Actors are a superstitious lot. (So, apparently, are jockeys, professional athletes, prostitutes and sailors). Theatres abound with traditions to ward off the evil humours, such as never uttering the final line of a play during dress rehearsal nor mentioning the name of that Scottish Play lest it bring disaster. Perhaps the best known is the strange custom of wishing a performer to break a leg.
The origins of this perverse expression, which wishes one good luck by wishing them bad luck instead, remain obscure. Although it can be said at any time, traditionally it is usually reserved for a play’s opening night.
Some of the more interesting, but probably apocryphal explanations, date back to Elizabethan times. In the early days of theatre, bending the knee was sometime referred to as breaking a leg. To wish someone that they might break a leg was in anticipation of the performance being so successful they would be called forth to take a bow – and so break their leg. Also, if the audience particularly liked a show, they would throw coins on stage – collecting them gave the actor another reason to bend their knee.
Intriguingly, the curtains on either side of the stage were called “legs”; to break them meant going through to take a bow.
Such expressions are not unique to English; the French say Merde! (no, I will maintain the decorum of this blog and not translate), a term stolen and still used to wish good luck by English dancers. The Italian in bocca di lupa – into the mouth of the wolf – is even more mysterious in origin. For the Germans, the equivalent expression is Hals und Beinbruch – neck and leg break.
Although ‘to break a leg’ only became popularised outside the theatre in the 1950s, it was definitely in use in the 1920s. The most likely origin is via the German Hals und Beinbruch, which reached America via German-speaking immigrants after WWI. Of these immigrants who ended up in the burgeoning professional theatre many were Jewish, and some linguistics hold the German expression is a corruption of the Hebrew blessing hatzlakha u-brakha – success and blessing.
On an interesting note, those attending the theatre in Ancient Greece didn’t applaud. Instead, after an exceptional performance Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex or Euripides’ Medea, the audience would stomped their appreciation – and had been known to break a leg in the process. It’s too bad knee replacements didn’t exist at the time.
And when that grisly night of the dress rehearsal finally comes round… and all the understudies sitting in the back row politely wish the various principals would break a leg — it is then that everything goes suddenly completely and inextricably wrong and you realize that tomorrow night is just twenty-four hours away.
A Peculiar Treasure, Edna Ferher 1939