05/30/2012 04:43 pm ET Updated Jul 30, 2012

Curse of the Scottish Play -- the Opposite of Life

Ghosts and vampires and zombies, who cares? Movies can't hurt you, but the curse of Macbeth in the theater is real.

Almost nothing makes me happier than sitting in the theater as the lights are going down at the start of a play. This past weekend it happened to be Medieval Play by Kenneth Lonergan, in previews at the gorgeous new Frank Gehry-designed Signature Theater complex on West 42nd Street.

History, live theater, humor, men in armor = bliss.


About 15 minutes into the first act, just after two bumbling knights admitted they had slaughtered half of France that day, there was a little fizz, pop and suddenly the house lights came up in full and very bright. Due to the Monty-Python-esque nature of the play, no one was quite sure if this wasn't indeed part of the theatrical experience. But when a voice (not God's, most likely the stage manager) called to the actors from the wings, they deftly ad libbed and drew their swords to investigate, exiting stage left in clattering armour.

The Signature's artistic director, James Houghton, swiftly bounded down the stairs to explain that the house lights are designed to come on when the fire alarm system is triggered.

"That's stupid," said the girl sitting next to me. "No, it's a good thing," I said, and cited the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, but I should have referenced Chicago's Iroquois Theater fire in 1903, where more than 600 people were killed. Our row proceeded to bond, as did much of the audience, as happens when something unusual occurs in a shared space.

Houghton explained that the smoke alarm was probably reacting to the atmospheric "haze" and once turned off, theatrical "normalcy" should be restored. But what really happened dawned in me with a thud.

Just before the show, a member of our party had said It. The dreaded word you never say in the theater -- the title of Shakespeare's Scottish play. We had been discussing my Shakespeare T-shirt and a woman named Donna said she wanted to buy one for her friend who was playing ... Macbeth.

choke. We implored her to go out, spin around, spit over her shoulder and curse, but she threw back her tawny mane and let out a hollow laugh. Hence, I am sure, the cause of the first actus interruptus.

Belief & non-belief
No one ever believes the curse when they first hear about it. I didn't. I was serving as understudy in a production of Romeo & Juliet at the Goodman Theater (in Chicago, home of the dreaded Iroquois) when I balked at the story.

True to my nature, I decided to test it and devised what I thought was a brilliant strategy. Sitting in the wings just before the second act of our second-to-last show, I whispered the word. Barely audible, but no one was around to hear, so it could not be subject to the power of suggestion.

That night, an actor in several minor roles was decorating his apartment for the closing's after afterparty when he fell off a ladder and broke his foot. The last show was a frantic reshuffling of roles and costumes, while actors who'd been lax about their understudy lines were forced to hide scripts onstage in random props. I was flooded with silent remorse, unable to admit my guilt for twenty years.

A few years later, in the same play in NYC, "Romeo" came into the women's dressing room and uttered the cursed word. The harsh intake of breath from everyone present was followed by forcing him outside to perform the ritual curse deactivization.

But did he do it? Because that night our illustrious castmate, a plus-professional Broadway veteran, missed her final cue for the musical lament and we had to lie onstage for what seemed an eternity holding our breath in death until someone had the insight to bring the lights down. She was mortified; I was completely convinced of the curse's veracity.

Scottish play curse stories abound. For centuries, historical fact has mingled with unmitigated fiction to augment the power of the curse's reputation: Charlton Heston's burned thighs, Laurence Olivier's narrowly missing being whacked by a falling stageweight, even deaths including one I was told about a MacDuff who had heart attack offstage after his character's last exit.

The opposite of life
One explanation for the curse is that the 3 witches are uttering actual incantations. Practicing witches got pissed off and put a curse on the play itself as revenge for revealing their secrets.

But I was lucky enough to have the brilliant actress Fiona Shaw as a teacher at BADA (British American Drama Academy) and her explanation made the most sense.

Much of Shakespeare is written in iambic pentameter, a rhythm akin to the heartbeat: Buh-DUM, buh-DUM buh-DUM buh-DUM buh-DUM. But the witches' rhythm is opposite the heartbeat: BUH-dum, BUH-dum, BUH-dum, etc. Anti heartbeat = anti life, hence, death, or at least curse.

Those who believe in the curse rarely, if ever, utter the name of the play (as I have attempted here), even though its power is supposedly restricted to the theater. And there seems to be varying degrees of consequence when the curse is invoked. Fortunately for the Medieval Play-ers and playgoers, it was just some haze and flickering lights -- we were lucky.

Do you know any Scottish play curse stories?

Gerit Quealy writes on Style & Substance at NBC's