The Curse

Photo of composer Virgil Thomson

In 1935, when John Houseman needed music for a Negro Theater Project production of Macbeth, he turned to Virgil Thomson, who had recently produced Four Saints in Three Acts, an all-black opera, on Broadway. Also involved was nineteen-year-old Orson Welles. It would be a strange collaboration with an even stranger aftermath.

Set on an island resembling Haiti, this Macbeth had three witches that were real voodoo priestesses and a team of authentic African drummers, led by a genuine witch doctor named Abdul.

Thomson was to provide incidental music for the pit orchestra plus sound effects from a backstage percussion group with a bass drum, a thunder sheet, a wind machine, and gongs. For the banquet scene he arranged Viennese waltzes by Joseph Lanner, plus trumpet fanfares and military marches.

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Although Welles wanted original music, he had such specific ideas for it that, out of pride, Thomson refused to write note for note what the teenaged director dictated.

When Thomson and Houseman complained to the drummers that the voodoo music didn’t sound wicked enough, the Africans finally admitted that they were just playing some spells to ward off beriberi because real voodoo music was too dangerous.

On opening night, April 10, 1936, two detachments of band musicians from the Benevolent Protective Order of Elks paraded through the streets of Harlem to stir up excitement about the debut.

The play racked up a total of 144 performances, but Abdul took exception to a caustic broadside from Herald Tribune critic Perry Hammond. The witch doctor asked Welles if the critic was a bad man and when told he was, asked Welles, “You want me to make beriberi on this man?”

Welles shrugged. “Go right ahead. Make all the beriberi you want to.”

After that evening’s performance, the drums and chanting in the Lafayette seemed to go on all night. Ten days later, critic Percy Hammond, age sixty-three, took ill and died of what was reported to be lobar pneumonia.

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