But in certain professions, particularly ones so rich in oral and performed tradition, the folkways can never really disappear. The perennial hauntedness of theaters is another example of this. Almost every theater features a “ghost light” — a light kept perpetually burning on stage, regardless of whether anyone is in the building. Some of the most famous ghosts reside in the opulent West End theaters of London — most notably The Man in Grey at the Drury Lane. Reports of his appearances date back more than 200 years, and the only hint as to who he might have been was the discovery, in 1850, of a hidden chamber that housed a skeleton with a dagger plunged between its ribs, surrounded by gold and playing cards. The burial of the bones in consecrated ground, however, did not stop the Man in Grey’s appearances; Richard Huggett, author of Theatrical Superstitions, reports having seen him in 1973. His appearance, of course, is considered very lucky, especially if he shows up during rehearsals.
No performing space, be it ever so humble, is without its resident ghost. Even a space as mundane as the theater in which I worked backstage at Six Flags Over Georgia — the Crystal Pistol, a glorified auditorium in which energetic young performers sang and danced each summer to canned country-western music — had a ghost. I was solemnly informed immediately after starting work as a costume technician that the men’s dressing room was haunted by the ghost of a teen dancer who had died in a car crash on his way to rehearsal some years before. I learned the next year that a friend who performed at Six Flags Great Adventure in New Jersey had heard the same story at her theater.But it’s no surprise that theaters are haunted. Ghosts are usually believed to be the revenants of the unsettled dead, attracted to a place in which they were either very happy or very sad. The twin masks of comedy and tragedy that grace many theater proscenium arches attest to the extremes of joy and sorrow that are enacted nightly in that confined space; the intense emotional energy released both onstage and off must be like catnip for ghosts.
Ay, thou poor ghost, while memory holds a seat
In this distracted globe
— Hamlet 1.5.95-7
Not just ghosts but spirits of every kind are attracted to the magical realm of the theater. The activities that take place there are directly related to the most ancient of mysteries: invocation of the spirits to possess the bodies of the shamanic celebrant so that hidden truths might be revealed to general witnesses. Many of the early attackers of the professional theater were particularly concerned for the spiritual well-being of the actors themselves — to take on the personality of another person, especially someone of the opposite sex (as was the case for the boy actors of Shakespeare’s theater), was to become like the shape-shifting Greek demigod Proteus, a sneaky, disloyal “chameleon” of little blood and no virtue. When Shakespeare’s Hamlet puts on an “antic disposition” to fly under the treacherous Claudius’ radar, he runs the risk of becoming truly mad; in many productions, his performance becomes reality and he nearly loses his sanity in the quest for the truth. He certainly has lost everything he ever loved by the tragic finale of the play.
It’s no coincidence that Shakespeare makes Hamlet a longtime friend of the theater. His decision to “play” mad immediately precedes a scene in which he recites a long speech from Dido and Aeneas in front of the traveling actors. Hamlet is a frustrated actor; his choice to expose Claudius’ murderous guilt in the public form of a play is a vain one. It backfires, and Hamlet endangers the life of his friends, his mother, and his lover. By choosing Acting over acting, Hamlet works at cross-purposes to himself. But that’s to be expected — “We’re actors,” says the Player King in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, a brilliant re-imagining of Hamlet; “we’re the opposite of people.”
The actor also fills the role of the “contrary” in folk culture — the person who says or does the opposite of what social norms deem appropriate, and who thereby serve as an outlet for social tensions (the Native American Mudhead clowns, for example, or the “licensed fool” of European courts). The actor holds a mirror up to the audience, showing us our best and worst selves, and thus embodies contrariness in all its forms. For this reason, many theatrical superstitions mischievously embrace the more common bad-luck superstitions — theaters welcome and even seek out resident black cats, or example, and American theaters often raise the curtain 13 minutes after the hour, to guarantee a cheerful and responsive audience.
The shamanistic roots of the actor come through in the many superstitions that involve animals. Peacock feathers — with their iridescent “eye” at the end — are absolutely anathema to any stage production — one famous designer who accidentally included a peacock panel in a stage design had to paint over them and change them to turkeys! The anti-peacock sentiment may be related to the common complaints against actors and their tremendous vanity, or it may be an older reflection of the association of peacocks and the goddess Juno — a goddess famously, and destructively, jealous of her philandering husband, Jove’s, habit of disguising himself and conducting trysts with mortal women. Most likely, though, it is a holdover from the Mediterranean fear of the “evil eye.” Romany artists in particular carried an aversion to peacock feathers with them.
Cats, as aforementioned, are welcome theatrical tenants, not only because they keep the backstage area free of costume-nibbling mice; costumers routinely insist that the garment they have labored over isn’t really a “costume” until a cat has slept on it. Cats are such good luck, in fact, that the discovery of cat droppings in one’s dressing room is a blessed event. The only “bad luck” superstition associated with cats is having one walk on stage during a performance, but considering how animals “steal focus,” that isn’t surprising.
These are daily types of superstitions, shared by actors in every theater in the western world. They form a part of the oral tradition that offers this nomadic and precarious world a sense of stability and hominess. Although theater buildings are occupied by an ever-changing array of performers and technicians, their ghosts give them a consistent identity, a form of continuity. For actors whose lives are often lonely and fragmented, encountering the same oral traditions as they travel from one theater to the next is a source of comfort.
“The causes of superstition are: pleasing and sensual rites and ceremonies,… over-great reverence of traditions,… the taking an aim at divine natures by human, which cannot but breed mixture of imaginations; and lastly, barbarous times, especially joined with calamities and disasters.”
— Francis Bacon, “Of Superstition,” The Essays, 1625
Of course, the granddaddy of all theatrical superstitions is unique in that it focuses on a single play — not on theatrical life in general — and that it is heeded by performers who have never and will never perform in the play in question. Fears about the “Scottish Play” reputedly date back to its first performance in 1606. There’s a tradition that the first theater historian, John Aubrey, who interviewed a number of Shakespeare’s fellow actors in their old age, said that Hal Berridge, the boy actor cast as the first Lady Macbeth, contracted a fever and died the night of the first performance. There’s no written evidence of this story, but tradition insists it was in his notes.
More well-documented disasters abound. An actor playing Macbeth in 1672 was said to have murdered the actor playing Duncan offstage, using his stage dagger. A revival of the play in 1703 was accompanied by a legendary tempest in London. One of the worst disasters occurred in America in 1849, when a long-standing feud between the actors William Charles Macready and Edwin Forrest resulted in a riot outside the Astor Theater, where fans of Forrest protested an appearance of Macready in the role of Macbeth. The crowd swelled to 20,000, forcing the militia to fire, killing 23 people. Other actors, including Laurence Olivier, Charlton Heston, and John Gielgud, have suffered injuries or near-misses during productions of the play. And the most recent famous victim was television’s Kelsey Grammar, who was critically eviscerated — in print, at least — for his Broadway portrayal of the Scottish King. It closed after (cue eerie music) thirteen performances.
Shakespeare scholars are puzzled as to why Macbeth, of all the blood-soaked tragedies of the era, should be the one singled out for unluckiness. Tradition holds that the play’s depictions of witches’ rituals have brought down its numerous curses, but other witchcraft plays of the era (Sophonisba, The Witch, The Masque of Queens) have similar dark ceremonies acted out in detail. To blame “witchcraft” or the devil for the play’s troubles is to assume a particularly pious mindset — something actors are rarely known for possessing. Actors may rightly worry about offending the fates or the faeries, but in the time of Shakespeare, most people accused of witchcraft were known — even to the famously superstitious King James— to be charlatans and posers (professional kin to actors) rather than actual practitioners of Dark Arts.
O proper stuff!
This is the very painting of your fear;
This is the air-drawn dagger . . .
— Macbeth 3.4.59-61