Heritage & Culture

Break a leg!

Words: Stamford Shakespeare Company theatre manager David Fensom

There’s a theatrical superstition that it’s bad luck to wish an actor good luck. An old idiom is employed instead, most commonly on opening nights, which is ‘break a leg!’. Sadly, this saying proved all too real for this year’s production of Noël Coward’s comedy Blithe Spirit.

In February, Angela Harris, the actress playing the eccentric medium Madame Arcati, fell down some steps. The result was a broken ankle and a nervous call to the Directors of the play. As soon as Angela was out of hospital and back in the comfort of her home, the Directors met with her to discuss the situation. It didn’t look good as she lay on the sofa, her leg firmly encased in plaster. However, Angela is an incredibly spirited lady and was determined to carry on and be fighting fit by the time summer arrived.

Unlike professional theatre companies, we don’t have the luxury of employing understudies. However, we were incredibly lucky that another Company member, Annie de Kremer, very kindly agreed to stand in whilst Angela was out of action. We even had two costumes made, just in case there were complications later on and Angela was forced to withdraw.

In late March, Angela attended rehearsals in a wheelchair, speaking her dialogue from the wings. Then in April, when she was out of the plaster and in a boot, Angela gamely hopped around the set on crutches. She is now free of the boot and, whilst the doctors have informed her she will have swelling for about two years, she is practically back to normal. She was never going to let this stop her performing the role she’s wanted to play for years.

This is not the only time that the saying ‘break a leg’ has proved all too literal for us, yet we still use the saying to bestow good luck upon a performance. The first documented instance of someone saying ‘break a leg’ in terms of wishing them luck is in an edition of the New Statesman in October, 1921, but there are several theories behind the origin of the phrase…

In proscenium arch theatres, vertical drapes are hung at the sides of the stage and these are known as ‘legs’. If an actor moves beyond the ‘leg’ they can be seen by the audience. In a time when actors would queue for an opportunity to perform and were paid only if they did, to ‘break a leg’ meant the actor moved from backstage, past the ‘leg’ and onto the stage and would therefore get paid.

Some argue the mechanism for raising and lowering the curtain was controlled by a crank-arm ‘leg’. Therefore for popular performers, continued curtain calls may result in a broken crank-arm or ‘leg’.

In Ancient Greece, instead of applauding actors, audiences would stamp their feet. If the performance was particularly great, they might stamp long enough to break their legs.

In Elizabethan times, instead of applause the audience would bang their chairs on the ground, and if they liked it enough, the leg of the chair would break.

In Shakespeare’s time, the term also meant to bow by bending at the knee. Therefore, actors who put on a good performance would be able to bow (break a leg) at length to acknowledge the applause.

 The autobiography of Manfred von Richthofen records pilots of the German Air Force during the First World War as using the phrase ‘Hals und beinbruch’ (break your neck) to wish each other luck before a flight. It is possible actors adapted and adopted this phrase, as it was just after the war that ‘break a leg’ seems to have gained widespread popularity.

Whatever the exact origin of the phrase, we still use it and hope that no more bad luck befalls the run of Blithe Spirit or either of the two Shakespeare productions we have running this summer!

The booking line is open for this summer’s season of plays:

William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night & Julius Caesar
Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit

Box office: 01780 756133
For more information and to book online: www.stamfordshakespeare.co.uk

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