I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Actors know beyond a shadow of a doubt there are certain rituals that must be performed and others that must be avoided when performing in live theatre. Ignoring traditions and superstitions invites disaster for any production. And, there are ghosts too.
Three Theatre Taboos
Here are three theatrical superstitions that involve whistling, blue costumes, and peacock feathers.
- The ban on whistling backstage is prompted by practical concerns. In the days before electrical motors did the work, scenery and backdrops were hoisted into place by men hauling on ropes. They communicated with each other through whistles. An impromptu trill might cause a backdrop to rise unexpectedly and reveal disrobed actors backstage changing costumes or expose the mechanics of an illusion.
- Blue costumes were shunned by theatre owners in the past because of the high cost of the dye needed to produce the colour. As most theatrical endeavours are precarious financially, any cost-saving was welcomed. The blue rule no longer applies but the superstition remains. The shaky economic foundation of theatres is still an issue.
- Peacock feathers, while beautiful, have that eye in them. To some, the pattern resembles the evil eye and displaying it on stage invites tribulations.
The Scottish Play
One of the most famous theatrical superstitions is that actors should never mention the name of Shakespeare’s Macbeth in a theatre. Doing so will bring calamity to any production; so it is always referred to as “The Scottish Play.”
The superstition hinges around the opening scene of witches' foretelling of demonic possession. It’s said that coven witches took exception to the Bard’s stealing of their spells and put an eternal curse on the play.
The Royal Shakespeare Company notes that “legend has it the play’s first performance (around 1606) was riddled with disaster. The actor playing Lady Macbeth died suddenly, so Shakespeare himself had to take on the part. Other rumoured mishaps include real daggers being used in place of stage props for the murder of King Duncan (resulting in the actor’s death).”
The play has had more than its fair share of woe in subsequent years.
In 1849, the English actor William Charles Macready and the American actor Edwin Forrest were both playing Macbeth in rival productions in New York. The two actors hated each other with passion and each had a coterie of dedicated followers.
In May, Forrest’s fans descended on the Astor Place Opera House with the aim of disrupting Macready’s performance. An altercation broke out that turned into a riot. The militia had to be called out and its members opened fire. When the smoke cleared, 22 people were dead and more than 100 injured.
In 1937, Laurence Olivier was performing Macbeth at London’s Old Vic. The misfortune started with the death of the theatre’s manager, Lilian Baylis, on the night of the dress rehearsal.
Dr. Anjna Chouhan of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust tells of other ill-fortune that plagued the production: “A falling stage weight just missed landing on Olivier; then the director and the actress playing Lady Macbeth were involved in a car crash. The play’s opening was postponed, and on its first night, Baylis’ portrait fell off the theatre wall. They used real weapons, and one flew into the audience, giving someone a heart attack.”
John Gielgud was staring in a performance of the play at the Piccadilly Theatre in 1942 when there was a considerable body count; three actors died and the costume designer committed suicide.
If someone does inadvertently utter the dreaded Macbeth word, the hex, if there is one, can be lifted by the culprit running around the theatre three times, spitting, swearing, and/or quoting a line from another of the Bard’s masterpieces.
Producers who mount Mac … um, the Scottish play can’t say they weren’t warned. The witches chant:
“Double, double, toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.”
Any theatre worth its name ought to have ghosts. The Theatre Royal Drury Lane, London carries off the trophy as the world’s most haunted theatre. No doubt there are others that will contest the claim.
The Theatre Royal, which dates back to 1663, boasts the spectral appearances of two clowns and an ethereal man in grey.
Joseph Grimaldi (1778-1837) was a hugely famous pantomime performer and Dan Leno (1860-1904) was a music hall comedian. They are both said to appear from time to time on the stage.
Several actors state they have been kicked in the legs from behind by Grimaldi while performing. He was a physical comic who lost the use of his legs to illness; is he exacting some sort of revenge for a malady that ended his career?
Leno’s presence is detected by the odour of lavender. The poor man suffered from raging incontinence and tried to mask the fragrance that rose from him by using strong perfumes.
The man in grey floats about in the upper circle wearing a tri-corn hat.
During renovations to the theatre in the 1840s some human bones were discovered behind a wall; this, of course, was in the upper circle. His appearance is said to be a good omen for whatever the current production is.
David Belasco was known as the Bishop of Broadway. The Belasco Theatre, on West Forty-fourth Street, opened in 1907 as the Stuyvesant Theatre. The impresario Belasco named it after himself in 1910 and, even though married, built a very large bachelor pad above the stage. There he—um—entertained actresses.
Belasco died in 1931 and has since made several appearances but hasn’t been seen since he attended a performance of Oh! Calcutta! in 1972. Was it the spicy nature of the play? That’s hardly likely as the man had a large collection of pornography and a Jack-the-lad reputation that meant no woman was safe in his company.
The Belasco Theatre has another character from the spirit world; that of a young showgirl who fell to her death down an elevator shaft. She was wearing a blue dress at the time and tradition/superstition has it that one actress in each production should wear a blue dress. And, to hell with the expense.
The Mark Hellinger Theatre on Broadway had the reputation of being cursed. It opened in 1930 and shows rarely had long runs, so it cycled between being a live theatre and a cinema. Bravely, the producers of My Fair Lady staged that show at the Mark Hellinger Theatre; it ran for six years with more than 2,000 performances. The space is now occupied by the Times Square Church.
Fresh flowers, mirrors, and three lighted candles on stage are considered harbingers of bad luck.
On Mondays, when many theatres don’t have performances, what’s called a “ghost light” is left on. This follows a superstition that ghosts perform their own plays when the theatre is dark.
- “13 Theater Superstitions.” Mark A. Robinson, Broadwaydirect.com, October 26, 2017.
- “The Curse of the Scottish Play.” Royal Shakespeare Company, undated.
- “The Curse of Macbeth: Is it more than Superstition?” penguin.co.uk, October 18, 2018.
- “The Astor Place Riot: Shakespeare as a Flashpoint for Class Conflict in 1849.”Shakespeare & Beyond, May 9, 2017.
- “Haunted Theatres.” Londonparanormal.com, undated.
- “A Broadway Haunt.” Nick Paumgerten, The New Yorker, June 25, 2006.
© 2019 Rupert Taylor
Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on June 21, 2019:
Glad to be of service Liz.
Liz Westwood from UK on June 21, 2019:
I had heard a little about this subject, but your article sheds a lot of light on it and fills in a lot of detail.