Theatre Superstitions

Among the many superstitions in the theatre world today, “The Scottish Curse”, and “break a leg” traditions are the oldest. All three have origins reaching back hundreds of years. Each provides a peek into the culture and history of live theatre.
One of the most popular theatre superstitions, “The Scottish Curse”, revolves around Shakespeare’s classic play, Macbeth. The superstition states that is is bad luck to utter the word “Macbeth” in or around any theatre. Many theories surround this superstition, and there are several tales to back up it’s validity.
The play, Macbeth within itself provides enough reasons for superstition, with it’s stories of witchcraft, evil, and it’s generally dark tone. One theory behind the superstition states that Shakespeare himself wrote incantations and curses into the play that would cause tragedy on all who took part in productions of this show. While at first this may seem silly, tragedies have occurred which make many theatre scholars question whether or not this would be true.
In multiple productions of Macbeth, tragedies have taken place. As well as separate tragedies not having to do with a full production but with the play. It is rumored that Abraham Lincoln was reading “Macbeth” the night before his assassination, which took place in a theatre. In Productions of Macbeth, deaths have taken place. Right before the premier of Macbeth in 1606, the boy playing Lady Macbeth died suddenly backstage. In a later production, during a fight scene, one of the shields being used slipped out of one of the actors hands and flew into the audience. It flew so hard that it impaled a wall, directly opposite two nuns.
Several other theories and rumors of actors hanging themselves backstage, unexplainable technical malfunctions, and more have arisen making the superstition very threatening. The remedy to protect yourself from the Scottish Curse is to exit the theatre, spin around three times, spit, and say the foulest word you know.
Another popular theatre superstition centers at the phrase, “break a leg”. This phrase is passed between actors and well wishers before a performance meaning “good luck”. This oxymoron has multiple meanings and a wide range of usage throughout history. One of the oldest explanations of this phrase is in ancient theatre, mischievous spirits would listen to your wishes and make the opposite of your desire come true. This turned the idiom, “good luck” into, well, bad luck.
Another popular reason for actors wishing each other to “break a leg” stems back to Shakespeare, as so many theatre traditions do. In William Shakespeare’s day, the word “break” also meant “bend”. Actors bend when they bow at the end of a performance, so, the actors would literally wish each other to take many bows.
However, not all theories describing the history of this term are so friendly or well-wishing. Many actors believed (and still believe) that if you understudy a role, your “big break” will come when you fill in for a more successful actor. Many times when understudies wish the the more successful actors to “break a leg”, they may or may not be saying it with a literal meaning.
In the 1880’s, during the early days of vaudeville theatre, producers would hire more acts than could possibly perform in the given performance time, in case of injury, drop outs, or bad acts. Since they hired so many acts, they could not afford to pay all of the actors. They developed a policy that only acts that actually made it onto the stage would be paid. This made the already unpredictable world of show business even riskier. The actors began using the term, “break a leg”, to wish each other to make it on stage so that they would be compensated for their time and abilities. “leg” referred to the curtains to the side of the stage and if the leg was “broken” it meant that the performer had walked past the curtain and made it onto the stage.
Some say this superstition also goes back to events surrounding President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. After Lincoln was shot in Ford’s theatre, his assassin, actor, John Wilkes Booth leaped off a building while trying to escape, breaking his leg in the process. While this makes for an interesting theory and an exciting story. This etymology has been proven false since the phrase has dated back earlier than the 19th century.
While these stories of haunt and superstition are entertaining and intriguing, they are just that, stories. The occurrences of what some may call proof do seem to happen repeatedly, there is almost no way to prove a superstition. As a Christian, I know that the supernatural does exist, but curses written centuries ago, give me no reason to fear. Timothy 4:7 states, ” Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness.” (ESV Bible Timothy 4:7). I may be “tempting fate” or bringing bad luck upon myself, but I put no value in these superstitions. God protects me from evil. The fact however remains that the history behind these superstitions is intensely interesting, and surprising. The origins of the, “Scottish Curse” and “Break a Leg” provided me with knowledge about the culture and beliefs of live theatre and those who perform within it.


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