As I promised in my last post, I submitted my play Philostrate to the Shakespeare’s New Contemporaries competition this past week. The script was essentially complete when I posted; I probably could have made the submission that very Monday. Instead, I waited until the end of the week. Partly that was to make as many proofreading passes as possible, and leave absolutely nothing to chance; partly that was to make sure the accompanying essays (plot synopsis, playwright’s bio) were the best they could be. But even in that case, I could have pushed myself to submit on Tuesday or Wednesday. Instead, I deliberately waited until Friday – because it was Friday the 13th.
As I’ve detailed ad nauseum, the idea which became Philostrate was born during a particularly rowdy college cast party. The college in question was Colgate University, which was founded (two hundred years ago!) by thirteen Baptist ministers, who said thirteen prayers at their initial meeting and started the college with an outlay of thirteen dollars. Ergo, thirteen is our college’s lucky number, and Friday the 13th is our designated lucky day. So, in submitting Philostrate on Friday the 13th, I was simply being superstitious. It’s the opposite superstition from what just about everybody else in the country holds, but it’s superstition all the same.
And that seems like a perfectly natural thing to do, as far as I’m concerned – especially when the theater is involved. The theater is a place of superstition. It’s got all sorts of strange rituals, passed down through the generations, one actor to another. Some are well known – wishing “break a leg” rather than “good luck.” Some are more obscure – such as the prohibition against whistling backstage, lest disaster strike. Most of them are holdovers from earlier times – the reason you don’t whistle, for instance (apart from not disturbing the performance, obviously), is that once upon a time docked sailors would serve as the stagehands, and use their system of whistling cues to move the ropes that flew the scenery in and out, so an accidental whistle could cause the set to come crashing down around you.
They’re not coming in off the whaling ships to move scenery anymore, but I still love all the of the old superstitions, and keep them alive as best I can. (Seriously. Just try saying the name of the Scottish Play around me and see what happens.) And this may seem a tad hypocritical on my part – I’ve spent the bulk of the last few years railing against our collective descent back into superstitiousness, our desire to live in the past. Am I not doing the same thing myself, just in a different way?
Perhaps. But I think there’s a crucial difference between wanting to live in the past uncritically, and preserving the specific things you love about the past – the things worth loving about the past – and making sure they’re carried forward into what’s hopefully a better future. And if you don’t think that making people leave the room, turn around three times, and spit should they quote the Scottish play is one of those things worth loving – well, we’ll have to agree to disagree on this.
A belated Happy Friday the 13th to one and all.
Posted on July 16, 2018
by Michael C. O'Day