Tag Archives: folk beliefs

German Tradition: Sylvester/ New Year Celebrations

Interview Extraction:

Informant: “So for Sylvester, in every major city, and pretty much all of Germany, you are allowed to shoot fireworks at the turn of midnight.  And this day is a holiday, but some shops are open like, until 6:00pm.  And then people will go to their houses, or friend’s houses, or even parties. But usually first, the evening starts with a dinner. Like, not just with your close family, but it is with your friends too.”

Interviewer: “And why do they call New Years ‘Sylvester’?”

Informant: “I have no idea, I mean I never thought of it as ‘New Years’. It is just the name we gave it.  I think it is some religious guy… Oh! And on Sylvester everyone always watches Dinner for One.  It is one of these things where you have a certain tradition, and you don’t really know where it comes from but you grow up with.  And Dinner for One is a common thing for Sylvester because the butler in the show keeps saying ‘same procedure as every year?’ So he is referring to the routine, and that some things don’t change even though the year changes.  I don’t know, it’s just one of these traditions that you don’t know where they come from, but you grew up with them so you don’t really question them.  So yeah.”

Analysis:

Much like in America, Germany celebrates New Years by partaking in special events such as the shooting of fireworks at midnight and spending time with friends and family.  On New Years it is important to spend time with friends and family because it is a way of expressing to them that you appreciate and love them, and you want them to be in your life at the start of the new year.  This indicates that you are wishing your relationship with them to extend into the new year, and many years afterwards.  The shooting off of fireworks is a sign of celebration, much like it is in America.  However a difference I noticed when I celebrated New Years with my informant was that in Germany people are allowed to fire the big fireworks, but where I am from in America only city workers are allowed to shoot off the big fireworks because it is considered too dangerous for other people to do.  Even though firework regulations change based on where you are in America, the fact that there are not as many regulations on fireworks in Germany indicates that the German government probably trusts it’s people with the explosives more than the American government does with their people.

In Germany, ‘New Years’ is referred to as Sylvester.  My informant was not sure as to why this is, which indicates that the tradition of calling ‘New Years’ ‘Sylvester’ comes from old, long forgotten beliefs. In my research I discovered that the term ‘Sylvester’ is of Isreali origin because that is what the Isreali people call the New Years celebration.  Sylvester was the name of the ‘saint’ and Roman Pope who was in charge of the Catholic church during the 4th century.  Pope Sylvester is best known for convincing Constantine to forbid Jews from living in Jerusalem.   All Catholic ‘Saints’ are awarded the day Christians celebrate and pay tribute to that Saint’s memory, and December 31 is Saint Sylvester Day.  Due to the anti-Semitic tone of this legend, perhaps one of the reasons why my informant was not aware of the true origin of Saint Sylvester Day was because Germany has been very careful to distance themselves from their negative history in WWII and the Holocaust.

The final Sylvester tradition my informant mentioned was watching Dinner for One every year.  This english film is played every hour on television during Sylvester and it is very popular in Germany because as my informant pointed out, it reflects on the idea that even though things are changing there are some things in life that will always remain.  Some people feel anxiety towards change, therefore I can understand how in this idea that there is “the same procedure every year” is reassuring to those fearful of change.  The film is especially popular among the wealthier German class because there are jokes in the film that only the wealthy would understand, such as the knowledge of serving the right kind of alcoholic drink with the food.  This comes from upper class dining beliefs that for example, port is an after dinner drink therefore it should be served with the final dish, fruit.  The film is also in English, which is a language that only educated German people would understand.

My informant was born in 1992 Hamburg, Germany.  She studied at USC from 2010-2011 before moving to Brussels, Belgium to study international policy planning for her undergraduate degree.  She lives part time in Brussels, Belgium and part time in her hometown Hamburg, Germany.

Watch Dinner for One:

 

German Tradition: Saint Nikolaus Day

Interview Extraction:

Informant: “So Saint Nikolaus Day is on the 6th of December. And that is just Germany though, and I’m not sure about other European countries.  I know that for example, people in Spain do it on the 6th of January.  I don’t know why we choose that date, I’m sure it has some religious background, as everything in that time. But I don’t know why we celebrate it in December and not January.  Maybe it is to get people excited for Christmas. It’s kind of the beginning, like the very first Christmas event.  So when St. Nikolaus Day arrives, everybody is getting into the Christmas mood. And it somehow commences the Christmas time. So on the evening of the 5th of December, children have to clean their shoes, like their boots, and place them on the windowsill. But only very clean shoes are allowed to be on there.”

Interviewer: “And that is to show that the children are good children?”

Informant: “Well yeah, that is part of it. And you clean you shoes to ask St. Nikolaus to put small treats inside, overnight. So on the 5th of December, children place their shoes there and go to bed. And on the 6th in the morning, they wake up and check their boots to see if something has been put in there. Usually, if the children have behaved fine over the year, St. Nikolaus brings treats. But they are special treats… like walnuts, and also oranges, the small ones… clementines? And also some chocolate stuff.  And if you are bad, you would get sticks and stuff. I don’t know, I never had that. But they have a special name… a rod? And that would be to express that the child was misbehaving.  And St. Nikolaus Day is only for children.  Oh! And you can put spices on the oranges, like cinnamon or nutmeg? And it is arranged in small stars, like they put stars on the oranges.  And usually the boots are supposed to be red boots.”

Interviewer: “Why red?”

Informant: ” I have no idea. Probably the same reason… that the Christmas man… how is he called?”

Interviewer: “Santa Claus.”

Informant: “Santa Claus! Right. Because he is wearing a red coat.”

Analysis:

Saint Nikolaus Day is very similar to the tradition we have in America of hanging stockings over the fireplaces to get little gifts from Santa Claus.  Much like our stocking tradition, Saint Nikolaus Day puts a high emphasis on rewarding good children and punishing bad children.  In both traditions, good children receive gifts for their good behavior and bad children receive something that is symbolic of their naughty behavior such as coal in American tradition or a rod, which is used to spank bad children, in German tradition.  Saint Nikolaus is essentially the German version of Santa Claus.

In addition to what my informant told me, I also found some more interesting information on the legend in my research.  Saint Nikolaus, or Saint Nicholas as he is commonly called, was known to leave coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him.  Sometimes a Saint Nikolaus impersonator would visit children at their school or at their home and ask them if they had been good, helpful, and polite.  The impersonator would then check his golden book to for the child’s record to see if they were right.  This is much like our idea that Santa Claus is ‘making a list, checking it twice, and he’s gonna find out who’s naught and nice’.  During the interview I asked if she knew about the Krampus, which is a demon who accompanies Saint Nikolaus and takes away naughty children to eat them for Christmas dinner.  She said she had never heard of the Krampus before.  I thought this was odd because I was sure that the Krampus was a German legend, but I was only half right.  The Krampus is legend found in the Alpine regions of Europe such as Austria and has it’s roots in Germanic folklore, which is why I thought the Krampus was a part of German tradition.

In my research I was not able to determine why the 6th of December is the chosen date for Saint Nikolaus Day, but I agree with what my informant said about Saint Nikolaus Day marking the start of the Christmas season.  In America we seem to start Christmas season the day after Thanksgiving, because this is when people generally start shopping for Christmas gifts.  I do not know why Saint Nikolaus Day is done earlier than Americans version of the day, which is on Christmas Day when children open their stockings that they had set out the night before on December 24th.  However I agree with her in that Saint Nikolaus Day is a great way to start of the Christmas spirit and get into the gift giving mood.

My informant was born in 1992 Hamburg, Germany.  She studied at USC from 2010-2011 before moving to Brussels, Belgium to study international policy planning for her undergraduate degree.  She lives part time in Brussels, Belgium and part time in her hometown Hamburg, Germany.

Russian Folk Beliefs: Baptism Rituals

Interview Extraction:

Informant: “At least in the old times, you are having a baby- I mean you had a baby, right? And before the baby is baptized in that period like, nobody is supposed to see that baby because you know like, evil people or evil spirits can kind of be attached and stay with the kid forever. So, like usually if you have the baby on the stroller it would be covered with something. Or just only parents and relatives would be able to look at the baby or play with the baby. But after the baby is baptized it means that the baby is protected.”

Analysis:

I have heard of this superstition before in a pervious class where I researched Russian folklore, though I thought it was interesting that my informant explained that  the tradition of covering the baby before it’s baptism is no longer done.  The reason why this tradition is no longer done in Russia, except in highly religious families, probably has something to do with the fact that the Soviet Union discouraged the practice of all religions, not just Christianity.  The Soviet Union policy on religion comes from Marxism-Leninism ideology which pushes the idea that religion is idealist and bourgeois, which lead the Soviet Union to adopt atheism as the national doctrine of the USSR.

The ritual of not showing the newborn baby to anyone before the baptism to protect the child from evil spirits is also an interesting idea.  This is because this shows a blending of Christian and pagan beliefs, which is also known as ‘double belief’.  The Christianization of Russia occurred during the mid 10th century, and instead of replacing the Slavic pagan beliefs, the Russian peasants saw this new religion as something to add on to their old religion.  Russian superstitions today still feature customs and beliefs that are a mix of the Christian and Slavic pagan beliefs, which can be seen the the Russian baptism ritual.

My informant was born in 1977, Moscow, Soviet Union (now Russia).  On completing her undergraduate education in Moscow, she moved to California to earn her graduate degree in theatrical design from Cal State Long Beach.  She now works as a faculty member for the USC School for Dramatic Arts.  She became a US citizen in 2012.

Theatre Occupational Superstition: “Break a Leg!”

Interview Extraction

Informant: “The ‘break a leg’ legend. Do you know that story?  It has nothing to do with fracturing any of the major leg bones.  That in a different usage of the language ‘to break a leg’ is ‘to bend a leg’.  So that gives us two possible origins of why when you want ‘to break a leg’ that the old way of bowing, is that you bend the back leg and then take the bow.  So that ‘to break a leg” means to get a big bow at the end of the show.  And other one is a similar thing on bending, that if coins were tossed on the stage at the end of the show, you would have to then bend down, thus breaking the straight line of the leg in order to pick up the coins that were being tossed on stage.”

Analysis:

The superstition of why you say “break a leg” to an actor is because saying “good luck” brings you bad luck.  There are many different origins of why you would say “break a leg” to an actor, and the phrase also changes based on what country you are in.  For example, in France you would say “Merde” which is French for ‘shit’.  The idea of this is that in wishing for something bad to happen such as the actor breaking their leg, the opposite will take place.

There are may theories behind where this idiom came from, such as the idea that my informant mentioned which suggests that to “break a leg” is a different usage of language that also means ‘to bend a leg’.  I like this theory more than the other origin theories that I have seen in my research, such as the idea that to “break a leg” comes from the production of Shakespheare’s Richard III where actor David Garrick became so consumed with his role as Richard III that he did not realize his leg was broken during the performance.  This legend is popular because it promotes the idea of being so into your performance as an actor that everything else is forgotten, and all that exists is the part you are playing in the world of the play.  This is the kind of mind set that all actors should aspire to accomplish, so it is no wonder that this story has achieved such a high level of fascination in the imagination of people who work in theater, especially actors.

The reason why I like this theory more than the other theories I have seen in my research is that it is very logical.  I have always thought that it is interesting that we say “break a leg” to an actor before they perform, but we do not say this to a designer or crew member before they do their job.  If this legend is the real reason behind why we say “break a leg”, than the reasoning behind not wishing a crew member to “break a leg” makes sense because only actors have historically been the ones that bend their legs to either bow or pick up the coins that had been thrown on stage for a job well done.

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.

Theatre Occupational Superstition: Peacock Feathers on Stage

Interview Extraction:

Informant: “There are more explanations to this superstition than the one I know, but the one I am aware of is that peacock feathers have all these eyes.  And that you either don’t want all those eyes staring at you, or you don’t want all those extra eyes taking away your eyes as an actor.  But I think there are more versions of that story.  There is something that is connected to the past on that one.  And that is one that, more than the others that I know of, some of the old actors take that one really seriously.  And I’ve always felt that if someone involved in the production does believe in that superstition, honor the superstition and don’t use the peacock feathers in the production.  But that is one that they have the right to have that superstition, because you don’t want that competition with all those eyes.”

Analysis:

In my research I was not able to determine the historical reasoning behind why peacock feathers are unlucky in theater.  However, the idea that peacock feathers are unlucky is not unique to theater and can be found in British superstition and Greek superstition, which features the idea that the peacock feathers contain the Evil Eye.  Perhaps because the theater has such a strong heritage from England and Greece, these superstitions have become integrated into theater superstitions.

My informant draws particular attention to the idea that having extra eyes on the actor is bad luck.  In this logic, I don’t understand why having extra eyes on the actor would be a bad thing because you want the attention to be on the actor.  But if the extra eyes are symbolic of the Evil Eye, and we are looking at the superstition in that context than the lore makes more sense to me.  Having all those Evil Eyes on you is seen as bad luck in English and Greek cultures because they are thought to bring personal injury and misfortune to the person the Eye is on.  When an actor is trying to perform, all their focus should be on the performance at hand.  They can’t focus properly if they are worried about the ill fortune that the Evil Eye will bring to them.

The final idea is that you don’t want all those eyes to take away the audience’s attention or ‘eyes’ is also a possible theory.  In theater the attention should be on the performer, and it is considered bad taste to upstage the actor through the use of a flashy set or costume.  This is because it is the costume, lighting, and set designer’s job to make the actor look good, the focus should be on them.  As another one of my professors at USC wisely puts it, “if the audience is looking at that little detail on the set, than there isn’t something wrong with the set, there is something wrong with the actor.” Therefore, the use of peacock feathers taking away from the attention of the actor possibly comes from the idea that they are very beautiful objects and thus distracting.

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.

Ukrainian Legend: “You Steal My Pig, You Choke On It!”

Interview Extraction:

Informant: “My grandma who was living in Ukraine had many domestic animals. And one day one of her neighbors stole one of her pigs.  And she says, ‘Well it’s my pig. Just give it to me back.’ And he said ‘Nope. I went to the market, like farmers market during the weekend and I got it.’ And she said ‘No you didn’t. Because that is how my pig looked like.’ And the dude was refusing to give the pig back and grandma made a kind of, she just said like ‘Well, when you will eat my pig. You will choke on that.’ And that is exactly what happened like several- the dude died. And after that everybody in the village thought that my grandma was a witch, you know? Or that she had extra powers. So everybody was scared to upset grandma. And that’s actually coincidence you know, but it’s kind of… She said it with that intention you know, so like because you stole it and you are not admitting it that, and you are not giving my pig back it means my family will not have enough food for the winter. So it’s kind of you will eat it, but you will choke on it.”

Analysis:

The legend my informant mentioned reflects the strong belief in superstitions and in the supernatural people of Slavic origin have. This strong belief comes from the fact that historically life in the Slavic countries such as the Ukraine has been very difficult, due to political and environmental factors.  There is a basic human desire to try and make life’s events logical, especially when things seem to beyond your control.  As my informant mentioned perviously in the  interview where she talked about Russian superstitions, people want to feel safe and find the reason behind why good things and bad things happen.  Therefore people use superstitious beliefs to set up a system of rules to follow, which gives them the illusion that they have more control over their lives than they actually do.

My informant’s grandmother probably wasn’t cursing the man who stole her pig, she was saying that he will choke on the pig because her family might starve if they don’t have enough food for the winter, therefore the act of causing the pain of others will reflect back on him.  It is possible that when the man was eating the pig, he was thinking about the ‘curse’ that the informant’s grandmother had said and in this kind of homeopathic thinking he actually choked.  This kind of event  seemed to strange to the village people because it was such a coincidence, therefore in trying to make sense of the situation they believed that the most logical response was that my informant’s grandmother was a witch.  Not only did the woman say that he would die with such conviction, but it also came true.  This added to the legend’s believability.  Wither or not my informant’s grandmother was actually a witch depends on what you believe, but the fact that this story has endured with my informant’s family reflects a fascination with the supernatural.

My informant was born in 1977, Moscow, Soviet Union (now Russia).  On completing her undergraduate education in Moscow, she moved to California to earn her graduate degree in theatrical design from Cal State Long Beach.  She now works as a faculty member for the USC School for Dramatic Arts.  She became a US citizen in 2012.

Russian Superstitions: Black Cats and Broken Mirrors

Interview Extraction:

Informant: “Ah well, one of I think, you know international superstitious things is defiantly with the cats. But if it is here it is just bad luck. But in Russia it actually means bad luck or even maybe very horrible disease.  If the black cat crosses the street you must spit over your right shoulder three times, and then the left. So it kind of cuts the curse. Also, I know that it means a disease or death in like, your closest circle of relatives or friends if you look at the broken mirror.  So actually, even if the mirror just cracked it means that you have to pick it up and through it outside of your house without looking at that.  Because for example, in Germany broken mirror means seven years of bad luck, but in Russia it means that everything is going to extreme. It’s like disease? No! Dead people.”

Interviewer: “Why do you think people in Russia are so superstitious?”

Informant: “Well of course, all those superstitious ideas come from pagan times, you know? And Russia was influenced by so many countries because at one point we had Vikings, we had Mongols ruling the country for almost… 12 and 13th century for more than 100 years. So all those influences I would say, they created… I don’t know. Maybe people were scared? And of course in Russia the weather conditions are pretty tough too. You know, living situations was always tough. So maybe people wanted to feel more protected or find reason of like why something bad happen to them.”

Analysis:

I agree with my informant’s analysis of Russian culture and superstition.  Life in Russia has historically been very difficult, due to both political and environmental reasons.  I believe that it is a basic human desire to try to make sense of your world, especially when things seem to beyond your control.  As my informant mentioned during the interview, people want to feel safe and find the reason behind why good things and bad things happen.  Therefore people turn to superstitious beliefs to set up a system of rules to follow, which gives them the illusion that they have more control over their lives than they actually do.  I do not know why the superstition of black cats and broken mirrors appear in other cultures besides Russia.  The notion that a broken mirror is unlucky sounds logical, because broken objects have lost their use.  There is another related superstition in Russian culture that says giving someone a gift that is broken is unlucky as well.  Superstitions are a major aspect to Russian culture, and these beliefs are still present in the way people live today.

My informant was born in 1977, Moscow, Soviet Union (now Russia).  On completing her undergraduate education in Moscow, she moved to California to earn her graduate degree in theatrical design from Cal State Long Beach.  She now works as a faculty member for the USC School for Dramatic Arts.  She became a US citizen in 2012.

Annotation: The black cat superstition is also mentioned at this website, which also lists other Russian superstitions.
http://www.aerotranslate.com/russian-culture/russian-superstitions-in-everyday-life.html

 

 

Theater Occupational Stereotype: Crew Versus Cast

Interview Extraction:

Informant: “One actress friend of mine was in a play where she had to kill a canary in the second act. So for the first act they had a live canary in a cage and then at intermission the canary was supposed to be switched for a stuffed canary which was then killed during the course of the action. And one night, I don’t know what she had done to the crew but they were feeling evil and they left the live canary onstage to see what she would do. And of course she couldn’t kill the live canary, that would be mean. So she put it under a bowl in the kitchen portion of the set and left it on the drain board in the kitchen. Uh, which would have worked fine except for the rest of the act this bowl sort of went ‘THUMP! THUMP! THUMP!’ as the canary tried to get out from under the bowl.

There were also the people who, she had a quick change* that involved running out of one side of the stage, dropping her skirt, climbing out a window, running around the back of the theatre and changing various articles of clothing that were placed along the route as she went. And the last step in this quick change was to step into her shoes and pull up the full skirt that was on the ground right inside the door that she then made her next entrance from. And one night they nailed the hem of her skirt to the floor so that she couldn’t get in the door. So she played the whole rest of the scene from the doorway.”

Analysis:

My informant’s story reflects an aspect of theater culture that has been built on stories such as this and stereotypes of cast and crew members.  Cast members are those who are the performers such as actors or actresses and appear on stage.  Crew members are in charge of production side of theater such as scenic design or working as a stage hand.  There is a negative stereotype in theater that perpetuates the idea that cast members are high-maintenance and crew members are mean.  This of course is not true, and every interaction with an actor or crew member will be unique to what kind of person he or she is.  Generally these two sides of theater production work peacefully and collaboratively, as they are united with the common goal to put on a good story for the audience.  However the exchange of stories such as this help build a stereotype in each others’s mind that the other is difficult, or in this case that crew members like to play mean jokes on actresses.  This can lead to dangerous assumptions and conflict if problems in the production occur.

This is because working on a theater production can often be stressful due to time constraints or budget restraints, and people tend to look for someone else to blame the problem on, which is an unfortunate aspect of human behavior. For example when a show is having problems, it is easier to say that it is the fault of a difficult actress or crew member than to get down to the real problem.  And when someone puts the blame on a cast or crew member, the story is generally believed because in theater we have accepted these stereotypes without realizing we are generalizing people.

There are moments when these stereotypes seem to hold true, such as my informant’s story about the crew members.  In addition to that, I once worked on a television program where the musician was upset that the set was gold and not pink.  However, these occurrences are rare. But the stereotype that cast members are high-maintaince and crew members are mean is an aspect of theater culture that affects the way people interact with one another.

My informant was born in 1961, Connecticut.  He has more than 30 years of experience in theater and has worked on over hundreds of productions.  He continues to work on theater productions today, and serves as the associate professor of theater practice and technical direction at the University of Southern California. He lives in Los Angeles, CA.

*Quick change: a term used in theater to describe a point in the play’s production where the actor must quickly change his clothes backstage before emerging back onstage.  Stand hands, also known as the backstage crew, often help the actor put on their costume to insure the speed and effectiveness of the quick change.

Theater Occupational Stereotype: Old Actress Versus Young Actress

Interview Extraction

Informant: “And then the last story is supposedly from Tallulah Bankhead who was in a play with a fairly snippy young actress who was basically telling her that she was old and irrelevant and that the world belonged to the young. At to which Mrs. Bankhead replied: ‘Honey, I can out act you and not even be on the stage.’ And the next night, in one of the scenes there was a party scene and prior to Mrs. Bankhead’s exit she was blocked* to put down a champagne glass on an end table as she exited. And she put her glass down and she set her glass so that it was like this, slightly more than half off the table and then she made her exit. And over the course of the scene the audience became aware miraculously balancing glass on the edge of the table and everyone was wondering when it would fall, and murmurs and rustlings were going through the audience. And then at the end of the scene when the stage crew struck* the glass they discovered a little piece of toupee tape under one edge of it to keep it from falling over.”

Analysis:

My informant’s story reflects an unfortunate custom that is prevalent in Hollywood, which is that the entertainment industry discriminates against people of an older age.  An aspect of the entertainment industry is escapism, and there is a desire to create a beautiful world in their films in which the audience can escape into and forget the troubles in their lives momentarily.  In the entertainment industry’s desire to do this, there has been too much emphasis put on young beauty and the sensuality that comes with it.  Therefore in this drive to create sensuality in films, older actors often have a harder time getting casted for production roles.  This has created a stereotype that older actors are not as important as their younger colleagues.

My informant heard this story from one of his colleagues at USC.  The popularity of this story suggests that the audience of this tale is revolting against the idea that only young actors are good actors.  This change in values of the entertainment industry can be seen in the currently popularity of actress Betty White who is 90 years old.  People today do not respond as well to the idea of a sensual Hollywood than they had in the past, which is part of a shift in cultural values that rejects the notion that beauty is only skin deep.  Thus the custom of shunning older actors is an idea that is currently changing, which reflects a more accepting Hollywood when it comes to age.

My informant was born in 1961, Connecticut.  He has more than 30 years of experience in theater and has worked on over hundreds of productions.  He continues to work on theater productions today, and serves as the associate professor of theater practice and technical direction at the University of Southern California. He lives in Los Angeles, CA.

*Blocked: The past tense of a term used in theater which means that an action has been planned.  When an actor moves on stage, their actions have been rehearsed prior to the performance and planned or ‘blocked’ in rehearsal.

*Stuck: The past tense of a term used in theater which means that a prop or object is being removed from stage.  At the end of every performance or during intermission, stage hands remove or ‘strike’ props or furniture that has been left on stage in preparation for the next performance.

 

Theater Occupational Superstition: Macbeth (Version II)

Interview Extraction:

Interviewer: (continued from a pervious question) “So it’s considered bad luck to whistle in the theatre, right?”

Informant: “If you are whistling backstage it is considered back luck. I don’t know what you do to cure that, it’s not like ‘The Scottish Play’ where you have to go outside, twirl around three times and spit into the wind or something. I never entirely understood that one…”

Interviewer: “And that ‘cure’ changes every theatre your at, doesn’t it?”

Informant: “It seems to be, the cure for that seems to vary a lot with who ever you talk to. I don’t know where that superstition came from.”

Interviewer: “And is it true that that they think Shakespeare actually took real witchcraft and put it in his play?”

Informant: “Uh, well… I don’t know. However. In the production that Orson Welles did for The Public Theatre, supposedly he hired real voodoo witch doctors to play the witches. Hints, Voodoo Macbeth. And at the beginning of the play, the witch doctors arrived and they requisitioned a goat. Which was provided to them. And they then proceeded to go into the basement of the theatre for three days and at the end of that time they emerged with their drums to use in the production. Presumably they also requisitioned some lumber with which to make the sides of those drums, I don’t know… Anyway. When the production opened one of the New York Times critics was particularly vicious and did not like the play. And the cast and the crew were sort of moping around because they had gotten this really horrid review and the compliment of witch doctors supposedly went to Orson Welles and said ‘this man made you all so sad, is he a bad man?’ And Orson Welles supposedly said yes. And then three days later the critic got sick and died. You may draw your own conclusions from that! But yes, supposedly the theory was that voodoo was done.”

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 story my informant mentions is only one possibility of why people in theater are attracted to this superstition.

The production of Voodoo Macbeth was a real production that occurred in 1936 under the Federal Theater Project, and the New York Times critic that gave the production a bad review really did die three days after he published his review.  Whiter or not the cause of death was related to Voodoo Macbeth remains to be determined.  His cause of death could have been influenced by homeopathic magic, in which his anxiety over the threat of the witchdoctors caused him to die or the cause could have been from contagious magic, in which the witchdoctors actually performed a spell.  This depends on your view of witchcraft.  Or perhaps his death was unrelated to the theater production, and the timing of his passing was just a coincidence.  The fact that this really happened gives the legend more power in the imaginations of those who tell the story.

Real instances such as this are what makes ‘The Scottish Play’ superstition such a popular belief in theater culture.  Another reason why this superstition is so popular along with other theater superstitions is that believing in them is fun.  People are attracted to theater because it is about storytelling.  Therefore when people in theater participate in these kind of customs, they are doing so because it is an extension of working in an occupation that is full of play.

My informant was born in 1961, Connecticut.  He has more than 30 years of experience in theater and has worked on over hundreds of productions.  He continues to work on theater productions today, and serves as the associate professor of theater practice and technical direction at the University of Southern California. He lives in Los Angeles, CA.