Take care not to walk under that ladder; make sure you have that lucky rabbit’s foot with you at all times; break a mirror at your peril, and watch out for those cracks in the pavement!
Superstitions pervade everyday life, and no doubt you could rattle off at least half a dozen more. These illogical entities, whether we pay homage to them or we don’t, are woven into the fabric of our collective lives. And it’s not just for us common folk. It’s not unknown for celebrities to ward off ‘bad juju’ by carrying some kind of talisman, engaging in somewhat wacky routines or wearing a particular item of clothing: Babe Ruth famously insisted on touching first base with his foot en route to the outfield; Tiger Woods wears a red Nike polo shirt on the Sunday of a tournament; and will Jack Nicklaus go anywhere near a golf course without three pennies in his pocket? No way! In the average workplace, of course, superstitious beliefs remain cached beneath a professional façade. Unless, that is, you happen to work in the theatre…
A Watchful Eye
So why is the theatre such a hotbed of superstitious lore? What makes performers such a credulous lot? Maybe it’s because it makes sense that in a profession in which mishaps are frequent and unsurprising, staying on good terms with fate is the artiste’s modus operandi! Indeed, theatre troupes have not one but two patron saints watching over them. Like vigilant parents in a playground, St Genesius and Vitus keep a watchful eye over their theatrical folk in a bid to keep their wards from harm.
But just who were these two third-century guardian angels of all things thespian? Well, St Genesius (whose special day is August 25th) was a comedic performer, known for his farcical interpretations of Christian practices. One day, while making fun of the ritual of baptism while on stage – in front of Roman Emperor Diocletian, no less – Genesius experienced a ‘revelation’ and thereafter converted to Christianity. Unfortunately for him, Diocletian just happened to be a persecutor of Christianity. This was not destined to end well: Genesius was subsequently tortured, torn with hooks, beheaded, then – just for good measure, not to mention overkill – burned on stage. Ouch. Well, they do say there’s a thin line between comedy and tragedy. One might think that St Vitus would learn a lesson from this. But no. While any circumspect person would give the Diocletian clan a wide berth, Vitus thought he would ingratiate himself by exorcising Diocletian’s son of evil spirits (which manifested themselves in the form of uncontrollable twitching – a condition we now recognise as epilepsy). Far from finding himself in Diocletian’s good books, once Vitus ‘came out’ as a Christian he was boiled like an egg in a repository of boiling water. Miraculously, he survived and made good his escape to Rome – with the help of an angel, of course. In honour of his saintly achievements, he is celebrated on June 15th every year – his very own feast day.
Ironically, many customs, traditions and superstitions observed in the theatre are grounded in historical fact. One of the most common traditions, prior to a performance, is to advise a performer to ‘break a leg’. This could be playing a game of reverse psychology with fate, of course: if you wish for something bad, then something good may happen. More likely, however, are theories which have their genesis in theatrical practices: a ‘leg’ is a mechanism for raising and lowering a side curtain, so repeated curtain calls could weaken the leg and cause it to break – in other words, ‘break a leg’ could be a way of wishing a production a successful run; another theory has its roots in Greek theatre, whereby the audience didn’t applaud but rather-too-enthusiastically stomped their feet, sometimes causing a leg to break; yet others believe the term derives from the Elizabethan practice of showing appreciation by approvingly banging their seats on the ground until the appendages of said chairs broke. Another interesting audience practice during the Elizabethan era was to throw coins on the stage; actors (many of whom would not receive any official pay) would need to break the straight line of their legs in order to bend down and pick up their pennies. In any event, in theatrical parlance, the phrase translates as ‘good luck’ and has stood the test of time.
Other regimens include leaving on a ‘ghost light’ (also known as an ‘equity light’), even when the theatre is empty. Could this be because many theatres are believed to be haunted, some even boasting of their very own resident spectre? Quite possibly. The modern-day rationale is probably far more prosaic, though: with so many pieces of equipment around, the ghost light could simply be a safety measure – yawn! Still, nobody wants to see a crew member breaking their neck, do they? Or perhaps this light could metaphorically be telling us that the light of the theatre will never dim; far more satisfying theory.
What about taboos? Well, whatever you do, don’t whistle in the theatre! At one time, many sailors would be employed in the theatre, due to their rope – rigging – skills and expertise with knots. Now, sailors had their own code of communication: you guessed it – whistling. One misheard or misinterpreted whistle could send a backdrop flying in too soon and cause a pretty nasty accident. Who said that health and safety regulations are a plague of the modern world? It seems that theatre-land had it all worked out many moons ago! Another taboo is giving flowers before a performance – this is thought to be tempting fate. Wearing blue is yet another no-no: in days of yore (in lieu of an actual date…) blue was one of the most expensive and luxurious dyes, so struggling theatre companies would have their players wear this colour in order to trick audiences by creating an impression of success and affluence. Conversely, the expense of such lavish costuming was often the financial death-knell for the theatre in question, thus the colour blue became a symbol of failure. In an attempt to offset this superstition, some theatres would use silver instead, as a representation of wealth.
A Cursed Production?
Perhaps the most ubiquitous superstition of all relates to one of the bard’s most famous tragedies: Macbeth, which must be euphemistically referred to as The Scottish Play inside the walls of the theatre. The play is thought to be plagued by accidents, which perhaps shouldn’t surprise us – after all, this is a production jam-packed with murder and sword-fighting, so we might expect a disproportionate number of mishaps. Such logic disavows the magic of folklore, though. Much better to believe that the witches’ incantations were derived from actual spell books – especially as James I was conducting an actual ‘witch-hunt’ around 1606, when the play was first performed. And tempting it is to buy into the legend that the young fellow playing Lady Macbeth in the very first production died on the opening night, forcing Shakespeare himself to take on the mantle of the leading lady. Don’t worry if you let the actual title slip, though – there is an antidote: pop outside, spin around three times Kylie-style – then spit. Curse annihilated.
Here we have just dipped our toes into the depths of theatrical lore. There are myriad more to enjoy. Modern sensibilities seem to tell us that all superstitions can be reasoned away. It seems, however, that these beliefs we hold lend to the enchantment of the magic that is theatre. Long may they endure.