Friday, April 13, 2012

Friday the 13th!

The idea of “Friday the 13th being bad luck” didn’t start until the nineteenth century, but anachronisms have never stopped anybody from drawing comparisons to Shakespeare. And so, in honor of this prestigiously spooky date, I’d like to talk to you about bad luck in Shakespeare. By which, I mean, I want to talk about the Scottish Play – or, properly, Macbeth.
            Now, I think the superstition about the supposed curse of The Scottish Play is a whole bunch of hooey. Think about it: if (as our actors will point out if you ask them about the "curse") you have a play with that many swordfights in performance for over 400 years, by everyone from professional theater troupes to kindergarten classes, you’re going to have some incidents. Compound that with the general human fascination with superstition, and what do you get? In this case: destruction, mayhem, and death.
            So where did the idea of the curse come from in the first place? Well, it has been said that Shakespeare wrote Macbeth as a nod to his new patron, King James I, who wrote a book on demonology and had a fascination with witchcraft and wizardry. The legend goes that Shakespeare, in his zeal to impress, lifted the incantations of his witches from books of actual black magic – which means that actors playing the witches are forever casting real spells. To lend credence to that story, bad things reportedly started happening from the very first performance. A story attributed to John Aubrey, who claimed to know some actors who worked with Shakespeare, and relayed in Richard Huggett’s The Curse of Macbeth, claims the boy playing Lady Macbeth was struck with a fever and died before the performance, forcing Shakespeare himself to step into the role.
            Things got worse and worse. Allegedly, in a 1672 production, the actor playing Macbeth used a real dagger against the actor playing Duncan and actually murdered him. In 1849, the appearance of British actor William Charles Macready in a New York production of Macbeth incited a riot that killed 23 people and wounded 36 more. In the 1942 John Gielgud production, three actors died during rehearsal – two of the witches and Duncan – and the costume and set designers both committed suicide. Even the great Shakespearean Laurence Olivier fell prey to the curse: performing Macbeth at the Old Vic in 1937, he was almost killed when a stage light crashed to the ground only inches from him. His director and his Lady Macbeth both got in a car crash, the founder of the theater died from a heart attack on opening night, and an audience member, hit by a fragment of Olivier’s sword during one performance, also suffered a heart attack and died.
            Perhaps the play is cursed. Regardless, I think the key to understanding the Macbeth mystery lies with the witches. They may not be casting real spells, but they tell us something very important about fate, free will, and luck (good or bad). In 1.3, one of the weird sisters recounts the tale of a sailor’s wife who wouldn’t share her nuts. In retaliation, the witch calls a storm upon the seas where her husband is sailing, and says: “Though his bark cannot be lost / Yet it shall be tempest tossed” (1.3.24-5).
            The witches don’t demonstrate any real power – not in real life and not in the play. They can’t make things happen. They can only set up situations and circumstances in which things could happen. They can’t sink the sailor’s ship, but they can make the waters very rough, and if the sailor’s crew isn’t sure-footed, strong, and prepared, then that ship is going down. Shakespeare can’t curse us with his Scottish Play from beyond the grave, but he can certainly write a script with witches, murders, ghosts and swordfights, and make the language and characters so beautiful and compelling that we simply have to perform it over and over and over again – increasing the probability of accidents, destruction, mayhem, and even death.
            Yet, all that coil is long of us. We can’t blame supernatural elements for the most basic of human errors, whatever the temptation to avoid agency.

Coming soon: the fourth installment of "Better Know an Actor" with Ben Curns!

--Lia Razak

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