SORCERY OR SUPERSTITION? THE CURSE OF THE SCOTTISH PLAY
When do self-fulfilling prophecies become self-defeating?
Superstitions among actors are legion, e.g. it’s bad luck to say “good luck,” green is unlucky to wear on stage, misfortune follows when someone whistles in a dressing room. Although the list is seemingly endless, most infractions are considered by even the most superstitious among us to be venial sins which do not require repentance and a cleansing ritual. There is, however, one cardinal sin that some believe must never be committed, and that is speaking the actual name of “The Scottish Play.” I have known actors who denounce all superstition as being unscientific yet still seem to be stricken with fear if someone says “Macbeth.” “The curse,” they insist, “is real.” How this came to be is unclear, and there are many apocryphal tales as to its origin, some quite entertaining. However, there is a common theme in most of the theories: the fear of witchcraft.
Belief in witchcraft was not peculiar to the Elizabethans. It has existed for most of our human history and exists to this day. It is a part of the fabric of our collective unconscious. Yet that belief (conscious or unconscious) triggers fear in many people. In order to respect Wiccan traditions, one must first remove the fear and understand the mechanics. It’s rather ironic that in Macbeth, Shakespeare lays the perfect groundwork for this journey.
The witches put no curse on Macbeth; they merely deliver prophecies. They tell him he will be king. They never tell him he will be a murderer, nor do they offer advice on how to become king. On hearing the prophecy, the concept of murdering Duncan erupts from his own mind almost immediately, as it does from the mind of Lady Macbeth when she first receives the news. For a moment Macbeth is able to clear the murderous thought from his mind and think clearly: “If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me without a stir.” Yet in the end he grows impatient and sides with his wife, who strongly desires “to catch the nearest way.” It is Lady Macbeth herself who implores the supernatural forces to make her into a murderess. If this self-determination is ignored, the play becomes fatalistic and is no longer a tragedy. The tragic flaw of the Macbeths is their own “vaulting ambition.”
I don’t wish to destroy any imagination or magic. Imagination is a vital tool for actors. Once a technique has been mastered and the lines ingrained, it is the imagination that takes over and sculpts the final character. Orson Welles once remarked that “actors are the third sex.” It takes a special kind of person to devote time to this endeavor. We spend countless hours learning words that are not our own from the mouths of characters who are often fictitious. We dress in clothing we would not otherwise wear, paint our faces and venture onto a stage in hopes of approval but with the risk of cruel and unusual criticism. We walk in magical realms, and thus our minds remain open to suggestion. An exuberant imagination is a wonderful gift for any actor, but imagination is a double-edged sword. I believe the tragic flaw of my fellow actors who accept the curse is their own vaulting imagination.
Most of our theatrical superstitions are benign and generally tolerated by all of us. They make us a bit quirky and members of a special club. However, I believe that the “curse of the Scottish play,” in the words of Hamlet, “is a custom more honored in the breach than in the observance.” It can actually do harm to the imaginative mind of a performer. I have known young actors who are reluctant to be cast in the play.
There is something of a hazing tradition in our heritage, the older actors telling the next generation of horror stories about productions of Macbeth. But things have gotten out of hand. Since people usually see what they expect to see and find what they expect to find, there is a danger in perpetuating the myth. If you use your search engine to find “The Curse of the Scottish play,” you will find many articles. Some try to define the roots of the superstition, some document Macbeth disasters through the ages, and many offer personal accounts of their own encounters with the curse and insist it is real. I have yet to find an article that speaks against it. The closest I could find was a quote from the British actor, Sir Donald Sinden: “More actors have died during performances of Hamlet than in the ‘Scottish play’ as the profession still calls it.” Yet these cases are never documented. The obsession with recording Macbeth misfortunes borders on the obsessive, and thus the tales abound.
It is time to mount a counteroffensive. Acting, directing and producing are difficult enough without irrational fear creeping into the equation. Witchcraft (for good or ill) depends on the collective unconscious. Mass hysteria (necessary for any negative witchcraft) abounds in the Scottish play superstition, and thus it has become counterproductive. This dynamic is so powerful that I’m certain there are friends of mine who will tell me that I’m actually harming young actors by telling them not to respect the curse. I urge rebellion nonetheless. The counteroffensive will take time and must be executed delicately.
How will this be accomplished? Well, I think there are two sets of rules.
INSIDE THE DRESSING ROOM: Defer to any superstition. Try not to say “Macbeth,” and if it happens go ahead and indulge your fellow actors with any cleansing ritual required. Stage fright is a fearful thing, and you don’t want your fellow actors going onstage with any unnecessary baggage.
OUTSIDE THE DRESSING ROOM: Gently remind people that Shakespeare never wrote a play titled “The Scottish Play.” Say “Macbeth” when you are referring to Macbeth, and say it often. The odds are overwhelming that you won’t be struck by lightning when you do so. Remind them that the true witchcraft in the drama involves the power of suggestion and self-generating effects.
And remind your fellow actors that Macbeth is not a cursed drama. All productions are vulnerable to all sorts of disasters and misfortunes. If you are cast in Macbeth, rejoice! Imagine what could befall you if you were cast in a dinner theatre production of an Ibsen revival.