Theatre’s Most Famous Curse
Macbeth is to the theatrical world what King Tut’s tomb is to archaeologists. No other play has had more bad luck associated with it: coronaries, car accidents, botched lines, mysterious ailments, and sword wounds. The theatrical superstition is not taken lightly: even to pronounce the play’s title is considered bad dressing-room form. For hundreds of years, it has been delicately referred to as “The Scottish Play.” It’s also considered dangerous to quote from the play under any circumstances.
There are a variety of rituals used to ward off the evil that results from saying “Macbeth” such as turning three times, spitting over your left shoulder, cursing, and spitting. If there isn’t time for all that, one can quote Angels and ministers of grace, defend us from Hamlet or If we shadows have offended from Midsummer Night’s Dream. When the name of the play is spoken in a theatre, tradition requires that the person must leave, perform one of any number of rituals, and be invited back in.
Those who believe in the curse of Macbeth claim its origin to be in the three Witches; supposedly Shakespeare used real spells in writing the play. Others suggest that its popularity makes it a last-ditch production for failing theatres, which subsequently fail anyway. And its fights, weapons and blood offer many opportunities for disaster. Nonetheless, there are an awful lot of bad things that happen whenever it is performed.
- During the play’s very first performance, on August 7, 1606, Hal Berridge, the boy who played Lady Macbeth, died backstage
- In 1849, after years of intense animosity, the rivalry between the American actor Edwin Forrest and the British actor John Macready culminated in a riot in which thirty-one people were killed. It took place in front of the theatre where Macready was appearing in Macbeth.
- As Lady Macbeth, Sarah Siddons was nearly ravaged by a disapproving audience in 1775; Sybil Thorndike was almost strangled by a burly actor in 1926; Diana Wynyard sleepwalked off the rostrum in 1948, falling down 15 feet.
- In one memorable week at the Old Vic in 1934, the play went through four different Macbeths. Michael Kim came down with laryngitis, Alastair Sim caught a chill, and Marius Goring was fired. John Laurie survived to finish the run.
- The 1937 Laurence Olivier-Judith Anderson production at the Old Vic must have been the unluckiest ever. Just before the scheduled opening night, the favorite dog of the Old Vic founder, Lilian Baylis, died. The next day, Miss Baylis herself died. The director barely escaped death in a taxi accident, Olivier was nearly brained by a 25 pound stage-weight, and Olivier, with characteristic gusto, repeatedly accidentally wounded the various Macduffs in the final battle scene.
- An actor’s strike felled Rip Torn’s 1970 production in New York City; two fires and seven robberies plagued the 1971 version starring David Leary; in the 1981 production at Lincoln Center, J. Kenneth Campbell, who played Macduff, was mugged soon after the play’s opening.
- In 2001, CSC Company Members Lesley Malin and Wayne Willinger were in an adaptation of Macbeth in which an actress was standing on a trap door on the stage when it suddenly collapsed, dropping her, fortunately unhurt, beneath the stage.
- In 2016, a series of minor accidents have plagued CSC staff and actors during rehearsal weeks, including a car accident, a knee injury, a fall from the stage, and a cut caused by a power tool. Coincidence? One wonders.
— adapted from The Friendly Shakespeare by Norrie Epstein
Macbeth (2016) at Chesapeake Shakespeare Company. Jeff Keogh as Macbeth, with Greta Boeringer, Kathryn Elizabeth Kelly, and Tamieka Chavis as the three Weird Sisters. Photo by Teresa Castracane.