USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘the scottish play’
Customs
Folk Beliefs
Magic

Never Say Macbeth

Content:
Informant – “You know the story of Macbeth. There are a lot of witches in that play. Legend has it that the curses that they say are real. If you say the name of the Scottish Play in a theater needlessly, that theater is cursed. The name summons the witches and curses. To reverse it, you have to run around three times in a circle and spit, or say your favorite curse word. You also get shunned by your cast, which is not fun.”

Context:
Informant – “I heard it from my freshman theater teacher. He was crazy. I said Macbeth in class once and he yelled at me ‘YOU NEVER SAY THE SCOTTISH PLAY’S NAME.’ He almost threw a chair at me.”

Analysis:
I can’t think of any practical application for this superstition, so I believe it exists to create a more complex theater subculture. If you know about it then you are more of an theater person than those who don’t.

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.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Legends
Magic
Narrative
Protection

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.

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