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Theatrical superstitions are superstitions particular to actors or the theatre.


Main article: The Scottish Play

William Shakespeare's play Macbeth is said to be cursed, so actors avoid saying its name when in the theatre (the euphemism "The Scottish Play" is used instead). Actors also avoid even quoting the lines from Macbeth before performances, particularly the Witches' incantations. Outside a theatre and after a performance, the play can be spoken of openly. If an actor speaks the word "Macbeth", or quotes the play, in a theatre other than in performance, they must perform a ritual to remove the curse. The ritual may vary according to local custom: one is to leave the theatre building or at least the room occupied when the name was mentioned, spin around three times, spit, curse, and then knock to be allowed back in. This particular iteration of the ritual is documented in the play The Dresser and its film adaptations. [1]

One version of this legend claims that it was the actor who played Lady Macbeth who died during the play's first production run and that Shakespeare himself had to assume the role. There is no evidence that this legend is factual.[2]

"Break a leg" vs. "Good luck"

Main article: Break a leg

In America, it is considered bad luck to wish someone "good luck" in a theatre. Prior to performances, it is traditional for the cast to gather together to avert the bad luck by wishing each other bad luck or cursing, the expression "break a leg" replaces the phrase "good luck". The exact origin of this expression is unknown, but some of the most popular theories are the Leg Line Theory (also known as the Curtain Theory), the Shakespearean Theory (also sometimes referred to as the Traditional Theory), and the Bowing Theory.[3]

In Australian theatrical circles saying "good luck" is also avoided, but the replacement is often "chookas!" This may be due to the belief among some dancers that saying "break a leg" may actually result in broken bones. According to one oral tradition, one of the company would check audience numbers. If there were not many in the seats, the performers would have bread to eat following the performance. If the theatre was full they could then have "chook" —Australian slang for chicken— for dinner. Therefore, if it was a full house, the performer would call out "Chook it is!", which became abbreviated to "Chookas!" It is now used by performers prior to a show regardless of the number of patrons; and may be a wish for a successful turnout.[4]

Professional dancers do not wish each other good luck by saying "break a leg"; instead they say "Merde!", the French word for "shit".[5] In turn, theater people have picked up this usage and may wish each other "merde", alone or in combination with "break a leg". In Spanish, the phrase is "mucha", or "lots of shit". This term refers to the times when carriages would take the audience to the theatre. A quick look to the street in front of the venue would tell if the play was successful: a lot of horse dung would mean many carriages had stopped to leave spectators.[6]

Opera singers use "Toi toi toi", an idiom used to ward off a spell or hex, often accompanied by knocking on wood. One explanation sees "toi toi toi" as the onomatopoeic rendition of spitting three times. Saliva traditionally was supposed to have demon-banishing powers and, in various cultural traditions, spitting three times over someone's head or shoulder is a gesture to ward off evil spirits. A similar-sounding expression for verbal spitting occurs in modern Hebrew as "Tfu, tfu" (here, only twice), which some say that Hebrew-speakers borrowed from Russian.[4]

An alternate operatic good luck charm, originating from Italy, is the phrase "in bocca al lupo!" ("In the mouth of the wolf") with the response "Crepi il lupo!" ("May the wolf die") (see Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Myth & Legend).

Ghost light

Main article: Ghost light (theatre)

One should always leave a light burning in an empty theatre.[7]

Though it is a superstition, it does have practical value as well: the backstage area of a theatre tends to be cluttered with props and other objects, so someone who enters a completely darkened space is liable to be injured while hunting for a light switch.[8]

Ghosts in Broadway Theatres

In 2005, Playbill ran an article about Broadway theatres that were believed to be haunted.[9] The following is a list of hauntings from that article:


Related to a similar rule for sailing ships, it is considered bad luck for an actor to whistle on or off stage. As original stage crews were hired from ships in port (theatrical rigging has its origins in sailing rigging), sailors, and by extension theatrical riggers, used coded whistles to cue scene changes. Actors who whistled could confuse them into changing the set or scenery at the wrong time and this could result in injury or death, especially if they were flying set or backdrops in or out. In today's theatres, the stage crew normally uses an intercom or cue light system.[11]

Shoes on a table

It is considered bad luck to place one's shoes on a table.[12]


See also


  1. ^ Garber, Marjorie B. (1997). Shakespeare's Ghost Writers: Literature as Uncanny Causality. Methuen. pp. 88ff. ISBN 0-416-09432-5. Archived from the original on 2016-09-02. Retrieved 2016-10-16.
  2. ^ Kerr, Euan. "Mystery surrounds roots of the Macbeth curse" Archived 2012-04-27 at the Wayback Machine, MPR News, Minnesota Public Radio website, published 2010-02-05, retrieved 2012-06-14.
  3. ^ "Theatre Superstitions". Backstage Magazine. Archived from the original on 2006-10-01. Retrieved 2007-12-06.
  4. ^ a b "Word of the Day / Jook ג׳וק A grisly load from Russian". Haaretz online. 18 August 2013. Archived from the original on 12 May 2015. Retrieved 23 October 2019.
  5. ^ McConnell, Joan. (1977). Ballet as body language. McConnell, Teena (1st ed.). New York: Harper & Row. ISBN 0060129573. OCLC 2929714.
  6. ^ The QI Elves. "No Such Thing As The Ugly Panda". No Such Thing as a Fish (62). Quite Interesting Ltd. Retrieved 7 June 2015.
  7. ^ "The History of the Ghost Light". Archived from the original on 2019-11-02. Retrieved 2019-11-02.
  8. ^ "Theatrical Superstitions and Saints". Archived from the original on 2007-10-15. Retrieved 2007-12-06.
  9. ^ Viagas, Robert. "The Ghosts of Broadway" Archived 2012-07-01 at the Wayback Machine, Playbill website, published 2005-06-10, retrieved 2012-06-14.
  10. ^ Khan, Shazia (2009-10-26). "Ziegfeld Girl's Ghost Said To Haunt Broadway Theater". NY1. Archived from the original on 30 January 2013. Retrieved 2012-06-15.
  11. ^ Colleary, Eric (20 January 2018). "Why You Should Never Whistle Onstage". Playbill. Archived from the original on 2019-10-30. Retrieved 2019-10-30.
  12. ^ Pickering, David (1995). Cassell dictionary of superstitions. London: Cassell. p. 425. ISBN 0-304-34535-0. OCLC 35212886. Archived from the original on 2021-07-04. Retrieved 2021-07-04.
  13. ^ a b Gamerman, Ellen. "A Web of Superstition: As 'Spider-Man' suspends construction, some wonder if a theater is cursed" Archived 2016-05-20 at the Wayback Machine, Wall Street Journal website, published 2009-08-28, retrieved 2012-05-30.
  14. ^ Hetrick, Adam. "Troubled Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark Delays Broadway Opening Again" Archived 2011-01-17 at the Wayback Machine. Playbill website, 2011-01-13, retrieved 2012-05-30.
  15. ^ "Internet Broadway Database page for the Times Square Church". Archived from the original on 2012-10-19. Retrieved 2012-05-30.