a.k.a. the Scottish Play, the Scottish Tragedy, the Scottish Business,
the Comedy of Glamis, the Unmentionable, or That Play
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 when he reproduced a 17th century black-magic ritual, a sort of how-to to budding witches. Without changing an ingredient, he 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…
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.
The superstition seems to have arisen, in part, from the play's depiction of witchcraft, still a vital (though contested) belief in 1606, when the play was first performed. Macbeth was believed to flirt dangerously with the Powers of Evil, bringing catastrophe down upon productions over the succeeding centuries.
Those seeking rational reasons for the Scottish Curse have pointed to several features of the play as conducive to accidents:
Stage combat authentic productions often use broadswords, which are heavy and difficult to wield deftly, capable of inflicting considerable blunt trauma.
As Shakespeare's shortest play, Macbeth makes a logical last-minute addition to a company's repertoire and so can be dangerously under-rehearsed.
THE CURSE Here are some of the gory particulars:
1st performance,1606 -- Shakespeare 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.
Amsterdam, 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.
London, 1703 -- on the day the production opened, England was hit with one of the most violent storms in its history.
1721 – during a performance, a nobleman who was watching the show from the stage decided to get up in the middle of a scene, walk across the stage, and talk to a friend. The actors, upset by this, drew their swords and drove the nobleman and his friends from the theatre. Unfortunately for them, the noblemen returned with the militia and burned the theatre down.
1775 -- As Lady Macbeth, Sarah Siddons was nearly ravaged by a disapproving audience.
New York’s Astor Place, 1849 -- a riot broke out when a crowd of more than 10,000 New Yorkers gathered to protest the appearance of British actor William Charles Macready, who was engaged in a bitter public feud with an American actor, Edwin Forrest. The protest escalated into a riot, leading the militia to fire into the crowd. Twenty-three people were killed, 36 were wounded, and hundreds were injured.
April 9, 1865 -- Abraham Lincoln chose to take Macbeth with him on board the River Queen on the Potomac River. The president was reading passages, which happened to follow the scene in which Duncan is assassinated, aloud to a party of friends. Within a week, Lincoln himself was dead by a murderer's hand.
1882 -- on the closing night of one production, an actor named J. H. Barnes was engaged in a scene of swordplay with an actor named William Rignold when Barnes accidentally thrust his sword directly into Rignold's chest. Fortunately a doctor was in attendance, but the wound was supposedly rather serious.
1926 -- Sybil Thorndike was almost strangled by a burly actor.
Royal Court Theatre, London, 1928 -- during the first modern-dress production at the, a large set fell down, injuring some members of the cast seriously, and a fire broke out in the dress circle.
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.
1934 -- four actors played Macbeth in a single week.
1936 -- Orson Welles produced his "voodoo Macbeth," set in 19th-century Haiti. His cast included some African drummers and a genuine witch doctor who were not happy when critic Percy Hammond blasted the show. It is rumored that they placed a curse on him. Hammond died within a couple of weeks.
1937 -- 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 addition, the director and the actress playing Lady Macduff were involved in a car accident on the way to the theatre, and the proprietor of the theatre died of a heart attack during the dress rehearsal.
1937 -- Macbeth had to be postponed for three days after a change in directors and because Lilian Boylis (the role of Lady Macbeth) died on the day of final dress rehearsal. Her portrait was hung in the theatre. When another production of the play was having its opening (1954), the portrait fell from the wall.
1942 – during a 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.
1947 -- actor Harold Norman was stabbed in the swordfight that ends the play and died as a result of his wounds. His ghost is said to haunt the Colliseum Theatre in Oldham, where the fatal blow was struck. Supposedly, his spirit appears on Thursdays, the day he was killed.
1948 -- Diana Wynyard sleepwalked off the rostrum, falling down 15 feet.
Bermuda, 1953 -- Charlton Heston starred in an open-air production. On opening night, when the soldiers storming Macbeth's castle were to burn it to the ground onstage, the wind blew the smoke and flames into the audience. Heston suffered severe burns in his groin and leg area from tights that were accidentally soaked in kerosene.
1954 -- the portrait of Lilian Boylis crashed down on the bar on opening night.
Stratford, 1955 -- Olivier was starring in the title role and during the big fight with Macduff almost blinded fellow actor Keith Michell.
New York City, 1970 -- an actor's strike felled Rip Torn's production.
1971 -- two fires and seven robberies plagued the version starring David Leary
Lincoln Center, NY, 1981 -- J. Kenneth Campbell, who played Macduff, was mugged soon after the play's opening.
St. Paul, Minnesota -- the actor playing Macbeth dropped dead of heart failure during the first scene of Act III.
New York City, 1988 -- the production starring Glenda Jackson and Christopher Plummer is supposed to have gone through 3 directors, 5 Macduff’s, 6 cast changes, 6 stage managers, 2 set designers, 2 lighting designers, 26 bouts of flu, torn ligaments, and groin injuries. (The numbers vary in some reports.)
New York City, 1998 -- in the Off-Broadway production starring Alec Baldwin and Angela Bassett, Baldwin somehow sliced open the hand of his Macduff.
AVOIDING THE CURSE
The superstition is not so much about doing the play as about naming it. You are not supposed to mention the title in a theatre. If you do happen to speak the unspeakable title while in a theatre, you are supposed to take immediate action to dispel the curse lest it bring ruin on whatever production is up or about to go up.
The most familiar way is for the person who spoke the offending word to leave the room, turn around three times to the right, spit on the ground or over each shoulder, then knock on the door of the room and ask for permission to re-enter it.
Variations involve leaving the theatre completely to perform the ritual and saying the foulest word you can think of before knocking and asking for permission to re-enter.
Some say you can also banish the evils brought on by the curse simply by yelling a stream of obscenities or mumbling the phrase "Thrice around the circle bound, Evil sink into the ground."
Or you can turn to Will himself for assistance and cleanse the air with a quotation from Hamlet: Angels and Ministers of Grace defend us!
Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damn’d,
Being with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell,
Be thy intents wicked or charitable,
Thou comest in such a questionable shape that I will speak to thee.