BREAK A LEG: a theater expression meaning “knock ‘em dead”

How many hundreds of times have I heard this comment and cringed?   Oh, I know it’s a warm and friendly call-out to an actor who is about to go on stage, but for some reason I can’t get past the literal meaning of the phrase.   So I decided to spend some time looking at its origin.

There are numerous explanations for the term, dating back to the 1920s in America, and there is evidence that it may have been around even earlier in European theater companies.   The main point seems to play off the fact that actors, like athletes, are extremely superstitious.  It is a common belief that if you tell an actor to have “good luck” you are jinxing her, so you should say something absurd which won’t put an acting curse on her.  Maybe if you say “break a leg!” the opposite will happen, and her performance will be brilliant.

Others point out that the side curtains on a stage are called “legs.”   Therefore, if you get numerous curtain calls at the end of the production, you are seen as constantly “breaking through the leg” to return to the stage for bows.

The one I like best is the explanation that a curtsy is accomplished by bending one leg to bow.  Therefore, the actor is “breaking a leg” in the visual sense.   Multiple curtain calls become opportunities to break a leg over and over again.

There are pages and pages of explanations, some going to the absurd, of other theories.  But the fact remains that break a leg is a common and welcome greeting among actors.   I will respect the tradition not to say “good luck,” but I think I’ll stick to a more literate and boring phrase, such as “I hope you have a great production” (yawn) just to be safe.   Wouldn’t it be awful if  I said “break a leg” to an actor and he actually fell during the production and fractured his leg?

Maybe he should just run outside before the production and kiss the statue of Ted Williams.  Oh wait, that’s baseball, not acting, isn’t it?


Graphic Credit:  Fresh Card

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