ASK PLAYBILL.COM: Macbeth ("The Scottish Play")

Ask Playbill.com   ASK PLAYBILL.COM: Macbeth ("The Scottish Play")
 
Shhh! Exploring why it's supposedly bad luck to utter the name/title Macbeth in a theatre.
Patrick Stewart in Macbeth
Patrick Stewart in Macbeth Photo by Alastair Muir

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Ask Playbill.com is a weekly Playbill.com column that answers questions about theatre, generated by readers and Playbill.com staff, every Thursday. To ask a question, email AskPlaybill@Playbill.com. Please specify how you would like your name displayed and please include the city in which you live.

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This question comes from Frank Paiva of Brooklyn, NY.

Question: Of all the charming theatrical superstitions that fly around your average theatre/rehearsal room, the insistence on calling Shakespeare's Macbeth "the Scottish play" has always been my favorite. I know it's supposedly bad luck for any production (Bard or not) to utter the name of the show, but why? How did that tradition get started? And does news of a possible Broadway transfer for Patrick Stewart's sold-out BAM production have a chance to reverse the tides? Answer: There is debate about exactly how the curse got started, but there are several factors that have led to its evolution. First, Macbeth has all the elements you'd expect in a cursed play: blood, ghosts, witches casting spells, a main character possessed by murderous tendencies. The play is a crowd-pleaser, which has, over the years, caused struggling theatres to produce it in a last-ditch effort to avoid closing, thereby creating a correlation between Macbeth productions and tales of disaster. The play is also difficult to stage, as directors get frustrated trying to keep up the momentum after Macbeth's murder spree and rise to power ends.

Then, there are the tales of the play causing bad luck, some true, others probably not so much: When Macbeth first opened in 1606, a boy named Hal Berridge, who was playing Lady Macbeth, supposedly died of a fever. Macbeth was one of Abraham Lincoln's favorite plays, and he took it on a cruise down the Potomac a few days before he was assassinated. During a 1942 production starring John Gielgud, three cast members died, and a costume person committed suicide. On the opening night of a production in Bermuda in 1953, the burning-castle scene got out of control, causing the audience to flee, and the lead — Charlton Heston — to get burned in the groin. There are many accounts of accidental stabbings.

(Thanks for some of these theories goes to an informative 2006 Washington Post story on the subject.)

Apparently, it's ok for actors in the play to say the name "Macbeth" — that's what Oskar Eustis, the Public Theater's artistic director, told the cast of the Public's 2006 production starring Liev Schreiber. After all, their lines require it.

Works have been written about the curse, such as Lee Blessing's The Scottish Play, and a recent film called "Never Say Macbeth."

As for the last question, our first instinct is to say that nothing can reverse the curse, not even a successful Broadway transfer of the Patrick Stewart production. There have been many perfectly uneventful, even successful, productions of the play, and still the curse endures.

But it's an interesting thought experiment: What would it take for a Broadway production to actually break the curse in the minds of the public? A production that was good enough to run 1,000 performances, since such a run would be unheard-of for a Shakespeare play in this day and age, and thus a stroke of tremendous luck for the play? Would it take 2,000 performances? What about a sold-out house for a year or two? What if Tom Cruise starred opposite Katie Holmes and they got the best reviews of their lives? If, say, Nick Hytner of the National Theatre, Michael Boyd of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Harold Bloom, Queen Elizabeth II and a couple reputable exorcists got together in a room and brainstormed what it would take to break the curse for good, what would they decide?

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