Scottish Play



  • An alternative title used by actors for Shakespeare's Macbeth,in deference to the curse allegedly attaching to the play. 'That play','the unmentionable', and 'Mr and Mrs M' are amongst the other euphemisms used.Popularly regarded as the unluckiest play in the dramatic repertory, Macbethhas become the focus of many theatrical traditions and superstitions.If an actor refers to the play in a dressing room by its real titlehe or she must immediately leave the room, turn around three times,break wind or spit, knock on the door, and ask permission to re-enter.Alternatively the line "Angels and ministers of grace defendus", from Hamlet (I, iv), may be quoted.

    Nobody knows the origin of the superstition, but the witches'incantations on stage may be responsible for the idea that the play containsgenuine 'bad magic'. The history of bad luck began with the first performanceat the Globe Theatre, when the boy-actor playing Lady Macbeth is said to havedied of a sudden fever in the middle of the play. More recent years have seenthe postponement of Olivier's first production at the Old Vic due to the deathof Lilian Baylis on the eve of the opening night (1937), three deaths in thecompany during the first production with Gielgud (1942), and - on aneventful tour in 1954 - an attempted suicide, an accident in which thecompany manager broke both legs, the electrocution of an electrician,and the death of a visitor from a blow by a stage spear after a memberof the crew uttered the fateful word to him in conversation.

    Many attempts have been made to ward off the curse, includingan exorcism of evil spirits in 1926 by Sybil Thorndike and Lewis Cassonat the Princes Theatre. A more powerful defence was used during OrsonWelles's famous 1928 all-Black Macbeth in Harlem's LafayetteTheatre. John Houseman recalled, "Our supernatural departmentwas very strong at the Lafayette." It included an authenticwitch doctor who sacrificed live goats in the theater at night. Whenthe critic Percy Hammond attacked the production, the witch doctorled a voodoo session and Hammond died a few days later of a suddenillness.

    Others have suggested more prosaic reasons for the long catalogue ofaccidents and other misfortunes associated with the play. For example, it isprobably the case that Macbeth contains more swordfights and stabbingsthan any other frequently performed play of Shakespeare. Moreover, productionstend to be dimly lit - partly for reasons of atmosphere but also becausean unusual number of the scenes take place at night. see taboos andsuperstitions.