That Play: The Real-life Drama of Macbeth

That Play: The Real-life Drama of Macbeth

The play was rarely performed again for nearly a century. The day of its London revival in 1703 was noteworthy for one of the most severe storms in English history. Because of its blasphemous content, the play was blamed for the storm’s calamities, and Queen Anne ordered a week of prayer during which all theaters were closed.

That Play: The Real-Life Drama of Macbeth

By Mr. Ghaz, November 6, 2009

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That Play: The Real-Life Drama of Macbeth

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“The Comedy of Glamis,” “The Scottish Business,” or simply “That Play” are just a few of the euphemisms actors use to avoid mentioning the title of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, one of the most ill-starred plays in theatrical history.

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Indeed, many professionals believe that “The Unmentionable” (another of its nickname) – with its bloodshed, ghosts, and witchcraft – is one of the darkest dramas ever written.

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If an actor does happen to mention the name, or quotes from the play while he is backstage, tradition requires him to leave the dressing room, turn around three times, spit, and then knock for reentry. Theatrical history is littered with the many misfortunes of those who have chosen to ignore these rites of exorcism.

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Macbeth seemed doomed from the beginning. It was first performed before James I, a descendant of both the historical Duncan and Banquo, who are killed in the play. The curse apparently struck during that original performance on August 7, 1606, when Hal Berridge, the boy actor cast as Lady Macbeth, collapsed from a fever and later died. Shakespeare himself had to step in and play the role on short notice.

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The play was rarely performed again for nearly a century. The day of its London revival in 1703 was noteworthy for one of the most severe storms in English history. Because of its blasphemous content, the play was blamed for the storm’s calamities, and Queen Anne ordered a week of prayer during which all theaters were closed.

A Catalog of Disasters

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Over the next two centuries the disasters continued, the curse taking its greatest toll after the Astor Place riots in New York City in 1849. During a performance of Macbeth by British actor William Charles Macready, supporters of his American rival, Edwin Forrest, clashed with police. Twenty two people were killed and some 36 more injured.

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Probably the most famous person to suffer the Macbeth curse was not an actor but a U.S. president. Macbeth was Abraham Lincoln’s favorite play, and he spent the afternoon of April 9, 1865, reading passages aloud to a party of friends on board the River Queen on the Potomac River. The passages Lincoln chose happened to follow the scene in which Duncan is assassinated. Five days later Lincoln was shot.

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In the 20th century numerous other calamities associated with the fatal play have been recorded. In the early 1920’s Lionel Barrymore’s portrayal of Barrymore never performed on Broadway again.

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During the first modern-dress production at the Royal Court Theatre in London in 1928, a large set fell down, causing serious injury to members of the company, and a fire broke out in the dress circle.

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In 1937 the career of 30-year-old Laurence Olivier almost came to an abrupt end when a heavy weight crashed down from the flies while he was rehearsing at the Old Vic. The weight missed him by inches. Later rehearsals were interrupted when the director and the actress playing Lady Macduff were involved in a car accident on the way to the theater. Worse, the theater’s proprietor died of a heart attack during the dress rehearsal.

Out in the Open

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In a 1953 open-air production in Bermuda, starring Charlton Heston, the soldiers storming Macbeth’s castle were to burn it to the ground onstage. On opening night the wind blew smoke and flames into the audience, which fled in terror.

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And in 1980 Peter O’Toole, playing Macbeth for the first time at the Old Vic, was careful never to refer to the play by name. His precautions were in vain. Best by numerous problems and accidents during rehearsals, when the play opened the critics called his work an artistic disaster.

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18 Comments
Teves, posted this comment on Nov 6th, 2009

Very nice photos…

lillyrose, posted this comment on Nov 6th, 2009

Great article! I know just how William felt, I keep getting my submissions banned too.

cardy, posted this comment on Nov 6th, 2009

You always do a great jod on your articles enjoyed the read great pic’s to thanks fo the share

Papa Sparks, posted this comment on Nov 6th, 2009

And don’t forget the 1986 Eureka College production of That Scottish Tragedy, where yours truly, Papa Sparks played Banquo:

http://jeffreyalanmiller.wordpress.com/2008/10/06/thou-hast-it-now-king-cawdor-glamis-all/

Great piece!

Jenny Heart, posted this comment on Nov 6th, 2009

Absolutely full coverage here. You’re a writer I do admire for one who always writes perfectly. Well done as always!

martie, posted this comment on Nov 6th, 2009

wonderful piece. I don’t think this is quite what the Bard intended when he wrote a tragedy but is certainly worked out that way.

Zunairah, posted this comment on Nov 6th, 2009

Mr.Ghaz…I like the way you presented the article and provided info about drama of Macbeth. I am also writing articles on Shakespeare these days…keep up the good work and thanks for sharing :)

xoxo, posted this comment on Nov 6th, 2009

Excellent article. Well presented. Thank you.

FlexionCalc, posted this comment on Nov 6th, 2009

great read

gianne, posted this comment on Nov 6th, 2009

I really enjoyed this!

K.Reshma, posted this comment on Nov 6th, 2009

Enjoyed reading it, great work

T. S. GARP, posted this comment on Nov 6th, 2009

Very interesting article! Great info on this tragic play!

serowa, posted this comment on Nov 6th, 2009

Interesting well researched information.

Jane Benitez, posted this comment on Nov 6th, 2009

Please keep sharing your great work – very well done!

Idazalee, posted this comment on Nov 7th, 2009

very interesting story and well-researched as well..I really enjoyed reading this article. Well done Mr Ghaz :)

Mansor, posted this comment on Nov 7th, 2009

Nice one to read…Great work…Thanks for sharing.

Susan, posted this comment on Nov 7th, 2009

Great read. We were forced to read this play in high school — it was the only Shakespeare play that I hated. Even discussion brought no joy. I had no idea of the history surrounding this play.

CutestPrincess, posted this comment on Nov 24th, 2009

This is a really interesting article with brilliant pictures!

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