Louis E. Catron--
Theatrical Superstitions and Saints.
 

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THEATRICAL
SUPERSTITIONS
and
SAINTS
 


 
 
THEATRICAL 
SUPERSTITIONS AND SAINTS

         Not surprisingly, given the number of things that can go wrong, sometimes with no apparent logical cause, theatre folk often are a superstitious lot. 

        Superstitions aren't limited to the theatre, of course.  Undoubtedly you’ve heard of athletes who feel they absolutely must always wear a given article of clothing or they’ll have a bad game.  For example, Jack Nickalaus must carry three pennies with him every time he plays golf, Babe Ruth had to touch first base with his foot on the way to the outfield, and race-car driver Rick Mears refuses to allow peanuts near his car.  (For an excellent book about superstitions in sports, see Locker Room Mojo by Nick Newton and Bill Minutaglio, from which these examples are drawn.  Amazon link.)  

       Surely we all have our personal superstitions about avoiding walking under ladders, not stepping on a sidewalk’s crack, and changing direction so the black cat does not cross our paths.  And as for breaking a mirror--of course we know that means seven years of bad luck!

        For many of us, there’s a comfort in the ritual of superstition.  Perhaps the logical part of your brain tells you there’s no magic in the first star you see at night but your heart encourages you to say, “Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight, I wish I may, I wish I might....”  Not only is there comfort, we are happy that our art has interesting quirks. They contribute to our feeling we're special, different.

        Here, then, are some theatrical superstitions.  We follow that discussion with a look at two special theatrical saints.
 
 

THEATRICAL SUPERSTITIONS

        In theatre, many of our superstitions are based on old lore with origins that are lost in history.  Often we can only conjecture how they started.  Whatever their origins, they are fixed by constant repetition and are a firm part of what makes theatre interesting and colorful.

BREAK A LEG

        “Break a leg!” is the standard way of wishing actors a good show.  Why?  No one knows with certainty.  It may be based on the premise that saying “good luck” actually will have an adverse affect.   There's a possibility the saying comes from folklore, as Evan Morris (www.word-detective.com ) suggests:  "Popular folklore down through the ages is full of warnings against wishing your friends good luck. To do so is to tempt evil spirits or demons to do your friend  harm. Better to outwit the demons (who must be rather dim, it seems to me) by wishing your friend bad fortune." 

        Perhaps the saying comes—in a complicated way—from the use of “leg.”  In tech theatre, a “leg” is a curtain, and a highly successful run with repeated curtain calls could wear out the fly machinery that raises and lowers the "leg," er, curtain.  “Break a leg” is (a complex!) way of expressing wishes for a show that is so great, with the audience demanding so many curtain calls, that it "breaks" that "leg" or curtain. 

        Another possible background for the expression is its relation to "taking a knee," which itself has roots in chivalry.  Meeting royalty, one would "take a knee"--bend down to one knee.  That breaks the line of the leg, hence "break a leg," a wish that the performer will do so well that he or she will need take bows.

         Someone may try to convince you that "break a leg" actually has sardonic roots in John Wilkes Booth's assassination of President Lincoln in 1865.  You know, of course, that Booth was an actor and that after shooting Lincoln he jumped down from the President's box to the stage, breaking his leg in the process.  (After he landed on stage he shouted "Sic semper Tyrannis!" Latin for "Thus may it be it ever to tyrants!"  So why isn't that the phrase we use to say "good luck" to actors?)  Incidentally, according to Michael W. Kauffman's book, John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies, it isn't true he broke his leg in that jump.  The break, Kauffman writes, happened later during Booth's frenized escape, when his horse fell.    

        Others will tell you that the roots of the expression date back to the famous French actress, Sarah Bernhardt, whose career continued even after her leg was amputated in 1915.  (So why isn't the phrase "cut off a leg"?)  Both theories are colorful but unlikely. 

        Partridge's A Dictionary of Catch Phrases suggests that there may be a connection with the German phrase Hals und Beinbruch, an invitation to break your neck and bones.  That phrase is used by aviators and is equivalent to the English phrase Happy Landings.  But how the phrase flew from airports to the stage isn't known.  (Pilots do have their way of talking.  When I was learning to fly, the phrase I heard was, "Don't bend the plane."  My flight instructor muttered at me not to bend his plane.  If someone had a rotten landing and broke the landing gear or worse, the hanger pilots would shake their heads and say, "Man!  He sure did bend that plane!") 

        Whichever of these contribute to the phrase, the point is clear: "Break a leg" means "Have a great show!"

THAT SCOTTISH PLAY 

         One of the most prevalent theatrical superstitions forbids mentioning the title of Shakespeare’s tragedy about a lustful greed for power.  Don't ever say its name when you're inside a theatre building.  Call it “that Scottish play.”  Long-time theatre workers can recite many legendary bad-luck events, so inexplicable that supernatural forces of evil must have caused them, which jolted actors or productions after someone actually said the name of this particular play. 

        Some say that more accidents and bad luck are connected with that play than with any other.  Although there’s no hard evidence to support that claim, it does have major sword fights—the death of Banquo, the leading character’s (yes, I’m avoiding saying the name!) battle with Young Siward, and his final struggle with MacDuff—which obviously give more opportunities for accidents than we find in most plays.  Certainly, too, the play's darkness (the word "dark" or its synonyms appears in it more than in any other of Shakespeare's plays, and "love" appears less than in most of his plays), the presence of "the weird sisters," and the growth of evil combine to give it raw destructive power. 

        There's another theory for this play's "cursed" reputation.  Supposedly in the past, when theatres were in grave financial difficulties, they'd desperately select this (no, we're not mentioning its title!) play to draw audiences, and therefore this play became known as a curse of failing theatres.  Interesting theory, albeit complex.  But was this play really such a major draw?  To judge by the modern popularity of Romeo and Juliet, that play would be a far better selection to draw audiences.   I'm not sure that theory has much logic. 

        (We barely whisper its name here, looking nervously over our shoulder:  Macbeth.)

THE GHOST LIGHT 

        Many theatres have ghosts, according to resident theatre personnel who will tell you they’ve seen or heard uncanny visitors, 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.  It is turned on as the actors and crews leave and burns all night.  If the stage is dark, the superstition has it, ghosties can run free.  Or perhaps we leave a light on so they can perform.

        To me, the reason is less ghostly and more a statement of intense belief:  we must be sure that concrete light always is on so that the metaphorical light of the theatre never will disappear.  "Dark," let us recall, refers to a time when there is no show (i.e., "We perform Tuesday through Sunday, but Monday is dark").   We want our art never to become "dark" but instead to remain brightly alive.

        Of course there also is a practical reason for that light on stage:  a large number of items come and go on the stage as a show is prepared, and the place can get downright cluttered, so a light helps protect against accidental falls when someone stumbles around in the dark—or (more importantly??) prevents accidental damage to the set.

SPEAKING OF LIGHTS.  .  .  .

         This is not a superstition but instead illustrates the way some theatrical terms enter every day conversation.  You've heard of this or that athlete, politician, or rock star having his/her day "in the limelight"?  The phrase dates back to 1808 when Sir Humphrey Davy, a British chemist, discovered that a brilliant white light resulted from heating calcium oxide ("lime") to an extreme temperature.  This limelight became popular to illuminate the important actors on stage.  Think follow spot.  It follows, then, that "in the limelight" came to mean "in the center of attention."  And vice versa.

WHISTLING BACKSTAGE

         Returning to superstitions. . . .  Whistling backstage is a taboo because it supposedly brings dire results.  This superstition quite likely has its roots in the past when managers hired sailors to run the fly loft, on the premise that the sailors’ expertise with knots and raising and lowering sails made them ideal workers.  A signal system of whistles cued the sailors.  Someone whistling for personal enjoyment could sound like a cue, resulting in a dire event like a heavy batten falling on actors’ heads.  Therefore whistling can be bad luck. 

        This is akin to clapping backstage. One never claps backstage, goes this superstition, because it brings bad luck.  Again, the roots are founded in signals to crews--a noise like clapping might cue the fly loft crew to execute a shift, with distinctly unfortunate results.

A BAD DRESS REHEARSAL WILL MAKE A GREAT OPENING

        Then there's that saying that "a bad dress rehearsal will equal a good opening night."  Me, I think that started with a producer who had a show underway that had an absolute disastrous dress.  Not knowing how else to build morale, the producer glibly invented a quick excuse:   "Well, you know the old saying that a bad dress guarantees a great show!"  And that propaganda is hauled out by its hind legs everytime a dress rehearsal goes down the tubes.  Plah!  As far as I've seen, a cruddy dress most often will mean a cruddy opening; a potent dress rehearsal, on the other hand, builds confidence and morale and it is a marvelous high leaping off place for growth that will follow.

SPEAKING THE PLAY'S LAST LINE IN REHEARSALS 

        Some theatre folks believe it is bad luck to speak the last line of the play before opening night, because the play isn't "finished" until performed.  Well. . . .  Given the number of tech cues associated with that last line--lights, sound, curtain--plus somewhat frenzied blocking to get everyone offstage and in position for the curtain call, isn't it awfully risky not to rehearse it?

        (Somewhat connected, I've always postponed blocking the curtain call until the very last moment, mostly because doing it says "we're finished" when we aren't.  Too, the way a curtain call is blocked necessarily will indicate relative importance of various roles, and I dislike making that statement to the cast because it violates the idea of an ensemble, the creation of which is always one of my directorial goals.)

BOX OFFICE SUPERSTITIONS

        This superstition seeks to ensure financial success.  It insists that  the house manager must refuse to admit a person with a “comp” (free ticket) until after at least one paying patron has entered the auditorium.  Doing otherwise, according to this superstition, dooms the production to failure. 

         A second superstition is pure sexist.  In 1866, what was to become known as the “first American musical” was about to open in New York at Niblo’s Gardens.  This history-making production was a gaudy extravaganza called The Black Crook that was some five and a half hours long (!).  At the time no one was aware of the historical significance of this production or that it was the beginning of America's major contribution to theatre arts.  No, it was merely an accidental conjoining of a theatre manager desperate to get some production, any production, to fill his theatre, plus an unemployed ballet company, some spare scenery, and a desperately cobbled together script about some sort of fantasy world.  The script made little sense, but that didn't matter:  there were beautiful dancing ladies in skimpy costumes!  (Of course you'll recognize that tradition in today's musicals!) 

        On opening night September 12, William Wheatley, the manager of Niblo's Gardens, was at the theatre’s entrance as the audience was about to enter.  To his shock, the first person in line was a woman.  “No!  You cannot be first,” Wheatley said, pushing her away.  “To allow a woman to be the first to enter would ruin the success of the play!”  The Black Crook ran 474 performances, a gigantic run for its time, and its success of course prompted dozens of imitations, giving rise to what we know today as the “American Musical Theatre.” 

        Wheatley later claimed the huge success of The Black Crook was due to the way he refused to allow a woman to be first to enter his theatre on opening night.  H'mmm.  Are we to conclude there’d be no American musical tradition if that female had been the first to enter?

MIRRORS 

     Others believe it is bad luck to have a mirror on stage (a superstition perhaps rooted in ancient times when the mirror could open the soul to the devil?).  Of course a mirror can be a technical nuisance because it will reflect light into the audience's eyes.  But the mirror superstition should've been put to rest with the production of Chorus Line-- 6,137 performances!--and its famous mirror scene.

FLOWERS ON STAGE

     Live, real flowers on stage are bad luck (perhaps because they’ll wilt under the heat of theatrical lights?). 

A BLACK CAT

        A black cat usually is considered bad luck.  Not in theatre, however, according to some theatre practitioners.  They think it brings good luck.  Why?  There are some stories, perhaps true, of actors who had a "black cat experience" right before going on stage and gave a show-stopping, better-than-ever performance.  Therefore, of course, the black cat made that great show happen.  (Hey, no one expects theatre folks to be logical!)  Some actors even bring a black cat backstage.

THE GREEN ROOM

         "I know London. . .ay, and the Green Room, and all the Girls and Women there."
~~Colly Cibber,
Loves Makes A Man (1700)
        Partly a superstition, mostly legend, The Green Room for centuries has been an inherent part of theatrical architecture.  The first reference to it seems to be in a play by Thomas Shadwell called A True Widow, 1679.  We may not know why it has that name but we are certain about what it is—a cozy backstage room for actors to assemble when they are not on stage, logically near the dressing rooms with quick access to the stage.  To help actors catch their cues for their entrances, in the Green Room are monitors that broadcast the play's action and, often, the audience responses. 

        The Green Room also is the place where audience members come after a production to embrace the cast. 

        Theatrical lore insists that the Green Room must be a nice, attractive room--after all, it is special, the theatre's "living room," a show place, a gathering place for actors, and the only backstage space to which audiences are invited--and that everyone must take pride in keeping it neat.  Woe to the person who clutters it or turns it into a personal storeroom, demonstrating a selfish self-centered arrogance that shows no respect for the theatre, its traditions, or its actors! 

        On opening night, quite often the Green Room is creatively decorated with images of the play in progress, flowers, festive streamers and banners, keepsake gifts from each actor to each actor, and supportive cards and telegrams.  The decorations give the room a festive quality, celebrating "another opening, another show," as the Cole Porter song from Kiss Me Kate says. 

        But while we know what it is, we don’t know why it is green.  Why not blue or red or some other color?  Pure and simple, we just don’t know. 

        Because we don't know, there are a lot of different stories.  One common theory is that the color green is soothing to eyes that have been exposed to intense stage lighting, but that theory falls apart when we remember that Green Rooms existed when theatres were lit by candles, which were hardly intense.  Another theory has it that in the Sixteenth Century actors wore green to show their occupation or, perhaps, their allegiance to their particular patron, but that's pretty shaky and mostly untrue.  Some people point out that early theatre was presented in the town's center--"on the green"--but how that creates the place called the Green Room is too much of a stretch for me to accept.  Sometimes you'll hear that the room is green because it is a soothing color, but this concept is based on Twentieth Century century psychological theory.  Another reason is that it is called green because actors would be paid in this room--but the Green Room started in England, and English money isn't green like US currency.  Besides, in the 1700s they would most likely be paid in coins, not notes. 

        None of those theories seems to hold water.  Pure and simple, we just don't know.  We can say, safely, "Hey, it is called The Green Room 'cause it is painted green" *s*. 

        Whatever the reason for its color, the Green Room is a firm part of theatrical lore.  It has been a fixture in theatre for centuries.  It also has spilled over to television—guests waiting to go on camera will wait in The Green Room. 

       The "Grian Room"?  I recently received (January, 2003) an e-mail from Bill Watkins who offers a new possible source of “Green Room.”  He points out that there are “hundreds of Gaelic words in English, like whiskey, galore, farmer, drover, pony,” and that “golf being a Scottish game it has the Gaelic terms caddy, divot, and fore!”  He therefore offers “Grian Room,” from Gaelic, “grian” meaning “sunlit,” and says “greenhouse” comes from that root as it is a sun-house (“Tigh na Ghrian”).  “In many of the theatres I have worked, the Green Room was the one one with windows, so maybe….”  A visit to Watkins’s site (link) shows his books indicating that he is involved with Gaelic lore. 

        Theatrical Consultant Larry Graham of CDAI passed along (August, 2004) another interesting bit of lore regarding the Green Room.  "While visiting the Royal Opera House in London, I was told this story:  In the 18th Century the Price of Wales (I forget which one) maintained a romantic liaison with a singer at the Opera.  In order for him and his entourage to meet privately with this lady and her friends, the Opera House remodeled a space to be used for that purpose.  It was painted green."

OUR TWO THEATRICAL SAINTS

        Theatre has two patron saints, both martyrs from the third century, who are invoked to protect actors from disaster. 

ST. GENESIUS

        St. Genesius, according to legend, was a comedian who converted to Christianity.  While performing a farcical version of Christian baptism on stage for the Emperor Diocletian (Roman Emperor and persecutor of the Church, born 245, died 313), Genesius suddenly had a revelation and refused to continue to make fun of Christianity.  Diocletian was outraged and ordered the actor’s death.  He was tortured, torn with hooks, beheaded, and burned on stage.  (He is also described as patron saint of lawyers, printers, and secretaries.)  His feast day is August 25.

ST. VITUS

        The story of the second theatrical patron saint is also ascribed to legend.  St. Vitus exorcised Emperor Diocletian’s son of evil spirits that caused him to twitch uncontrollably.  (We now know that is caused by chorea, a temporary disorder of those parts of the brain that control movements and coordination and causing continuous, involuntary jerking movements now called “St. Vitus dance” and known also as Sydenham's Chorea and Rheumatic Chorea.)

        Despite the service to his son,  the emperor was outraged that Vitus pronounced his belief in Christianity, accused him of sorcery, and placed him in a vat of boiling water.  Vitus emerged unharmed, and an angel helped him escape Rome.  The beautiful St. Vitus’s Cathedral is the largest and the most important church in Prague.  (He is also the patron saint of comedians and dancers, and he is invoked against epilepsy.)  His feast day is June 15.


 
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