THE SCOTTISH PLAY
On this day twenty-two years ago, a new production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth opened at the Music Box Theatre. Directed by former director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Terry Hands, it was roughly the 40th Broadway production in the 20th century of this notoriously troubled play that has plagued producers, directors and actors alike going as far back as Shakespeare’s time. As appealing as the tragedy is on the page, many have become justifiably gun-shy over the years when it comes to taking on the Thane of Cawdor, his willful wife, and his path from mighty warrior to common murderer. They’re gone now, but if you asked actors as distinguished as Albert Finney to Peter O’Toole to Ralph Richardson, they would all tell the same tale of their Macbeths: they bombed. O’Toole’s was so disastrous, England’s National Theatre lost funding due to its critical thrashing.
Still very much with us, you could ask Kelsey Grammer. Agreeing to star in a five-week limited engagement back in 2000 while on hiatus between seasons 7 and 8 (of an eventual 11) of his highly successful TV series Frasier. Grammer already had three leading actor Emmys for playing Dr. Frasier Crane and nothing to prove to New York audiences, as his theatre credentials were already solid. Julliard-trained, he had made a fine Cassio in the James Earl Jones-Christopher Plummer Othellothat was on Broadway in 1982 and had worked as a young actor at the New York Shakespeare Festival and regionally in many classical roles. In fact, it wasn’t even Grammer’s first Broadway Macbeth: He appeared at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theatre in the small role of Lennox (and understudied Macbeth) fresh out of the Julliard, housed directly across the street from Lincoln Center. This was a production helmed by Sarah Caldwell, a classical conductor and director of operas, who had never staged anything other than opera. Brendan Gill in the New Yorker called it “something of a disaster,” and he wasn’t the only critic to say so. Macbeth was played by Philip Anglim, whose career never found its way back on track after the shellacking he got from the New York critics. Having triumphed as The Elephant Man in 1979, his 1981 Macbeth is, to date, the last time he appeared on Broadway. As Frank Rich wrote in the New York Times: “It’s not that Mr. Anglim is misinterpreting the hero; there is no interpretation here at all… his face is fixed in a blank, unchanging pose of mild nervousness, as if he feared he might be late for a train.”
So many bad things have happened during productions of Macbeth that many believe it to be a cursed play. Much has been written chronicling its woes, such as the unsubstantiated one that claims on its opening night in 1606 Hal Berridge, the actor playing Lady Macbeth, died suddenly and Shakespeare himself was forced to step in to play the role. Whether that’s true or not, Macbeth, unlike most of Shakespeare’s famed tragedies, received no other production for fifty years.
Probably the worst incident of all occurred during a 17th-century performance in London where the actor playing Macduff accidentally killed the actor playing Macbeth during the duel scene (I’m sure HR was on it immediately).
The play was at the center of the famous Astor Place Riot in New York in 1849, which concerned an intense and competitive rivalry between American actor Edwin Forrest and English actor William Charles Macready. In a protest against the British actor appearing, twenty deaths and over a hundred injuries were incurred. At the time, both actors were playing Macbeth in dueling productions. Richard Nelson’s short-lived 1992 Broadway play Two Shakespearean Actors, which starred Brian Bedford, Victor Garber and twenty-five other actors, chronicled this extraordinary event.
Calamities have indeed struck many a Macbeth. Charlton Heston received serious burns on his legs in an accident that occurred on stage while playing the title role and a wartime production in England was positively plagued. Starring John Gielgud (quoted as having never lived down his bad reviews for it), he got off easy when you consider that one of the Witches died of a heart attack during the final rehearsal; another collapsed and died onstage during a performance; and the set designer committed suicide (I’m guessing unrelated, but you never know).
In 1937, while Laurence Olivier was at London’s Old Vic playing Macbeth, a 25 lb. weight fell from the ceiling, missing him by inches. And the founder of that venerable company, Lilian Baylis, died of a heart attack just before the final dress rehearsal of that Macbeth. Seventeen years later, the next time Macbeth was performed at the Old Vic, the portrait of Baylis in the theatre fell from the wall on opening night. Spooky.
In 1988, the Christopher Plummer-Glenda Jackson Macbeth was as bloody for its offstage fighting as onstage. Losing its director on the road, its opening night Playbill had the bizarre credits of “‘original direction by Kenneth Frankel’’ and ‘’additional direction by Zoe Caldwell.’’ No one got along (especially its two stars) and, once again, Frank Rich encapsulated its troubles perfectly when he wrote: “For all the reports of backstage carnage that preceded its arrival in New York, it’s a remarkably bloodless account of one of the canon’s bloodiest plays.”
As it is well known, there is an unwritten law of the theatre that Macbethis so toxic that even mentioning the play by name backstage while a show is in rehearsal or performance is a jinx. So much so, that the only antidote to right the wrong is for whoever mutters the word to exit whatever room they are in, spin in a circle and spit over their shoulder before reentering. Therefore, when and if someone absolutely must mention the play by name, it is always to be referred to when in a theatre as “the Scottish play.” Everyone I know honors this rule. Theatre folk don’t take their superstitions lightly.
Of course, it was only last March that Chris Rock took to the stage at the Oscars and mentioned Macbeth in relation to Denzel Washington being nominated as Best Actor. Less than a minute later all hell broke loose.
And currently, Daniel Craig is in a production on Broadway that was brushed aside as a misfire. Thought it managed a Tony nomination for Ruth Negga, its Lady Macbeth and one for its lighting design, I don’t think it was going to get a Best Costumes nomination, what with Craig’s sincerely odd bathrobe here.
And how did Kelsey Grammer fare with his Macbeth? Unfortunately, reviews were so poor it folded after ten days, five weeks prior to its scheduled end, at a loss of its entire $1.5 million investment (some of which was Mr. Grammer’s money).
“Out, out, brief candle!”
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Also, follow me here on Medium and feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.