“Break a Leg” and other Theatrical Superstitions
To wish a performer prior to going on stage to ‘break a leg’ is a well-known practice. A pretty strange wish, actually it is meant magically to bring him luck and make sure that their performance will be a success. From the superstitious age it was thought that jealous forces, always present, are only too anxious to spoil any venture. A good luck wish would alert and provoke them to do their evil work, whilst a curse will make them turn their attention elsewhere. The underlying principle is the belief that if you wish evil, then good will come. I’m sure it’s called reverse psychology these days.
Of all the theatrical superstitions, this attempt to ward off the forces of darkness by wishing one’s fellow performers the opposite of good luck by saying 'break a leg' 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 (Macbeth-imagine calling your child by this name and then he wants to enter the supersticious theatrical profession!!!!) in the green room. Performers 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 dancers, 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 listed just a few of them below.
The term 'break a leg' as I understand it has many meanings... the rope used to lift and lower the curtain was archaically known as the 'Leg', to wish that someone would "Break The Leg" was to suggest that they had so many "curtain calls" and had to take more and more bows that this rope would literally fray and break. So to say "break a leg" is to wish someone an impecable performance rather than strictly good luck. Another theory suggests"break a leg" is a wish that the audience will be so excited that they will stomp and break the leg/foot rest on back of the seats, and yet another theory is as a result of the audience cheering for a good performance you will have to bend ('breaking') your knee in a bow or curtsey to acknowledge the applause. Another popular alternative theory concerns the physical "legs," or side curtains, of the theatre where the performers should rush onstage through the curtains to take a considerable number of bows, thus "breaking a leg (side curtain)" in the process. And the list goes on and on!! If someone does say "good luck", they must go out of the theatre, turn around 3 times, spit, curse, then knock on the door and ask to be readmitted to the theatre!
“Toi, Toi, Toi! as used in Germany must be said three times and is from an old superstition and must be said with an exclamation after the statement or declaration to prevent a hex from being put on it, and it is usually accompanied by knocking on a wooden object such as a table with one’s knuckles. Also the words toi toi toi! imitates the sound of spitting; saliva being supposed to have demon-banishing powers.
In the world of theatre, it is considered bad luck to put pointe shoes (or any shoes for that matter) on a dressing room table and is considered by some to bring the risk of a bad performance. I believe it is the start of quarrels to come or the possility of losing your job. It may also have something to do with the medieval idea of placing a new pair of shoes on the table would signify that someone had just died and the family would buy a new pair of shoes for them to be buried in. Some comical antidotes include: throwing salt over your shoulder and dancing naked anticlockwise around a church at midnight!
More funny stuff on the Macbeth superstition - Shakespeare's play Macbeth is said to be cursed, so performers avoid saying its name (the euphemism "The Scottish Play" is used instead) Performers also avoid even quoting the lines from Macbeth inside a theatre, particularly the Witches' incantations. Outside of a theatre the play can be spoken of openly. If an actor speaks the name Macbeth in a theatre, he or she is required to leave the theatre building, spin around three times, spit, curse, and then knock to be allowed back in! I never actually found out what happens if they are actually playing Macbeth!!
And as to why 'the green room' is thus named, that is also a long lost mystery open to much speculation and many different theories. Although I have heard it said to be bad luck if the "green room" at a theater, studio, or other public venue is actually painted or decorated green!