Current Season

Did You Know?

Collected on this page are explanations of a few well known theatre sayings and superstitions. Can you add any more? Send us details and we will add them to this page (Feedback).

... why actors use the phrase "Break a Leg" to wish each other good luck?

"Break a leg" is a well-known saying in theatrical circles where it is traditionally used as a means of wishing an actor good luck before he or she ventures on stage, but where does the term come from and why does it mean good luck when to break a leg in reality is anything but. In fact there are several competing theories for the origin of this phrase, all of which have favour in some quarters. A few of the more credible ones are described below.

  1. It stems from an old tradition whereby audiences would throw coins onto the stage at the end of a performance as a mark of their approval. The actors would then go down on bended knee, or 'break a leg' (break in this instance meaning 'bend') to pick up the coins so thrown. To wish someone to 'break a leg', therefore, is to wish they will please the audience so much as to have plenty of largesse to scoop up at the end of the performance.
  2. It refers to a traditional pose that actors of old would assume to receive their applause, wherein one foot would be placed behind the other and they would bow to the audience by leaning forward and bending ('breaking') both legs at the knee. So to wish an actor to 'break a leg' was to wish them to have much cause to bend at the knee to receive their applause.
  3. In Elizabethan times it was customary for audiences to display their approval by lifting their chairs and banging them down loudly upon the ground. Thus to wish an actor to 'break a leg' you were wishing them such success that the audience would break the legs of their chairs in banging them down so firmly in their enthusiasm.

The problem with these 'traditional' theories is that the term can only be traced back in common usage to the early years of the twentieth century, when the traditions cited as its inspiration were largely forgotten. Other theories have more modern origins.

  1. Since wishing an actor good luck before going on stage is considered to bring back luck, then wishing them an occurence of some bad luck event, eg. breaking a leg, should do the opposite.
  2. It was inspired by the fact that many actors get their first 'big break' by filling in for a more established performer who has become unavailable due to illness or injury, ie. by breaking a leg. This theory seems rather doubtful however, since the receiver of the broken leg is not the one benefitting from the good luck.
  3. It is an exhortation to emulate the feats of the great Sarah Bernhardt, who, towards the end of her career, had only one leg (again doubtful - Sarah's other leg was amputated, not broken).

All of the above assume that the saying is meant literally and the 'leg' being broken is a human limb. Other theories, however, suggest that it is not.

  1. The 'leg' in question is the name of a narrow side curtain that hangs between the drops at the side of the stage to prevent the audience seeing into the wings. Whenever an actor comes within view of the audience through or past a drop he or she is said to be "breaking curtain", so that when an actor enters the stage from the wings by passing through the side curtain he or she is "breaking the leg". Since this is the usual route for actors to return to the stage to receive their curtain calls, to 'break a leg' means to be called back to the stage by the applause of the audience.
  2. Another archaic use of the term 'leg' is the name for a rod which formed a vital part of the apparatus for raising and lowering the curtain. So to 'break a leg' was wishing the actor to have so many curtain calls that the 'leg' would break from the strain of repeatedly raising and lowering the curtain.

Which of these theories, if any, is the correct one cannot be conclusively proven, but the latter two are probably the most credible and fit well with the timeline.

... what is the origin of the phrase "in the limelight"?

In the early 19th Century it was discovered that an intense white light could be produced by playing a flame of burning oxygen and hydrogen gas over a block of calcium carbonate (lime). In 1826, a Scottish engineer, Thomas Drummond, utilised the effect to create a powerful type of lantern that he felt would be useful for surveying. Before long, the advantages of the new 'limelights' were recognised by the dramatic profession where they revolutionised theatre lighting. Clearly, actors who were the centre of attention on a well lit stage could then be said to be "in the limelight", especially since these lights for the first time were powerful enough to produce a focused beam to illuminate an individual performer. An unfortunate side effect of these lights, however, was that they generated a great deal of heat, and if carelessly allowed to come into contact with ropes or curtains could easily start fires.

... why it is considered bad luck to use the name M*cbeth in a theatre?

The lore of bad luck surrounding the play seems to have been inspired by a number of calamities associated with early productions of the play, leading to claims that Shakespeare used real witches incantations for the spell-casting women in his drama and thus incurred the wrath of real witches who placed a curse upon the play. To use the name of the play inside a theatre is supposed to invoke this curse and bring further bad luck. This tradition of bad luck indeed began right from the start when a boy named Hal Berridge who was due to play Lady Macbeth on the opening night in 1606 (there being no actresses in those days) was stricken with a sudden fever and died. In 1703, a revival of the play in London opened on the day that England was hit by one of its worst ever storms, then in 1723, according to legend, a nobleman walked across the stage during a performance and was chased from the theatre by the angry actors, only to return with the militia and burn the house down. The worst incident occured on May 10th, 1849, when a crowd gathered to protest the appearance of British actor William Charles Macready (who was engaged in a bitter public feud with American actor Edwin Forrest) at the Astor Place Opera House in New York. A riot broke out leading to the militia firing into the crowd with the result that twenty-three people were killed and many more injured.

... the theatrical origin of the phrase "no skin off my nose"?

This is a corruption of an old actors expression which was often used as a good luck wish. The actors expression was actually "skin off your nose", often used in the form "here's skin off your nose" as a toast. When the phrase escaped the theatre however, to the layman not versed in the ways of the acting profession losing skin from your nose sounded negative, so in common usage the phrase became mistakenly reversed as "no skin off your/my nose". This reversal also led to it's shifting its meaning subtly from referring to a good thing, to referring to something that is not bad. In other words, the actors "good fortune" became the layman's "no harm". But where did it originate, why would an actor want to lose skin from his/her nose? It dates back to the early greasepaints, which were very gritty so that their removal at the end of a performance would scratch the skin and quite literally, on the nose especially, remove some of it. So to have skin off your nose meant to be using greasepaints, which, for an actor, meant to be in work - always a thing of good fortune. So if you say to an actor "that's no skin off my nose", you are really saying "that's bad luck for me" - the opposite of what you probably mean.

... why amateurish or overzealous actors are called 'hams'?

The use of the the word 'ham' to describe a second rate actor, particularly one who outrageously overacts his or her role, first became popular in America in the 1880's, where it was seemingly inspired by a popular song of the time, "The Hamfat Man". But this song in itself was based upon a much older but little used slang term for an incompetent actor, 'ham-fatter'. The most popular theory for the origin of this latter term is that it was derived from the fact that early grease paints had a base of ham fat. Thus, an actor who amateurishly over-applied makeup became known as a 'ham-fatter'. From there, it would have been a small step to apply the term to the similarly overzealous quality of his/her acting.
NB: Some sources claim the term 'ham-fatter' was known in Shakespeare's day. This seems unlikely if it's origin is true, as actors of that period did not commonly use makeup.

There are alternate suggestions for the origin of the term 'ham', such as:

  1. The term is a shortening of amateur (am) with the 'h' added because it rolls more easily off the tongue.
  2. It was derived from the role of 'Hamlet,' which actors frequently misperform.

... the meaning of the theatrical expression "Has the Ghost Walked Yet?"

This is a term that was once commonly used by actors to enquire of one another whether the manager has yet been around with the pay. Whilst it survives in usage in certain quarters today, modern automated payment methods have led to a shift in its emphasis so that it is now generally used as a statement rather than a question, ie. "the ghost walks today" means "pay day has arrived". The origin of this term is often attributed to Shakespeare, or at least the cast of one of his original productions of 'Hamlet'. It is said that Shakespeare himself played the role of the ghost in 'Hamlet' and, since the ghost has long intervals between appearances, used the time off-stage to prepare the wages for the cast. At the end of the performance, when he next walked among them, it was to distribute their pay.

All content copyright of Bingley Little Theatre, Main Street, Bingley BD16 2LZ.