The Curse of “The Scottish Play”

Adapted from The Friendly Shakespeare:  A Thoroughly Painless Guide to the Best of the Bard,  by Norrie Epstein

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 form. For hundreds of years, it has been delicately referred to as “The Scottish Play.”  Some people say it is 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, and cursing. 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 A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream. When the name of the play is spoken in a theatre, tradition requires that the offendermust leave, perform one of any numbers of rituals, and wait to be invited back in.  (Other people believe that if you are performing the play, it is OK to say the name.)

Those who believe in the curse of Macbeth claim its origin was the three Witches. Supposedly Shakespeare used real spells when he wrote the play. Others suggest that its popularity makes it a last-ditch production for failing theaters, 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. Here’s a brief list:

  • During the play’s very first performance, on August 7, 1606, Hal Berridge, the boy who played Lady Macbeth, died backstage.
  • In 1849, the rivalry between the American actor Edwin Forrest and the British actor John Macready culminated in a riot in which 31 people were killed. This took place in front of the theatre where Macready was appearing in Macbeth.
  • Sarah Siddons was nearly ravaged by a disapproving audience in 1775. Sybil Thorndike was almost strangled by a burly actor in 1926. In 1948, Diana Wynyard (as Lady Macbeth) sleepwalked off a rostrum, 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 performance, the favorite dog of the Old Vic founder, Lilian Baylis, died. The next day, Miss Baylis died. The play’s director barely escaped death in a taxi accident. Olivier was nearly brained by a 25-pound stage weight. Olivier, performing with characteristic gusto, accidentally wounded the actor who played Macduff in the final battle scene.
  • An actor’s strike ended Rip Torn’s 1970 production in New York City. Two fires and seven robberies plagued the 1971 version starring David Leary.   J. Kenneth Campbell, who played Macduff  in a 1981 production at Lincoln Center, 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 stage trap door that suddenly collapsed, dropping her (fortunately unhurt) beneath the stage.  

Click here for tickets and details about our production of Macbeth (Movable).