THE SHOW MUST GO OFF
Everyone knows that Shakespeare’s Macbeth is supposedly a cursed play. Quite where that reputation comes from is unknown, but tales of nightmarishly ill-fated performances have cropped up in theatrical folklore for centuries.
Macbeth strikes a pose: I hope that’s a sword hanging down there
But of all these disastrous stagings, perhaps the most accursed was an amateur production of “The Scottish Play” put on at the Cavalcade Theatre in Andersonville, Kentucky, on 26 August 1912.
As reported in the Andersonville Courier the following week, the entire performance was almost cancelled at the last moment when the actress playing Lady Macbeth fell ill (with what the newspaper euphemistically labelled “internal problems”) that morning. Determined that the show must go on, lead actor Forest McGovern convinced his wife, Eleanor, to step into his co-star’s shoes—despite the fact that she had no acting experience, and would have to read the role from the script on stage.
This first crisis, er, expertly averted, the show indeed went ahead. Although McGovern probably soon wished that it hadn’t.
During the opening scene with the three Weird Sisters, the witches’ cauldron caught fire and had to be hauled from the stage and out into the street to be doused with water. In the commotion, the actor playing Duncan had his hand badly burnt (and had to continue his performance with a large white bandage on his arm), while McGovern’s dog—an Irish wolfhound named Prince, whom McGovern had wanted to join him on stage as part of Macbeth’s entourage—escaped through the stage door, and had to be picked up from the local dog pound the following day.
From that opening debacle, things only went from bad to worse.
During the change from Act 1 to Act 2, the left side curtain jammed, leaving half the stage hidden from the audience. Pressed for time, Act 2 gamely went ahead (with all the action relocated to the right-hand side of the stage), before the curtain finally righted itself and the entirety of the stage revealed to the audience once more.
That was just in time for the actor playing Banquo to trip over a bucket of fake blood that was lying on the floor in the wings, and spill its contents across much of the stage. With no time to clean up the mess, the remainder of the first half of the play was performed in a pool of watered-down corn syrup stained red with food dye.
The mess was cleared up as best as possible during the 20-minute interval, but the caustic cleaning fluid used to clean the stage filled the auditorium with stinking bleach fumes that led many spectators to abandon the performance halfway through.
Those that remained saw the curtain once more jam across the left hand side of the stage at the opening of Act 3; saw a decanter of wine and four metal goblets knocked from the table during the banquet scene; saw Eleanor McGovern’s Lady Macbeth freeze with nerves and flea the stage in tears during her sleepwalking scene; and, finally, saw a rope at the back of the stage, loosened to help free the jammed curtain from its runners, slowly and inexplicably lower a sandbag to the floor during Macbeth and Macduff’s final battle.
Happily, the Courier explained in its report that McGovern and his players took the night’s events in their stride, and, undaunted, completed the performance as ably as possible.
What’s more, according to the Courier they all took to the stage the following night—with the second evening’s performance reportedly going without a single hitch.