Simanaitis Says

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NEVER, EVER utter the word “Macbeth” in a theater. Unless, of course, you’re acting a role in the play of that name. Tidbits yesterday in Part 1 suggested the origin of instead calling it The Scottish Play. Today in Part 2, its curse is confirmed, but, rest easy, there’s a way to undo the curse.

Shakespearean Celebs. Shakespeare was all the rage in mid-1800s United States. His plays were performed for the tony upper class in New York City as well as in mining camps of the American west. The British tragedian William Macready toured the U.S.; the American Shakespearean Edwin Forrest competed for star power by performing the same roles, often in the same cities on the same nights.

Above, Edwin Forrest, 1806-1872. Daguerreotype by Mathew Brady. Below, William Macready, 1793–1873. Painting by John Jackson.

As noted in Brewer’s Theater: A Phrase and Fable Dictionary, “Their conflict escalated during Forrest’s second tour of Britain. In 1846, as a member of the audience for Macready’s Hamlet, Forrest began to hiss…. The climax of the affair came with Macready’s U.S. tour of 1848–49.”

On May 7, 1849, Macready was playing Macbeth at the Astor Place Opera House in New York City. He was openly jeered and the performance was halted with the audience throwing eggs, rotten potatoes, and theater seats onto the stage.

Meanwhile, across town, Forrest got a standing ovation with his Macbeth and its Act V Scene 3 line “What rhubarb, senna or what purgative drug, Would scour these English hence?”

The Astor Place Riot, 1849. Three days later, Macready repeated the role at the Astor Place, this time with a significant New York City police presence both within the theater and outside. A mob formed outside, the police were overwhelmed, and, as described in Brewer’s, “60 mounted militiamen were called to the scene, followed by the infantry with bayonets fixed. The reading of the Riot Act, twice, failed to calm the incensed rioters; the order to fire was given. As a result, 22 rioters died and 36 were wounded.”

Macready slipped out the theater’s back door and escaped to Boston. He never again performed in the U.S.

The Astor Place Riot, New York City, 1849.

Causes of the Riot. According to WIkipedia, there were three principal causes of the Astor Place riot: animosity between Macready and Forrest enflamed by American media; British alienation among working-class Americans, especially Irish immigrants; and a class struggle between mid-century haves (Anglophiles supporting Macready) and have-nots (Forrest supporters).

Or maybe some non-cast member uttered the name of that play.…

Orson Welles’ Witch Doctors, 1936. As part of the Federal Theatre Project, 20-year-old Orson Welles staged a New York City Negro Theatre Unit production of Macbeth in 1936. This one, which became known as the Voodoo Macbeth, was set in an imaginary Haiti, not Scotland.

As described in BBC Radio’s “Front Row,” March 22, 2018, “The Highlands were replaced by the jungle and the witches became voodoo princesses, joined by real-life witch doctors from Africa’s Gold Coast.”

Opening night at the Lafayette Theatre in Harlem, April 14, 1936. Image from BBC Radio “Front Row.”

BBC Radio said “Welles reportedly requisitioned 12 black goats for the witch doctors to sacrifice in order to turn their skins into ‘devil drums.’ ”

Voodoo priests in Welles’ Macbeth. Image from WPA Federal Theatre Photos.

Also, in 1955 Welles shared a tale that an unfavorable critic, Percy Hammond of the New York Herald Tribune, died shortly after one of the cast offered to ‘make beri-beri on this bad man.’

Countering the Curse of The Scottish Play. A suggested remedy: Turn around three times, spit over the left shoulder, and utter an obscenity.

Geez. These days, I find myself doing that often. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2020

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