. . . why do I yield to that suggestion
Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair,
And make my seated heart knock at its ribs,
Against the use of nature?
— Macbeth, 1.3.133-6
If at any time you find yourself starved for attention, simply wander into the backstage area of any theater in the English-speaking world. Start to chant "Double, double, toil and trouble," or perhaps simply shout the word "Macbeth!" at the top of your lungs. You will instantly be surrounded by actors and stagehands, frantically shushing you and maybe even trying to push you out the door. Once outside, you must do several things: you must turn around three times, spit over your left shoulder, and either 1) say the filthiest word you know, 2) say "Angels and ministers of grace defend us!", or 3) speak a line from A Midsummer Night's Dream. Then you must wait to be invited back into the theater. Only then will the dread Curse of the Scottish Play be reversed.
Anyone who has studied Macbeth in high school or college has heard of the Curse of the Scottish Play — or "the Plaid Play" — or simply, "That Play." In fact, it officially entered the elite ranks of pop culture last year in an episode of The Simpsons. America's most beloved animated family visited England and met Sir Ian McKellen as he rehearsed "That Play." Of course, the Simpsons' incessant mentioning of "Macbeth" onstage results in the hapless Sir Ian's being struck by, among other things, lightning and a scaffold.
Productions of Macbeth have historically (it is claimed) been beset with disaster — accidents both onstage and off, from actors gouged and maimed during the many swordfights in the play, to friends and relatives of theater people struck with sudden, unexplained ailments during the run of the show, to the bizarre offstage deaths of actors and directors connected with Macbeth productions. The explanations for these occurrences are long and complex, ranging from the purely supernatural to the purely practical. Macbeth is cursed, some argue, because its depictions of witchcraft rituals invite evil spirits into the space of the theater. Others claim that the curse is the cumulative result of random bad fortune over 400 years of performances, creating a backstage atmosphere of nervousness and tension that invites danger. More pragmatic people suggest that the play is plagued with bad luck simply because any production that features lots of swordplay and special effects with smoke and flames will suffer more than its share of accidents.
One thing is certain: professional theater people respect the curse, whether they literally believe in it or not. Actors have traditionally had a hearty respect for the unseen forces at work in the world, perhaps because their own livelihood depends so much on luck, illusion, and a deep connection with the darkest recesses of human emotion. This may also be the reason why the world of the theater is densely packed with superstitions and ghost stories.
Here are some things that actors never do:
Of course, some of these superstitions have perfectly logical origins. When the lights and curtains were operated by teams of stagehands manipulating hundreds of heavy bars and sandbags backstage, they used the sailors' language of whistles and handclaps to communicate with one another. Any ill-timed whistle could bring a half-ton curtain down onto your head! Having a distracted fellow-actor sit on one's elaborate stage hat because it was lying on the chaise in your dressing room would also be a bad thing. But many stage superstitions seem much more obscure.
Actors share the tendency to be superstitious with other professionals who regularly perform complicated and physically risky tasks — soldiers, sailors, miners, athletes, pilots, rescuers. The theater is also an intensely oral institution. Even though plays begin as written words, that part of the production is abandoned as early in the rehearsal process as possible, and the spoken word takes over. Live theaters also share many elements with other ritual spaces such as churches and sports stadiums: a company acts and speaks regularly in front of an ever-changing audience, supported by unseen artists and workers "backstage," doing something slightly differently each time, but striving for a repetition of whatever magic has brought the audience to them in the first place. In fact, church services resemble theater performances for the simple reason that the professional theater in Europe began as religious drama, and the first stage actors were, literally, priests re-creating the apostles' approach of the to the tomb of Christ during Easter Mass. The anthropologist Victor Turner, in From Ritual to Theater, links the "per" of experience, experiment, and performance to Indo-European root meaning "to attempt, venture, risk," and suggests the key root is the Greek perao, which he translates as "perilous passage" or "rite of passage." He suggests that dramtic performers are really experimenting with ways to represent human experience. All drama, many scholars believe, has its origins in rites of passage used by societies to mark human transitional, or liminal experiences: birth, death, marriage, puberty, etc. These interstitial moments — moments of movement from one state of being to another — are so important in human lives that they must be frozen in time, examined, honored, and preserved through the repetition of rituals. The presentation of a newborn baby to its community, the procession of a bride among her friends and relatives, the solemn display of the body of a departed person — all are rituals that stage our most important and intimate passages for public view.
Actors routinely walk in that perilous liminal space between reality and fantasy, life and death, comedy and tragedy. The actor who regularly "puts on" the emotions, voice, and identity of someone else — someone who doesn't even exist, frequently — puts her soul in danger of losing its way in the unseen boundary between the real and the unreal. Mirrors are unlucky on stage, and not merely because they can dangerously reflect stage lights into actors' eyes. Folk superstitions abound with tales of mirrors reflecting ghosts or demons; an old story about a performance of Marlowe's Dr. Faustus has the Devil himself entering through a handy onstage mirror to dance with the stage devils, frightening the lead actor to death.
Small wonder they're a bit superstitious.
The really interesting superstitions are the ones whose origins are so shrouded in mystery that the actors themselves don't know why they perform them. Take for instance the belief that it's unlucky to tell an actor "good luck" before s/he goes onstage. Instead, actors say "Break a leg!" Why a leg? Why not just say "Bad luck!"? There are a number of speculations. Some relate the expression to "making a leg" or taking a deep bow — the wish is that the actor should get so much applause that many bows would become necessary. Another, somewhat labored guess relates to stage scenery — the curtains at the side of the stage are called "legs," so an actor that has to take so many bows that the curtains become worn out from being raised and lowered can be said to have "broken" the legs of the stage.
Two historical theories are related to famous actors — some say the expression originated after the immortal Sarah Bernhardt returned to acting after having her leg amputated, which seems macabre. Others invoke the famous incident in which John Wilkes Booth leaped onto the Ford Theater stage to scream "Sic semper tyrannus!" after murdering President Lincoln, breaking his leg in the process. But that seems to bode no good to actors or audience members.
The most likely explanation is also the simplest. Almost every culture has a form of ritual reversals designed to fool evil spirits. Parents of lovely children loudly complain about how ugly their children are, or dress them in old clothing, lest the fairies want to steal them. Therefore, to wish someone bad luck of a particularly immediate and personal kind counteracts the envy of any theatrical goblins who might wish to mar an actor's performance. Similarly, many actors believe that certain things bring good luck — having one's shoes squeak during the first entrance on stage, or even better, to fall on one's face. This is another example of offering a small sacrifice — however inadvertently — in return for a blessing. The belief that the gods or the fates are jealous of perfection may also be behind such superstitions — many actors refuse to speak the last line of a play (particularly a new play) until the opening night, in the belief that a completed or "perfect" play will invite supernatural punishment.
Such small acts of appeasement are deeply sources in faerie lore, which peeks through theater superstitions frequently; the color green is avoided on stage, not only because it is difficult to light attractively, but because it is the faeries' most beloved color and will provoke their jealousy if worn by an actor. Some actors pinch their fellow performers for luck — perhaps a nod to the fairy pinches that punish transgressors. What's interesting is the way that false etymologies for superstitions (like the Booth/Bernhardt "break a leg" stories) tend to crop up when the folkroots become lost or suppressed. That rule about whistling backstage, for example — the explanation about riggers' signals is logical and satisfying, but English actors — many of whom were themselves rural folk who brought their folkways to the big city — may also have been aware of the Cornish saying about the devil, "Whistle and I'll come to you!":
Angels and ministers of grace defend us!
Be thou a spirit of health or a goblin damned,
Bring with thee airs of heaven or blasts from hell,
Be thy intents wicked or charitable,
Thou com'st in such a questionable shape
That I will speak to thee.
— Hamlet 1.4.20-25