Friday, June 22, 2007

Where does the expression "break a leg" come from?

Who's asking: Various Lucky Stiff cast members

It's a theatrical tradition not to wish actors "good luck" on opening night, but to say, "Break a leg," instead. This proved a little too appropriate during rehearsals for Lucky Stiff; one of our company did, in fact, trip and tear his knee, and had surgery yesterday instead of singing and dancing in the opening night performance. (Get well soon, Andy. Nobody meant it literally...)

Anyway, no one knows where or why actors started telling each other to "break a leg" instead of saying, "Good luck," but theories abound. One theory takes the wish back to Elizabethan times, when an actor might hook or bend (or "break") his leg to take a bow before an applauding audience.

Another traces it to John Wilkes Booth, who did break his leg when he jumped to the stage of Ford's Theater after shooting Abraham Lincoln. (That one baffles me. Why would anyone suggest that an actor take John Wilkes Booth as a role model?)

What makes the most sense to me is the idea that actors say it because it's bad luck to say "good luck" -- actors are notoriously superstitious -- although this still doesn't explain why we say "break a leg" rather than "lose all your money," or "get a zit."

Lucky Stiff opened last night to an excellent audience, and continues this weekend and next at Hallowell City Hall. Visit the Gaslight website for details, and come see us if you can. Break a leg to all involved -- and to the cast members of ACAT's Laura, which closes this weekend.

What I Read This Week

John Burdett, Bangkok Haunts. John Burdett spoke with me last weekend for a Mystery Bookstore podcast, but I hadn't read any of his books before I started preparing for the interview. Now I'll have to go back and read the earlier two books in this series. Thai police detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep investigates the murder of a former lover in a snuff film. Nothing is as it seems, and Sonchai must deal with his department's corruption and the interference of the victim's ghost in order to find the truth. Bangkok Haunts is a fascinating window into a culture with radically different ideas about life, death, and justice, and Sonchai's is a unique voice in crime fiction.

Ian Sansom, Mr. Dixon Disappears: A Mobile Library Mystery. This cheerfully subversive book is a tongue-in-cheek cozy about Israel Armstrong, an Anglo-Jewish librarian who runs the bookmobile in a tiny Northern Ireland coastal town. He's out of his element in every way, and when he stumbles on the scene of a theft and apparent kidnapping, he's a handy suspect. Clearing his name means blundering around until he figures out what happened to Mr. Dixon, owner of the town's largest department store and a member in bad standing of the Ulster Society of Magicians. Absolutely delightful.

Joseph Finder, Power Play. I manage Joe's online marketing, so read this book months ago in manuscript, but went back to it this week for work-related purposes. Jake Landry is a mid-level manager at a large aerospace company who, because of a last-minute complication, winds up having to stand in for his boss at his corporation's executive retreat. The new CEO's executive assistant is Jake's ex-girlfriend, which makes the situation even more uncomfortable -- but then the entire gathering is hijacked by a group of violent woodsmen who may be more than they seem. Hundreds of miles from civilization, out of cell phone range, cut off from the outside world -- and it's up to Jake to save the day. Tight, compelling, great fun for a summer afternoon. Check out the book trailer, which should be online later today.


Jennifer Jordan said...

Chick, explain to me the disgusting phrase, "Keep your eyes peeled."

Tremendous ew factor....

AnswerGirl said...

I can do this, you know -- flip my eyelids inside out.

But no one ever values my extraordinary talents...

Kathleen said...

Sonchai Jitpleecheep is a great character. I've read "Bangkok Eight" and "Bangkok Haunts" and have to catch up to the one in the middle. I would love to figure a way to bring the character to the big screen.

Anonymous said...

This site had the interesting theory that the leg refers to a side curtain, and that you would break the plane of the leg during a curtain call.

This site had a theory that it had something to do with Sarah Bernhardt having just one leg.


Anonymous said...


It's the reverse-bad-luck-superstitious-actors thing. (See "Scottish Play.") Any time an explanation of a colloquial phrase gets too convoluted, you can count on it being a folk etymology...


Scott Pee