Myths & Superstitions of the Theatre: Where Do They Come From?

by Michael Bedford

Published at 2017-03-29



I'm set to play Jack Manningham in The Tipling Stage Company's production of Gaslight. And because the play, Patrick Hamilton's psychological thriller about a husband trying to drive his wife mad in order to benefit from her committal to an insane asylum, is set in Victorian England, I've been thinking about the etymologies of various theatrical terms, myths, and superstitions.


As a theatre student in my 20s, I was taught by more than one instructor that the roots of theatrical rigging and superstitions were based solidly on a nautical tradition, the basic idea being that theatrical employees were leftover sailors. But this well-known piece of theatre history may be just another theatre myth according to Rick Boychuk, who published an article on this issue. To summarize, Boychuk's research provides a solid argument for the notion that the technical elements of theatrical rigging developed concurrently with nautical rigging and not as a by-product of it.


But what of the notion that old sailors used to become stagehands and technicians in theatres of olde? As Boychuk notes, this idea may be a bit romantic considering the survival rate of sailors was approximately 8%. But, who knows, those 8% may have found their ways into theatres and helped develop the unique theatrical traditions that theatre-workers alone have the good fortune to enjoy.



(Don't) Whistle While You Work


One specific nautical tradition that made its way into the theatre and might cast doubt upon Boychuk's work is the idea that whistling inside a theatre, like whistling aboard ship, is bad luck. This superstition is arguably based on practical concerns: apparently, sailors would use specific whistles to order various rigging changes. So, if an unwitting landlubber should walk on deck whistling, he or she could get hit with a swinging beam or knocked overboard by a sail set in motion by the ignorant whistler.


This practical concern reportedly affected theatrical workers of olde as well because they, like sailors, used specific whistles to signify various things, including the dropping of heavy curtains and sandbags. These objects in motion took their fair share of victims to their final bows, and eventually gave rise to the popular superstition.


Better Safe Than Sorry


But, questionable nautical origins aside, theatrical superstitions aren't necessarily all based in practicality. Some superstitions, like the famous tradition of never saying “Macbeth” offstage during the run of any play—even Macbeth—seem to be based simply on superstition. Although, according to Sir Donald Sinden, this superstition is based on the frequency by which less popular plays would get replaced by the ever-popular (and gory) Macbeth, the idea being that even uttering the name of the play would cause any production to fail and subsequently get replaced by Macbeth.


Others claim that when Shakespeare wrote Macbeth he included the spells of real witches, and their incantations repeated onstage cause Macbeth's curse to recur whenever the name is uttered. I've never taken much stock in any of these superstitions, but I can attest to the fact that they are alive and well today. As a lifelong whistler, I've been reprimanded more than once by fellow actors and stagehands for not containing myself until I was outside. And the Macbeth superstition is near ubiquitous.


Gaslighting: Still Relevant Today


It's also worth mentioning that the term “gaslighting” comes from Gaslight. Jack Manningham's method of driving his wife into a Victorian insane asylum, committal at the time equating essentially to a death sentence, was used all too commonly by men of the time who were seeking to enjoy their wives' money before they died, who liked their mistresses better, or who were just disillusioned after their weddings.


More recently, though, gaslighting has come to signify any long con. Although the term is still used in the domestic realm, it is gaining popularity in the political realm as well. Particularly, the term has recently been used to describe US President Donald Trump's agenda and Canadian Minister of Democratic Institutions Maryam Monsef's reports to a special parliamentary committee on electoral reform.


So, after reading about the history of theatrical terms and superstitions and learning so much about Gaslight and gaslighting, why not come to The Tipling Stage Company's production? It promises to be worth the drive to Shelburne. Tickets and information about the theatre can be found here.