Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Something wicked this way comes

Last night I attended the opening night of a play whose name I can't say.

There's an old theatrical superstition that this play is cursed. As I understand it, there are two basic schools of thought on how this came about. One is that the play is actually cursed. With all the grisly murders, witches, ghosts, and general bad karma in the play, I find this completely plausible. The other version of the story I heard is that the play was actually a surefire success back in the days of real repertory companies, so if a producer had a flop he could close it down and throw this show up in its place to save his ass. So while there's nothing wrong with the play itself (quite the opposite), it became associated with disaster and failure.

There are other versions of how "the curse" came to be, but the end result is that it's quite common to run across someone who won't say the name of the play (or, by extension, its eponymous lead character) in a theater, and will yell at you if you do (the one exception to this rule is that you can say it if you're actually working on the play – though even this is less obvious than it sounds and can be up for debate). Some people will go so far as to never say "the M-word" at all.

This is exactly the sort of affectation - like quoting Mame, or correcting someone who calls a cast album a "soundtrack," or titling a blog post "Something wicked this way comes" - that makes even theater people hate theater people sometimes. Personally, I cringe whenever someone says "The Scottish Play," or refers to the main character's wife as "Lady M." Unfortunately, I'm often cringing at myself.

During my junior year, my high school put on a production of The Crucible. It wasn't the first play I worked on, but it was pretty close, and it was when I was starting to really get into it. Somehow, the subject of that play came up backstage before a performance. Maybe someone was reading it in English class. Anyway, a couple of my friends on the crew freaked out and insisted that whoever had said it run around the theater three times and spit. Right, it's that annoying. I had never heard anything so ridiculous. Now, I was hardly one of the cool kids in high school (or in college, or, y'know, now), but as I'm sure anyone reading this blog knows, there are levels of nerd-dom, and I definitely considered myself above my M-word-averse friends. Which is my This American Life way of saying: I was an asshole. I didn't just tell my friends I didn't believe them, or even make fun of them, I said the word over and over and over again backstage. I don't remember but I wouldn't be surprised if I did a little dance.

You're probably thinking something terrible happened to me during the performance. That would've been too simple, and it would've made me believe in karma, not the curse. No, terrible things happened to everyone else. Even by high school standards the performance was a mess. Whole pages of text out of order. Dropped props and missed cues. Two things stick out above the rest. At the end of the play the main character, John Proctor, has a big impassioned speech about how he can't make a false confession even if it might save his life, because it would tarnish his name, which is the only thing he has left. "How can I give away my name," he asks. "I am no Rebecca Nurse, I am no Sarah Goode, I am John Proctor!" Or something along those lines. So the big moment comes, and our leading actor yells, "How can I give away my name? I am no Rebecca Nurse, I am no Sarah Goode, I am John Goode! Um. I am...John...Proctor."

A few minutes later, John What's-His-Name is hanged. This is written to happen offstage, but (and this tells you almost everything you need to know about my high school) we questioned both the wisdom of Arthur Miller, and most schools' ideas of student safety, and hanged him onstage. There was a harness involved, of course, and a fake noose designed to pop open if any real pressure were placed on it, but on this night the rope was just a little too tight. Not enough to kill anyone (or to fall apart safely, as it was supposed to if it became dangerous), but enough to be really uncomfortable and probably more than a little terrifying. Did I mention that he had to swing there for a good two minutes while sad music played and the lights slowly faded to black? (This tells you the rest of what you need to know about my high school.)

The thing that still gets me about this is that none of the people who screwed up that night had anything to do with the Macbeth (there, I said it!) conversation. They weren't anywhere near it, and had no idea it had happened. If they did, I would've chalked it up to subconscious self-sabotage. If they'd heard me say it and were superstitious themselves, it could've caused them to slip up. But they didn't. And too many things went wrong to be coincidence. I fully believe to this day that I cursed that performance. It was only a play, and no one got hurt, so it's not like some secret pain I carry around, but I've hardly ever said that word since. Being a superstitious douchebag is a small price to pay for, well, being a non-believing douchebag. Making fun of theater nerds actually turned me into a bigger theater nerd. There's karma for you.

And Ben, if you're reading this: Sorry about your neck, dude.