Thursday, June 30, 2011

Macbeth's Theater Curse in Marin?

In the realm of folklore, magic spells are cast with the intent of doing harm. The results can range from sickness to death. Curses are often vindictive and can come to life, so to speak, long after they are issued. Just think of the Sleeping Beauty fairytale and you get the idea.

They come in many forms. The more common ones include the use of an effigy designed to represent the target. In India, for example, waxed effigies are used. Ancient Egyptians also used waxed effigies upon which they would write the victims' name before tossing them into a fire.

In 17th century England one curse in particular took to the stage, thanks to William Shakespeare. His portrayal of witches in The Tragedy of Macbeth (often referred to simply as Macbeth) written during the reign of King James who was a witch hunter was – and still is - the cause of much concern among theater folk. It has been recorded that Shakespeare populated the play with spells and witches because he knew these were of interest to the king. But the play also gained the interest of those who practiced the occult arts.

Alleged witches who were being hunted and burned (by the thousands) didn’t like the way they were being portrayed on stage. Dancing around a black cauldron, calling out odd phrases and tossing weird ingredients into the brewing pot was not helping their cause. So, as an act of vengeance it is believed that they cast a spell – a curse – on the play that still haunts it today.

Saying the name Macbeth inside a theater will bring bad luck to the play and to anyone acting in it. Unless, of course, the word is spoken as part of the script. Fortunately, as is the case with most but not all curses, there is a remedy. But it’s not a straightforward one like the type associated with Sleeping Beauty who needed only to be kissed by her true love Prince Charming.

Over the centuries, Shakespearean actors have had to jump through more hoops. The curse-reversing ritual requires the one who utters the word to leave the theater, spin around three times while uttering a profanity and then ask for permission to return to the stage. And yes, as with all remedies, there are variations. In some theater circles, one has to spit over his or her shoulder or repeat the phrase: "Thrice around the circle bound, Evil sink into the ground." Some even believe you can request Shakespeare’s help and then resolve yourself with a quote from Hamlet, such as "Angels and ministers of grace defend us".

So what will The Marin Shakespeare Company performers do during the July 8-August 14, 2011 run of Macbeth that opens their 2011 Summer Festival Season at Dominican University’s Forest Meadows Amphitheater in San Rafael? Will a cast member forget about the curse and possibly bring down or extinguish the night stars that form the theater’s ceiling?

According to Director Lesley Currier, during rehearsal there were “a large number of family emergencies and deaths amongst our cast. But that may be because we have a cast of 29 people. I've seen several actors with scars from the final Macbeth/Macduff duel. It's a grueling role for the title character because he carries so much of the line load, and then at the very end of the evening needs to fight Young Siward and then Macduff. I don't want to tempt the theatre gods by saying much more until our current production closes on August 15!”

Here’s what’s happened elsewhere in the past:

  • William Shakespeare himself was forced to play Lady Macbeth during the show’s first performance after the boy designated to play the part suddenly became overcome with sickness and died.
  • In 1672, the actor playing Macbeth substituted the blunt stage dagger with a real one, and with it killed his co-actor playing Duncan right in front of the live audience.
  • During its 1849 performance at New York's Astor Place, 31 people were trampled to death in a riot that had broken out.
  • In 1934, British actor Malcolm Keen turned mute on stage, and his replacement developed a high fever and had to be hospitalized.

To avoid the curse in the first place, cast and crew are sometimes encouraged to refer to the play by its common nicknames, “The Scottish Tragedy” or “The Scottish Play”.

Currier doesn’t encourage or discourage anyone to respect or ignore the curse. “In the theater, you might as well be a little bit superstitious, carrying on traditions of several centuries. I personally touch wood when it seems warranted, and am always aware when I utter the word "Macbeth," particularly in a theater.”

In San Rafael’s outdoor theater setting everyone, including the audience, is exposed to the elements so fingers are crossed for a positive outcome. “So much of what we do depends on the weather cooperating, and actors and crew not getting sick or injured,” noted Currier.

I plan to see the play that has been and continues to be performed by some of the most respected stage and film stars that ever lived because it serves as a reminder that a thirst for power can be dangerous and that there may very well be supernatural forces at work shaping our destinies. Keeping this in mind, of course, I will also make sure I know where the safety exits are. Just in case…

Marin Shakespeare Company is presenting a great menu this season: the cursed Macbeth, The Complete History of America (abridged), and The Tempest. And, as always they have arranged for a variety of viewing options, from previews to Shakespeare-inspired dinners and theater talks. For details, visit the website.


  1. I love that play Macbeth! The three "weird sisters" give me a kick!

  2. Those weird sisters could be the ones who make curses!