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Thursday, September 12, 2013

BREAK A LEG!: A look at this Theater Superstition

Note:  I am in no way affiliated with HBO or "Game of Thrones".... a wonderful student named Claire Hamlin sent this along to me!

Greetings, ladies and gentlemen!  Let's talk superstition, shall we?

There are MANY superstitions involved with the theater, but today I'm going to talk about what I believe to be the most common--- saying "break a leg" as opposed to "good luck".  As most people who have been in  a play know, it is supposedly bad luck to say "good luck" to a performer.  Instead, the term you use is "Break a leg."  (Mel Brooks has an entire song dedicated to this superstition in his musical, The Producers).

Indeed, in my experience with theater, I know people who are truly HORRIFIED if someone tells them good luck.  I have never been the type to be overly superstitious (not really--- I have my own superstitions and rituals I like to perform for myself, but I don't freak out over too many of the traditional superstitions).  Nonetheless, I do not ever tell my fellow cast members "good luck"--- I obey the terms as set down by history.

The questions then becomes this:  where did "break a leg" come from?

Interestingly enough, I have found several explanations for this expression, and the actual answer is not truly known.  Like all things that have a certain mythology around them, the true origin will most likely remain obscure. 

But here are some thoughts:

1.  In Ancient Greece, it is said that, instead of applauding, audience members would stomp their feet.  The more they enjoyed a performance, the harder they stomped.  Thus, if they stomped hard enough, they would break a leg.  So, really, perhaps what we're telling actors is to do a good enough job to hurt someone who paid money to see the show.

1A.  This one is close to the Ancient Greece explanation:  in Elizabethan times, they say audiences, instead of applauding, they would stomp their chair legs... if they liked the show a lot , they might break the chair leg. 

2.  In Ancient Rome, during the gladiator days, they supposedly had a term that the audience would shout out to a gladiator they liked, wishing them to merely be crippled as opposed to being killed.

3.  Some say it has to do with bowing.  Bowing, traditionally, consisted of putting one leg behind the other and giving a little kneel, thereby, "breaking the line in the leg".  Hence, breaking a leg. 

4. The answer I always heard growing up was something completely different, but, for the life of me, I can't find any written documentation of it.  It was told to me by an elder actor, and, I have since told it to many people.  But, in doing my research for this post, I could not find it written anywhere.  Nonetheless, I will tell you, because I am quite fond of this explanation:
I was told that the expression came from raked stages, where upstage really went up, like a little hill.  Thus, if you were standing right on the steepest area of the stage as it moved up, you would have to "brake" your leg to keep from losing your balance ("brake" in this case being like a car "brake" as opposed to a "break").  Over the years, I was told, the expression, which started as "brake a leg", became "break a leg". 

In any case, the expression did not become popular until the 1920s, and was never mentioned in print until the 1940s.  In this regard, it is still rather a young superstition. 

However young it may be, it is highly respected, and I would say to all you laypeople who have loved ones about to perform in a show:  never say good luck.  Break a leg, break a leg, break a leg.  It might seem silly, but theater is a world of pretend, and in this world of pretend, superstition can become very, very real. 

Until next time, thanks for reading this post.  To all my performer friends out there:  break a leg, and remember--- theater is a sport.  So try to avoid any real injury. 

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