Posted by Bruce Miller
Happy Friday the 13th--a perfect day to think a little about superstitions in the theatre.
Over the years, I've heard of 10 to 20 irrational but nonetheless traditional beliefs that seem to have been passed down from one theatre artist to another over the centuries. There are certainly three that are observed with regularity right here in River City. Let's talk about the best known first.
Throughout the ages it’s been considered bad luck to wish an actor “good luck” before a performance. If you want theatre artists to have a successful Opening Night and/or run, superstition requires that you wish them ill fortune rather than good. Whether in London, New York, Richmond, or anywhere else in the English-speaking world, the accepted way to wish an actor bad luck (when you really want them to have good luck) is to say “break a leg.”
I’ve heard many explanations as to why this particular phrase for bad luck was chosen as the standard. My favorite explanation goes back to the Elizabethan age and the Blackfriars Theatre, the first indoor venue for Shakespeare’s plays.
In 1597, during Shakespeare’s prime, Richard Burbage (that's him to the right) inherited the Blackfriars from his father. Richard Burbage was the principal actor with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (Shakespeare’s company), the wildly popular troupe that performed with great success in the Globe. For years the Blackfriars had been home to the Children of the Chapel, a juvenile performing company. In 1608, Burbage and several partners took over management of the Blackfriars, kicked out the kids, and opened the elegant theatre in the winters for use by the King's Men—the new name given to Shakespeare's company after King James ascended to the throne in 1603.
The big difference between the Globe and the Blackfriars, other than the fact that the Blackfriars was an indoor venue, was that the audience at the Blackfriars was often considerably more well-to-do than the groundlings who paid a penny to get into the Globe. When a show met with approval at the Blackfriars, delighted patrons tossed coins onto the stage during curtain call, aiming at the feet of the actors who pleased them the most. When this happened, the showered-upon actors humbly dropped to one knee to accept the accolades (and scarf up the tokens of appreciation), therein “breaking” the line of their legs.
With this kowtowing for coinage custom in mind, a well-wisher says “break a leg” to fulfill the requirement of wishing bad luck, all the while knowing that there is a double-meaning to the phrase, a positive subtext that actually means “I hope the audience loves your performance enough to throw money at your feet causing you to break the line of your leg to pick it up.”
No one throws money anymore, more’s the pity. But once in a while someone throws flowers, which springs from the same tradition. Of course, when we produced The Full Monty, women in the audience often threw panties. Seriously.
Another theory regarding the etymology of the phrase “break a leg” comes from the Yiddish Theatre that was so popular in New York’s Lower East Side in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In those early days, the Yiddish Theatre District that centered on Second Avenue in what is now the East Village equalled Broadway in both quantity and quality.
A favorite phrase for good luck in Yiddish is “Hatsloche un Broche,” meaning “success and blessing.” Knowing that wishing good luck was verboten backstage, Yiddish actors resorted to the similar sounding German phrase “Hals- und Beinbruch,” meaning “neck and leg fracture.”
The wishing-of-bad-luck superstition seems to cross all barriers of language and ethnicity. On the Opening Night of Boleros for the Disenchanted, our Latino actors, in keeping with Spanish theatre tradition, wished each other "¡Mucha mierda!"—which translates roughly as “Lotsa shit!”
In Stanislovski’s day, the great actors of the Moscow Arts Theatre wished each other "ни пуха ни пера" (ni puha ni pera). This literally means "neither down nor feathers." It was the traditional Russian blessing uttered to a hunter before he trekked into the woods, rifle in hand. Apparently Russian hunters fell into the same category as actors, and the only appropriate way to wish them “good luck” was to wish them something horrible. Wishing them “neither down nor feathers” was the same as saying “I hope you come home from the hunt empty handed.”
Sure enough, when an acclaimed Russian company was in residence in our historic Empire last fall performing The Humpbacked Horse, hardy calls of “ni puha ni pera” rang out prior to curtain from the dressing rooms and the darkened corners of backstage.
Whether you are a hunter or an actor, Russian or English, tradition states that you never say “thank you” when someone appropriately wishes you “bad luck.” In Russian, they reply “к черту" (k chertu), which literally means "go to the devil." At the Comédie-Française, when someone wishes you “Merde!” on Opening Night, you are supposed to respond with a robust growl. In Italy, after hearing the blessing “In bocca al lupo,” which means “In the mouth of the wolf,” an actor's recommended response is “Crepi!” or “Crepi il lupo!”, which translates as “May the wolf die!”
With so many Opening Nights fast upon us, we should all be getting our blessings, curses and guttural rumblings ready. And when you shout one out to a beloved theatre colleague, be prepared to hear a response something akin to a friendly, grateful growl.
Coming soon, superstition #2—The Scottish Play.
Till then, see you at the theatre!