stage managers, two set designers, and two lighting designers—all before Opening Night.

Need I say more.

So, if any of you are planning an upcoming production of Macbeth, please don’t talk about it at Barksdale or Theatre IV.

Otherwise, hope to see you at the theatre!

--Bruce Miller


Steven Koehler said...

I had heard of the actual curses used, but other than that almost all of this was news to me. Thank you so much Bruce. wonderful post.

Anonymous said...

Great post - very informative and interesting.

When are you guys gonna update the Theatre IV blog regularly? It hasn't been changed since APRIL. That's REALLY bad, folks. Lots of great stuff happening with that company, too.

Bruce Miller said...

It would be great to have some help in keeping the Theatre IV blog up to date. If anyone is interested, please let me know. Many thanks.