What’s left of the greasepaint, borne off by the crowd.
Dear WD: I do quite a bit of work in our community theatre, and have been exposed to most of the theatre lingo. However, last night, a fellow volunteer and I were wondering about the origin of the phrase “break a leg.” I always thought it had something to do with dancers, but she said she had heard the phrase dated back to early (?) theatre, where there were actually wooden structures on the front of the stage called “legs.” If the show went well and was well received, an audience member would celebrate by seizing one of these “legs” and breaking it. I have never heard of this, and it sounds a bit illogical to me — who is right (if either of us)? — Sarah Pietraszek-Mattner.
Oh, it doesn’t seem so illogical to me. When I enjoy a theatrical performance, I always make a point of destroying part of the stage on my way out of the theater. Sometimes, if I really like what I’ve seen, I even wait around outside and beat up the actors. (Of course, I do live in New York City, so I’m willing to grant that this may not be how it’s done in Des Moines.)
Speaking of legs, are you certain yours isn’t being pulled? Your friend’s story is by far the most bizarre explanation of “break a leg” I’ve ever heard, and that’s saying something.
“Break a leg,” of course, is how actors wish each other “good luck” before a performance, and has been commonly heard in the theater since the early 20th century. That date of origin, by the way, casts serious doubt on one of the more colorful theories about the origins of the phrase. It has been said that “break a leg” is a reference to the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln in Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., by John Wilkes Booth, an actor, in 1865. In attempting to flee the scene, Booth jumped from Lincoln’s box to the stage, breaking his leg. The fact that actors didn’t start wishing each other good luck by saying “break a leg” until more than 50 years after Lincoln’s assassination makes this an unlikely source.
All of which puts us back at square one, but fortunately the peerless Eric Partridge rides to our rescue. Partridge was to the collection and documentation of slang what Shakespeare was to the theatre, and in his Dictionary of Catchphrases, he has quite a bit to say about “break a leg.” After dismissing the John Wilkes Booth story, Partridge explains that he favors the theory that “break a leg” originated as a translation of a similar German catchphrase “Hals- und bienbruch,” with which German actors wish their colleagues “a broken neck and a broken leg.” The German phrase seems to have begun life among aviators, possibly during World War I, and gradually spread to the German theatre and then to the British and American stages.
But why, I hear you ask, would someone wish injury and ill-fortune on a comrade embarking on a perilous mission? Simple — popular folklore down through the ages is full of warnings against wishing your friends good luck. To do so is to tempt evil spirits or demons to do your friend harm. Better to outwit the demons (who must be rather dim, it seems to me) by wishing your friend bad fortune.
The charm doesn’t always work, of course. The stage directions for opening night last year of the reconstructed Globe Theater in London supposedly called for two actors to swing dramatically from a balcony down to the stage on ropes. One of the actors slipped and, you guessed it, broke his leg.