Laura is an actor, and was recently in a very significant play. Big stage, good role, full house. Friends lined up to wish her "good luck!"
"Aaack! Never say 'good luck' to an actor!" she'd reply in wide-eyed alarm. "It's bad luck. Say 'break a leg.'"
"Sorry," the friend would reply, sorry mostly that he wished her good luck in the first place.
"Break a leg" is a superstition I struggle to understand. Tradition or not, saying "break your leg" to Laura is like telling my daughters, "I hope you knock out a tooth!"
Some say the tradition started with John Wilkes Booth, a famous actor then and a famouser assassin now, who broke his ankle jumping from the elegant box seats of the Ford Theater, after successfully shooting Abraham Lincoln in the back of the head. Most of us wouldn't wish him good luck in any form and are glad he broke his leg. If any advice was to be gleaned from the experience, it's "Don't hide in barns full of flammable hay!" Or, Our American Cousin? Save it for DVD!"
But those take too long to say. We need something snappy, concise. "Break a leg" has a nice ring to it. Actors know a hook.
The French, Spanish and Portuguese wish each other "lots of merde/mierda/merda." That is, shit. "Merde!" is also a good luck wish in ballet, commonly used worldwide. It is considered bad luck to say "break a leg" to a ballerina.
The theoretical origins of "break a leg" are too numerous to list, and they all sound like they were made up by actors.
Actors have more superstitions than anyone, even pitchers. They think they'll learn a script better if they put it under their pillow while they sleep. I tried that for junior high English class. Sleeping over the Cliff's Notes worked about as well, which is to say not at all, but I finished sleeping in half the time.
A bad dress rehearsal fortells a good opening night. If only in comparison.
Peacock feathers are never be allowed on stage, even as a prop. This superstition was probably started by peacocks.
Actors never use real money on stage. That's no surprise. Actors never use real money anywhere.
Green is an unlucky color for actors. This is said to be because most shows used to be staged outdoors, and actors may be confused with bushes. Unless, of course, the bushes are better actors.
I witnessed a rehearsal where the play ended and all the actors suddenly glared agape at one hapless member of the troupe. They hollered that she was never to to utter the last line of a play until the audience is in attendance. To everyone's astonishment, the building did not burn down. It almost did, but they hired Carl Beck back again.
Never mention or quote Macbeth while in a theater. This is because the play is cursed. They used real witches for the first production. That turned out as badly as their decision to use real swords for the fight scenes. The show Mystery Hunters tested the Curse of Macbeth by walking around in a theater whispering "Macbeth!" Nothing happened. They concluded the superstition was unfounded. The rest of us concluded that they weren't good enough actors.
Actors always leave one light on in the theater at night. This practice has spread to society in general, as we all discovered it is bad luck to stumble around a cluttered, pitch black room.
Theaters are always closed one night a week to allow ghosts to perform their own play. Usually it is a Monday. No one has ever witnessed a ghost performance, but only because it is so hard to get people out on a Monday night.
So "good luck" is bad luck. With all those superstitions, my dad found it easier to just say the opposite of what he meant. "Don't get a real job!" "Don't go back for your MBA!"