THE CURSE OF THE SCOTTISH PLAY
As fans of the bard well know, those involved in a production of Macbeth should never utter the name Macbeth in any of their discourse other than what is designated in the dialogue itself. One of the many superstitions in the world of theatre warns of the tragic outcome likely to befall such a production if one violates this stricture. Most superstitions, of course, are predicated on the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. In Latin, that line translates into "after this, therefore because of this". A black cat crosses your path, and then you nearly get sideswiped by a car (or worse!). It must have been the cat's presence that caused the accident.
Because some productions of Macbeth flopped and brought about bankruptcy for their troupes, the Scottish tragedy is presumed to be cursed. Historically, some performers in some productions have been hurt by falling scenery or during swordplay. On a few occasions, theatres showing Macbeth have caught fire. That similar sad events could probably be found in the production history of many other Shakespeare plays is irrelevant. It is Macbeth that is cursed, and if you were to accidentally mention the name backstage, you would then have to perform a series of rituals to cleanse you and the theatre of the dreaded curse.
Forty years ago, I took my AP students on my very first theatre excursion as a teacher. We acquired a large number of tickets (I had about 75 AP students), I coaxed a few teacher chaperones to join us, we secured the services of a couple of buses, and we headed to Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theatre to see a production of Macbeth starring Philip Anglim, who had recently won all kinds of praise for his titular performance as The Elephant Man. Maureen Anderman, a TONY-nominated actress, was to portray Lady Macbeth. What could go wrong?
As soon as we disembarked from the buses, I should have told my students to get back on. We crossed the plaza to head for the Beaumont. As we passed the Metropolitan Opera House we saw a bloodied figure on the ground. Someone who had crashed through one of the large windows and lay among the shards of broken glass was being tended to. Nevertheless, we forged on and entered the theatre. The Vivian Beaumont is a very large theatre with stadium seating and a thrust stage that makes blocking a scene challenging.
We were located in the "cheap seats", upstairs in the balcony that you can see in the lower left of the photo above. Shortly after we took our seats, another school group arrived and filled most of the remaining seats in the balcony. They were from Pascack Valley High School in Northern New Jersey. We were all quite excited, having recently studied the play. For many of my students, this was their first experience with live Shakespeare. For some, this was also their first dramatic production. Most of my students had seen a musical or two, but no straight theatre.
The lights dimmed. And it didn't take long before we realized that this was going to be a less than scintillating performance. Philip Anglim was an ineffectual and tedious Macbeth, and if you don't have a strong Macbeth in a play named for him.... Well. As the show proceeded, we could all hear rustling and noise emanating from the other side of the balcony--from the Pascack Valley kids. They were surely bored, as we all were, but my students have always understood that I hold nothing more sacred than I do respect for those attempting to put on a show. I have always let students know that live theatre means silence. If you can hear the actors, that means they can also often hear you. I have threatened my students with the "five-year" graduation plan if they talk or create a disruption during a performance. I have been proud of virtually every one of my students over the past forty years. The Pascack Valley students had clearly not been forewarned, and by intermission we were all curious as to whether their chaperones would escort them from the building so that they could create no more havoc. When the lights came up, however, we saw no chaperones for a group of a hundred students other than a wizened old lady who weighed like about 75 pounds and used an ear horn to hear ! (See below for an exaggerated image-but only slightly!)
The Pascack kids weren't chastised or even admonished never mind being removed! They came back in after intermission, and as the play resumed they made all kinds of noise with candy wrappers and such. They talked loudly to each other, so that we could hear some of their comments over on our side. You may recall that in Act IV, Macbeth hires assassins to kill MacDuff and his family. In the one tense moment of the performance, the murderers sneak up on Lady MacDuff and two children who are having a picnic lunch in the woods. They butcher the family in cold blood. As their bodies are carried off, the remains of the picnic are picked up as well to clear the stage for the next scene. Unfortunately, as often happens in stage productions, things went awry and an apple fell behind. It's typical for an actor in the next scene to remedy this problem while remaining in character. The actor reached down, picked up the apple, gave it a shine, and pretended to take a bite or two. He then tossed off the core to the left wing. I don't know whether a large collection of empty gasoline cans were piled up offstage, but the apple hit something that caused such a clatter that the audience couldn't help but chuckle. The Pascack kids thought it was uproariously funny and laughed with glee. It seems that the "apple core incident" was their signal that whatever few rules they had been following no longer applied. Soon, they were tearing the pages out of their Playbills and folding them into paper airplanes and sending them aloft. They guffawed when they would land on someone in the orchestra. They were openly talking to each other even as the show was going on! Finally, it came to Macbeth's famous "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" soliloquy near the end of Act V. Philip Anglim stepped up to the lip of the stage and stopped. He then stared up directly at the students from Pascack Valley. He said absolutely nothing for...I guess it was about 45 seconds, but it seemed like an hour...and he just glared at that group of students. He then slowly stepped back and began his speech. What effect did it have on those students? Nothing. We were all aghast that the show had to be stopped, but they didn't care and proceeded with their loud hijinks. And then we went home.
At the time it was difficult to get Wednesday matinee tickets to Shakespeare plays that were commonly taught in schools. Actors were known to dread those performances that were filled with school groups. Some productions offered Saturday and Sunday matinees and bypassed Wednesdays altogether. I have always felt pride when theatre-goers would stop and ask me after the performance what school I taught at so they could thank my kids for being so well behaved and respectful.
The curse didn't end that day though. The most powerful critic in New York was Frank Rich of The New York Times. His scathing reviews earned him the moniker "The Butcher of Broadway". His legendary review of Moose Murders helped close that show after one performance! This is what Frank wrote about this Macbeth production:
The nominal Macbeth of the evening is Philip Anglim, the young actor who triumphed as the physically deformed ''Elephant Man.'' Here he tries to play one of the most demanding mental cripples in theatrical literature and sinks without a trace. The problem is not his youth: there have been other young Macbeths. Nor is it his voice: declaiming diligently from his diaphragm, Mr. Anglim is capable of sounding the bass notes that are essential to the character. What's missing from this performance are merely the bread-and-butter qualities of good acting: feeling, stage presence, physical, vocal and facial expressiveness. I don't know what this actor is up to in ''Macbeth,'' and I doubt that he does, either. In the early scenes, he is so shifty-eyed and bonkers that one expects him to be arrested for suspicion of murder before he actually commits one. He shows us none of Macbeth's equivocation or false faces until the Banquo's ghost scene, at which point his sudden, quirky smiles earn unwanted laughs. As he charges into his doom, his performance changes not a whit: there is no discernible difference between his flat, pop-eyed reading of the dagger speech and his final droning of the ''Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow'' monologue. It's not that Mr. Anglim is misinterpreting the hero; there is no interpretation here at all. This is a Macbeth bereft of emotions - unless utter, dead coldness counts as such. The star's eyes neither make contact with those of his fellow actors nor look inward. His face is fixed in a blank, unchanging pose of mild nervousness, as if he feared he might be late for a train. His voice rarely varies in tone, and his body, which was so expressive as John Merrick, clumps about woodenly. His one, tardy attempt to summon up passion is the beginning of a sob on the line with which he greets news of his wife's death (''She should have died hereafter''). It's debatable whether the then-dazed Macbeth would start to cry at that point; in any case, Mr. Anglim turns his back on the audience rather than letting us see even the most tentative stirring of his heart.
There are lots of ways to play this tragically ambitious Scotsman - sympathetically, neurotically, wittily or even (in desperation) as a one-note blackguard. It says a lot about Mr. Anglim's Macbeth that he not only fails to inspire pity but that he also fails to arouse even the easy response of pure hatred. He is instead a strolling vacuum that swallows up the rest of the production.
Ouch! I can't even imagine waiting up to see the Opening Night reviews and reading that about my performance! Interestingly enough, my wife and I had a subscription to Lincoln Center Theatre that included this production, so I saw it again! But Philip Anglim was out that night. In fact, after this run, I'm not sure he ever acted on the stage again! He was replaced that night by his understudy, one Kelsey Grammar, who became a legendary sitcom presence as Frasier Crane on both Cheers and Frasier. He was a better Macbeth too!