Macbeth: Superstition

Theatre people, much like the criminals with whom we have long been associated, are a superstitious, cowardly lot. But unlike our felonious brethren, we are not frightened of a psychologically damaged billionaire wearing a bat costume, no matter how many gadgets he possesses. We are much more afraid of the spaces where we work, the shows that we perform, and the ever-present menace of the audience. Things can go wrong on stage. Disastrously so. In an effort to mitigate these risks or feign control over the uncontrollable, we have devised any number of superstitions and rituals to placate whatever malevolent or hubris-punishing spirits would seek to ruin our shows. But surely there could be nothing foolhardy or dangerous about explaining all of these fears and superstitions before the opening of a famously cursed play, right? …right?

I am aware that even writing this blog is a gamble, but I am putting my faith in faerie tale rules, where naming a thing gives you power over it, instead of horror rules, where mentioning a thing draws its attention to you. If I am wrong I beg indulgence of Thespis, and beseech Saints Genesius and Jerome to protect our humble company and me, personally, from the consequences of my arrogance.

Saint Genesius protoicon

Icon of Genesius, patron saint of actors. Image commissioned by the Fraternity of St. Genesius, 2007.

Like I mentioned above, things can go very wrong in a performance. A lot, a LOT, of moving parts go into every show, and any of them can go off the rails at any time. And Murphy’s Law tells us that ALL of them will go wrong. It is therefore an article of faith that as many of those things as possible should go wrong during the dress rehearsals. What better time could there be to jump some lines, to burn out a lamp, to rip a seam on a costume, to miss a cue? As humans, our faulty comprehension of probability tells us that if an unlikely thing happens it is guaranteed not to happen again for a good long while, whereas if something HASN’T happened for a some time, we may well be due for it. That’s why a bad dress rehearsal makes for a good opening night. It is an opportunity to burn through a bunch of mistakes in a controlled environment so we don’t have to be afraid they will happen while the audience is watching.

Another of the myriad things we fear is the sound of whistling. Unless the play specifically calls for it, whistling is verboten anywhere on- or backstage, and, to be safe, anywhere in the theatre at all. The possibly-apocryphal reason for this injunction lurks in the fly loft, the network of ropes, pulleys, curtains, weights, sandbags, lights, and scenery pieces that hangs like the Sword of Damocles above many stages. When theatres began hanging scenery above the stage to raise and lower into the audience’s field of vision, they routinely hired sailors to run the complicated rigging, sailors being second only to perverts in their familiarity with ropes. These sailors imported their use of whistling as signals to each other of when something needed to go up or down. An errant whistle could therefore result in a flat embarrassingly rising at the wrong time, or more dangerously in an unexpected sandbag hurtling to the ground. Although no company to my knowledge retains such an archaic and distracting cueing system, and many theatres do not even have a fly loft, including our own home base of CHAW, the theatre has a long institutional memory and being safe is generally preferable to being sorry.

We are also afraid of g-g-g-ghosts. Every theatre I have worked in has had at least one resident ghost, although I only ever met one, working late on a paper in my college theatre [s/o to Harper Joy! -KH]. Sometimes they’re helpful, other times…less so. Most of the time they show themselves late at night when people are alone, and so their appearances are usually a hint, subtle or otherwise, that you need to go home and get some sleep. In addition to every theatre’s Ghost-in-Residence, we also have the spectre of Thespis to contend with. Thespis, the (Western) world’s first actor and the namesake of the word “Thespian”, haunts the theatrical and performing-arts world on November 23rd, the date when he first stepped out of the chorus and delivered lines as a character in a play. His portfolio is more mischievous than our resident ghosts, concerned, like the good Greek Tragedian he is, on exposing hubris and encouraging humility. Fortunately for us he seems to have mellowed in his old age, because his lessons tend to be merely embarrassing, and not as lethal as his former colleagues Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides might prefer.

Sports Night Thespis

L-R: Jeff Mooring as Dave, Felicity Huffman as Dana Whitaker, Joshua Malina as Jeremy Goodwin, Ron Ostrow as Will. From Sports Night, Season 1 Episode 8, “Thespis”, 1998.

While Thespis is simply a force who must be endured, resident ghosts are more easily placated. What they want is to get to use the stage again every once in a while. That’s why they chase us home if we’re around too late, and it’s why we leave them the ghost light, a light that stays on in the middle of the stage all night when the rest of the lights are off and the theatre is (or, at least, supposed to be) abandoned. Often, but not always, a bare bulb on a floor lamp, the ghost light lets the ghosts see and put on their own shows in the space while we are at home asleep. Very conveniently, the ghost light also illuminates the stage for any mortals who are inadvisably wandering through the theatre late at night. A dark stage is rife with potential hazards, including open trapdoors, the orchestra pit, and loose tools and pieces of scenery, just waiting for a careless or overtired technician, stage manager, or actor’s legs to trip and neck to break.

Ghost Light

Image from ramagrrl on Flickr.

Speaking of breaking bones, one of the best-known theatre superstitions is the phrase “break a leg”. Used instead of the prosaic “good luck”, it is a defense against jinxing, a reproving assertion that a good show doesn’t need luck to be successful, and a bit of gallows humor. It may also be related to failed actor but successful assassin John Wilkes Booth, who injured his leg when he leapt down to the stage after killing President Abraham Lincoln at a production of Our American Cousin [which, along with RUR and The King in Yellow, routinely tops my season proposal list -KH]. The French, because they simply MUST be different, instead say “merde”, literally “shit”, allegedly a roundabout reference to the hope that there would be many carriages dropping patrons off in front of the theatre and, therefore, a good deal of horse manure on the street. And I am given to understand that Australians say “Chooka!” instead, for reasons perhaps best left to themselves.

Of course, the elephant in the room is the play Macbeth itself, which has a sinister reputation. Besides being notoriously difficult to execute well, it is believed to be actively cursed, perhaps on account of the witches and ghosts and blood that permeates the show. This curse has been around seemingly as long as the show itself, and it seems to me that every person and company has a different theory about how the curse came about. Maybe Shakespeare, intentionally or otherwise, included real magic spells in the text. Maybe a local coven took offense to the portrayal of witches on stage and hexed it. Maybe Thomas Middleton’s alteration of the text angered Shakespeare’s ghost. Whatever the reason, strange things undeniably happen during Macbeth performances, including bankruptcy, actor injuries, fires, and disappearances.

Ian Peakes Macbeth.jpg

Ian Merrill Peakes as Macbeth, in Folger Theatre/Two River Theatre co-production of Macbeth, 2008. Photo by Carroll Pratt

One piece of lore universally agreed upon is that saying the name of the play is forbidden. It is a sure-fire way to draw the unwanted attention of whatever actual witches or murdered Scots or discontented actors have seen fit to torment the foolish. It is instead referred to as Mackers or the Scottish Play, and the characters as Lord and Lady M [or, if you’re me, Mr. and Mrs. Scottish Play -KH]. The more astute among my audience will recognize that such a blanket ban on both the title of the play and the name of its main character would make it impossible to rehearse, advertise, or perform, so it should be noted that the ban only applies onstage when not rehearsing or performing the show itself. Fortunately, and very unusually, this curse comes with a countercharm. While the details vary from company to company, the basic form calls for the offending party to immediately exit the theatre, run around it three times, and spit or curse. Embellishments may include nudity, quotations from other Shakespeare, holy scripture, a slap, or permission to re-enter the space. In this way the curse will be satisfied and disaster, hopefully, averted.

Your belief in these superstitions may vary, but I assure you they are real to us, and despite my tone we do take them seriously. I myself wear a tie line bracelet as a good luck charm that I never remove, because things can always go wrong and you never know when a length of tie line will come in handy. If you have any charms or rituals you’d like to share I’d be thrilled to hear about them at the show, for which tickets are available now! I’ll be working the box office for Scottish Play most weekends, and if you come on either the 15th or 22nd of March I am hosting a talkback after the shows! In the meantime, keep us in your thoughts but whatever you do, don’t wish us luck.

1 thought on “Macbeth: Superstition

  1. Pingback: I Dare Do All That May Become A Man | We Happy Few DC

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