notes on ‘the Scottish play’ (euphemism for ‘Macbeth’)

The phrase the Scottish play is a euphemistic name for The Tragedy of Macbeth, by the English playwright and poet William Shakespeare (1564-1616).

According to theatrical superstition, Macbeth is a very unlucky play. The origin of this belief is unknown.

It is now usually considered bad luck to mention the play by name whilst inside a theatre, but the earliest known mentions of the superstition, which date from the early 20th century, indicate that the taboo was primarily against quoting the play. The following succinct mention is from the chapter Superstition and Slang of Driftwood of the Stage (Detroit, Michigan – 1904), by ‘Judge Horton’, i.e. William Ellis Horton (1848-1932), theatre actor and manager, and writer on theatre:

Never quote “Macbeth” in the dressing room.

James Brander Matthews (1852-1929), American professor of dramatic literature, also briefly mentioned the superstition in Vignettes of Manhattan: Outlines in Local Color (New York, 1921):

Everybody [is] aware that it is very unlucky to speak the last speech of a play at a rehearsal—as unlucky as it is to put up an umbrella on the stage, or to quote from “Macbeth.”

The following explanation appeared in Superstitions of the Theater, published in The Scrap Book (New York) of March 1906—the author, unnamed in the magazine, is apparently the English psychologist Thomas Sharper Knowlson (1867-1947):

The older members of the profession have always considered the witches’ song in Macbeth to possess the uncanny power of casting evil spells, and the majority of them have strong dislikes to play in the piece. If you but hum this tune in the hearing of an old actor, the chances are that you will lose his friendship.

According to this explanation therefore, the malediction attached to Macbeth stems from the text of the play itself: the witches’ incantations on stage really invoke evil forces, and bring catastrophe upon the play’s production.

In this case, Macbeth would have been cursed ever since it was first performed. But, as already explained, the play is not known to have been regarded as unlucky until the early 20th century (even though the use of “the older members of the profession” in the above-mentioned text from March 1906 implies that the superstition was not recent.)

It is popularly (but erroneously) said that the superstition began with the death of Hal Berridge, the boy actor who was to play Lady Macbeth at the premiere of the play in 1606, which forced Shakespeare to interpret the role himself.

However, both the actor and the incident are fictional: not only is there no record of Hal Berridge in the lists of theatrical personnel, nor of any actor being taken ill, but also, more importantly, this story was fabricated as a pastiche of the English antiquary John Aubrey (1626-97) by the English essayist and parodist Max Beerbohm (Henry Maximilian Beerbohm – 1872-1956) in a theatrical review published in The Saturday Review of Politics, Literature, Science and Art (London) of 1st October 1898; in this review, titled “Macbeth” and Mrs. Kendal, Beerbohm praised the interpretation of Lady Macbeth by the English actress Madge Kendal (1848-1935) at the St James’s Theatre, London; this is what Beerbohm wrote:

According to Aubrey the play was first acted in 1606, at Hampton Court, in the presence of King James. It is stated that Hal Berridge, the youth who was to have acted the part of Lady Macbeth, “fell sudden sicke of a pleurisie, wherefor Master Shakespere himself did enacte in his stead.”

(In the same review, Max Beerbohm also fabricated an entry of the diary of the English naval administrator Samuel Pepys (1633-1703).)

An event that occurred in 1849 is often said to illustrate the curse. In actual fact, its cause was not Macbeth itself, but a long-standing quarrel between the American actor Edwin Forrest (1806-72) and the British actor William Charles Macready (1793-1873). On 10th May of that year, their feud culminated in a full-scale riot at the Astor Opera House, Manhattan, where Macready was appearing in a production of Macbeth: between twenty and thirty rioters were killed, and a great number besides were wounded.

However, it is true that Macbeth-related theatrical disasters have occurred—although all the substantiated examples seem to be drawn from 20th-century productions. Ann K. Jensen gave an account of one of those disasters in The Tragedies of Macbeth: The Curse of the Scottish Play, published in The Daily Utah Chronicle (Salt Lake City, Utah) of Thursday 16th February 1995:

The 1937 production [of Macbeth at the Old Vic] starring Laurence Olivier was alarmingly unlucky. According to Donald Spoto, Olivier’s biographer, “[Director Michael] Saint-Denis barely escaped death in a taxi accident; Olivier was nearly brained by a falling stage sandbag; the scenery did not fit the stage; Darius Milhaud was not happy with his musical score and kept tearing up pages of composition; and Lilian Baylis’s favorite dog died, pitching her into depression.” (Lilian Baylis was the founder of the Old Vic.)
Opening night was postponed, though the production was only to meet an even greater setback when Baylis herself died just a day before the delayed opening. The production’s run showed little improvement. Olivier, in the final battle scene “acted so lustily” that he kept wounding various Macduffs, gashing one so badly that he had to be replaced in mid-performance.
As if in response to the fated 1937 production that led to Baylis’s demise, a portrait of Baylis fell from the wall and shattered on the opening night of Macbeth’s return to the Old Vic in 1954.

But, as Laurie Maguire and Emma Smith explained in 30 great myths about Shakespeare (John Wiley & Sons Ltd, 2013),

one disastrous production became a commercial hit: Peter O’Toole’s Macbeth at the Old Vic in 1980, directed by Bryan Forbes. Everything about this production arouse the critics’ (satirical) ire. “Eradicating the unnecessarily tragic aspects that have always weighed the play down, the cast sent the first-night audience home rocking with happy laughter,” wrote one reviewer. Robert Cushman wrote: “Chances are he likes the play, but O’Toole’s performance suggests that he is taking some kind of personal revenge on it.” When O’Toole appeared after the offstage murder, he was so covered in red that one reviewer said that he looked like Santa Claus. So great were the quantities of stage blood that the production was dubbed “Macdeath.” The lighting design caused practical problems: “it was, of course, the rottenest luck for [O’Toole] to run smack into a wall on his third bravura exit (so much of the play takes place in the dark)” wrote the Daily Mail reviewer in mock-sympathy. The London Evening News criticized Frances Tomelty’s athletic Lady Macbeth who “greeted her husband by leaping at him and achieving a leg-encircling embrace of the kind which illustrates helpful sex manuals.” The witches, Shakespeare’s “secret, black and midnight hags” (4.1.64), were sartorially chic in white chiffon, prompting one reviewer to speculate that they shopped in the West End. John Peters wrote that the play was not as bad as other critics made out: it was much worse. The artistic director of the Old Vic, Timothy West, had a public argument with the play’s director: West disowned the production and Forbes went on stage to defend it. Crowds arrived in droves and the production sold out for its entire run.

 

CONCLUSION

 

As Laurie Maguire and Emma Smith write in the above-mentioned book:

Although there is no historical basis for the belief that Macbeth is jinxed, erroneous beliefs have a habit of becoming self-fulfilling prophecies. The myth itself is somehow enough to jinx the play.

Likewise, in the above-mentioned article, Ann K. Jensen explains that some in the theatrical profession

contend that the disasters which seem always to accompany the play are occasioned merely by nervous actors who buckle under the weight of superstition. John Caywood, stage manager and frequent director for Pioneer Theatre Company, and a staunch believer in the curse refuses to dismiss the possibility of its authenticity, yet admits, “It has become almost a self-fulfilling prophecy. There is so much anecdotal evidence that actors come to expect disaster. They cross over into a mental state where their concentration is off—in either case why mess with it.”
[…]
Despite the wealth of damning evidence, Director Daniel Kramer, who will direct a production of the Scottish play at the Lab Theatre in mid-March, is skeptical. “I do my best to ignore it. Things go wrong all the time in the theatre but when you’re doing Harvey, nobody claims it’s because you’re doing a play about a big, pink rabbit.”
However, he does concede that the play’s subject matter is often conducive to unsettling psychological responses. “It’s a very dark, bloody play. There’s a level at which, for certain people, this atmosphere seems to carry over. But then again, Titus Andronicus is an even bloodier play, and no one is afraid to say its title.”

 

The following text and caricature are from a scathing review of a production of Macbeth at the Olympic Theatre, published in The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News (London) of Saturday 18th September 1886:

In the very first scene the key-note is struck in the refreshing colloquial style adopted by Macbeth and Banquo. Witches being evidently indigenous products of the locality, the pair are no more surprised at the appearance of the weird sisters on the blasted heath than they would be at that of three crossing-sweepers in a London thoroughfare, and drawl out their observations in the mildest astonishment.

The Critics Warning.

review of ‘Macbeth’ - Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News (London) - 18 September 1886

 

Other words or phrases of theatrical origin:
to be decent (sufficiently clothed to see visitors)
malapropism
claptrap
cloak-and-dagger
Mrs Grundy
Paul Pry
Mummerset
simon-pure
fedora
Box and Cox
Hamlet without the Prince
slapstick
old chestnut
to play to the gallery
to steal someone’s thunder
bums on seats
P’s and Q’s
something is rotten in the state of Denmark
bob’s your uncle
top banana

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