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Theater Occupational Superstition: Macbeth (Version I)

Posted By Paul On May 16, 2012 @ 6:56 am In Customs,Folk Beliefs,Magic,Signs | Comments Disabled

Interview Extraction

Informant:”Now the interesting thing about a lot of old stories is- and this is actually something we mentioned in class, how there are often two or three explanations that might not even relate to one another for many of the old stories or traditions.  The Macbeth legend that I know, there are two- no, three variations of the Macbeth legend.  One is the story that the incantations used are actual witch’s incantations so therefore if you believe in witchcraft you do not want to evoke them.  The second one on Macbeth is that, Macbeth being an old ‘war horse’ and an audience favorite, was frequently the play that would replace a show that wasn’t doing well.  So if you heard someone talking about Macbeth, you didn’t like it because it meant that the play you are doing might be closing early, and be replaced by a revival of Macbeth.  I kind of like that legend the best.”

Analysis:

The Macbeth superstition is among the most common superstitions that people working in theater follow.  The legend of Macbeth is that it is bad luck to say ‘Macbeth’ in the theater.  To prevent unlucky things from happening such as the set falling over, people are encouraged to say ‘The Scottish Play’.  If you do make the mistake of saying ‘Macbeth’, you have to cut the curse by performing some kind of protection ritual.  This ritual changes based on who you talk to due to the fact that it is such widespread legend and many people have different ideas about the curse.  The first time I heard about the legend was in Boston when I broke the rule of not saying ‘Macbeth’ in the theater, and the people I was with made me run around the theater three times to cure the curse.  The next time I heard about ‘The Scottish Play’ legend was in Los Angeles, where the cure for the curse was to spin around three times and spit over your shoulder.  It is hard to say if the cure changes based on your location because people in theater often travel for work, so the ideas on the legend would be mixed.  There are many different origin stories behind the legend of Macbeth, and the stories my informant mentions are only some possibilities.

I am familiar with the legend that Shakespeare might have used real witch’s incantations in his play, but I am not sure if this is true.  It depends on your beliefs about witchcraft.  I think the reason why this particular legend is so popular is because witchcraft and magic hold such a high place of fascination in our imaginations, and believing in them is fun.  People are attracted to theater because it is about the magic of storytelling.  Therefore when people in theater participate in these kind of belief systems, they are doing so because it is an extension of working in an occupation that is full of play.  Theater is like magic in the fantastical sense, we rely on illusions to invoke a spectacular idea in the imaginations of the audience.

I was not familiar with the idea that perhaps Macbeth has transformed into a superstition based on the idea that it is a show that frequently replaces unsuccessful productions.  It is very possible that this legend is the true reason behind why the play has become part of theater lore.  This is because Macbeth is a very popular production and you can always find it being performed during a production season, so I can easily see it replacing a show that didn’t prove to be popular.  If this is true, then Macbeth probably evolved into a superstition of bad luck because it has it’s origins in bad luck.

My informant was born in 1949, Connecticut.  He works as a costume designer in the entertainment industry occasionally, and serves as the head of the USC costume shop in addition to being a faculty member for the USC School of Dramatic Arts.  He has more than 40 years of experience in the theater.


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