The largest group of actors we've ever had gathered this weekend for the first rehearsal of the Scottish play. Everyone enjoyed some show and tell with the stage combat weapons...
...and then we settled in to read through the script for the first time.
After months of preparation, it was thrilling to have the cast all together and begin the process of bringing Shakespeare's words to life!
Is There a Curse on This Play?
We hope not! But theatrical tradition has long asserted there is.
Actually, there are two different "curses" often believed to be attached to this play. The first is that it's bad luck to say the name "Macbeth." When referring to the play, one uses evasive action, calling it "the Scottish play" or "Mackers" or just "that play." Some say this rule applies only when inside a theater; it's OK, therefore, to use the name in other settings, such as classrooms.
Various remedies are recommended if the dread name is mistakenly spoken, ranging from leaving the premises and begging permission to return, to spinning three times and swearing or spitting over your shoulder, to running around the space three times while saying lines from A Midsummer Night's Dream, to immediately quoting another Shakespeare play, such as Hamlet, act 1, scene 4: "Angels and ministers of grace defend us!"
The second superstition is that the play itself brings ill luck to cast and crew, and many productions of the Scottish play have, in fact, encountered unfortunate circumstances. Many such incidents have been immortalized in theatrical lore:
- In the first production of Macbeth, on August 7, 1606, the boy playing Lady Macbeth, became feverish and died backstage. This story is almost certainly mythical, and further tradition says that Shakespeare had to take over the part. (One version holds that Shakespeare played the role badly, and later chewed out his fellow actors for mentioning "that play," thus beginning the tradition of not referring to it by name.)
- In a 1672 production in Amsterdam, the actor playing Macbeth substituted a real dagger for the blunted stage dagger and killed the actor playing Duncan, in full view of the audience.
- On the opening day of a London run in 1703, England was hit with one of the most violent storms in its history. 500 seamen died, Bristol was destroyed, and London severely damaged.
- In 1849, there was a riot in which more than 30 people died at the Astor Place Opera House, in New York CIty, where "The Unmentionable" was playing.
- In the 1937 production at the Old Vic in London, the star, Laurence Olivier, lost his voice and almost died when a weight from the stage lights came tumbling down.
- In 1948, Diana Wynyard decided to play Lady M's sleepwalking scene with her eyes closed — and sleepwalked right off the stage, falling 15 feet. (In the best show-must-go-on tradition, she finished the performance.)
- In a 1953 outdoor production in Bermuda, during the realistically staged attack on Macbeth's castle, a gust of wind blew smoke and flames into the audience, who fled. Charlton Heston, playing Macbeth, suffered severe burns on his groin and leg because his tights had accidentally been soaked in kerosene.
Many more could be added to this list, but, to be honest, it makes us a little nervous just to contemplate this many. The supposed origin story for this curse is that Shakespeare used "authentic" witches' chants in the play; as punishment, real witches cast a curse on the play, condemning it for all time.
Of course, more "rational" explanations have also been proposed. According to The Straight Dope:
During much of the play lighting is low — the bulk of the scenes take place at night or in the dark or fog — thus increasing opportunities for accidents. There are several fight scenes, more than in most plays; in a long run, it's almost inevitable something will go amiss.
More than anything, though, the whole curse business benefits from a self-fulfilling circularity. Every play production involves some things going wrong — considering all the people, costumes, scenery, and equipment involved, there are bound to be problems. And if a play is popular enough to get staged and restaged for 400 years or so, some of those problems are bound to be pretty serious on occasion. This would be true of any popular Shakespearean play, but no one remembers or records these accidents for most plays. When accidents happen around Macbeth, though, the superstitious nod wisely and mutter about the curse, so any mishaps are uniquely bound to be remembered. And so the curse persists, feeding upon its own reputation.
Be that as it may, we figure it's better to be safe than sorry in a situation like this. So — just in case — we'll be spending the next several weeks hard at work on That Play.
(Dramaturgical notes by Karen Gellman.)