Theatrical superstitions, a history

submitted by JoAnn Yeoman Tongret

In “theater speak,” when you tell your co-star to go break a leg on opening night, you’re really wishing them good luck. The concept of this contradictory wish is an old one and can be found in many cultures.

Basically the speaker just wants to make sure that any supernatural powers hanging around will not feel challenged. For example, during the most critical growing seasons in China, the farmer may go into his rice paddy and shout to the winds: “bad rice, bad rice!”

He is loath to brag about his bumper crop when there may be some unknown force whose jurisdiction is called into question. The classical ancients had similar instincts when building their spectacular civic and religious structures.

They often purposely turned a small part of an intricate stone pattern upside down to make sure that the gods couldn’t accuse mortals of attempting perfection. For others, perhaps that instinct is only an effort to gain some control over a fragile and uncharted existence.

In a more light-hearted manner we commonly recognize and employ old superstitions: looking for a four-leaf clover, hanging a horseshoe on your door, throwing salt over your shoulder when you’ve spilt some of it, keeping a lucky penny, staying home on Friday the 13th, or knocking on wood. 

Some professions even have their specific superstitions: ER staff and police departments attribute unusual catastrophes to a full moon; some sports professionals have a “lucky shirt” they wear to every game; some pilots believe it’s bad luck to point to the sky before they climb into the cockpit; and in the distant past sailors wouldn’t allow women on board because women were thought to bring a witch’s power that could create storms at sea.

Superstitions have assorted and fascinating origins deserving of a closer look if you have the time and inclination. But back to theatrical superstitions. Let’s look at a few. 

Everyone knows you shouldn’t quote Shakespeare’s “Scottish Play” in a theater unless you are in the production. Tradition has it that the incantations of the three witches in the play are quite genuine. There are many recorded incidents of injuries or deaths related to the production of Macbeth.

However, if you do accidentally give voice to a quote, there is an antidote: Exit the theatre, spin around three times, spit, utter a Shakespearean insult, and ask to be allowed back in.  Some superstitions are practical such as the advice to never whistle backstage during a performance.

The most reasonable explanation is that in earlier times the stage-hands were not professionals but were hired seamen whose familiarity with hoisting the masts made them ideal to handle the ropes that fly the scenery to the stage. It was a world without hydraulics. 

The stagehands cued each other by whistling, and if someone misinterpreted a random whistle, it might result in an iron pipe falling on an actor’s head. These days those calls are given from a head-set, but the superstition remains.

Don’t light candles on the stage. In the past, fires in theaters were relatively common.

Shakespeare’s Globe burned during a performance of Henry VIII when a piece of burning wadding from a cannon set fire to the thatch roof. In late December of 1903 Chicago’s Iroquois Theater went up in flames during a matinee performance.

It was due to several safety infractions whose deficiencies led to our current safety standards including: exit doors that open out, doors with crash bars, exit signs that are lit and in full view, seating restrictions, and the asbestos curtain.

Until the World Trade Center fire, the Iroquois Theater’s 602 death toll was the highest for a U.S. fire. Another sensible caution involves the use of mirrors on stage.

We might think that the breakage and consequential seven years of bad luck would be the cautionary part, but it’s much more mundane than that. Without extremely careful lighting, the reflection from an onstage mirror would be dangerous for the actors and annoying to the audience. 

And finally the use of the “ghost light.” The ghost light is a single naked bulb on a light stand which lives on the stage after the evening’s performance and the theater is locked up for the night.

There are a couple of explanations. One is that is keeps ghosts of the past off the stage and, conversely, that it invites the spirits to use the stage but only when it’s empty.

In fact, it is clearly practical.  If it becomes necessary for someone to come in overnight it saves them from falling into the orchestra pit.  

And speaking of ghosts, there always seems to be hundreds of sightings in theaters around the world. Broadway certainly has its full array of hauntings, but closer to home probably the most famous ghost in the Lehigh Valley is that of J. Fred Osterstock.

He managed the company that owned the State Theater Center for the Arts in Uniontown and since his death is honored by the yearly “Freddy Awards” which recognize exceptional accomplishments in the production and performance of musical theater in area high schools.

Freddy’s ghost remains very active and there are several sightings of him every year. If you visit the Bucks County Playhouse you can meet a ghost named Oscar, a former actor who haunts the stage and backstage areas.

That’s just about enough of the supernatural for now. Stay alert in an empty theater and may you “break a leg” in all your upcoming endeavors.

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