The Scottish Play and Other Theatre Superstitions
After watching a live-streamed production of Macbeth at The Stratford Festival, I was reminded of some of the history connected to well-known theatre superstitions.
Naturally, I decided to take a look into some of my favourites and share them here!
THE SCOTTISH PLAY
One very strict rule is never to say Macbeth in a theatre. Naming this Shakespeare play or the characters within it is extremely bad luck as it is believed to be cursed . If you need to mention the play, acceptable terms include ‘The Scottish Play”, “The Bard’s Play”; and the characters can be addressed as Lord and Lady M. This superstition comes from the theory that Shakespeare used incantations by actual witches in his play which resulted in a curse being placed upon the production. Another theory is that the incantation itself summoned evil spirits who wreak havoc within the theatre. Many productions of Macbeth have reported strange occurrences, as have many people who have witnessed other people speaking the name in any production. Luckily, there are some counter-curses. The most tried and true method being to exit the theatre or the room where you said the M-word, spin around three times, spit over your left shoulder, and utter a stream of profanities.
BREAK A LEG
If you know an actor, you’ve probably been corrected every time you wished them ‘Good Luck’. This superstition is simple, that theatre spirits or the universe in general, will take a wish of good luck and cause the opposite to occur. Therefore, it is believed a wish of ‘Good Luck’ will lead to a bad performance. There are many other ways to wish a thespian good luck without using the words, from my personal favourite ‘merde’ to the common ‘break a leg’! ‘Break a Leg’ once again is rooted in the idea of wishing the opposite - If you tell someone to ‘break a leg’, they will have a successful show. Another more practical theory refers to the ‘legs’ of the stage, therefore ‘break a leg’ means making an entrance, which means the
performer is doing what they set out to do.
This might start to feel like a theatrical DONTs list, but the history behind this superstition is really cool. Did you know you’re not supposed to whistle in a theatre? In early theatrical productions, the scenery had to be manually lifted in and out by stage hands. Those operating the flies backstage would whistle back and forth to cue each other. Any whistling not done by stage hands could cue the movement of a set piece, which could result in injuring a performer. While modern technology has progressed to the point where we have other ways of cueing each other and the rigging itself, one could argue there’s no harm in whistling backstage. However, it is still considered extremely bad luck.
THE GHOST LIGHT
This is one of my favourite theatrical traditions which has been on my mind lately. The ghost light is a light placed centre stage which remains on when the theatre is empty and all the other lights are turned off. It’s said that it keeps the ghosts away, or in the case of specific theatre spirits, leaves them a lit stage to perform on. However, this superstition is rooted in practicality, even in the modern world. Dark theatres are dangerous. There are a number of things to walk into, trip over, fall in to… It’s a practical way of keeping thespians safe. The ghost light is also a symbol of hope, especially during a global pandemic. Due to COVID-19, theatres across the world have been closed for months and we still have no idea when we will reopen or what theatre will look like when we return. What we do know is that the ghost lights are still lit, and will remain lit, keeping the boards warm until we make our return.
A few other well-known theatre superstitions include: no mirrors or peacock feathers onstage, never lighting a trio of candles, that a bad dress rehearsal will guarantee a good opening night, and that flowers should only be given after a performance. Theatre ghosts are also a large part of theatre lore and many companies’ houses have their own ghost stories as well as
rituals to placate the spirits.
While no one knows if there’s any weight to these superstitions, no one can deny that they are a key part of thespian culture.
Personally, that is what I love the most, they are more than just superstitions, they are
traditions which connect us to our history.
Have a story about your own experiences with theatre ghosts or superstitions?
Leave us a comment and let us know!