USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘Shakespeare’
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The Shakespeare Festival

Context & Analysis

The subject is a theater major at USC and is very proud of her hometown of Ashland for hosting one of the most highly regarded theater festivals in the country. She described to me a lot of the inside details of the festival and elaborated on the different theaters and plays that have been featured. It’s clear from her narrative that she is extremely passionate and knowledgeable about the subject and the town itself, and it was interesting to hear the information from someone who is so involved in both aspects of the festival.

Main Piece

“Ok, so the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is a regional theater company—one of the most highly regarded theater companies on the west coast and in the US—like really spectacular—and it runs usually from February to November—it has three theaters. They do usually 12 plays between the three [theaters]. The one that has usually the most plays in it per season is usually the Angus Bomer Theater and they do all sorts of plays in there. They’ve done musicals, they do Shakespeare, they do new works in there, it’s just, um, whatever fits the space best…and then there’s the Elizabethan which is, like, the oldest theater there and that is their outdoor theater and they usually do between, like, three to four plays in there. Usually Shakespeare and a musical. I know this season it’s Oklahoma [the play]. But I’ve seen Richard III in there, Hamlet in there, it’s really nice but also it gets really cold. And then there’s the Thomas Theater which is, like, their new kind of ‘black box’ style theater where they can switch up the seating however they want to do it. They’ve done some Shakespeares in there—like last season they did Henry IV part one and part two. It’s just meant for smaller audiences. It brings tourists from like all around the world, sustains the economy of our town and is a really really good place for diversity. They’re really big on, like, being inclusive and diverse. In fact, their production of Oklahoma this year has same-sex couples and it should be really good! They’re very big on not only producing works by authors of color but also making sure people of color are cast and are on all of their teams.”

Folk Beliefs
Homeopathic
Magic

That Scottish Play

According to my informant, there is a long-running superstition in theatre surrounding the name “MacBeth.”  If you are in a theatre or involved in a theatrical production, you are not supposed to say the name “MacBeth” or quote lines from the play.  Instead of saying “MacBeth” you are supposed to say “That Scottish Show” or something along those lines.  It is akin to stepping on a crack or spilling salt; it is bad luck all around.  She says that if you say “MacBeth” around a theatre or while you are working on a play, then the theatre will burn down or someone will die on stage.  It’s just something you are not supposed to do.  My informant learned this from her high school theatre teacher.  Someone in rehearsal had said “MacBeth” and the teacher went pale and screamed at this offending student to leave the room and wash out her tongue or something.

After researching on Wikipedia and other websites, I have discovered that the taboo against saying “MacBeth” has many supposed origins.  Some believe it is because the original globe theatre burned down after a production of MacBeth, others believe it is because a real sword was accidentally used instead of a prop sword, and someone was killed during a performance.  Others still think it comes from the fact that the witchcraft lines used in the play are real magic, thus cursing each and every performance.  Some believe that Shakespeare stole these lines from an actual witching coven, and these witches cursed the play.  Some say that Shakespeare himself cursed the play so that no one but he would be able to put on a performance of the play.  Others still say that King James, for whom Shakespeare had written the play to impress, did not like the play very much.  Ashamed, Shakespeare would not talk about MacBeth openly, instead calling it “That Scottish Play.”  Speaking the name of the play, the names of the characters, and in some places directly quoting lines from the play, are all considered bad luck.

According to the site, productions of MacBeth are often accompanied by accidents and death.  Other theatres that put on the production will sometimes go out of business soon after.  MacBeth is, however, a more expensive production than most, and has more stage combat and special effects (old timey theatrical effects) than most plays, leading to the business failures and accidents, respectively.

If someone does speak the name “MacBeth” or quotes lines from the play, they are to exit the theatre immediately.  The offender must then spin around three times and then knock on the door.  The offender may not re-enter the theatre until someone lets them in.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Scottish_Play

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Magic
Signs

Theater Occupational Superstition: Macbeth (Version I)

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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