Break a Leg!

Collector: So, you’re involved in theatre and also some film stuff.

Informant: Yes.

Collector: So, are there any tabooistic or initiation things involved in that world?

Friend: Don’t say “Macbeth” in a theatre setting. We call it “The Scottish Play.” Also, you’re not supposed to say “Good luck.” You’re supposed to say, “Break a leg.”

Collector: Oh, yeah I’m familiar with those. Do we know the story behind “Break a leg?”

Informant: In earlier centuries, people would bow. There are a couple of different stories. The way you bow included kneeling one leg and bending down, so you’re literally breaking the line.

Collector: Oh! That makes sense.

Informant: Yeah, and if you had a really good performance, you would bend really far down, so that’s why you really want to, like, “break” the leg.

Friend: And you’re also breaking a line by doing that, in a way. You’re creating a line by straightening the one leg, but you’re breaking the other potential line, a little bit, because you’re bending the knee.

Informant: So it’s like “Give a performance deserving of taking a bow that low.”

Collector’s Notes: Theatre has always been an area of a lot of tradition.  People chant things before performing, they’ll wear certain pairs of tights or shoes, or they’ll ceremoniously give each other gifts on opening night.  So, it doesn’t surprise me that the “Break a leg” saying is deep-rooted in tradition as well.  Although I’ve never heard it called “The Scottish Play” I think that’s really interesting.  I’m assuming that they call it this in a “He Who Will Not Be Named” sort of way.  Because it is a play about Scotland, I’m guessing that they call it this instead of using its actual name.  We see this a lot in studying folklore, because certain things that become “bad luck” are avoided like the plague.  I like this story, though, because it sort of gives a logical explanation to the meaning of the saying.  As if someone “breaking” the line of their leg gives the saying more validation than just being a bad omen.  People naturally like to have logical or scientific explanations for things, instead of saying that something is the way it is “just because that’s how it’s been done.”  An interesting hypothesis, is that maybe people started saying “break a leg,” then because more people started saying this, “good luck,” being heard less and less, was assumed to be bad luck just out of lack of use.