BREAK A LEG

BREAK A LEG—some proposed meanings of this theatrical expression of
“Good Luck.

My assistant, Rachel Brenna, interviewed the cast about their knowledge
of the origins of this expression-Break a Leg.

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Here are some theories from Wikipedia:

In Britain, the most common idea about the origin of the expression comes from tradition. Historians know from the time of King James I and Shakespeare’s King’s Men that actors would, on occasion, receive tips on top of their salaries. Rather than receiving tips directly from the company or theatre, tipping was left to the audience . During the final bows or curtain call, audiences would throw money, usually coins, onto the stage depending on how well they enjoyed the performance. In some bad performances they would throw rotten vegetables, but in the good cases, money. Actors would then ‘take a knee’, effectively breaking their leg line, on stage and pick up the money. As a result, when a person wishes someone to ‘break a leg’ it refers to wishing them success in their performance so in the end they would have to kneel down and collect a welcoming tip. Theatre evolved and the tradition of tipping changed to one of throwing flowers on stage, as well as presenting flowers.

Bowing

This theory is thought to be an extension of the Traditional Theory. For the curtain call, when actors bow or curtsy, they place one foot behind the other and bend at the knee, ‘breaking’ the line of the leg. In theatre, pleased audiences may applaud in which time encore bows sometimes occur. On Broadway this is considered the highest compliment to an actor.

Non-Literal

There are many non-literal references this expression could be referring to.

* In traditional curtains, the legs of the curtain were constructed from long wooden rods. In the case of many encores, curtains would be lifted and dropped numerous times causing them to ‘break’.
* Another popular alternative theory concerning the physical “legs”, or side curtains, of the theatre proposes that the company of actors should rush onstage through the curtains to take a considerable amount of bows, thus “breaking a leg (side curtain)” in the process.
* The term ‘break a leg’ may be an abbreviation for the phrase ‘break a legend’ which roughly means ‘go get yourself out there’ or related to meaning ‘break’ (example this is your big break).
* The term ‘break a leg’ may also be related to the members of a play / performance since they are known as the ‘cast’.

Here are some possible interpretations from my wordsmith friend, Robin Morgan, who always checks out the Oxford English Dictionary, which she calls “Oz Himself on etymology.”

“The word ‘break’ has many meanings – the OED lists 57 distinct uses of it as a verb alone. That gives considerable scope for speculation over what is meant by the phrase “break a leg.” The most common interpretation of ‘break’ in this context is, ‘to deviate from a straight line’, as in the cricketing term, ‘off break’. That is, unstraighten the leg by bending at the knee, by bowing or curtseying.

‘Break a leg’ also means, ‘make a strenuous effort’. There are many references to the phrase used that way, which pre-date the earliest theatrical good luck charm meaning. For example, from The Hammond Times, Indiana, 1942:

“Whatever the army or navy want, the Continental Roll [and Steel Foundry] will turn out … Or break a leg trying.”

From the Evening State Journal, Nebraska, 1937:

“With all the break-a-leg dancing there are many who still warm to graceful soft shoe stepping.”

So, it is possible that when an actor is told to ‘break a leg’, he/she may just be being exhorted to put on an energetic, exciting performance.

There are many other possible derivations in circulation, mostly referring to the ‘good luck’ message. In diminishing order of plausibility, ‘break a leg’ these are:

* Put on a performance good enough that you will have to bend your knee in a bow or curtsey to acknowledge the applause.
* Impress the audience so much that you will need to bend down to pick up the coins they throw onto the stage.
* Pass out onto the stage to receive a curtain call (the side curtains on a stage are known as legs).
* Go on stage and have your ‘big break’.
* Evoke the powers of the celebrated actress Sarah Bernhardt, who had one leg.
* A reference to John Wilkes Booth, who broke his leg when jumping on stage, attempting to flee after shooting President Lincoln.

It is tempting to believe the phrase to be ancient and to imagine it whispered to Tudor minstrels as they went on stage at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. There was an earlier meaning of ‘break a leg’ of that vintage (1670), which was ‘to give birth to a bastard’. This is now entirely out of use and is not related to the theatrical version. The current meaning is nothing like as old. The term originates in the American theatre in the 20th century and all the earliest references to its use are from US sources. The earliest citation we can find in print is from as late as 1948, from an edition of the US newspaper, The Charleston Gazette, in May that year. This is from their ‘Ask The Gazette’ column:

Q. What are some of the well-known superstitions of the theatre?

A. Superstitions of the stage are numerous and many are particular to individual actors and actresses. That it is bad luck to whistle in a dressing room is a widely accepted belief. Another is that one actor should not wish another good luck before a performance but say instead ‘I hope you break a leg.’

That pretty much rules out the Sarah Bernhardt and John Wilkes Booth interpretations which, as well as being rather fanciful, date from too far before any printed version.”

What seems to make the most sense to you, my blog friends?

See you next time.

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31 Comments
  1. That video was great! Everyone is so funny. I never thought about it before, the whole “Break A Leg” statement. The ideas you got were really interesting. I noticed you got information from Wikipedia. We’ve learned in school not to use Wikipedia because any person at any time can edit the wikipedia page they’re on and change the information. For example, I could go into your Wikipedia page and in your family write me in as your daughter. (Don’t worry, I didn’t!) Haha. And then the page would save with that piece of information. I believe Wikipedia is monitored somewhat but you can never be 100% sure on it. I just figured I’d let you know in case you were looking up more serious information. I guess for the past few years its become really bad and untrustworthy because we aren’t even allowed to use it in school.

    Anyway, hopefully I was of some help. I’m glad you’re back on your blog. Its not like you to not blog for a few days. =)

    Kelsey

  2. Jane,

    My understanding is a simple tradition of wishing good luck by the announcing of bad luck to the recipient. I’m too up front for that. Say what you mean!

    Anything that had to do with picking up money would have my vote. Hum…on second thought, I would be concerned about the possibility of a foreboding putrid salad being tossed, given a poor performance.

    The Roman version of shouting “quasso cruris”, Latin for “break a leg,” wishing Roman Gladiators good luck in hopes that they save their own lives and only cripple their opponent by breaking his leg is interesting. Violent entertainment is not.

    Then there is the Ancient Greek version of not applauding, but stomping chairs after a performance, thus breaking legs if the performance was outstanding. That sounds like a winner to me, but what do I know? It’s ALL Greek to me!

    Break a leg, pick up coins, or toss a salad… just go out and make history!

    Peace
    B

  3. I was told this by John Carradine
    Hopefully you know all about the curse. Within the theater, you must never say “Macbeth” unless you are performing onstage. Instead, you must refer to Shakespeare’s bloody tragedy as “the Scottish play.”

    What happens to someone who dares to speak that dreaded name?

  4. How very interesting, Jane! I read this after reading your tweet. I always thought “break a leg” originated from the wish for the opposite.

    So on that note, break a leg, Jane!!! 🙂

    Cheryl Kaye Tardif,
    bestselling author of Whale Song
    http://www.cherylktardif.com

  5. I would say the ‘break a knee’ as they were picking up change. It makes the most sense to me I guess? Seeing as how BREAK A LEG has always seemed to revolve around some sort of on stage performance, dancing, acting, etc….I like to think simple anyway!

  6. Some folks think it’s amusing and creative to say “break a reed” to a double reed player. We don’t find it so. I’ve always wondered what actors feel about “Break a leg” as well as the horror of saying “good luck”. (But you’ll never catch me saying “good luck” to any actor any time soon. Or ever. I might not be superstitious but I know others might be.) 🙂

    It’s a joy to find your blog. I only wish I lived near New York and could get to your play. Alas, I’ll have to read this and imagine what it might be like.

    Cheers-
    a plain and ordinary person

  7. My defiinition obtained from an old film years ago ,was that of an understudy acknowledging the greatness of the actor or actress, with the reality that the only way he or she would find theirself on stage was that if the actor or actress, actualy broke a leg .Hence the term “break a leg” spoken in the same carring fashion as someone saying “knock em dead” with nobody expecting somebody,in the audience, to just drop dead, except from a heart attack starring at gorgeous ,which is the reason why there are trailers . LOL

  8. In French theater and also here in Canada the french word “merde” is used in the same way break a leg is.
    It is also considered bad luck to ware pearls on stage, and yellow, and round topped trunks are also unlucky.
    Many of these things have practical answers to them. Pearls can break and fly all over the stage and then you really could break a leg. Round topped trunks can’t be stacked and thus might fall and break someones leg, and yellow I’m not sure of. But the theatre is full of superstitions and they are great fun and make us a family with traditions that we follow mindlessly with great joy.
    cheers, D

  9. Thank you so much for your blog! I truly enjoy reading your thoughts, Ms. Fonda.

  10. The term actually originated as a gesture of Good Luck with a performance by Jackie Gleason on TV. He slipped and fell thereby breaking his leg. it being live TV he got up and continued performing. The next day the critics gave him rave revues for his intense performance. How much the pain contributed to his intensity is a matter of debate. He got good reviews!!!

  11. Great topic! “Break a legend…” came to me in my theatrical past and I like the idea of trying to do a performance that surpasses all previous performances! You’ve presented many from which to choose but I think this version has my vote. En Francais they simply say “merde”… from where did THAT come?? 🙂

  12. So many superstitions, so much fun in Australia dancers don’t say break a leg, for obvious reasons. Instead we say Chookas!!!

  13. Hello Jane,

    Wishing an actor to “break a leg” is for the purpose of offsetting bad luck and, counterintuitively, to keep an actor’s mind from focusing on performance fears.

    An aside: Jane, have you read Peter Brook’s book entitled “The Empty Space”? (For your readers who may not know, Brook is director.)

    Final thought: You have an excellent blog. Really fine.

  14. Hi Jane,
    Well, in German theatre we say ‘Hals- und Beinbruch’ which means break a leg and neck! The Germans always go a step further, don’t they?!

    Apparently, according to German Wikipedia, it comes from the Yiddish ‘hatslokhe u brokhe’ which means ‘success and blessings’, however, whenever it was said the Germans heard ‘hals und beinbruch.’ In one dictionary it says that the English term ‘Break a leg’ was a direct translation of the Yiddish.
    Another explanation was the one that Colin gave and that is that you wish someone something bad in order to trick fate in order to get something good.
    Will we ever know?
    Break a leg! I’m coming from Germany at the end of April just to see the show! Would you like me to bring you something from Bonn?? 🙂
    Jason

  15. I love the picking up coins one personally – But then I collect coins so maybe I am biased.
    🙂

  16. Our prayers and thoughts to your old friend Vanessa Redgrave for the recovery of her daughter
    she’s in a NY hospital

  17. As I have been following your blog (and thank you for the generosity of spirit and energy that allows you to provide it), I thought of you yesterday following news of Natasha Richardson’s accident–I had heard many years ago that your daughter was named for Vanessa Redgrave, and that you are, or have been, very close to the family. If my understanding is correct, I want to express my sympathy to you for the sadness you must be experiencing; however, from the care and sensitivity expressed by your writing, it seems clear you would be deeply affected by the news whatever the status of your friendship with the family….I keep thinking what a gift it is to actors and all creative people to take this kind of pain and make something beautiful and lasting with it; in your case, though I haven’t seen the play and only know it through your writing, to communicate transcendent qualities of the woman you play so that the people who come to see you leave with a sense of pride and hope in their connection to her, and to what is good and genuine in all of us…Bless you, and Ms. Richardson, for your work; and for your model of continued growth and commitment, you enrich us all …Sincerely, Linda Rowen

  18. I had always heard something different. I had heard it had to do with “that Scottish play” of Shakespeares’s–which is, of course, Hamlet. But the name is not to be uttered in a theatre, which is another superstition connected with the play.

    The play was believed to be cursed, from long ago. It is a myth that has been handed down, through the theatre communities, since long ago. From English theatre.

    I have a call to my friend, New York character actor and playwright, Irving Metzman. He knows the history, of that, and anything else that has to do with theatre. He told me about the myth, long ago, and the exact reason for a break a leg. I will comment more, after I hear back from him.

    Thanks.
    Dana Kaminski
    Hollywood Actor Prep Blog (a free blog for actors to inform actors; and to unite & mobilize the acting community…)
    __dana__ (Twitter name)

  19. LOL Eric “breaking” his leg on stage—you must have the best time working with this group of people. It probably doesn’t even seem like work when you’re having that much fun.

    While I had heard many of the explanations given (both by the cast/crew and origin info), I tend to go with the superstition meaning—it’s bad luck to wish an actor “good luck” so wish them the opposite: “break a leg.” At least that seems to have more meaning nowadays. We don’t throw coins and flowers at the stage anymore. I do find the “getting your big break” an interesting take on it; that I’ve never heard before.

    Is “break a leg” pretty much the standard saying in theatre, or are there any other well-wishing phrases? Maybe it’s time to invent a new one, although I know theatre is often all about tradition, so maybe “break a leg” will continue on and hold other various meanings in the future.

    What’s the best compliment you’ve ever received from a stage performance, Jane?

    Love the video; you should do more of them:)

    All my best,
    Amanda

  20. Saw the show last night and loved it! It is a very touching personal story, and a fascinating piece on how history, culture and music touch our lives. Will listen to music very differently, and think more about the creative process of life.

  21. Interesting how illiteracy history and lore controls our view of fact and fiction I am Hamleting you into the door.From the The Bard of Avon,
    quotation from Hamlet: … would shake hands, say, ‘Good show’ or ‘Break a leg’ or the like. ..

  22. Now that you’ve autopsied “break a leg” all over, inside out and upside-down, would you like to tackle “standing ovation” 🙂 ?

    (BTW “Klute” is my favorite Jane Fonda movie.)

  23. This comment isn’t about todays “topic”. I said a few days ago that I found it more interesting that JF has a blog than about the play. I want to take that back. I do think that the play is an interesting subject. Is what the play is posted earlier in the blog? What is it about? I guess I should read the earlier posts!

  24. I too, am deeply saddened by Natasha Richardson’s death. So wrong, such a loss to her family and friends..

    On another item, thank you for the detailed info on “break a leg.” Personally, I’ve always thought of it as a superstition in reverse, expecting the worst and getting the best instead.

    Take care, and I send more good wishes for your continued success in 33 Variations, to wit: Break a leg.

  25. This was fun! I’ve been an actress for 26 years and I had no idea where this term came from. Actually, I never really thought about it much. Thanks for sharing and…dare I say it…Break a leg! :o)

  26. Lovely to read the short tribute to Natasha Richardson. Jane, you must surely have strong feelings about her two sons losing their mother at the ages that they are after the tragic loss of your mother when you were near the same age. How wise and strong and successful you have become. And not just as an actress, but as a family woman and activist. I so admire your foundation. In the great tradition of the theatre the show must go on, but I know that all on Broadway are feeling the loss of one of their own. I am a longtime, adoring fan. Keep a’goin Jane, as the ole song says.

  27. Love your blog; I read it everyday as a tiny precious gift to myself!
    As I grew up in the Broadway musical community, my dad,
    Dort Clark, urged us, his four little daughters, not to say “break a leg” to our “aunties and uncles”, his fellow cast members because he thought it sounded a bit violent and disrespectful coming from children to adult professionals!
    But we were allowed to say “Merde!”, which when I learned the meaning, felt awesome! Because it was French and also a swearword, we felt doubly privileged!

  28. Ms. Fonda,

    In the video, what are the rows of paper hanging upstage?

    Thank you.

  29. Thanks for the info about the tradition of saying “break a leg”.

    You’re quite a lady.

  30. Spanish tradition in Theatre leads to another really unusual way of wishing luck. We say : “MUCHA MIERDA” (it means, more or less, “LOTS OF SHIT”). Funny, but it has its sense. As I have heard, when people used horsecars, having a lot of horse shit in the street in front of the theatre meant that the play attracted a lot of audience that had reached the place in horsecars (they didn’t leak oil but.. *LOL*).

    From Spain,
    SeeYaLatah.pax

  31. Hello Jane, this has been a fascinating topic.

    I learned so much more than I expected to regarding the origins of the phrase break a leg.

    It was always my understanding that the phrase originated from the great Hollywood musical, 42nd Street.

    Where Ruby Keeler’s character is understudy to Ginger Rogers character who breaks her leg just hours before the opening of their Broadway show.

    How refreshing to find out that this wonderful tradition echoes along the vast corridor of theatrical history.

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