Let the blood flow. Patrick Stewart is starring in the new Broadway revival of Shakespeare’s great tragedy Macbeth, a show about a husband and wife so driven to power that they will not let anyone stand in their way. With images of slaughtered children, murdered mothers, haunting corpses, and witches of the most evil kind, the play is steeped in horror. The show is a true Broadway bloodfest.
While saying the title “Macbeth” or quoting any line from the play backstage is perhaps the most famous of stage superstitions, it is not without substance. Quote Macbeth and you court disaster. In an effort to avoid the Macbeth curse, actors will refer to Shakespeare’s masterpiece backstage as “the Scottish play.” Even those who are skeptical about theatre superstitions cannot ignore history. The Scottish play has a dubious production history. Here are a few examples of why the latest revival risks more than critics’ quips in taking on Broadway.
The earliest reporting of a curse comes from the legend that in the first production of Macbeth before King James (a true scholar of witchcraft) in 1606, the boy playing Lady Macbeth took suddenly ill and died backstage. This report seems to have more hysteria than history behind it. In 1849, English actor William Macready was performing Macbeth, when fans of American actor Edwin Forrest started a riot against the foreigner. Tensions between Macready and Forrest fans had been brewing for some time, stemming from an occasion in London where Forrest had hissed a performance of Macready. In New York, at the Astor Place Opera house, more than 20 people were killed in the rioting. The Astor Place riots stand as one of the greatest tragedies in theatre history.
In 1936, 20 year old Orson Welles staged a famous all-black version of the play for the Federal Theatre in Harlem at the Lafayette Theatre. The production launched the career of the Wisconsin native, but also continued the legend of the Macbeth curse. Welles used actual Haitian drummers in the production, the lead drummer was an authentic witch doctor named Abdul. Critic Percy Hammond of the New York Herald Tribune criticized the production as “an exhibition in deluxe boondoggling.” Unfortunately, it was Hammond who suffered, as Abdul and his crew drummed out a genuine curse in response to his criticism. Days later, Hammond died of pneumonia. (Check out video of that production on our Community Page)The great Laurence Olivier gave his own cursed production in the 1930s as well. Both the Old Vic’s founder and her dog died on opening night. During the run, Olivier barely escaped a near fatal car accident, as well as a sandbag falling inches from his head. He also wounded several Macduffs while they were “laying on” in the final scene. A 1942 production in London starring the legendary Sir John Gielgud lost three actors to death two of the witches and King Duncan. In January of 1947, in Manchester, England, at The Oldham Coliseum, Harold Norman, the actor playing Macbeth, said that he did not believe in the superstition. During a sword fight at rehearsal, he was stabbed and died.
There are also reports that Charlton Heston, in 1953, suffered severe burns and almost died when his tights caught fire in a production; and J. Kenneth Campbell, playing the role at Lincoln Center in 1981, was mugged on the upper west side after opening night. Although each tragedy seems to have its own cause -one thing is certain- the play has an unusual stage history that could persuade even the most cynical of Shakespeare lovers to hold their tongue. Patrick Stewart’s performance in the Broadway production of this spellbinding play, both literally and figuratively spellbinding, is worth braving the curse, but please exercise caution on your way to and from the performance.