Break a leg, Scottish Lord …


On Sunday night (April 21), the National Theatre of Scotland’s production of Macbeth opens on Broadway, starring America’s favorite Scot-of-the-moment, Alan Cumming. Have no fear: I can say Macbeth on this page, and I can scream it from the rooftops of Manhattan’s Great White Way — but I can’t utter that name once I’m inside the walls of the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, where Cumming does his one-man take on the Shakespeare tragedy. I can’t say it in any theater, for that matter. ‘Cos it’s bad luck.

“By the pricking of my thumbs, Something wicked this way comes.” …

Macbeth, the play, is thought to be cursed: hence the  superstition, acknowledged throughout the theater world, that to utter its name inside a theater — unless you’re an actor delivering lines during a performance or rehearsal of the play itself — brings bad fortune. Once inside the theater, actors and audience members wanting or needing to refer to the play, its title character or his wife have a cauldron of well-worn euphemisms to use as conversation aids: “the Scottish play”, “the Scottish King (or Lord or Queen)”, and nicknames such as “MacBee”, “Mackers” (especially in North America), or “Lady M”.

“Double, double toil and trouble; fire burn, and caldron bubble.”

Wherefore art thou so cursed, Macbeth? There are numerous theories about the origin of the jinx and the resulting superstition: take your pick from the list below (and please comment if you know of any others).

1) Shakespeare’s weird sisters’ chant is a real witches’ spell that evokes and arouses evil spirits; witches themselves cursed the play because it revealed their secrets or because they were offended by its original production that employed actual witches and witchcraft.

2) It features a lot of sword-fighting, which requires a lot of rehearsal, so there’s plenty of opportunity for someone to get hurt.

3)  Being a popular show, it was often presented by theaters in dire financial straits — or if they weren’t in trouble before the curtain rose on the first performance, they certainly were by the time it fell, several pounds and sword-fights later. So “Macbeth in lights” generally meant lights out…

4) The first actor ever to play Macbeth died either right before or right after the first performance. (A real dagger might have been used instead of the designated stage prop: darn those Elizabethan stagehands.) Actually, it might have been the actor playing Lady Macbeth who perished, and Shakespeare himself had to step in for the leading man-lady.

6) Rather preposterously, Shakespeare deliberately cursed his own creation (using the witches’ chants), so that no-one else could get their grubby directorial hands on his masterpiece. Also, when he heard that James I — the king of Scottish heritage whom he was trying to impress — was distinctly unimpressed with the drama, William went into a sulk and would refer to it only as “that Scottish play” for the rest of his life.

“What’s done cannot be undone.” Well, that might not be entirely true.

What happens if you blurt out “Macbeth” accidentally while you’re waiting in line for the loo? There is a way to undo your thoughtlessness. You have to leave the theater, perform a ritual that will cleanse the theater of the curse, and then wait (often having to knock at the stage-door first) to be invited back inside. The cleansing ritual varies: it can involve turning around three times, spitting over your left shoulder, swearing, or reciting a line from another Shakespeare play, eg. “Angels and ministers of grace defend us” (from Hamlet), “If we shadows have offended” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream), or “Fair thoughts and happy hours attend on you” (The Merchant of Venice).

“Break a leg”

Here’s another superstition that forbids uttering certain words in a theatrical context: wishing an actor “good luck” before a performance is sure to result in bad reviews from Ben Brantley — or worse. Age-old wisdom dictates that we shouldn’t necessarily tempt fate by wishing good fortune on one another, and this is a commonly accepted human truth not just in the theater world. According to the Norsk Folkemuseum in Oslo, referring to their fishermen: “‘Evil shall drive away evil’ is a Norwegian saying, and still today Norwegians say ‘skitt fiske’, meaning ‘I hope you don’t catch anything’.” And so it follows that the fanatically superstitious thespians adopted their own phrase to try and outwit those malevolent demons of fate: “break a leg” is what they say to each other for encouragement before a performance. It started to be whispered around theatrical circles in the 1920s, and first appeared in print soon afterwards. According to the Phrase Finder, ‘break a leg’ had a much earlier meaning — “to give birth to a bastard” — that went out of usage in the 17th century and had no bearing on the modern good luck message. Below are the most popular explanations for how the term crept into 20th-century wings and green rooms. Although there really is no evidence for any of them, the first two theories tend to hold the most weight, and the third — though popular and colorful — is simply unlikely.

1) To “break a [the] leg” was an old slang term for bowing or curtseying, ie. breaking the line of one’s leg by bending it at the knee, which is how actors acknowledge the applause of their audience. The mightier the applause, the deeper and lengthier the bow. Similarly, good performances were historically rewarded by coins thrown onto the stage by an appreciative audience, so successful actors would have to kneel or bend their knees in order to collect their pennies.

2) The German phrase “Hals- und Beinbruch” (meaning literally “a broken neck and a broken leg”) was in the vernacular of early wartime aviators and Luftwaffe slang, which passed quickly into the German theater community. (It is thought by some to be a corruption of the Hebrew blessing “Hatsloche un Broche”, meaning ‘success and blessing’.) It’s quite possible that the latter part of the phrase translated and migrated to the circles of British and American actors.

3) John Wilkes Booth, himself a famous actor, leapt onto the stage and claimed to have broken his leg after shooting President Lincoln and trying to make his escape from the theater. A memorable performance indeed — but probably too early to have had such an impact half a century later (and the exact cause of his broken limb is questionable to boot).

4) Instead of applauding with their hands, the ancient Greeks would stomp their legs loudly and the Elizabethans would bang their chairs on the ground: sustained appreciation by either means was sure to result in a broken leg — of the human or furniture variety.

5) The Colosseum was the theater of ancient Rome, in which gladiators fought to their deaths. Spectators would shout “quasso cruris”, the Latin for “break a leg”, as words of encouragement, wishing injury rather than death upon their favored warrior.

6) The much admired French actress Sarah Bernhardt had one of her legs amputated in 1915, and theatrical lore has it that her talent rubs off on an actor who mentions her name.

7) Every actor dreams of getting ‘the big break’ when he or she steps in front of the footlights.

Spreading beyond theatrical circles, “break a leg” is now used commonly to wish success to any performer — or indeed anyone about to embark on a performance-related activity, such as a speech or public interview. And “good luck” is forbidden not just in English and American theaters. In Australia, the substitute term is “chookas”, derived from the early 1900s when chicken (nicknamed “chook” down under) was a post-performance menu treat for casts and crews who had enjoyed a full house. Portuguese- and Spanish-speaking countries cry “mucha mierda!” (“a lot of shit!”)  in their pre-performance pepping. This colorful rally cry derives simply from the high correlation between lots of audience members arriving at the theater by horse-drawn carriage and a lot of resulting horse-shit. Following the same idea, in France it’s “merde!” and in Italy, “merda!”. (The French “merde” has become a standard good-luck wish for ballet-dancers, regardless of nationality or language spoken.)

To wish each other good luck, opera singers have their own saying to ward off spells or curses. “Toi toi toi!” they gesticulate with their mouths and hands, true to their dramatic style. It is thought to be an onomatopoeic representation of spitting three times, since saliva is known to have demon-banishing powers…