Mac... I mean that Scottish play

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Mac... I mean that Scottish play

Post by AutumnSims on 19th August 2008, 2:32 pm

That Scottish play
The Curse of 'Macbeth'

Is there an evil spell on this ill-starred play?

Showbill, April 1984

In 1604 Will Shakespeare in his zeal to please King James I, an authority on demonology, cast caution and imagination aside and for the opening scene of Macbeth's Act IV he reproduced a 17th century black-magic ritual, a sort of how-to to budding witches. Without changing an ingredient, Old Will provided his audience with step-by-step instructions in the furtive art of spell casting:

"Round around the cauldron go;
In the poison'd entrails throw.
Toad, that under cold stone
Days and nights has thirty-one
Swelter'd venum sleeping got.
Boil thou first i' the charmed pot"
...And so on.

The ritual's practitioners were not amused by this detailed public exposure of their witchcraft, and it is said that as punishment they cast an everlasting spell on the play, turning it into the most ill-starred of all theatrical productions. It is so unlucky that by comparison to Macbeth's nearly 400-year history of unmitigated disaster, Murphy's Law appears exceedingly optimistic.

Here are some of the gory particulars:

Beginning with its first performance, in 1606, Dear Will himself was forced to play Lady Macbeth when Hal Berridge, the boy designated to play the lady with a peculiar notion of hospitality, became inexplicably feverish and died. Moreover, the bloody play so displeased King James I that he banned it for five years.

When performed in Amsterdam in 1672, the actor playing Macbeth substituted a real dagger for the blunted stage one and with it killed Duncan in full view of the entranced audience.

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.

During its 1849 performance at New York's Astor Place, a riot broke out in which 31 people were trampled to death.

In 1937, when Laurence Olivier took on the role of Macbeth, a 25 pound stage weight crashed within an inch of him, and his sword which broke onstage flew into the audience and hit a man who later suffered a heart attack.

In 1934, British actor Malcolm Keen turned mute onstage, and his replacement, Alister Sim, like Hal Berridge before him, developed a high fever and had to be hospitalized.

In the 1942 Macbeth production headed by John Gielgud, three actors -- Duncan and two witches -- died, and the costume and set designer committed suicide amidst his devilish Macbeth creations.

The indestructible Charlton Heston, in an outdoor production in Bermuda in 1953, suffered severe burns in his groin and leg area from tights that were accidentally soaked in kerosene.

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.

Of course, no explanations have been given for the seemingly inevitable toil and trouble that is part and parcel of this unlucky play. You don't, in fact, ever refer to Macbeth or quote from it unless rehearsing or performing it. You also don't, as explained to me by countless brave and talented actors from Glenda Jackson to Ian McKellen, refer to this haunted play by name, but instead you call it That Scottish Play or simply That Play; everyone, it seems, will get the message, in a flash.

That Bard's play
"The Scottish play" and "The Bard's play" are euphemisms often used for William Shakespeare's Macbeth, the first being a reference to the play's Scottish setting. Sometimes "Macker's" is used to avoid saying the proper name, although mostly in North America. Saying "Macbeth" inside a theatre is often considered taboo, as it is thought to bring on the curse associated with the play. The lead actors themselves are referred to as "Mr. and Mrs. M." or a variety of different names. Another variation of the superstition forbids direct quotation of the play while within a theatre.Productions of Macbeth are said to have been plagued with accidents, many ending in death; the play does include more fight scenes and other such opportunities for accidents than does the average play, and the atmosphere in the backstage area of old-fashioned theaters was a prime setting for disasters, especially when dealing with potentially dangerous equipment. According to legend, this dates back to the original performance of the play, in which prop daggers were mistakenly swapped for real ones, resulting in a death.
Those who believe in the curse of Macbeth claim its origin to be in the three Witches, who in the play are said to be casting real spells. It has also been suggested that the inclusion of the character Hecate, frequently cut from productions of the play due to questions about her part's authorship, will intensify the effects of the curse.
The popularity of the superstition might also be related to its mild hazing aspect. Veteran actors might relate some tale of woe that they witnessed personally due to someone invoking the curse, lending credibility and immediacy to the tale.
One hypothesis for the origin of this superstition is that Macbeth, being a popular play, was commonly put on by theatres in danger of going out of business, or that the high production costs of Macbeth put the theatre in financial trouble. An association was made between the production of Macbeth and theatres going out of business.
According to the superstition, Shakespeare got a few of the lines from an actual coven of witches and when they saw the play they were greatly offended and cursed the play. Another tradition tells that the original propmaster could not find a suitable pot for a cauldron and stole one from a coven, who then cursed the play in revenge for the theft. It is believed that the taboo calls the ghosts of the three witches to the show and it is they who cause all the mishaps.

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