Feb. 16, 2018

Of all theatrical superstitions, this attempt to ward off the forces of darkness by wishing one’s fellow performers the opposite of good luck is the one that’s perhaps best known outside the profession. It belongs with other superstitions, such as that it’s bad luck to whistle in a theatre, that you should never utter the final line of a play at the dress rehearsal, or that you must never say the name of the Scottish Play in the green room. Actors have always been a superstitious bunch, as you might expect from a profession in which employment is sporadic, audiences fickle and reputations fragile.

The saying is widely used among actors and musicians in the theatre today, sometimes before every performance, but more often reserved for first night. Where it comes from has for decades been a source of dispute and I've collected the following speculations:

  • In earlier times, actors wished one another "may you break your leg", in the hope that the performance would be so successful that the performer would be called forth to take a bow — to bend his knee.
  • At one time audiences showed their appreciation by throwing money on the stage; to pick the coins up, actors had to break their legs, that is, kneel or bend down.
  • The curtains on either side of a stage were called the legs, so that to pass through the legs was to make it out on to the stage ready to give a good performance, or perhaps expressing the hope that you will need to pass through them at the end of the show to take a curtain call, implying your performance had been good.
  • The saying really refers to getting one's big break, that the performance will be good enough to ensure success in one’s career.
  • The famous French actress Sarah Bernhardt had a leg amputated in 1915, which didn't stop her performing; it is considered good luck to mention her in the hope that some of her theatrical prowess will rub off by association.
  • John Wilkes Booth, the actor who assassinated President Lincoln, broke his leg when he jumped on to the stage to escape afterward. Somehow, reminding fellow actors of this event is supposed to lead to good luck in the performance.

We may discard all of these on the grounds of varying degrees of implausibility. A key factor is that most of the stories assume that break a leg is an old expression, whereas it’s actually quite modern. The earliest known example in print refers to a show with that title in 1957. The saying must, of course, be older for it to have been borrowed for the title and there is anecdotal evidence from theatrical memoirs and personal recollection that it has been around since the 1930s, but not before.

Similar expressions are known from other languages: the French say Merde! (a term that has been borrowed by dancers in the English and American theatre) and Germans say Hals- und Beinbruch, “neck and leg break”, as ways of wishing someone good luck without any fear of supernatural retaliation. It is sometimes said that the German expression is actually a corruption of a Hebrew blessing hatzlakha u-brakha, “success and blessing”, which may have been borrowed via Yiddish. Whatever its source, the most plausible theory is that Hals- und Beinbruch was transferred into the American theatre (in which Yiddish- or German-speaking immigrant Jews were strongly represented) sometime after World War I.

Courtesy Michael Quinion: