Black cats, Friday the 13th, sidewalk cracks and ladders all have something in common. They are part of a long tradition of superstitions. Superstitions are plentiful in every culture, tradition, industry and career. Baseball teams are full of rituals and superstitions. Theatre has lively and entertaining superstitions. Common superstitions include bad luck the follows cracking a mirror or walking under a ladder. Whether bad luck follows when walking under a scaffold or scissor lift is still somewhat unclear. The origins of superstitions are fascinating bits of historical fact and speculation.
Walking under a ladder is discouraged and said to be bad luck. If someone is working with a chain saw, welding torch or hydrochloric acid the bad luck could be immediate. Practical considerations aside, there is a long history of superstition attached to walking under a ladder. There are several theories as to where this belief originates. One theory holds that the ladder forms a triangle either on it’s own with the ground as the bottom section, or with the wall it is leaning against. In ancient Egypt the shape of a triangle was considered a powerful form. Just consider the shape of the pyramids. Walking through the shape was thought to bring bad luck. This may dishearten all the people that spent years trying to work the spell of pyramid power. The Christian tradition holds the same concept in the idea of the Trinity. Walking under a ladder was seen as breaking the trinity and aligning with the devil.
Other beliefs concerning bad luck and walking under a ladder come from the fates of medieval fighters walking under ladders when trying to take a castle. Hot oil was often poured on those climbing up a ladder and those underneath would be showered with scalding liquid. Gallows weren’t always available or used for hangings. Ladders would be used for executions. The superstition suggests that ghosts live beneath ladders and walking through would disturb them.
Theatre’s and theatre life is filled with superstitions. In a theatre Shakespeare’s play Macbeth is always referred to as “That Scottish Play”. Mentioning or quoting lines from the play, especially in a dressing room is said to invoke the curse. Some of the more famous incidents include; a world war II production of the play with John Geilgud in which four actors died, an 1849 riot that broke out at a performance at Astor Place in New York where 31 people died, in 1947 a young actor playing Macbeth crawled off stage and died of a stab wound. It is reported that he failed to stop reciting lines in the dressing room.
The list of tragedies is lengthy and provocative. Laurence Olivier was nearly killed when he played Macbeth. A weight came tumbling down an crashed inches from him. On opening night of that production, the owner of the theatre had a heart attack and died. During the production the tip of Oliver’s sword broke off and hit an audience member who had a heart attack and died. Some believe that Shakespeare used an actual witch’s spell when writing the part of the witches. Others say he used real witches in the opening play. Others believe it is a play with a lot of fight scenes in dim light, making it a hazardous play to perform. Whatever the origin, superstitions exist and have taken on a life of their own.