The theater has been host to much folklore over the years. There is the saying “break a leg” which means “good luck” — though you are never supposed to actually wish someone “good luck.” There are stories of haunted sets due to deaths, of cursed parts — such as the ghost in “the Peony Lantern” which stems from a 1919 performance in which the two actresses playing Otsuyu and her maid fell sick and died within a week of each other. However, there is one play that no one dares utter the name of. One that has supposedly been cursed for centuries. And that play is Macbeth.
According to lore, to even utter the name of the play was considered horribly bad luck, therefore it was always referred to as “The Scottish Play.” This all stems from the notion that — again, according to legend — Shakespeare used actual incantations for the witches, causing a coven to curse the play forevermore. Another theory is that the actual incantations the witches speak during the performance is the curse itself, causing all of the misfortune that has befallen this play since its opening day.
As we take a look at a few of the accidents that have occurred throughout the years, we have to begin in 1606 when the actor playing Lady Macbeth died the day before the play was to debut. This forced King James I to ban the play for years in order to prevent any further incidents. However, the actresses who have played Lady Macbeth have been known to suffer the worst of it. There are stories of the actors being strangled, breaking both of their legs, falling to their deaths off the stage, and — the worst of it all — being attacked by audience members who become completely bewitched by the play. This leads us to 1849 when — in New York — the audience was so bespelled by the play that a riot broke out, killing over thirty people. When Laurence Olivier played Macbeth, he was almost killed by a heavy weight that mysteriously dropped from backstage, and during his performance they used real swords which, unfortunately, led to one flying into the audience, hitting one of the patrons and causing him to have a heart attack. In 1942, three actors died under unexplained circumstances, and the costume designer took their own life on opening night. The final story we have of this play’s destruction comes to us from 1953 when actor Charlton Heston was in a horrific motorcycle accident during rehearsals, leaving both of his legs badly burned for his performance. The reason? His tights had been mysteriously soaked in kerosene, leaving them highly flammable.
With every curse there comes the chance to break it. And this one is no different. According to theater folklore, should you utter the name of the play you must immediately exit the theater, spin around three times, spit, curse, then knock on the theater door in order to be allowed back in. So if you happen to find yourself cast in “The Scottish Play” fear not! Just whatever you do, do not say the name of the play, or you might find yourself added to the list of unexplained deaths this play has been collecting since the very beginning.
For more reading on the curse of Macbeth (sources):