September 15, 2018

Witchworks: Shakespeare's Macbeth Curse

William Shakespeare’s Macbeth is a grisly tale of murder and ambition, a dark drama in which the treacherous protagonist and his wife murder their king in order to assume his crown.  It is a play greatly respected by theater folk—but never loved.  For 400 years, stage lore has held that disaster dogs the trail of everything associated with Macbeth.  So firm is the superstition’s grip that many thespians will not even say the name of the work, referring to it instead as That Play, the Scottish Play, or the Unmentionable.

Legend has it that the curse of Macbeth begins with the three spell-brewing witches whose deceitful prophecies give rise to the title character’s fatal ambitions.  Shakespeare, it is said, based their dialogue on a real witches’ spell, thus rendering the work ill-starred for all time.

On a less mystical note, the play was misbegotten politically.  The first production reportedly so offended James I, monarch when Macbeth premiered around 1605 at Hampton Court, that he banned all performances of it for five years.  James, the first of England’s Stuart kings, was the son of Mary, Queen of Scots, who had been executed for treason at the command of Elizabeth I.  James was a squeamish soul, and among his chief dreads were assassination, witchcraft, and madness—three themes central to the plot of Macbeth.

The first known performance after the ban was in 1610 at Shakespeare’s famed Globe Theatre in London.  The Globe burned down in 1613, and all the props, scenery, and costumes of Macbeth were lost in the fire.  

Shakespeare died three years later, and the Scottish tragedy vanished from the stage for about half a century. It then resurfaced as a light opera.  Music apparently discouraged the curse, which seemed to remain dormant until early in the eighteenth century. 

In 1703, Macbeth was ;dying at London’s Covent Garden when England was strafed by one of the worst storms in its history.  Rains and hurricane-strength winds killed hundreds of seamen, caused extensive damage in London, and nearly destroyed the port town of Bristol.  A number of theater-hating moralists of the day proclaimed that the storm expressed God’s displeasure with Macbeth, whose witchy goings-on were deemed to be particularly objectionable. 

During a performance of the play at London’s Portugal Street Theatre in 1731, an argument in the audience go so out of hand that a riot erupted and the theater was nearly burned down.  In 1808, Covent Garden opened its fall season with a production of Macbeth.  Within a month, the theater burned to the ground, killing twenty-three people and destroying irreplaceable manuscripts and sheet music. 

Mishaps and mayhem continued to haunt the play through the years: Cast members suffered accidents or sickened or died, productions went awry, and even audiences sometimes seemed afflicted by the presumed curse.  It was an 1849 production of Macbeth at New York’s Astor Place Opera House that ignited a tragic climax to a long-running feud between two actors, England’s William Charles Macready and the American Edwin Forrest.  At the play’s farewell performance, Forrest partisans congealed into a mob outside the opera house.  They stoned the theater and smashed windows.  The militia, called to quell the riot, fired on the crowd.  In the end, at least twenty people were killed and many more injured.

A 1937 production at London’s Old Vic theater starred Sir Laurence Olivier and won wide praise, but at considerable cost.  Lillian Baylis, manager of the Old Vic, died during rehearsals.  Director Michel Saint-Denis and actress Vera Lindsey were injured in an accident.  Olivier first lost his voice, then nearly lost his life when a falling stage weight just missed hitting him. 

Lillian Baylis

During a production in Oldham, England, ten years later, British actor Harold Norman practiced bits of his title role in his dressing room, careless of the superstition holding that the play must be recited only onstage.  In the play’s final battle scene, Norman was accidentally stabbed by the actor playing Macbeth’s antagonist, Macduff.  The wound was fairly slight, but an infection set in, and a month later, Norman died.  Shortly thereafter, his infant daughter was accidentally suffocated, and his widow, also a performer, suffered a mental breakdown.

One of the most bizarre misfortunes in Macbeth’s long and blighted history involved a 1935 New York staging at the Lafayette Theater in Harlem, featuring an all-black cast.  It was produced by John Houseman and directed by Orson Welles, and the gifted pair decided to give it a distinctly voodoo flavor, setting it in Haiti and importing some genuine voodoo practitioners to conduct their exotic rites onstage.  The production was a huge critical success, with one notable dissenter:  Conservative critic Percy Hammond of the Herald Tribune called the opening performance a boondoggle and worse.  Grim-faced voodooists stayed in the theater overnight, chanting and drumming.  The next day, Hammond fell ill.  He died soon afterward from pneumonia.

At times, the Macbeth curse turns more puckish than malign, as it did for Charlton Heston one evening during an open-air performance in Bermuda.  Lady Macbeth was to die by throwing herself over a rampart into the sea below here high-walled castle.  The dummy representing the unfortunate lady was hurled to its fate—only to be flopped back onto the stage by an uncooperative wind.  The grave moment turned farcical; the audience roared with laughter as a hapless messenger announced to Macbeth, “The Queen is death, my Lord.”

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