Stupid Question ™
March 16, 2000
By John Ruch
Q: Why do actors refer to “Macbeth” only as “the Scottish play”?
A: Traditionally, it’s because saying the play’s name inside a theater supposedly unleashes a curse.
Practically, it’s a way of showing you’re a theater-world insider.
The “curse” idea appears to be no more than 100 years old, starting out as acting superstition before spreading to the general public in the 1930s.
Today, most actors and directors don’t take it seriously, though some old-timers (such as John Gielgud) and many amateurs do.
There are many varying stories on what invokes the curse. Some advise not saying the title, instead saying “the Scottish play” (it’s set in Scotland) or sometimes “Maccers.” Others advise not quoting the play; still others say the play itself is cursed.
The curse operates with equal variety, supposedly imposing anything from violent death to, still worse, bad reviews.
There are ritual cures if you do say “Macbeth”—going outside, spinning around three times, spitting over your left shoulder and begging to be allowed back inside. Or you can quote happy lines from “The Merchant of Venice” or “Hamlet.”
All actors will inevitably get sick, have accidents and someday die.
Focusing on any play, and listing such misfortunes while ignoring non-disasters, will result in the appearance of a “curse.” Many operas are considered similarly cursed; so is “A Christmas Carol.”
“Macbeth” invites such focus for several reasons. The play itself is full of black magic and curses. There are also sword fights and dark sets that inevitably result in minor injuries. And it’s a hard play to perform well because its topicality (it alludes to a 1605 assassination plot) makes it seem anticlimactic to modern audiences.
This probably led some actors to consider the play unlucky. Two legendary stagings in 1937 and 1947 spread the idea.
Laurence Olivier’s performance as Macbeth in 1937 at London’s Old Vic Theatre supposedly resulted in the death of the theater founder, an audience member and a dog, with Olivier himself almost killed. In fact, Olivier only lost his voice, and only the founder—an aging woman with a heart condition—died. The production was actually a hit thanks to exaggerated press about the “curse”—in which Olivier never believed.
In 1947 at the Coliseum theater in Oldham, England, Harold Norman as Macbeth was accidentally stabbed to death on stage. It’s true—he died later of peritonitis—but sword accidents are common on stage. And it’s not true that the Coliseum fearfully banned “Macbeth.”
Similarly inflated are attempts to trace the “curse” back hundreds of years. A severe storm was blamed on “Macbeth” and other plays in 1703 by a Puritan anti-theater preacher who also didn’t mention any curse.
Otherwise, no early references to “Macbeth” mention disasters or hint at a curse.