Thursday, June 20, 2013

Why can't you say "Macbeth" in the theatre? An Inquiry into an old superstition...

So, Paper Wing Theatre, as usual, has thrown caution into the wind and is getting ready to open a deliciously modern, bloody, and oh-so-anachronistic "Macbeth" by William Shakespeare. The superstitions and traditions surrounding this play are well known, and this has turned my normally level headed, hardworking actors and director into a group of timid, superstitious kooks. (Sorry guys; I still love ya). The curse goes something like this: Unless you are in rehearsal or performance of the actual play, you may not say the name. Ever. Even the most linear and scientific personalities have been effected. To date, myself and +Lj are the only ones who seem to refer to the play by its actual name. Ever since we announced this play into our season, I have heard all the Macbeth circumlocutions from our cast and crew, including but not limited to: "The Scottish Play" "Mackers", "The Bard's Play", "The Glamis Comedy", "The Scottish Business" and my personal favorite "The-Play-We-Are-Doing-Now-Don't-Say-The-Name".  

There have been numerous stories, urban legends, and the like about this supposed "curse". You cannot exist in any theatre company without hearing a tale of misfortune about someone who heard about someone who uttered the word in a theatre and was met with illness, injury, misfortune and even death.

Although skeptical, I don't want to piss off the theatre muse(s). I have not challenged or made fun of any off these alternates (much). I don't necessarily believe in curses but I certainly am not in any position to thumb my nose at theatre tradition that could cause catastrophe. 

When did this all begin? As near as I can gather from my theatre history books and good ol' Google, there are divided opinions about the origin.

Some believe that the Witches of England got totally peeved because Shakespeare used their "real" chants in the script, and they cast a curse on the play, condemning it for all time. The original copyright infringement, I would say.

Others believe that the superstition started later and that King James I banned the play for about five years after he first saw it, in 1606. Some say he found the witches’ curses too realistic – having authored a work on demonology, he considered himself an expert.

Probably most spectacular (quack) view is that Shakespeare actually cursed the play himself, guaranteeing that no one other than him would ever be able to direct the play. Now, I have seen, and thrown, some pretty intense directorial hissy fits in my long career in the theatre, but I have never cursed my own work so that no one else would ever have success with it, so this one seems quite far fetched.

The most believable history is this one, ironically that I first heard from my old High School drama teacher, Mr. O'Connor. The superstition actually began in the old days of stock companies, which would struggle at all times to remain in business. Frequently, near the end of a season a stock company would realize that it was not going to break even and, in an attempt to boost ticket sales and attendance, would announce production of a crowd favorite . . . MacBeth. If times were particularly bad, even 'the bard's play' would not be enough to save the company, therefore, MacBeth often foreshadowed the end of a company's season, and would frequently be an indication of the company's demise. Therefore, the fear of MacBeth was generally the fear of bad business and of an entire company being put out of work.

Holy Crap. 
This, as a theatre owner and producer, is the scariest "curse" of all. It is the nightmare most theatres live in fear of and go on in spite of. And it is, in spite of all the curses and superstitions imagined or not, that Paper Wing carries on with this stunning and violent masterpiece.

There it is. The history of a theatre "curse".

So if you'll excuse me, I will now be off to leave the room, close the door, turn around three times, say a dirty word and spit... just in case.

“Angels and ministers of grace defend us!” -Hamlet, act 1, scene 4