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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Big Ben

On a visit to Big Ben, I was told that if you stand at the bottom of the tower with a portable radio and listen to the chimes on Radio 4 (they still transmit them live), you hear them on the radio before you hear them ‘for real’. I couldn’t believe it – but was intrigued enough to try it for myself. And you know what? It’s absolutely true. The bongs come out of the radio a fraction of a second before they reach your ears from the top of the tower. It’s something so silly, so counter-intuitive, that you have to tell people. (Well, I did.) Researching the explanation, I found that it’s because radio waves travel at the speed of light (186,000 miles per second) rather than the 700 or so miles per hour at which sound waves travel. The signal travelling down the wire from the microphone to the BBC goes at the speed of light too. Hence the radio version overtaking the real one.

I realised that this would be the perfect way to teach the principle in school physics lessons. Instead of a boring teacher droning on that ‘radio waves travel at the speed of light’, illustrate it with this beautiful and quirky little fact. The kids will remember it then. I certainly would have done if my physics teacher had taken this approach. As it was I had to wait until I heard a piece of so-called ‘trivia’ in my thirties.