In the 1700s, theatrical blocking was very regimented. The stage had designated areas for combat, soliloquies, and so forth. Only one portion of the stage remained unused, the part we now call upstage. It was believed that this is where the plague had originated, and was off limits.
One prominent director of the time, Lord Phillip Reynolds Upstedge, chose to break with convention. He asserted that it was foolish to waste this space, and incorporated its use in the stage directions in one of his plays.
Upstedge’s production of The Royal Huntsman went on to shake up the theater world with its revolutionary blocking, and the newly utilized portion of the stage was named after the trailblazer. He lived in London until his death at 39 from the plague.
Whistling in the Theater
When work at sea was difficult to come by, it was not uncommon for sailors to take jobs backstage at theaters. Their experience rigging sails made them well suited for working the ropes and pulleys backstage.
On the seas, where the gusting winds can make traditional verbal communication impossible, loud, piercing whistles were used to deliver orders. The sailors adapted this use of the whistle as a means to signal raise and lower of curtains, and as prompt to stage cues.
A person who whistled in the theater ran the risk of drawing the unwanted attention of the sailor/stagehands, who would sexually assault the whistler and/or rob them for rum money.
“The Scottish Play”
In Britannic mythology “Ma’ach Bet” was the name of one of the region’s most feared “ancestral demons.” Shakespeare intentionally chose the homophonic “Macbeth” for his play, as the demon was often associated with ambition and murder. In visual representations, he was depicted as having a snake’s head, the limbs of a man, and a goat’s torso. It was and is believed that, by simply uttering his name, the demon could be summoned.
When the initial production of Macbeth was staged, it was believed that the play’s title was dissimilar enough from “Ma’ach Bet” to be spoken without concern. This changed when John Switch, the actor portraying “Banquo,” loudly proclaimed Macbeth to be the best play he had ever been a part of while at a pub with his castmates. Whether as a result of a slurred mispronunciation, or simply the similarity of the name to the demon’s, Ma’ach Bet appeared and devoured Switch’s soul, causing his death weeks later in a sanitarium. Since then, it has become theater custom to substitute “The Scottish Play” for “Macbeth” when speaking of the production, so as not to tempt the hated demon to appear.