Working in the theatre would have to be the only profession where wishing someone good luck would make you like a total jerk. The two simple words – “good” and “luck” – are both harmless on their own yet when joined together within that certain type of curtain-laden building can turn stable, rational actors (yes there are some) into gasping, pale-faced, hail-mary-praying wrecks. And these aren’t the only oddities that theatre types have come to accept as “normal”.
While there is a seemingly endless list of these nerve-wracking atrocities, here we’ll be exploring three of the most infamous: good-luck-wishing, the mention of that Scottish play (Macbeth) and theatrical ghost-lore. Not surprisingly, these fear-striking ideas all have some historical root. The question is, do these historic reasons still have any worth or should the curtain go down on these aged rituals?
“Good lu… I mean, break a leg…”
Don’t even think about wishing your acting friends good luck if you want them to like you. The theory stands that this phrase ‘good luck’ will fill them with the confidence that luck might be on their side. Obviously, this overconfidence and trust in luck will only lead to disaster.
Instead of wishing good luck, there are a couple of solid, yet silly sounding, well-wishes with which to extend your blessings. The most well known is the commonly chanted ‘break a leg’, a seemingly horrendous reversal of luck-giving, yet it is a phrase which has a historical steeping that is actually quite rational.
The breaking one’s leg ideology is determined by the necessity and deservedness of a bow after a good performance. This breaking of a leg finds its etymology in very old military speak, otherwise known as ‘taking a knee’. To wish someone to break a leg is to wish them such a great performance that they are deserving of a bow at performance end. During Elizabethan England, actors had money thrown on the stage so as they kneeled to collect the money, they ‘broke’ the line of the leg.
In Australia though, we have another theatrical term for good luck: chookas. The odd-term is believed to have come from the olden days when, if the pit was full, the actors would be having chicken for dinner – not just bread. The idea is that when the theatre is full, the profits are rich. Chicken being an expensive choice was reserved for the times when a company had a successful night’s takings. As the Stage Manager would look out over the theatre and call for beginners, they would also accompany this cue with ‘chook it is’ if the pit was full, a phrase that was then shortened to chookas. There are associated poems and songs also, but each is to the effect of, a full house equals a great profit!
“If you say Macbeth in a theatre, you will face disaster…”
As legend has it, the play itself was cursed from its inaugural performance when the actor playing Macbeth actually died. Sources vary on whether this death was prior to the show, or after, but a legend is a legend nonetheless, and theatre people are unlikely to get in the way of a good dramatic tale.
And while we’re boiling up a drama, those witchcraft scenes have certainly created their own spin of hubbling, bubbling, toiling and troubling. The reality of the Weird Sisters and their witches’ songs are understood within superstitious theories as being real spells that are designed to bring out evil spirits. According to one superstition, Shakespeare took the words for Macbeth’s witches’ scene from a real witches coven. After seeing the play, the witches weren’t impressed with how they were portrayed, and promptly cursed the show.
My favourite witchcraft theory is definitely that Shakespeare himself put a curse on the play. Why would he do such a thing? Well, no-one could possibly direct Shakespeare’s Macbeth, like Shakespeare himself – so everyone who tries should die.
A less occultish rationale for the Macbeth superstition is simple. In a production with as much swordplay as Macbeth contains, the likelihood of injury is far higher. Thus the Macbeth superstition is not so much a curse as a practical awareness of injury likelihood.
There is, however, an even more sensible theory than heightened swordplay. In the early days of theatre companies many would struggle to stay in business. In a last ditch attempt to prop up their profits they would put on a play renowned for its popularity: Macbeth. Sadly, even though it was so popular, often Macbeth did not have the power to save flailing companies. The theatres, already in debt, would be drowned in this last, final production.
So don’t, for sanity’s sake use the term Macbeth in a theatre. Call it ‘The Scottish Play’, ‘The Bard’s Play’ or simply, ‘The M Word.’
If you do however happen to utter the fateful term ‘Macbeth’ within theatre walls, there is a cureall. If an actor speaks the name Macbeth in a theatre prior to a performance, he or she is required to leave the theatre building, spin around three times, spit, curse, and then knock to be allowed back in. There are of course variants, but essentially, leave the theatre, exorcise your Macbeth demons, and then beg for re-entry.
If you thought the Macbeth theory was macabre, here is the darkest and most disturbing section of the superstitions: g…g…ghosts. The theory can be divided into three notions: 1) it is good to steal from the dead, 2) ghosts haunt theatres and you must let them, and 3) let them haunt but don’t let them take over.
Yes, theatrical folklore encourages grave robbing. It is considered good luck to, after the final night’s performance, provide the director and/or leading lady with a bouquet of flowers which were stolen from a graveyard. These grave flowers symbolise the death of a show and the characters with it. A more rational theory is that, as those within the theatre industry will attest, it is rarely a profitable profession, and graves can be a very cheap way to source flowers. Graves, often filled with lavish mementos and bountiful bouquets, are an ideal place for a thrifty actor to indulge their delight in risk-taking, and save a dollar or two in the process.
It’s no wonder that theatre people figure that theatres are haunted. For all those deceased who’ve had their flowers stolen, and all the characters played and laid to rest, they need somewhere to seek vengeance on their unfortunate situations.
But that’s not the superstition. The haunted theatre theory can be traced back to the allegedly first actor to utter words on stage – Thespis of Athens in 6th Century BCE. (Yes linguists, from Thespis, the term Thespian is born.) Depending on the theatre the stories will change, but Thespis has a reputation for causing unexplained mischief. In fact, in theatre-lore, ghosts in the theatre seem to be more of a given than an oddity. It’s taken for granted that they reside there, and so a theatre must be rested at least once a week to give its ghosts free roam of the stage. Conveniently for actors, this is usually Monday nights – after a hard weekend’s performances.
It’s a careful balance though. You need to keep the ghosts appeased by their night of free theatre but you also need to keep them at bay in performance off-seasons by leaving on a light. Depending on sources, this should be either upstage or downstage centre. This light should ward off ghosts, yet give them enough light to see so as not to anger them and cause them to play tricks on those next in the theatre. It also prevents theatre personnel from having to cross a dark stage lest they fall into the orchestral pit, die and turn into more ghosts who are angry at the lack of lighting. Though the ghost light is a superstition, it has its merit. Backstage areas are often cluttered – a little light can only help in this scenario. Forget angering your ghosts – think about not angering your techies who are setting up your props and sharp blades…
Considering the amount of things that can, and do, go wrong in performances, is it any wonder that theatrical types might lean on a few superstitious references to try and keep some sort of control over their destiny? So you don’t say Macbeth, you use the term chookas instead of wishing good luck, and you entertain the idea of ghosts. A little fear and trepidation can only make an actor have a better respect for the stage and, if they need the heritage and histories of hauntings past to find this tepid anxiety, let it be so. On with the show.