'MACBETH' CURSE OF THE STAGE
By David Berre, The Washington Post, January 28, 1988
NEW YORK, JAN. 27 -- Police called the death of Bantcho Bantchevsky an apparent suicide, but theatre people are wondering whether the curse is back.
The 82-year-old singing coach fell to his death from a top balcony of the Metropolitian Opera last Saturday during intermission of the Verdi opera based on "Macbeth."
Some people wondered aloud whether the curse of Macbeth had struck again.
Theater tradition has it that "Macbeth" in any form -- be it Giuseppe Verdi's opera, one of the nine film versions or the stage play as Shakespeare wrote it -- is cursed.
Just mentioning the play's name is considered such bad luck among English actors that they invariably refer to the play as "the Scottish play," "the Unmentionable" or "Harry Lauder," the name of a Scottish music hall performer.
Such is the evil associated with the play that tradition declares any actor who mentions or quotes it must leave the room, turn round three times, spit, and knock, humbly begging pardon for the transgression.
Even among actors who take care, say believers, the curse has a way of striking. Productions of "Macbeth" are accident-prone.
Scenery falls. Macbeths and Macduffs cut each other in the duels. Lady Macbeths sleepwalk off the stage.
Death, accident, fear and bad notices seem to stalk even the most humble touring companies when they do "Macbeth."
Lillian Baylis, the beloved director of the Old Vic in London, died of a heart attack during rehearsal for a 1937 "Macbeth" there.
That was the same show in which Laurence Olivier, who was playing Macbeth, was nearly killed by a weight falling from the flies.
When John Gielgud took up the play in 1942, his King Duncan and two of his witches died -- one right on stage.
A Bermuda performance in the 1950s nearly roasted its audience when the flames around Macbeth's castle roared out of control. In the 1960s a touring company in Cape Town, South Africa, was unloading scenery from a crane when a passerby inquired what the show was.
As soon as a stagehand replied "Macbeth," a spear fell from the packing and ran the stranger through.
Even the productions which everyone survives seem plagued by lesser misfortunes.
Peter O'Toole nearly drove off a cliff while he was rehearsing his 1980 "Macbeth" and his Lady Macbeth was in a motorcycle accident. The third performance was stopped by a bomb threat, during which someone stole O'Toole's only family heirloom, a prized pocket watch.
Worse yet, from a professional point of view, the production was one of the worst disasters of O'Toole's career, and was said to be a factor in the Old Vic company's losing its government subsidy and folding.
O'Toole thus joined a long list of movie stars, including Charles Laughton and Lionel Barrymore, who chose "Macbeth" for a return to the stage and found themselves failing miserably.
The trouble is said to stem from the witches' scenes in the play. Apparently, says the English actor Richard Huggett, who has written a book on the subject, Shakespeare gave his actors a genuine witches' curse to say.
It took effect immediately, Huggett writes in "The Curse of Macbeth."
At the first performance in 1606, before King James I, the boy actor who was to play Lady Macbeth came down with a fever, and the author himself had to take the part at the last minute.
And Shakespeare's attempt to please the king, who was both a Scot and a published expert on witchcraft, sorely misfired. The play was immediately banned for five years.
The Metropolitan Opera's "Macbeth" has been plagued ever since the current production was unveiled in 1982.
It was created by the English director Sir Peter Hall, who had come down with a terrible case of shingles the last time he'd tried to stage the play.
Apparently unimpressed by the curse, he had allowed the Met to talk him into directing Verdi's operatic version, even though he considered the opera "only intermittently fine."
Hall's approach, which included a nude dancer and a Lady Macbeth who rolled about in apparent sexual ecstasy as she sang of the hopes for her husband, was not a hit.
Most of his ideas, as well as his name, were removed for this year's revival. But it was plagued later by a domino-like succession of cancellations from baritone Renato Burson, who was to play Macbeth, soprano Eva Marton, who was to sing the Lady, and Giuseppe Sinopoli, who was to conduct. These theatrical disasters were overshadowed at the recent matinee by Bantchevsky's apparently intentional fall.
A lot of actors, though they were as horrified as everyone else, said they were not surprised.
John Stimpson, writer/producer/director
John Stimpson is a producer, writer, director and editor of motion pictures. Having worked extensively in episodic, documentary style television on programs for Discovery, Animal Planet, HGTV and Outdoor Life, Stimpson turned his focus on scripted, narrative content in the early 2000’s. Over the last 15 years he has directed many independent films including The Legend of Lucy Keyes, A Christmas Kiss, Sexting in Suburbia and The Wrong Car, among others., His interest in film and television began at Harvard where he majored in Visual and Environmental Studies and was President of the Hasty Pudding Theatricals. He then spent five years as a professional actor in Los Angeles before returning to the East Coast and refocusing his talent on the other side of the lens. Stimpson has directed more than ten features and worked on many others as a writer, editor, producer or consultant, "At the end of the day, making movies is a blast. It is the ultimate collaborative creative medium, and the work is too difficult for it not to be fun."
Geoffrey Taylor, writer/producer
Geoffrey Taylor is a long time feature film producer and writer who worked with famed director Paul Mazursky for many years. His films included Tempest, Moscow on the Hudson, Down and Out in Beverly Hills, Moon Over Parador, Enemies a Love Story, Faithful and Taking Care of Business, he has been part of the creative process in filmmaking from the conception of the idea to answer print and on to broad international release. He has produced music by Little Richard and Billy Preston designed national ad campaigns for his films and produced and directed a documentary for PBS. Over the years he has worked with almost every major studio. Starting with running his film society at Yale, he earned a law degree from Georgetown and left a career as an LA music lawyer after winning a contest as a comedy writer at Fox Television. In the last decade Taylor has concentrated on his first love, writing, and has written or co-written half a dozen sc screenplays. "Making movies is a remarkable mix of creativity and execution... it's a thrill to watch an audience enjoy something you have helped bring to life."
GHOST LIGHT FAQ
Q&A with director, John Stimpson
What is Ghost Light about?
Ghost Light is a haunted comedy about the absurd, but very seriously regarded, superstitions of the theatre, specifically those surrounding Shakespeare’s Macbeth. When a disgruntled and arrogant understudy tempts fate by uttering the forbidden name of the “Scottish King” on stage, the sorcery of the Bard’s witches overwhelms the production leads to chaos.
Where did the idea come from?
I grew up in the theater and ended up doing four Hasty Pudding shows at Harvard and becoming president my senior year. I’ve always been fascinated with the superstitions of the theater. The ghost light is probably the most famous theatrical superstition, followed closely by the curse of Macbeth… err, The Scottish Play. I love how seriously actors take the superstition and the extents to which they go to avoid or fix the curse if they mistakenly say the name of the Bard’s Scottish tragedy.
So, these superstitions are real?
Absolutely! I think next to baseball, the theater has more superstitions than any other organized group.
What is the ghost light superstition?
A ghost light is an electric light that is left burning on a dark stage when a theater is unoccupied. It’s typically an exposed incandescent bulb in a wire cage on a portable light stand. It's practical use is for safety purposes so people don't fall off the edge of the stage into the orchestra pit. But, its superstitious purpose is to ward off ghosts or evil spirits who might be inclined to inhabit the space. If it goes out, the spirits can freely enter and have a field day!
What about the curse of Macbeth?
Theatrical superstition dictates that one must never utter the name of The Scottish Play in the theater unless it is part of a performance or rehearsal. Breaking this rule will doom the production to bad luck, injury or death.
How do you undo the curse?
The standard remedy for a slip is to run around the theater three times, spit, swear and beg for forgiveness before being allowed back in. I've actually seen actors do it in real life.
What are some examples of accidents or tragedies that have resulted from triggering the curse?
Lillian Baylis, the director of the Old Vic in London, died of a heart attack during rehearsal for a 1937 production. In that same show Laurence Olivier, who played Macbeth, was nearly killed by a weight falling from the curtain loft.
John Gielgud played King Duncan in a 1942 production and two of his witches died - one right on stage.
A Bermuda performance in the 1950s nearly burned down the theater when the stage flames around Macbeth's castle spread and roared out of control.
In the 1960s a touring company in Cape Town South Africa was unloading scenery from a crane when a passerby asked what the show was. As soon as a stagehand replied "Macbeth," a spear fell from the packing and ran the stranger through.
And there are many other frightening tales of things going very, very wrong.
Where does the curse come from?
Supposedly Shakespeare used actual black magic incantations for the witches evil conjurings in the dialogue of the play. In the very first performance of Macbeth in 1606, the young actor who played Lady Macbeth (Yes, men played all the roles) came down with a terrible fever and the Bard himself had to step in and play the villainous role.
Were there concerns on set that you might unleash the curse yourselves?
Yes, very much so! Carol Kane, who plays Madeline our troupe’s grand dame, was extremely concerned. I assured her that our set, which was a converted barn in Groton, MA, was not actually a theater and therefore we were exempt from the curse.
In the film, your characters seem to echo the characters in the play. Was that intentional?
Oh, absolutely. The theme of blind, ruthless ambition and the dynamic of sexual power that Lady Macbeth holds over her husband in their power-hungry quest for the crown are wonderful. We absolutely wanted to mirror that with our lead characters, Thomas (played by Tom Riley) and Liz Beth (played by Shannyn Sossamon).
You have a wonderful ensemble cast, how did you get your actors?
They all just responded to the script! Geoff Taylor and I worked really hard on it and it paid off. Roger Bart, who plays our director Henry, came on board first. He is a veteran of both the theater and film having won a Tony award for his role as Snoopy in You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown. But he’s probably best known for his role on both stage and screen in The Producers. He and I sang together in a bar on Martha’s Vineyard when we were in college. We did a cabaret style show with a group of eager young performers. I could tell immediately that of our wacky bunch, Roger was the one who would make it. I reached out to Roger having not seen him in years and sent him the script. He loved it and said yes right away.
Cary Elwes was next. He too just fell in love with the character of Alex, the ex-soap opera star who is the troupe’s underwriter. He really nails the part.
It was obviously a treat to have Carol Kane in the film. She is something of a national treasure and comedy genius. She was our first choice for Madeline and she brought a lifetime of real experiences to the role. By the way, Ghost Light is the first movie she and Cary have done together since The Princess Bride.
Our casting director suggested Shannyn Sossamon, who plays our Lady Macbeth, and we quickly realized she had the talent and perfect sultry sexuality for the part. She’s gorgeous and plays the tortured, multi-layered character of Liz Beth with real grace, vulnerability and power.
Tom Riley we saw in his BBC show, Da Vinci’s Demons. He played Leonardo and was riveting. We loved the idea of having a British actor play the lead role of Thomas Ingram, the disgruntled understudy who thinking he should play the Scottish King, wantonly tempts fate by screaming “Macbeth” on the stage. He too loved the script and said yes right away.
And Danielle Campbell just seemed so perfect for Juliet. Beautiful, innocent but beguiling.
Where did you shoot?
We are Massachusetts filmmakers and we love to keep our productions in state to help the growing film industry. The film takes place in the Berkshires of Western Mass., but we shot in Concord and Groton, two rural towns closer to Boston, to keep our costs as modest as possible.