Theater Superstitions

I was getting ready to tell someone who was going to be running a marathon to “break a leg”, when I realized that didn’t sound like such a good idea. I know the phrase came from the theater, but I didn’t know exactly where it started or why. I’ve mostly heard it used by actors, but it seems like it’s more of a mainstream phrase now. It also tends to be used for a live performance or audition. Especially on opening night, instead of something that’s said before a TV taping or filming.

It seems the act of wishing someone in the theater good luck is considered bad luck and superstitious. Leave it to actors to do the rebellious thing and turn it on its ear.

Break a Leg!

It’s not certain where “break a leg” actually came from, but several theories are out there. The phrase could have gotten its origin from Shakespeare’s day when the theater actor would bend their leg at the knees to bow at the end of a performance.

It could also have come from the Jewish theater where the phrase “break a leg” literally means “bless you everyone”. It did become part of the language somewhere around the early 1900’s, so some of the theories of its origin would be unlikely.

The phrase was first mentioned in an article called “A Defence of Superstition” by Robert Wilson Lynd in 1921. He compared the superstitious nature of horse racing to the theater.

It was also mentioned in Edna Ferber’s autobiography “A Peculiar Treasure”, where she talks about understudies sitting backstage hoping for the principle actors to break their legs.

Superstitious Actors

It seems actors really are a superstitious group in general. There is a whole list of things that shouldn’t be done in a theater, like having three lit candles on stage. Well, that probably isn’t a good idea anyway, but the superstition is called the “rule of three”. I wonder if comedians know about this.

There’s another one that says whistling in a theater is bad luck and that someone will get fired. Since I really hate whistling I’m glad to hear about this one. This one actually made sense at the time it was started because stage managers used to use coded whistles before the invention of walkie-talkies. If someone whistled, it would signal a false cue for an actor, and surely would end in someone getting fired.

These are just a couple of the theater superstitions out there. Do you know of other ones?



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