A bit of a silly post today. Theatre is full is superstitions and actors are said to be equally full of superstition. I have been doing a little bit of a trawl through these, prompted by a new series being published in the UK Guardian, My dressing room, where actors are interviewed – not surprisingly – in their dressing rooms. What struck me as I read them, is that they all have their rituals, totems or preparations (read superstitions) that go with them wherever they are performing.
(They are worth a read regardless of the superstition bits as they give a lovely insight to the world of the professional actor).
One of my favourite superstitions is the tradition of telling someone to ‘break a leg’ before they go on stage, rather than wishing them ‘good luck’. There are many purported reasons for this rather violent idiom, but my favourite is this one. In the early days of Music Hall (Europe)/Vaudeville (US) the producers would book more performers than could possibly perform in the given time of the show, since “bad” acts could be pulled before their completion. In order to ensure that the producers didn’t start paying people who hadn’t actually performed, there was a general policy that a performer did NOT get paid unless they actually appeared onstage. So the phrase “break a leg” referred to breaking the visual plane of the “legs,” or curtains that lined the side of the stage. In other words, “Hope you break a leg and get onstage, so that you get paid.”
Of course one of the other most famous theatrical superstitions is not saying the word ‘Macbeth’ inside a theatre, but referring to it as The Scottish Play. Theatrical folklore has it that, as revenge for Shakespeare’s inclusion of a number of accurate spells within the play, a coven of witches cursed it for all eternity. Whether or not you believe this explanation is irrelevant, though, because the ill-fortune associated with the play is backed up by many examples over its four hundred year history. Initially, King James banned the play for five years because he had such a dislike for it, but there are also more bloody examples: there was an unpleasant and lethal riot after one showing in 19th century New York and one Lady Macbeth fell off the front of the stage while sleepwalking, dropping nearly twenty feet. Even Lawrence Olivier wasn’t free from the curse, as one of his performances was enlivened by a falling stage weight which landed only inches from him mid-performance. Having said this, I quite like the more prosaic options – that there is more swordplay in it than most other Shakespeare plays and, therefore, more chances for someone to get injured – or, and the one I believe most likely is that, due to the plays popularity, it was often run by theatres that were in debt and as a last attempt to increase audience numbers; the theatres normally went bankrupt soon after.
There a good number of other superstitions, involving not whistling on stage, not wearing the colour blue and a number involving ghosts. You can read about some of them here and here, the latter coming from the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, one of America’s most respected theatre companies and now associated with one of the worlds greatest english speaking actors, John Malkovich.
There is also an eminently readable blog post by The London Bluebird which covers superstitions and traditions in London’s West End, including theatre cats and hauntings.