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The Scottish play

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According to a longstanding superstition among theater folk, saying the name Macbeth inside a theater brings bad luck to a production and those performing it. The responsibility for the play’s ill luck is rumored to lie at the door of the bard himself, who supposedly used incantations and rites performed by real witches in the play. The witches were so insulted that they cursed the entire play.

Among the long list of rumored tragedies and afflictions that have plagued the production are suicide (of a set designer, costume designer, and audience member who supposedly leapt over the balcony and into the orchestra pit of one production), car accidents, muggings, fire. The actor playing Macbeth in a 1672 production of the play is said to have substituted his theatrical dagger for a real one, killing the actor who played Duncan onstage during a production. The army is alleged to have intervened during a 1721 production in which hecklers and actors began brawling in a theater. Audience members were trampled to death in a riot during an 1849 production of the play. The list goes on and on.

Macbeth also has a history of being performed by theaters on the brink of collapse, sometimes as a backup play because it required so few performers and has few lines to memorize. Some people theorize that the theaters themselves created rumors of tragedy and mayhem to enhance the play’s allure for theatergoers, and ultimately sell more tickets.

Whatever the cause of the mythology, many actors avoid saying the name of the play, instead referring to it as “The Scottish Play.” To avoid saying the name of the title character, they often refer to Macbeth and his lady as Mr. and Mrs. M. There are also a series of rituals to dispel any ill luck caused by saying the word “Macbeth” inside a theater. One is to exit the building, circle it three times, spit over your left shoulder, curse, and wait to be invited back into the theater. Another is to spin three times, as quickly as possible, spit over your shoulder, and curse. Still another alternative is to leave the theater, knock three times, and when invited back into the theater, quote a line from Hamlet, or The Merchant of Venice, both thought to be lucky plays.

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