G: You can’t say Macbeth during any rehearsals or theater-related entourage. I think this has something to do with the play being a huge tragedy. When my high school teacher explained this to me he said: “well it’s because by the end of the play everyone is dead.” And you have to run 5 laps around the entire theatre if you or someone else says it to get rid of the bad energy. One time my theatre teacher said it during rehearsal and then he fell through the stage.
According to the informant, saying “Macbeth” puts a curse on the entire production and cast. It seems that so many people believe this because there have been true accounts of accidents or unfortunate events after saying it. Some are even lethal as the informant explained that their teacher fell through the stage and hurt himself almost immediately after saying it. There also seems to be damage control measures put in place to protect theatrical productions against the curse as the informant mentioned taking 5 laps around the theater. It’s possible that the violent nature of the play is what has caused the superstitions and concerns. Macbeth is all about death and destruction so it’s understandable why this play is now seen as a dark symbol. I have personally experienced bad luck during a show after a cast member said the words. As a result, a number of things went wrong on opening night. People forgot their lines, made the wrong entrances, forgot their props, costumes broke, etc… It was disastrous. In conclusion, whether the superstition is true or not, it is best to not refer to the Scottish play.
Informant – “Break a leg is when you wish to wish an actor good luck in a theater. You can’t say good luck, you instead say break a leg.”
JK – “When did you first hear it?”
Informant – “I heard it many years ago when I was performing and around stage people. They just told me that’s what you do.”
JK – “Why do you think this practice exists?”
Informant – “I was told that the gods of the theater, if you told someone good luck, the mischievous gods would intercede and that person would screw up. But if you didn’t say that, if you told them the opposite, the gods wouldn’t have anything to respond to and they wouldn’t notice that person. It could also be that the applause would be so great that you would have to take a bow. And the traditional bow, in the Victorian bow, you would have one leg in front of the other and to bow you would break your leg. Well not literally, but it would be like bending your knee in a weird way.”
There is also a humor to the wish. Before it became a cliche, telling someone to break a leg may have been a way to get them to laugh and relax before going on stage.
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.”
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.”
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.
Informant – “Every fall, on September 29th, Waldorf schools celebrate Michaelmas Festival to honor Saint Michael defeating the dragon. The 4th grade puts on a play. The play is different from year to year, but the overall plot is the same. A town is besieged by a dragon. A maiden gives herself up to the dragon to save the town. Saint Michael saves the maiden by taming the dragon. After the play, the high school sings a powerful three part harmony.
‘Hearken all, the time has come when all the world at last the truth shall hear; then the lion shall lie down with the lamb. Our lances shall be turned to reaping hooks, swords and guns be cast as plowshares, nations shall live in lasting piece, all men unite as brothers.’ ”
Informant – “Around this time, meteor showers are very prevalent in the Northern Hemisphere. The whole festival is very indicative of iron coming down to earth and strengthening humanity for its fight against the darker forces as summer ends and winter begins. The dragon isn’t really a dragon – it’s the evil within us. Saint Michael is the Lord of Light, his iron comes to strengthen mankind with light. The whole festival is a celebration of our higher, nobler self defeating our lower, base impulses.”
The informant learned about this festival on her own when she was studying Waldorf education.
The festival is an interesting mix of pagan and Christian influences. It’s intrinsically linked to both Saint Michael and the ending of summer. The fact that the dragon is tamed and not killed is also interesting. It reinforces the informant’s claim that the dragon is not an external enemy, but our own internal demons. We cannot kill our base impulses, but we can learn to control them. The timing of the festival is also interesting. It is a celebration of light and peace at a time when the world is getting darker and all the plants are dying.
The subject is a BFA in USC’s School of Dramatic Arts Acting program, which is extremely competitive. I asked him if he knew of any theater traditions or sayings specific to USC’s theater program. I included the full dialogue of our conversation below for clarity.
Subject: ‘Dark in here’ is a big one for the BFA’s. Any time the lights turn off someone just has to go ‘Dark in here!”
Me: What’s the context of that? Subject: It was a line in a scene and we—Mary Jo probably made them do that line for an hour straight.
Me: Who’s Mary Jo?
Subject: Mary Jo Negro is the head of undergraduate acting at USC, she’s our acting professor, she’s the one that cuts us [laughs]
Me: So what play was it taken from?
Subject: It’s a 10-minute play called ‘Tape’. It’s very bad. [laughs]
Me: So why did it become a saying within the BFA’s?
Subject: Uh, because we’re the ones that had to run through it for an hour—it was just that line. And so then every time the lights turn off we’d have to go ‘Dark in here!’—so the lights turn off and he [the main character] goes ‘Dark in here” and so now any time any professor ever turns the lights off somebody goes “Dark in here” and I hate it [laughs].