Tuesday, March 18, 2008
Grand theatrical traditions
I've added two shows to my spring Broadway schedule: Passing Strange and Macbeth. They've both gotten raves and I'm excited about seeing them. But I didn't realize I'd also be picking up two new theatrical superstitions in the process.
Until I saw a short video clip on the New York Times Web site, I had no idea that once inside the theater, you're only supposed to refer to Macbeth as "the Scottish play," lest the production suffer all sorts of bad luck.
Then, since I've never been to the Belasco, I wanted to read up on the the theater that's currently home to Passing Strange, and found that it's haunted. There's an actual ghost on the premises. And somehow, I don't think he's a friendly little guy like Casper either!
Now, my only acting experience has been a drama class I took in junior high school. I know you're supposed to tell an actor to "break a leg" instead of "good luck," but I really have no idea why. Haunted theaters and names you're never supposed to utter are all pretty new to me. Well, except for this one.
Here's what my in-depth Internet research turned up:
Break a leg: While I've heard this phrase, I never knew where it originated. Like "the Scottish play," there are lots of theories. One theory is that it's a translation of a German phrase for good luck brought to America by German and Yiddish speaking Jews in the early 20th century. Perhaps it was simply a way for performers to avoid tempting fate, or reverse psychology, using bad luck to ensure good luck.
My favorite explanation is that the phrase stems from actors' having to bend their leg at the knee when they take a bow at the curtain call. Hoping that someone breaks a leg is a way of wishing that the audience will be so enthusiastic, the actors will be forced to take lots of bows - although hopefully not to the point that anyone actually does break a leg.
The Scottish play: One explanation goes that the incantation of the Weird Sisters in Macbeth casts an actual spell. Another theory goes that because of the swordplay, there's a greater chance for an actor to be injured. Supposedly, a long list of mishaps have befallen productions of MacBeth.
The most likely explanation is that Macbeth was such a popular work, it was often performed out of desperation by theater companies that were on the verge of going under. So adding it to your lineup at the end of the season was a sign that you were in big trouble. Best not to mention the name at all. "Macbeth often presaged the end of a company's season, and would frequently be a portent of the company's demise. Therefore, the fear of Macbeth was generally the fear of bad business and of an entire company being put out of work."
The Belasco ghost: David Belasco was an actor, playwright and theatrical impresario. (I love that word! Do they still exist? Is it the type of thing you'd put on your business card?) Belasco, who lived from 1853 to 1931, wrote, produced and directed more than 100 Broadway plays. He had two theaters in New York. The one that bears his name today, at 111 W. 44th St., opened in 1907 as the Stuyvesant Theatre. Belasco renamed the theater for himself in 1910.
According to the Belasco's Web site, after his death, the ghost of David Belasco was rumored to haunt the theater. Actors and stagehands claimed to see the spirit in Belasco's private box on opening night, scowling if he didn't like the show. Supposedly, the ghost hasn't been seen since the 1970s, when it was driven out by the nudity in Oh Calcutta!
So it appears that the only ghost I'll be seeing will be Banquo's. I don't actually believe in ghosts, and I'm not very superstitious. Still, just in case David Belasco does show up, I'm keeping their number handy. I mean, who would you call?