Why Do We Tell Performers to Break a Leg?

It sounds like bad juju, but theater people are a unique breed. It takes illimitable insanity guts and perseverance to stand up in front of hundreds or thousands seven or eight times per week and sing and dance your heart out. And then there are the critics. Being a live performance art, there’s little room to hide behind a product, service or company. It’s no surprise why the community has historically embraced a bit of superstition and rituals to combat disaster. But “break a leg?” Why is that the universal wish for good luck? Why is saying “good luck” really bad luck?

We’re gonna warn you now. There is no definitive answer as to the origin of “break a leg” because whoever started it didn’t take the time to file a copyright claim. But at least all of the theories make for an interesting story. Let us know which one you find most credible to you, and we’ll settle on that…

Before we start, we should mention there is fairly solid agreement the practice started around the 1930s, so take the timeline into consideration when choosing your explanation.

There is Superstition

Since we brought it up, we might as well cover the obvious one first.

There are all sorts of theater superstitions ranging from “don’t say ‘Macbeth’ in the theater, else you’ll curse the show!” to the last person to leave turning on a “ghost light” in the middle of the stage. In a nod to the lamp superstition, Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Serena Gomez worked that one into their series, “Only Murders in the Building.” While we’re at it, one shouldn’t whistle on the premises either.

Above all, never say… “Good Luck!” A superstitious mind believes saying “good luck” is asking for bad luck, and saying something tragic, like “break a leg,” really calls for good luck.

Meh. There are more compelling possible origins; let’s move on.

Language Mangling

If you’ve got your Yiddish and German pronunciation nailed, you might buy into one of the more popular theories for the origin of “break a leg.”

A Hebrew maxim of “hatzlakha u-brakha” translates into something like “success and blessing.” When pronounced correctly, it sounds something like a German saying, “Hals-und Beinbruch.” That translates into “neck and leg break,” which is admittedly not very funny on its own apart from the identical-sounding Yiddish blessing.

We love our puns. This theory might make cents if you’re a betting person.

Bows and Curtsies

A truly vainglorious bow requires participation from the body complete. One leg goes back, the other bends deeply, and arms flourish to the sides. One might consider that a form of “breaking” a leg.

A Bangin’ Good Show!

After Ancient Greek performances, audiences showed their appreciation of a particularly good performance by stomping their feet. Later, in Elizabethan times, rabid theater fans would smack their chairs on the floor for the same reason. “We were at the theater when a professional wrestling match broke out!”

Whether real or chair legs, the idea is you’re wishing a performer to do so well that the audience breaks “legs” at the end of the show.

Presidential Assassination?

In the interest of being thorough, we have to bring this up, but it’s admittedly difficult to believe this story inspired the official birth of the “break a leg” phrase.

John Wilkes Booth was a somewhat popular actor before killing President Lincoln. After he fired the shot, mortally wounding the President, he jumped from the President’s box down to the stage, promptly breaking his leg.

How this scenario was believed to become a good luck wish escapes us.

Curtains for You…

There’s a “line” on the stage defined by vertical curtains along the sides of the stage. Their purpose is to block the view of off-stage actors, production folks and set items from the audience.

One school of thought assigns the “break a leg” origin to performers who may or may not make it past that “leg line” and onto the stage. In olden days, if you weren’t on stage, you didn’t get paid. I suppose that’s the ultimate commission plan—perform or don’t get paid.

So, “breaking” the leg line was a wish to get in the game and collect a paycheck, so to speak.

Other related stories describe “breaking a leg” as coming through two center-stage curtains for an encore. If you “broke” those curtains, you were enjoying encore applause, presumably after a stellar performance.

Backstabbing Understudies?

Someone has to say, so we will…

Has anyone questioned the understudies? It’s not out of the realm of possibility they might wish for the lead to “break their leg” (but not too badly, right?) so they can get some stage time themselves.

Always a bridesmaid and never a bride.

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