AFYP In the Know: Break a Leg!

By Kaity Cookson

If you have been around the theater for a little while, you may start to realize that “theater-people”, on a whole, are a highly suspicious bunch.  Telling an actor “Good Luck” before a show is actually considered to be very bad luck, because it tempts fate by assuming a good show will happen.  Most actors wish each other to “Break A Leg”, instead.  While there are many theories on what this saying actually means, there are references to the phrase recorded as early as the 1920s.  Perhaps, since wishing some one “good luck” is thought to be unlucky, reversing it with wishes for bad luck is actually lucky.  But some theories dig even deeper for the meaning of the phrase. 

 the leg”.  When one curtsies, the leg is bent to allow the dip, thus the straight line of the leg is broken.  This could be extended to bows and curtsies, so wishing someone to “break a leg” would mean wishing them a good performance, in order to earn their bow in curtain call. 

Another common theory relates more to the physical space of the theater.  The curtains that hang down on the sides of the stage are called “legs”.  While the main curtain that can open and close is usually called the Grand Drape or the Main Drape, the side curtains that move could still be termed as “legs”.  Some think that the phrase “break a leg” refers to a show that is so successful that the audience claps for a very long time.   This encourages the actors to come back for multiple curtain calls.  The thought is that the Grand Drape would have to be opened and closed so many times for the curtain calls that the curtain would wear down and break. 

Others think that the phrase references Ancient Greek times.  Greek audiences would not applaud for a show, but rather, stomp their feet to show approval.  The thought was to wish an actor a show that was so good, the audience would break their legs by stamping their feet too much. 

A final theory comes from the Vaudeville stages, where more performers were hired for a show than could possibly perform.  Though the performers were booked for the gig, only those that actually performed that night would be paid.  Thus, wishing someone to “break a leg” was wishing that they would actually walk past the curtain legs to onstage, so they would receive a paycheck. 

Which theory makes the most sense to you?  Have you heard any other theories about what the phrase "break a leg" could mean?