The Curse Of "The Scottish Play"

Myths are sometimes invented out of whole cloth, but on occasion there may actually be enough fabric to warrant them. Ask any actor to say the name of Shakespeare’s Macbeth and, if he or she has any experience at all on the boards, you’ll likely hear in response, “The Scottish Play.” M-a-c-b-e-t-h, it seems, is the title they dare not mention by name.

Actors are, by dint of their tenuous profession, superstitious. But the curse of Macbeth—hereinafter referred to as “The Scottish Play”—is one myth that has every indication of being true. Fittingly enough, it started on opening night in 1606 when the actor (yes, actor) playing Lady “The-Scottish-Play” fell ill, and Shakespeare himself had to go on in his place (shades of the movie Shakespeare in Love).

Fortunately, there were no theater critics in those days; unfortunately, there was the unhappy patron who had hired the Bard to write the play. When he hated it, the work was pulled from the repertoire.

Theater historians confide that there has rarely been a production of “The Scottish Play” since then that has not added to the legendary curse.

In 1849, in New York, 23 people were killed when a riot broke out at the Astor Place Opera House. According to Carl Sifakis’s The Encyclopedia of American Crime, Orson Welles’s 1936 Harlem stage interpretation of a Voodoo Macbeth (transposed from Scotland to Haiti) was a smash, but the lead actor fell ill and Welles had to go on—in blackface.

The Old Vic’s 1937 Laurence Olivier version sidelined its director (traffic accident), its producer (his dog died), and its star (Olivier’s voice). Just to make it binding, the head of the Old Vic died on opening night. In 1981 the New York Lincoln Center revival was likewise cursed when its star, Philip Anglim, lost his voice for two weeks.

Not even the movies have been spared. Roman Polanski’s bloody 1971 incarnation was the first motion picture from Playboy Productions — and the last.

So the next time somebody announces he or she has been cast in “The Scottish Play,” don’t say the customary “break a leg.” In this case, it just might come true.

REALITY CHECK: Playground Myth

“Shortly after the Cyclone roller coaster opened at Six Flags Magic Mountain (known at the time only as Magic Mountain), it is said that ‘a really fat woman’ got into the car, but could not bring down the safety bar over her rather excessive front lap. Supposedly, as the coaster takes its first big leap, so does she. She went flying out and landed with a crash, necessitating the temporary closing of the ride (and a rather large coffin).”

—submitted by Robert W. Abramoff, California

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