We all seem to have superstitious moments in life, and we have rituals to ensure things will go well. Some of us have that one meal we have to eat before performing or that one pair of socks that we have to wear. If we don’t, nothing seems to go our way. In the performance world, and more specifically the theatre world, superstitions may control your life. Perhaps one of the most well-known superstitions is saying “break a leg” to wish someone good luck. You’ve probably said this phrase many times, either before a performance or just wishing someone luck before a meeting or sporting event, but do you know why we say it or where it started? Let’s dive into the past and look at some origin stories for this phrase.
Ancient Greece & Elizabethan Times
Applause is something we long for after a show. However, there are theories, whether real or fictitious, that say clapping wasn’t always commonplace. One such theory, dating back to Ancient Greece, suggests that stomping was common to expressing appreciation instead of clapping. So, in a quite literal sense, if you were to stomp long enough or hard enough, there was a good chance you would break your leg.
Ancient Greece isn’t the only place where we see a deviation from clapping. In Elizabethan Theatre, there were all sorts of things happening that may easily be construed as weird in today’s theatre. I’m sure most of you would never expect an audience to throw things at you in the middle of a performance. However, things like that were common during this time. Another theory suggests that in place of applauding, people would bang the legs of their chair on the ground to show appreciation. Much like Ancient Greece, but maybe not as gruesome, if the audience liked the performance enough, the legs of the chair would break.
John Wilkes Booth
Many of us are familiar with John Wilkes Booth and the assassination of President Lincoln. Lincoln and his wife were attending the play Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865. Booth, a famous and popular actor of the time, slipped into the presidential box at Ford’s Theatre. He assassinates President Lincoln, jumps from the box to the stage, where, by some accounts, he shouted “Sic semper tyrannis” and escapes.
The well-known theory is that when Booth jumped to the stage, his spur snagged a decorative flag and resulted in a leg fracture or injury. Some people believe this is where the phrase “break a leg” originated. However, some accounts and historians believe that Booth didn’t injure his leg during the jump. The claim, found in Booth’s own diary, is believed to be falsified. It is believed that Booth often falsified his entries to make them more dramatic.
Breaking the Leg Line
In theatre, there are many different types of stage curtains and each with many different names. One such type of stage curtain is called a leg. These are narrow drapes hung parallel to the proscenium at the sides of the stage. They are used to frame the acting space, mask the wings, and create what is called a “leg line.”
Back in the days of vaudeville, there was a likely chance that poorer performing acts would be pulled from the stage before completion. This would leave gaps in the performance and cause an overall shorter performance time. This meant audience members wouldn’t get their money’s worth. Thus, producers would book more performers than what was needed for the given time of a show.
Unfortunately, even if you were booked on the show, that didn’t guarantee you would get paid. The general rule during the time of vaudeville was if you wanted to get paid, you had to perform on stage. The phrase “break a leg” in this instance referred to one of the standby performers having an opportunity to cross or “break” the leg line, perform onstage, and get paid.
There are several occurrences when we see the phrase used outside of the theatrical world, alluding to the fact that the phrase did not originate in theatre. One such occasion was when Robert Wilson Lynd published an article in the New Statesmen. Lynd, who frequently mingled with actors backstage, claimed in his article that the theatre was the second-most superstitious institution after horse racing. He asserted that in horse racing, wishing luck to someone was considered bad luck. So, “You should say something insulting such as, ‘May you break your leg!’”
Another such occasion where we see the phrase is in German aviation. The phrase was possibly adapted from the German phrase Hals -und Beinbruch. It translates to “breaking all one’s bones” or “neck and leg break”, depending on the translator you use. This term was used much like the English phrase “Happy Landings” as a means of wishing someone good luck before a flight. This theory is the most favored as a credible theory among etymologists.
Sprites – What would the theatre be without ghosts or spirits? One theory suggests that in wishing something good to happen, the sprites would try to make the opposite happen. So, the phrase was used as a way to outsmart the sprites.
Taking A Bow – The term may refer, more metaphorically, to bending one’s knee in bowing or curtsying.
Principal Injuries – Another theory suggests, with some documented accounts, that the understudies would sit at the back of the theatre, wishing the principal actors would “break a leg,” literally. This was in hopes that they would get to perform. There are also several stories of actors performing with a broken leg. Some believe this is how the phrase was coined.
There are a lot of theories about the origins of “break a leg.” Some more plausible than others. Each person will have their favorite story, and there are definitely more than what is listed here. These are just some of the most common ones. Regardless of which story you believe, just remember to say “break a leg” to everyone before your next performance.