Monday, September 16, 2013

Breaking Legs

Everyone knows, I hope, that it’s bad luck to wish an actor “good luck.”  Instead you’re supposed to say, “Break a leg”—not with the intent that the actor really breaks a leg (unless you’re the understudy), but with a kind of reverse psychology that is understood to mean wishing something good.  The origin of the phrase “break a leg” is, as you might expect, obscure. 

One theory has nothing to do with the kind of legs you walk around on, but with theatrical legs—the usually black curtains that mask the backstage area.  To run onstage for a curtain call would “break” the plane of these “legs” so that the actor was visible to the audience, and thus “breaking a leg” would mean taking a well-deserved bow. 

Other theatre historians trace the phrase to the eighteenth-century actor David Garrick who allegedly was so focused during a brilliant performance as Richard III that he failed to notice that he had fractured his leg.  Thereafter, his colleagues urged him to “break a leg” in order to maintain the same level of excellence.   

Some say the term has something to do with John Wilkes Booth’s claim that he broke his leg jumping onstage after shooting Abraham Lincoln—but it does seem improbable that you would hope that an actor would assassinate a president in the course of a performance.  Still others say it had to do with Roman gladiators being urged to break their opponents’ legs, rather than killing them outright.

Since usage of the phrase can be traced only as far back as 1920, most of these theories seem specious. 

Wishing an actor bad luck is fairly universal in the theatre. The German good-luck phrase is Hals und beinbruch, which means “break both your arm and your leg.”  The origin of this phrase is allegedly in a corruption of the Yiddish Hastlohke un brokhe, which means “Good luck and be blessed.” 

The French (as well as English-speaking dancers) wish actors Merde, a much more elegant word than its English counterpart, which is “shit.”  In Spanish it’s mucha mierda, which is simply a lot of the same.  The Italians have another image for theatrical good luck, In bocca al lupo, which emphasizes the risk involved in acting by urging the player to put his head in the mouth of a wolf.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou’s head has never been in a wolf’s mouth, but he has stuck his nose into a lot of equally unsavory places.
            The amours of an actor named Seth
            Always left him quite out of breath.
                        He had fun with Ophelia,
                        Even more with Cordelia,
            But was stymied by Lady Macbeth. 


  1. But I think "Hals" in German is "neck" not "arm".

    On that theme of oral transfer from language to language, and the wonderful human impulse to see order where none exists, here is a link to one of my favourites:

    In Germany, Axel Hacke specialises in this stuff, and is very funny. To take one example from his oeuvre, many Germans (who put the verb at the end of their sentences) hear the old Tamla Motown ballad "You Can't Hurry Love" and sadly suppose it is all about a person called Harry who has something not quite right about him.

    1. You're right about "Hals"--sorry for my error. You'd really have trouble if you broke both your neck and your leg. Thanks for the links.