Broken legs, green rooms, ghost lights and more…
Just before my first time going onstage a teacher told me to "break a leg." I was so surprised at this seemingly cruel advice that I almost tripped over my own feet and did exactly that. Luckily, it had no effect on my face-painted performance lip-syncing AC/DC’s "Back in Black," and fortunately for everyone, that also proved to be both the first and last time I was onstage to do anything resembling acting.
But the phrase "break a leg" stuck with me and proved to be just one of many linguistic treats I’d later learn from my board-trodding, theatre-loving friends in college.
The bone-breaking advice that threatened to put me off my metal impersonation—a theatrically flamboyant way of saying "good luck" because in that world actually wishing good luck is thought to bring bad luck—is of unknown origin, but sometimes that makes for even better folk etymologies. Interesting (and unfounded) explanations for "break a leg" include:
that it comes from the exploits of John Wilkes Booth, who broke his leg jumping onto the stage after shooting President Lincoln (though how this would inspire good luck is beyond me),
that it reflects the sentiments of understudies who might hope the principals would be incapacitated, allowing them to take to the stage,
or that it goes back to Shakespeare’s time when bowing—bending at the knee—was called "breaking a leg."
While these explanations are colorful and occasionally scary, the one I find most plausible is that it is an adaptation of the German phrase "hals und beinbruch" which literally means "leg and neck fracture," used by German pilots in the first World War to wish each other well before a sortie. This use might be doubly ironic if speculation about its origins are true: some historians believe the phrase came to German through Yiddish from the Hebrew (forgive my pronunciation) "hatzlacha u-bracha" which I’m told has a similar pronunciation to the German phrase but means the quite different "success and blessing."
What a word or phrase means is ultimately the important thing, but speculation about their beginnings can still be entertaining. And, like breaking a leg, sometimes that is all we have.
The green room, where actors wait to break their legs, is first recorded in 1678, but it’s unclear if it was based on a corruption of scene, as in a behind-the-scene room or take your pick from at least a dozen theories including: the walls of the room being covered with green baize material to protect the best actors’ clothing, being the storage area for artificial grass or shrubbery, or even referencing the complexion of actors preparing to go onstage, whether due to nerves or to their makeup still setting.
The origins of chewing the scenery—to overact melodramatically, putting the ham in Hamlet as they say—is as disputed as what merits the description. The phrase is often attributed to a Dorothy Parker review from the 1930s where she described an actor as "More glutton than artist" who "commence[d] to chew up the scenery." And while that may have popularized the image that has become a cliche today, earlier sightings in print date back at least 50 years before. However it was invented, the world’s favorite description of William Shatner’s acting style remains somewhat mysterious. Why "chewing" the scenery? The best I can do is share the late Evan Morris (aka The Word Detective’s) explanation that
"an overly-dramatic actor’s fervid antics might well have been metaphorically likened to seizing and biting pieces of the painted scenic backdrop."
Many other words and phrases commonly used everywhere emerged from the theater world.
Backstage is obvious, both literally and metaphorically. But to "upstage someone"—as when Alison Bechdel observes in her graphic novel Fun House that she was "upstaged, demoted from protagonist in [her] own drama to comic relief in [her] parents’ tragedy"—goes back to early theaters in which the stage was angled so that actors who were the focus of the scene would literally move upstage to get more attention.
Actors doing the upstaging likely seek the limelight, referring to an old form of stage lighting produced by burning quicklime. While that primitive lighting mechanism has yielded to progress, the figurative limelight remains (along with no end of actors, politicians, artists and influencers seeking it), as do limes, the crew who operate moving spotlights during a production.
When we do something by the book, we are doing it according to the written rules, aka the book, and naturally off the books is to break the rules. But in the theater, being off book is a good thing, referring to the point in rehearsals when actors no longer need to carry scripts around and can perform from memory, ready for the real performance.
Being off book is necessary for the audience to enter the imaginary world created onstage. But before that, it is essential that none of the cast or crew "break curtain," whether that be literally peeking out through the curtain, recognizing an audience member in some way, or being seen in costume offstage.
Finally, no tour of theater jargon would be complete without a quick consideration of theater superstitions. Thespians and their directors may not be the most superstitious group in the world but they have to rank rather highly. In addition to breaking a leg, theater folk can get (sometimes seriously) exercised if some superstitious taboos are broken. Never uttering the title of The Scottish Play is a well known example, but to that you can add a few more, such as:
No whistling, said to date back to the days when sailors often served as theatrical crew, handling the rigging, ropes and booms while communicating with coded whistles…so other whistling could lead to accident or injury.
No real money, jewelry, mirrors or peacock feathers onstage. The prohibition against money and jewelry presumably reduces the temptation of thievery, while mirrors interfere with lighting (and there must be an intersection with more traditional superstitions about mirrors) and peacock feathers display an evil eye blamed for many a theatrical mishap.
And finally the "ghost light," a light left on upstage when no one is in the theater that practically keeps people from inadvertently walking off the stage or tripping over items on the set in the dark, but also wards off the various ghosts supposed to haunt theaters going all the way back to the shade of Thespis, the first Ancient Greek actor.