Why actors say ‘break a leg'

The Theatre Royal and a feisty horse

So just why do actors say ‘break a leg' instead of ‘good luck'? (This cropped up in my last blog post.) It turns out that the answer lies in the 18th century, when the Duke of York wanted to bring a boastful friend down a peg or two ...

Why actors say ‘break a leg'

Samuel Foote was both an actor at, and the manager of, the Little Theatre in the Haymarket. Never backwards in coming forwards (unusual for an actor, that), he boasted about how good he was at riding horses. His friend the Duke of York decided that Foote needed, not to put too fine a point on it, shutting up. (In those days, incidentally, the full title of the title - as it were - was ‘Duke of York and Albany'. One of the previous people to hold it was Charles II's brother; when Britain nicked New Amsterdam off the Dutch Charles decided to name the city in his brother's honour, hence the name ‘New York'. And indeed the name ‘Albany' for the state capital of New York.)

At a hunting party, the Duke deliberately gave Foote a somewhat ‘lively' horse. So lively, in fact, that the animal threw Foote to the ground, injuring his leg so badly that it had to be amputated. This, of course, was something of a problem for an actor, especially one whose name could lead to so many cruel jokes (jokes - you'll notice - that I'm struggling manfully to resist). The Duke felt so badly about how his prank had misfired that he asked Foote if there was anything he could to make amends. ‘Yes,' replied Foote, ‘seeing as you ask there is. I've always wanted a Royal Warrant for my theatre. Couldn't fix that, could you?' Off went the Duke to his elder brother, who just happened to be King at the time (George III), and the deed was done. The Little Theatre became the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, which it remains to this day. So Foote's misfortune actually proved a stroke of luck. And the phrase ‘break a leg' was born.

While we're on theatrical slang: the reason actors think it's bad luck to mention Macbeth (they call it ‘the Scottish play' instead) is that in centuries past it was always seen as a sure-fire hit at the box office. If you saw someone learning it backstage you knew the production you were in at the moment was losing money and was going to be replaced by Macbeth. Hence the unfortunate associations, and actors' reluctance to say the name.

One actor who hasn't been made aware of this tradition, though, is the mighty Count Arthur Strong, who on his Radio 4 show recently encountered the phrase ‘the Scottish play'. He replied: ‘What - Taggart?'

 

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