A saying in live theater that means "Good Luck!" or "Have a good show!" For whatever reason, theater people tend to be extremely superstitious and afraid of jinxes, so if you actually say "Good Luck!" or "Have a good show!", they will immediately assume that the Gods of Theatre are going to come down and smite the show, causing everyone to forget their lines, sets to collapse, and people in the front row to maliciously whisper "Macbeth!" all during the performance. So theater folks say, "Break a leg" before the curtain goes up, and the capricious Gods instead bless the show with perfect performances, appreciative audiences, healthy box offices, and absolutely no broken legs.

I've heard several possible origins for the phrase. The one I don't like attributes it to the fact that John Wilkes Booth broke his leg when he leaped to the stage after shooting Abraham Lincoln in Ford's Theatre -- really, I don't see most theater folks wanting to commemorate an assassin that much. The one that makes more sense to me is that the phrase comes from a similar German and Yiddish phrase ("Hals und Beinbruch", or "Neck and Leg Fracture").

The German via Yiddish derivation is slightly more complicated than that. According to the story I heard, the German phrase "Hals und Beinbruch" was turned around from "Bruch dir Hals und Bein" which sounds fairly similar to "Baruch Ata Adonai". Apparently, Jewish actors in eastern Europe's Yiddish theater of the late 19th and early 20th century would say a blessing before performing on stage. A decade or so later, many of these same actors became involved in the Berlin theater scene. In Berlin in the 1910s, Jewish directors like Max Reinhardt were exploring new styles of drama, and Jewish actors like Alexander Granach (formerly in Yiddish theater) were able to become famous all across the German-speaking world. Working together, German actors would hear their Jewish colleagues say a brocha every night, but didn't understand the Hebrew, and instead thought it was a superstitious phrase about breaking bones. Then, when many of the German actors fled either the poverty of the twenties or Hitler in the thirties, they brought the saying with them to New York and Hollywood, where it was translated into English. Or so the story goes.

According to a friend, the origin of this expression is in the Yiddish 'Hatsluches un Bruches' meaning 'Success and Blessings' (from the Hebrew 'Hatslahot ve Brachot'). Apparently, the Germans heard this used often by their Jewish neighbours, have germanized it into 'Hals und bein brochen' (I'm not sure about the spelling), meaning 'Break neck and leg', which was converted in turn into the English phrase 'Break a leg'.

So the origin that I have heard and seems to be the most probable, dates back to the Globe Theatre in that if you were doing really good you would break your leg. First you must understand a few conventions of the Globe.

Firstly were the groundlings. These are the poorer people that went to see the plays. The cheapest seats for the Globe were in the yard, the standing space right in front of the stage. The groundlings were packed in very tightly and even pressing up against the stage. If an actor was having a very good performance then the groundlings would be so enthralled that some would stand there with their mouths hanging open drooling right on to the stage, making it slippery.

Secondly, it is due to the special effects most of Shakespeare’s plays have a large amount of people dying, most notably are Macbeth (Don’t say it!), and Julius Caesar. These plays called for blood, so before the play or death scene an animal was slaughtered, and their bladder was harvested. Your average bladder in addition to containing urine, holds a large amount of blood. The bladder was placed under the clothes and when the character is stabbed all this blood and urine is leaked out, causing more wonderment and drool to come from the groundlings. By now the stage is extremely slick, and many actors, you guessed it, slipped and broke their leg. So if you managed to break your leg, it was seen that you were so good, you could get the audience to drool.

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