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An interesting article this morning about the history of theatre’s most famous curse:

Few plays send actors running to the hills in quite the same way as Macbeth. Ever since its first performance — likely for James I in 1606 — “the Scottish play” has been the stuff of dark, dramatic legend. Quoting from it inside a theatre — and even naming the Thane or his Lady — is said to incur untold misfortunes, unless a counteracting cleansing ritual is instantly performed. For four centuries the weird sisters have been meeting again on a blasted heath, prophesying that “something wicked this way comes”, and so it has often proved to be.

Macbeth has been held responsible for a bewildering array of theatrical ills, from the death of three of the play’s designers, in John Gielgud’s 1930 production, to spectacular accidents, such as the English actress, Diana Wynyard, plunging 15 feet into the pit when she walked off the stage in the sleepwalking scene in 1948. A century earlier 23 audience members were trampled to death when a riot broke out during a performance in Astor Place, New York, and apocryphal stories abound involving prop swords inflicting real wounds, fevers striking actors dumb and near catastrophic scenery disasters.

You can dismiss all this as coincidence or superstition, but actors take it very, very seriously.

As a matter of fact, I think there is something in it.  Indeed, from my own brief career on the boards back in school, I have first-hand experience.  One day during a rehearsal of Midsummer Night’s Dream, somebody mentioned Lady M and very shortly thereafter fell on my foot, breaking my toe.  On another occasion, having made a reference to Birnam Wood, I managed to fall off the stage in the dark.

You may think it silly, but in general I have a healthy respect for taboos, rituals, lucky charms and other superstitions.  Part of this is a simple delight in the spice they add to ordinary life.   Part of it also is that many of them are the product of generations of experience and observation, and while the particular act itself may be meaningless, the empirical wisdom underlying its development is not something to be dismissed lightly.


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April 2010