When certain events seem to transpire without any apparent logical explanation, it is often chalked up to superstition. In theatre, there seems to be unwritten known rules concerning actions or saying specific phrases that are deemed to be dangerous or that will bring bad luck to a theatre house, and thus those actions or phrases are heavily avoided. Common things such as the act of whistling (backstage), or giving flowers before a performance, which would seem like a good idea, to never saying good luck, but rather break a leg, are all infamous theatrical superstitions. Ranging from small theatre superstitions, to more widely known ones, theatre superstitions are everywhere. Whether or not any of these superstitions hold any truth to them, avoiding these “cursed” actions or phrases is typical and expected in theatre, as they could very well make or break a performance.
Among the more memorable and popular superstitions, is the ghost light. A ghost light, is just a single bulb without any lampshade on, that illuminates the stage, and it is left to honor and respect any ghosts, or spirits that are inhabiting the theatre. While it is mainly to honor the spirits that roam theatre houses, it is also meant as a light so that the ghosts may be able to perform at night as well. “Many theatres have ghosts, according to resident theatre personnel… and some insist that to ward off bad luck spirits there must always be a “ghost light” illuminating the stage when it is not in use. If the stage is dark, the superstition has it, ghosts can run free.” (Luis Cantron). This is due to theatre houses reporting that spirits are present within, and thus missing props, hearing “unwelcome visitors,” and other wacky coincidences lead actors or stage managers to believe that it could be the work of old souls who have died or worked inside the theatre, and that the ghost light will keep them at bay. However, more realistically speaking, leaving the ghost light on is a courtesy to actors, or any stage technicians, so whoever is on set first or last won’t run into props, or an elaborate set, and won’t actually break a leg.
When thinking of theatre in general, the saying “break a leg” might come to mind. That is because saying good luck to an actor is deemed bad luck; resident theatre staff believe that due to someone saying good luck, one believes that the show will do good, and therefore you are setting yourself up for something bad to happen in the middle of your production. It is said, like the ghost light, saying “break a leg,” will confuse ghosts who want to meddle with your production, and by wishing for something harmful, such as for someone to break their leg, will result in a good show. Certain countries even have their own version of “break a leg.” In Australia, the word “chookas” is used in place of “break a leg.” The phrase is strictly Australian, as it isn’t used much elsewhere. This all to avoid saying the words good luck, in order to not jinx the successfulness of a performance. Furthermore, break a leg doesn’t refer to the act of actually breaking a leg. “The widely-accepted explanation is that the “leg” being referred to is not the human appendage, but rather the curtain that hangs in the wings, masking the backstage.” (Robinson). Ultimately meaning that if an actor has gone past the now broken curtain marking the backstage, then they have made it onstage. This common theatrical saying is thought to have been originated in the early 20th century, when actors would be held backstage, waiting to hear if their performance would make it onstage, and if their act had made it onstage, then the curtain, or “leg,” had been broken. However, there are some evidence pointing towards that this saying originated much earlier, in the Elizabethan Era, where audiences would often throw items at performers, often money for a well-liked performance, in lieu for tomatoes, that were thrown for bad performances, meaning that actors would then bend down, “breaking a leg,” to gather the money the audience had thrown at them earlier. Thus, associating the saying “break a leg,” with, money which signifies success.
Unarguably, one of the most infamous theatre superstitions is mentioning the name of a character from a Shakespearian tragedy, who brings nothing short of death and despair in his play. Theatre performers would often regard Macbeth, as “the Scottish play,” to avoid invoking any curses that the Elizabethan Era witch play might bring or put on their theatre. The play was written during a period in which witches were both believed in, hunted, and feared. Rumors began to arise that Macbeth’s three witches would enact actual spells, and thus “…and Jacobean necromancers cursed the play as a punishment to Shakespeare.” (Nield). On a more realistic side, Macbeth is mostly cast in the dark, therefore it’s a disaster waiting to happen for actors. Performers may fall or bump into set pieces, much like what would happen if a ghost light wasn’t used, so the weird coincidences that occur during shows of Macbeth could just be amounted to an unlucky setting for performers. Some unfortunate instances that involve Macbeth include, Abraham Lincoln reading the play the night before his assassination, and the thirty New Yorkers who died while a riot formed during a showing of the play in 1849. Regardless of whether or not theatre folk say the name of Shakespeare’s witch, if it said, the actor must be cleansed through a ritual. Actors must leave the theatre first, spin and then dust off, and say “Macbeth” three times. The ritual claims to keep the evil, that is brought from saying Macbeth, at arm’s length.
Yet another wacky theatre superstition is the practice of giving, either to the director, or the lead actress, flowers stolen from a graveyard, only on the closing night. If an actor is given graveyard flowers before the show even starts, theatre folks believe that this represents death and it will be casted upon the show, meaning that the production will likely be unsuccessful. These flowers are given on that specific day to represent that the show is done and that now the actors can move on. This tradition originated from the pay that actors or those that worked in the theatre received. Flowers are often quite expensive, and stealing them from graveyards yielded nice enough bouquets for zero money. On the other side, flowers in general bring several other superstitions, such as using real flowers onstage. Using real flowers onstage creates all sorts of different dilemmas, however, more realistically, they’ll wilt under the heat of the stage lights, and thus will bring the omen of death to the production.
All in all, superstitions are quite common in the theatrical world. Though to non-theatre folks, these traditions may seem quite absurd, they are very much part of the eccentric theatre culture. Theatre myths do tend to vary from location, however, most of these are widely known all over the globe. Myths ranging all from leaving a ghost light on so that theatre spirits may be kept at bay, and occasionally perform, to not saying good luck to any performs, or regarding Macbeth as “The Scottish Play,” exist and are passed on. Although many of these superstitions have logical explanations, it’s the mysterious omen that surrounds these superstitions that make it memorable and widely known. Hopefully, for generations to come, these traditions will still be forces of habit.