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  Columnist: Patrick Bernauw

Image credit: T. Chassériau

The curse of Macbeth


Posted on Monday, 10 August, 2009 | 4 comments
Columnist: Patrick Bernauw


Don't mention the name of "that play"! The Unmentionable is considered to bring bad luck to its cast... Apparently, the story that Macbeth was cursed sprang up on its opening night in 1606. The actor who was playing Lady Macbeth became mysteriously ill and Shakespeare himself had to step into his shoes. Macbeth was commissioned by king James I, who attended the opening night. It was a right royal disaster. Fifty years had to pass before Macbeth was performed.

Macbeth tells of the dangers of the lust for power and the betrayal of friends. Amidst thunder and lightning, three witches greet the Scottish general Macbeth and his friend Banquo with prophecies. They proclaim that he shall be "King hereafter" and that Banquo shall father a new line of kings. Immediately, Macbeth begins to harbour ambitions of becoming the king of Scotland. He writes to his wife about the prophecy and when King Duncan decides to stay at Macbeths' castle at Inverness, Lady Macbeth makes a plan to murder him. Macbeth kills his king, but it leaves him totally shaken. Lady Macbeth has to take charge now. In order to secure their throne, they will have to kill and murder again and again and again...

Since 1606, there have been a string of deaths and misfortunes associated with "Macbeth". In 1667, the dark and gruesome tragedy was rewritten as a frivolous light-hearted musical, complete with dancing and a flying ballet. This version, with three singing witches, was revived in 1703 during a puritan backlash against the theatre. During its run the worst storm in England's history occured: a half thousand seamen died, Bristol was destroyed and London severely damaged. The hurricane expressed God's wrath, the puritans said.

The original text was restored by Kemble at Drury Lane in 1794. At one performance, an actor playing the role of Macbeth sustained a near-fatal stab wound. Passionate fights were enacted with real weapons, and it is known that an actor playing the role of Macduff came away without thumbs, hacked off by the fiery Macbeth. In 1849, there was a riot in which more than 30 people died at the Astor Place Opera House, where "The Unmentionable" was playing.

In the 1937 production at the Old Vic in London, the director got nearly killed in a car crash. Vera Lindsay, playing Lady Macbeth, was also badly bruised. The star of the production, the famous actor Laurence Olivier, lost his voice and almost died when a weight from the stage lights came tumbling down. After this incident, the the founder of the theatre, Lilian Bayliss, had a heart attack and died on the opening night. Later a member of the audience was hit by a fragment of Olivier's sword, and died also of a heart attack.

A wartime production with John Gielgud as Macbeth may hold the record. The Third Witch fell ill and died of a heart attack during the final rehearsal and the actor playing King Duncan died of angina. A witch was dancing round the cauldron, but could not maintain the tempo of the music. She collapsed and died on stage. And the set designer committed suicide.

In 1947, the promising young actor Harold Norman played Macbeth. In the final scene, Norman feel - but instead of dying on stage as rehearsed, he crawled into the wings. 'I've been stabbed,' he whispered to the stage director. He was taken to a hospital and died a month later. Later it emerged that, in the dressing-room he shared with another actor, Norman had begun quoting from "The Unmentionable", refusing to stop even when warned.

Charlton Heston has played Macbeth several times. In 1953 he took the role in an open-air production at Fort St Catherine, Bermuda. During rehearsals he had a motorbike crash, during the first performance he had to ride a horse bareback in the first scene. Heston suddenly rushed off stage, pointing at his thights, writhing in pain and yelling: "Get them off me!" - Whoever had laundered the thights had dipped them in kerosene and the sweat of the horses and the heat caused serious burns on Heston's legs and groin. Later, Macbeth's castle came down burning as planned, but the wind blew flames and smoke into the audience, causing a stampede. Fortunately, nobody died in or during this production.

In 1954, the Old Vic went on the road again with "that Scottish play". The company manager broke both legs in a car accident, an electrician sustained severe burns, there was an attempted suicide and two of the actresses had abortions. A year later, Olivier played Macbeth again, with Vivien Leigh as his Lady. A film version was prepared, but the producers got cold feet, deciding that stars like Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh could not guarantee a good box-office... after Vivien Leigh had been in Gone With the Wind and Olivier's film versions of Henry V, Hamlet and Richard III all had been hits.

In 1961, during the Shakespeare Festival at Stratford, Connecticut, an actor on a bike was knocked over by a car. Het was joined in hospital by one of the witches, who fell from a stage lift. In the last month of the season, Franklin Clover was playing Macbeth in the White House before JFK. He got injured and developed a cyst under his arm, was operated but continued playing. A young colleague was found dying of stab wounds, the murderer was never found. The company manager got himself murdered too, in his Boston apartment.

In 1970, an actor of the Liverpool Repertory Theatre playing Macbeth was hit in the eye by a sword, his Lady caught flu, wich spread, so five understudies were needed... Etcetera, etcetera...

"If you take any play as popular as Macbeth, you'll find a catalogue of disasters attached to its history," Michael Bogdanov of the English Shakespeare Company stated. He had been on the road six months with a production of Macbeth without any calamities. Sceptics have pointed out that a play involving so many battles, duels and murders, taking place mostly at night (meaning dim lighting), is bound to cause accidents. Playing "that Play" is emotionally and physically exhausting, and you have to get up and down steps and rostrums, and even with blunted swords, cuts and bruises are only to be expected...

The believers, on the other hand, have proved that Shakespeare went too far in his desire for authenticity, by using genuine black magic recipes. The foul ingredients of the witches' brew in Act I, Scene 3 - scale of dragon, tooth of wolf,... - were not solely the product of Shakespeare's imagination. In his book Supernatural on Stage, actor-director Richard Huggett claims that there is overwhelming evidence that the three witches in Macbeth do use genuine black magic incantations, whereby Shakespeare invoked a fatal and irrevocable curse on the play.

King James himself had previously published a book on witches and how to detect them. In an effort to please the King, for the opening scene of Act IV, Shakespeare reproduced a sacred black-magic ritual. A group of witches danced around a black cauldron, throwing ingredients into it and shouting out strange phrases. Some say that it is also possible the practitioners of this sort of rituals were not very amused by Shakespeare's public exposure of their witchcraft, and so they decided to cast their own spell on the play...

More Pictures, Macbeth Performances on YouTube and the Witches Song ‘Double Double Toile & Trouble’ in the original article:

The Curse of Shakespeare’s Scottish Play Macbeth

Copyright by Patrick Bernauw & The Lost Dutchman’s Historical Mysteries

Article Copyright© Patrick Bernauw - reproduced with permission.



 
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