“And now I will vanish, like the sisters in that Scottish play, which we don’t mention,” says a playwright’s wife in Edna O’Brien’s short play “Triptych.” I happened to read “Triptych” a few weeks ago while ushering the Scottish play at the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center.
Theater people call it “the Scottish play” because it’s considered bad luck to speak the name inside a theater, except in the context of the play itself. It’s set in Scotland, it’s Shakespeare’s shortest play (though not in this production) and its name begins with an M.
Why is it bad luck? One theory, heard more than once during the run, is that Shakespeare plagiarized the incantations spoken by his three witches from an actual coven, thereby making the onstage curses real. Some sources date the superstition to the play’s premiere, when, legend has it, an actor died. In one story, it was a boy actor playing Lady M; in another, an actor stabbed with a real dagger instead of a prop. Over the last 400 years, productions have been riddled with deaths, hauntings and various other instances of bad luck. Opening night of a 2012 Australian production was canceled after three cast members came down with severe food poisoning.
In New York, this was the play that sparked the Astor Place riot in 1949, when fans of the English actor William Charles Macready battled those of the American Edwin Forrest over whose M——, and by extension whose country, was superior; 25 people were killed. The playwright Richard Nelson imagined that night in his play “Two Shakespearean Actors,” produced on Broadway by Lincoln Center Theater in 1992; it ran less than two months. Last fall Nelson mentioned the superstition in “Regular Singing,” the last and best of his four Apple Family plays at the Public Theater. It’s even been parodied on “The Simpsons.”
My Australian friend Beth Child seemed to have had no qualms about saying the name when she directed “M——: The Rock Opera,” to what she said were the best reviews of her career. Nor did the actor she sent to sleep on my sofa for a week:
“You were in ‘M——: The Rock Opera’?”
“I was M——-.”
That was a few years ago, and back then I wasn’t afraid to say the name. Now, being employed in the theater and having had more than enough bad luck in the last couple of years, I was taking no chances. As soon as this production by Jack O’Brien (no relation to Edna, I assume) was announced, I resolved not to utter it during the run, or maybe ever again. I don’t pick up tails-up pennies, I don’t put new shoes on the table and I don’t say the M-word.
But a 12-week run is a long time. Twice, I slipped.
One afternoon before previews began, I was heading to the ballet at another Lincoln Center theater (whose name we don’t say for political reasons) with an acquaintance who said she had bought tickets. “So maybe I’ll seat you for ‘M——’!” I said, before realizing what I had done. We were still outside the theater doors. Surely that didn’t count?
Then there was the evening early in previews when I was chatting with a patron about our interpretations of the title character, and I spoke the name. I excused myself to perform one of the cleansing rituals associated with this particular curse: leave the room, turn around three times and spit over your left shoulder. An usher may not leave her station during seating, but it was early and I was at the top of an aisle. So I slipped out into the smoke ring and discreetly make amends.
After that, I was vigilant.
“AAAARRRRRGGGGHHHHH! You said it!” I shrieked to Mim Pollock, the chief usher, more than once. She waved me away. Mim was born into the theater, and if it still holds any terrors for her, I don’t know about them. She has her own “M——” stories to tell.
One well-read colleague launched into a detailed discussion of the plot, frequently speaking the name; I did my best to respond without. Another surprised me when she said it, but she just shrugged: “We’re not in the house.”
Some people might have said this production was bad luck enough; the reviews were less than encouraging. A friend of mine who’s seen a lot of productions in her time came away from a Saturday matinee furious: “That’s not ‘M——.’ ”
But I heard of few disasters during the run, possibly thanks to the mandala on which Scott Pask based his set design. (It became the show’s logo.) Oh, sure, there was the night before Thanksgiving, when the stage elevator broke down during Act I and the show did not go on — but not before M—– himself, Ethan Hawke, entertained patrons with his guitar before sending them home. Two members of the ushering staff did suffer medical problems at the end of the run; here’s hoping their bad luck is over. I seem to have emerged unscathed.
Though the Beaumont is dark until March 20, the banners are up at Lincoln Center for its next production: “Act One,” an adaptation of Moss Hart’s memoir about his lucky life in the theater. I can now put my “Double, double, toil and trouble” spoon in the kitchen and breathe again. Let the ushers at the Park Avenue Armory worry: Kenneth Branagh’s Scottish play is due there this spring.