Macbeth The Cursed Play Essay Research Paper

Macbeth The Cursed Play Essay, Research Paper

“The Comedy of Glamis”, “The Scottish Business” or simply “That Play” are

just a few of the euphemisms actors use to avoid mentioning the title of

William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, one of the most ill-starred plays in

theatrical history.

Indeed, many professionals believe that “The Unmentionable” [another of its

nicknames]-with its bloodshed, ghosts, and witchcraft–is one of the

darkest dramas ever written.

If an actor does happen to mention the name, or quotes from the play while

he is backstage, tradition requires him to leave the dressing room, turn

around three times, spit, and then knock for reentry. Theatrical history is

littered with the many misfortunes of those who have chosen to ignore these

rites of exorcism.

Macbeth seemed doomed from the beginning. It was first performed before

James I, a descendant of both the historical Duncan and Banquo, who are

killed in the play. The curse apparently struck during that original

performance on August 7, 1606, when Hal Berridge, the boy actor cast as

Lady Macbeth, collapsed from a fever and later died. Shakespeare himself

had to step in and play the role on short notice.

The play was rarely performed again for nearly a century. The day of its

London revival in 1703 was noteworthy for one of the most severe storms in

English history. Because of its blasphemous content, the play was blamed

for the storm’s calamities, and Queen Anne ordered a week of prayer during

which all theaters were closed.

A catalogue of disasters

Over the next two centuries the disasters continued, the curse taking its

greatest toll after the Astor Place riots in New York City in 1849. During

a performance of Macbeth by British actor William Charles Macreadyk,

supporters of his American rival, Edwin Forrest, clashed with police.

Twenty-two people were killed and some 36 more injured.

Probably the most famous person to suffer the Macbeth curse was not an

actor but a U.S. President. Macbeth was Abraham Lincoln’s favorite play,

and he spent the afternoon of April 9, 1865, reading passages aloud to a

party of friends on board the River Queen on the Potomac River. The

passages Lincoln chose happened to follow the scene in which Duncan is

assassinated. Five days later Lincoln was shot.

In the 20th century numerous other calamities associated with the fatal

play have been recorded. In the early 1920’s Lionel Barrymore’s portrayal

of Macbeth received such harsh reviews that Barrymore never performed on

Broadway again.

During the first modern-dress production at the Royal Court Theatre in

London in 1928, a large set fell down, causing serious injury to members of

the company, and a fire broke out in the dress circle.

In 1937 the career of 30-year-old Laurence Olivier almost came to an abrupt

end when a heavy weight crashed down from the flies while he was rehearsing

at the Old Vic. The weight missed him by inches. Later rehearsals were

interrupted when the director and the actress playing Lady Macduff were

involved in a car accident on the way to the theater. Worse, the theater’s

proprietor died of a heart attack during the dress rehearsal.

Out in the open

In a 1953 open-air production in Bermuda, starring Charlton Heston, the

soldiers storming Macbeth’s castle were to burn it to the ground onstage.

On opening night the wind blew smoke and flames into the audience, which

fled in terror.

And in 1980 Peter O’Toole, playing Macbeth for the first time at the Old

Vic, was careful never to refer to the play by name. His precautions were

in vain. Beset by numerous problems and accidents during rehearsals, when

the play opened the critics called his work an artistic disaster.


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