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1 Feb, 2018

Break a leg!

The world of theatre is filled with superstitions, many of them centuries-old and particular to certain plays and performers. For example, it is considered bad luck to whistle in a theatre, to say the final line of a play during dress rehearsal, or to say the name of ‘the Scottish play’ ( Shakespeare’s MacBeth) in a theatre’s green room. Perhaps the most curious is the theatrical slang ‘break a leg’, said to actors  before they go on stage as a way of wishing them good luck. There are several theories behind the origin of the phrase, and here are some favourites:


The Greeks, Elizabethans and Garrick
In Ancient Greece, audiences didn't clap. Instead, they stomped their appreciation and if they stomped long enough, they would break a leg. In Elizabethan times, instead of applause the audience would bang their chairs on the ground—and if they liked the performance enough, the leg of the chair would break. There's nothing an actor enjoys hearing more than the sound of breaking legs ( so long as they’re not his!)

On that theme, famed 18th century actor, David Garrick, was said to be so consumed by his role in Shakespeare’s Richard III, that he didn’t realise his leg was broken during the performance. Here’s hoping the audience was appreciative!


Leg Line
Hailing from the vaudeville era, when actors queued for an opportunity to perform and were only paid if they did, much store was put by crossing the ‘leg’ or ‘leg line’ at the edge of a stage and entering the audience’s line of sight. Crossing, or ‘breaking’ the ‘leg’ meant performers would be on stage, and therefore get paid. 


Curtsies and Coins
Theatrical slang for bowing or curtseying, the person telling you to “break a leg”  hopes you put on a performance good enough that you will have to bend your knee in a bow or curtsey to acknowledge the applause. Another variation is that if coins were tossed onto the stage by an audience at the end of your performance, you would have to bend down in or-der to pick them up. 


Photograph by Royal New Zealand Ballet