originally published March 8, 2014
I live in a house with two theatre people. And just as they have learned to live with the eccentricities of a writer (it’s normal to scream obscenities at one’s fingertips, right?), I have come to adapt to the weirdness of their world. For example, during an exhibition of my daughter’s upcoming musical this week, a boy tripped over an expensive prop, hurling it to the ground, while another kid thwacked his head on a metal bar. Yet another accidentally face-butted a piece of scaffolding. Why did all this happen?
The Scottish Play.
We later learned that the director had to furiously scold one of the kids prior to the performance because he’d had the audacity to speak the title of Shakespeare’s Macbeth within the walls of the theatre. Just minutes later, things began to go wrong.
I’m not one to buy into superstitions, any more than I’ll plan my day according to my horoscope or buy a new car only when my tea-leaf reader tells me it’s a good time. But the Macbeth phenomenon is too juicy not to dig into, if only out of ravenous curiosity.
Some believe the curse’s origins lie in the dialogue that William Shakespeare concocted for his witches, that the spells they utter are real, and that actual witches were ticked off at this accuracy. In order to believe that you’d first have to believe that the witches of Olde Englande spoke in iambic pentameter, and also that witch curses are a real thing outside of Hogwarts School. It’s said that during the premiere of the play, an actor died when a real dagger was used instead of the prop dagger – the curse’s first victim.
I’m hesitant to believe any anecdotal tale from 400 years ago, particularly when it conveniently bolsters a commonly-held superstition. But Macbeth does feature more ass-whomping fight scenes than the average Shakespeare play, and it is reasonable to assume that this could lead to an abnormally populous roster of injured performers in the show’s many runs. But I’m more inclined to believe the curse’s other reputed origin.
For as long as Macbeth has been in existence, it has been a fairly dependable money-maker. Therefore the appearance of Macbeth on a stage could be a sign of the theatre’s financial outlook appearing rather bleak, and their play choice reflecting a need for some increased cash flow. Sir Donald Sinden claims the play’s appearance on stage meant that the play before it was a flop, and that the theatre owners were aiming for a quick recoup of their losses. This would make Macbeth rather lucky for theatre owners, and only bad news for aspiring playwrights.
Well, aspiring playwrights and actors who would be unemployed if their show shut down. This strikes me as the most logical starting point for the so-called curse – nobody wanted to see Macbeth replace their show because they didn’t want to be thrown back into unpaid audition mode.
Also, Sir Donald points out that more actors have accidentally perished during performances of Hamlet. And no one is saying that play is cursed.
If someone utters the play’s title in the theatre, the proper cleansing ritual involves the offender leaving the building, turning three times, spitting over their left shoulder, swearing, or reciting a line from one of Shakespeare’s other (less harmful) plays. Sometimes the offender is not allowed back in the theatre until he or she is invited. Fortunately, the cleansing process requires no animal sacrifices or consumption of virgin blood beneath a harvest moon. (unfortunately, that is how I have to conquer writer’s block sometimes)
This curse is not limited to the play’s title – the two lead characters in the story also possess (spoilers!) the name ‘Macbeth’. While the play itself may be referred to as ‘The Scottish Play’ or ‘The Bard’s Play’, Macbeth himself must be called ‘The Scottish Lord’, ‘The Scottish King’ or simply ‘Mackers’. This counts, even if the people in the theatre are discussing the roles in which they’ve been cast in an upcoming performance. Unless the actors are literally rehearsing or performing their scenes, that word is simply verboten.
Theatre folks are right up there with athletes when it comes to embracing superstition. Only where athletes grow playoff beards and tap bats on their heels three times each “just for luck”, theatrical superstitions can be much more specific.
“Break a leg” is one of my favorites. It’s bad luck to wish someone “good luck” before a performance, so the most common substitute is to wish this particular misfortune instead. Cursing one another is also commonplace, as is the more straightforward “bad luck”. In true theatrical fashion, one who slips up and wishes “good luck” must then leave the theatre, turn around three times, spit, and request re-admittance to the theatre. Sound familiar? I’m a little disappointed that this creative community has not come up with distinctly different ways to shake off their various curses.
The Australian substitute for “good luck” is “chookas”. This apparently dates back to the early 20th century, when dining on chicken was seen as a luxury. If a show did well, its performers could snarf down some poultry at a restaurant after the curtain closed. So, “chook it is!” (chook being Australian short-hand for chicken) was shortened to “chookas!”, and this became a traditional good-luck cry.
Which goes to prove that as strange as theatre folks may be, Australians will always have them beat in that department.
It is of crucial importance that every theatre maintain a single lit bulb, known as a ‘ghost light’, even on days when no one is around. Because every theatre has a ghost (of course), the light is there to appease them. With the light shining, the ghosts can perform on stage after everyone else has gone home. If they are denied this opportunity, they will vengefully sabotage a performance.
Once again, I’m inclined to believe the more practical reasoning here – that the ghost light helps people in dark, windowless theatres to find the lighting console, or to not fall into the orchestra pit when they show up in the morning to open the place up. Even before Edison gave us the light bulb, it would make sense to leave a small gas flame burning backstage in order to prevent a build-up in the gas lines. A lot of theatres burnt down prior to the light bulb – no doubt this was one reason why.
I don’t believe in any of these theatrical superstitions, but out of respect for those who do, I don’t brazenly break any of them either. Though it seems to me that the perfect vengeance for an actor who is fired from a show would be to yell out, “Macbeth says good luck, motherfuckers!” whilst kicking over and breaking the ghost light. Though I believe theatrical tradition states that anyone doing something like this can legitimately be beaten by the fists of the other performers.
As long as they turn around three times and spit afterwards.