USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘break a leg’
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Main Piece: Theatre Superstition

 

The reason behind “break a leg”

 

My brother is a theatre major, and over the last semester he performed in a couple plays and when we’d go to see him, my mom would always tell him to “break a leg” and I never knew why that was said so I asked him.

 

“It is a common thing in theatre to say break a leg as a good luck omen because back in the day in Germany when the applause would come, the audience would stomp their feet. The idea behind ‘break a leg’ is to have such a good performance that the audience would applaud so hard and stomp so hard they would literally break their legs.”

 

Background:

 

My brother Ty had been involved in theatre during his middle school years and didn’t do much else until he got to college. He picked up on this tradition through being around the theatre and other actors. This is a pretty commonly known saying, but he also did not know the meaning behind it until he began acting in productions.

Ty likes this tradition because everyone kind of just says it as a thing you do when you are wishing an actor or actress good luck, but no one really knows why or where it came from. Ty is the kind of guy who finds out a fact and wants to make sure everyone he can tell knows it, so almost every time someone close to him tells him to break a leg, he asks if they know why it is said.

 

Context:

 

My brother told me this when I went to one of his plays during the spring and I wished him good luck and told him to break a leg. He asked me if I knew why I said it and being his brother I responded with some sarcastic comment like “I actually just want you to break your leg while you’re on stage,” and he proceeded to tell me the meaning behind it.

Since every actor knows of this saying and almost all theatre goers know it, it is thrown around very often at a production, and is even used outside of theatre to wish good luck in general whether it be in sports or giving a speech. Of course it does not have the same meaning when used outside of a theatre context, but it has become just a universal saying for “good luck” in whatever activity is taking place.

 

My thoughts:

 

I’ve known about this saying for as long as I can remember, with it being used in TV shows and when I would go to see my brother perform in middle school and even when I was involved in the 6th grade play at my elementary school. Once I found out the origin of the saying I had a new appreciation for it, because I had all these far out explanations in my head as to why it was said, anywhere from an actor in history who was so into his character he broke his leg on stage to it being traditional that the new actor would be scared with this saying thinking “why do they want me to break a leg?”

I use this saying with basically every event that could condone telling someone good luck before they partake, even my roommates going to take a test or if they have an interview. I probably won’t use it as much now knowing the meaning behind it, but I will definitely whip out that fact next time I find myself at a play.

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Theatre Occupational Superstition: “Break a Leg!”

Interview Extraction

Informant: “The ‘break a leg’ legend. Do you know that story?  It has nothing to do with fracturing any of the major leg bones.  That in a different usage of the language ‘to break a leg’ is ‘to bend a leg’.  So that gives us two possible origins of why when you want ‘to break a leg’ that the old way of bowing, is that you bend the back leg and then take the bow.  So that ‘to break a leg” means to get a big bow at the end of the show.  And other one is a similar thing on bending, that if coins were tossed on the stage at the end of the show, you would have to then bend down, thus breaking the straight line of the leg in order to pick up the coins that were being tossed on stage.”

Analysis:

The superstition of why you say “break a leg” to an actor is because saying “good luck” brings you bad luck.  There are many different origins of why you would say “break a leg” to an actor, and the phrase also changes based on what country you are in.  For example, in France you would say “Merde” which is French for ‘shit’.  The idea of this is that in wishing for something bad to happen such as the actor breaking their leg, the opposite will take place.

There are may theories behind where this idiom came from, such as the idea that my informant mentioned which suggests that to “break a leg” is a different usage of language that also means ‘to bend a leg’.  I like this theory more than the other origin theories that I have seen in my research, such as the idea that to “break a leg” comes from the production of Shakespheare’s Richard III where actor David Garrick became so consumed with his role as Richard III that he did not realize his leg was broken during the performance.  This legend is popular because it promotes the idea of being so into your performance as an actor that everything else is forgotten, and all that exists is the part you are playing in the world of the play.  This is the kind of mind set that all actors should aspire to accomplish, so it is no wonder that this story has achieved such a high level of fascination in the imagination of people who work in theater, especially actors.

The reason why I like this theory more than the other theories I have seen in my research is that it is very logical.  I have always thought that it is interesting that we say “break a leg” to an actor before they perform, but we do not say this to a designer or crew member before they do their job.  If this legend is the real reason behind why we say “break a leg”, than the reasoning behind not wishing a crew member to “break a leg” makes sense because only actors have historically been the ones that bend their legs to either bow or pick up the coins that had been thrown on stage for a job well done.

My informant was born in 1949, Connecticut.  He works as a costume designer in the entertainment industry occasionally, and serves as the head of the USC costume shop in addition to being a faculty member for the USC School of Dramatic Arts.  He has more than 40 years of experience in the theater.

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