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Black Cats and April Fools
By Harry Oliver
John Blake Publishing LtdCopyright © 2006 Harry Oliver
All rights reserved.
ARTS AND ENTERTAINMENT
Break a Leg!
It is considered unlucky to wish an actor 'good luck' before a performance; instead, it is customary to tell him or her to 'break a leg'. The origins and precise meaning of this expression are unclear, and over the years many different experts on superstitions have developed theories as to how it came about. One explanation suggests that, since 'leg' is a euphemism for 'rope' (a taboo word in the theatre as it is on board ships), to tell somebody to 'break a leg' would be equivalent to telling him or her to break the rope holding up the curtain. A particularly good performance, then, would call for the curtain to be opened many times in a row for the actor to re-emerge in front of the applauding audience, putting it at a risk of breaking.
Another explanation for the expression links it back to Ancient Greece, where audiences stamped their feet instead of clapping their hands at the end of a good performance. To tell an actor to 'break a leg' would thus not be referring to the actor's leg but to that of his or her viewers who would have to stamp their feet so much watching their performance. This explanation seems unconvincing, however, since the expression seems to exist only in English and not in other Greek-inflected languages.
Eating and drinking food made with lemon or milk before a performance
To eat or drink food made with lemon or milk is considered very unlucky before a performance. The explanation for this superstition is quite simple: eating both substances affects saliva production, which hinders an actor's voice and makes a performance weaker.
Macbeth is the unluckiest of plays
Shakespeare's tragedy Macbeth is considered the unluckiest of all plays to put on stage, forecasting disaster for the company performing it and bringing misfortune to those performing in it. The records show that it is the play during which the largest number of accidents, fires and deaths have occurred, and many famous actors who performed the play are said to have had terrible misadventures following its staging. It is considered very unlucky to say the word 'Macbeth' anywhere in the theatre, but especially in the dressing rooms. The play is supposed to be referred to instead as 'that Scottish play', and there are various rituals that actors have to abide by if they accidentally say the 'M' word. According to one tradition, whoever says the forbidden word in the dressing room is to leave the dressing room, turn in a circle three times, break wind or spit and then only come back after knocking and asking permission to re-enter. Another commonly cited remedy is to say 'Angels and ministers of grace defend us!', a line spoken in Act I, sc. iv of Hamlet right after the appearance of the Ghost.
The play is generally considered to be unlucky on account of the appearances of the witches and the occult content of many of the scenes. At the time when Macbeth was first being performed, belief in witchcraft was still widespread and actors may have been afraid of accidentally unleashing demonic forces or conjuring up evil spirits – which is why the line from Hamlet would be spoken in protection against any such visitation. Some sources point to a more practical origin for the superstition, however. In Victorian times, theatre managers would close unsuccessful plays and replace them with Macbeth, as it was usually a great success due to its violent and bloody scenes and the fact that it could be learned faster than other Shakespeare pieces since it is his shortest tragedy. To hear the word 'Macbeth' spoken in the dressing room would thus be an omen of very bad luck for actors who risked finding themselves out of work very soon. It is also possible that the bad statistics for the performance of the play may be explained precisely because it was used so often as a replacement and filler in theatre seasons.
Whistling during a performance brings bad luck
It is considered very unlucky to whistle anywhere near the stage during a performance as this is supposed to curse it and bring doom upon it. One simple explanation for this is that theatre technicians would sometimes be given the signal to raise a prop or send down a backdrop using some form of whistling code. Whistling backstage could inadvertently send the wrong signal and seriously ruin a play.
To see the ghost of Drury Lane
It is a stroke of good fortune for an actor to see the ghost of Drury Lane before a performance as it announces a long and brilliant career. The ghost, known as 'the man in grey' (because of the long grey overcoat it is seen wearing), apparently haunts the Theatre Royal on Drury Lane, in London. The ghost is usually seen in the daytime in the auditorium of the theatre, the oldest in London after the reconstructed Globe Theatre. The man in grey also wears a powdered wig, a tricorne hat and carries a sword. Some say the apparition is the ghost of a man murdered in the theatre whose skeleton was found in 1840 in a walled-in room backstage, with a dagger stuck in its ribcage.
There are many other ghost stories surrounding theatres, and Monday night was traditionally considered 'ghost night', a time when ghosts were thought to come out to perform their own plays. Apparently, this old belief lies behind the practice, still common today, of not having performances on Monday. The term 'ghost light' is also linked to superstitious beliefs about ghosts. Besides helping people find their bearings backstage and avoiding terrible accidents, this kind of backstage lighting that was originally provided by candles was there to scare off the ghosts of past performances thought to haunt the stage and interfere with existing performances.
Never speak a play's last line during rehearsals
In acting circles it is considered very unlucky to say the last line of a play out loud before the night of the performance, as it tempts fate and may expose the play to evil forces. The play, in fact, is not considered 'finished' until it is performed. This superstition resembles the superstition warning a bride against wearing the completed wedding gown before her wedding day, and may be a form of protection against evil spirits or the Devil – they cannot start attacking the wedding or the performance until it is officially 'ready' and under way.
Wearing green, yellow or blue at the theatre
These colours are believed to be unlucky when worn at the theatre. The bad luck associated with wearing the colour blue is apparently neutralised if silver is worn with it. The explanation for this superstition lies in the cost of producing blue textiles during the early days of theatre. Back in a time before synthetic dyes were common, the dye that was used to produce blue cloth was extremely expensive: if a company used blue costumes they could be assumed to be going over budget and endangering their finances. If silver was added to the costume, however, this was a clear sign that the theatre company had a very wealthy patron.
The superstitions around wearing green and yellow at the theatre have various interpretations. Some sources say that during Elizabethan times yellow and green were considered the colours of the Devil due to the destructive forces of fire and the savage forces of the forest. These same sources point out that green was also the colour of the fairies and thus a dangerous colour to wear. In fact, there is little evidence of any dislike of the colour green in Elizabethan plays and other texts, and it doesn't seem to be deemed unlucky until the seventeenth century. Other sources have argued more pragmatically that green and yellow were considered unlucky at the theatre because the lighting that used to be common in the past would make those colours virtually invisible on stage and thus an actor's performance would be hindered by his or her near invisibility.CHAPTER 2
Walking under a ladder
This is one of the most commonly held superstitions, still believed by many people who do not think themselves superstitious. It is considered very unfortunate to walk under a ladder, but there are various interpretations of what is meant to befall those who ignore the custom. Most people believe it will simply bring bad luck, a belief grounded in the possibility of objects or paint falling on the reckless pedestrian from workers on the ladder or above it. Some people believe that distracted passers-by who walk under a ladder could be sure not to get married on the year of the transgression, while other versions of the superstition predicted the gallows for the unlucky walker. The most cited origination of this superstition, however, is that the ladder is seen to form a triangle with the wall and the ground, a triangle suggesting the Holy Trinity: to walk through that triangle would be to call misfortune upon oneself by showing disrespect to the Trinity.
Other recent sources point instead to the negative symbolism of ladders in general, such as the ladder that was used to take Jesus off the cross, or the ladder used to lead inmates to the gallows (this last explanation supporting the idea that walking under a ladder is an omen pointing to a date with the hangman – not something most of us need worry about nowadays!).
Oddly, you may think, it was once considered very unlucky to find money on the ground. This belief dates as far back as the sixteenth century. In order to help ensure that they did not have to deal with the misfortune that would result from discovering a few handy coppers lying around, wily individuals took protective measures, the most common being to spit on the found money. If the coins were somehow damaged, they were considered lucky and could be picked up without any danger. The origins of this superstition are unclear but one could imagine that a poor person found in possession of coins might be accused of theft, and a broken or damaged coin would most likely have been discarded by its owner and would thus pose no threat to those who found it. It may also be that the superstition was spread as a general protective measure for the good of the community, to make it more likely that lost money would be returned to its original owner. Nowadays, it would surely take a truly superstitious individual to walk past a few coins glinting at them in the sun ...
Stepping on a crack in the pavement
It is considered unlucky to step on cracks in the pavement. Today this belief is often held by children who know the rhyme 'Step on a crack, break your mother's back' (assuming they're not in a sulk with their mothers, that is). This superstition dates back to the late nineteenth century, when a racist version of today's rhyme became popular. Although the supposed logic behind it is unclear, the original rhyme suggested that, were one to step on the cracks, one would have a black baby, which during that racist time was considered an unlucky event. A later version of the rhyme turned into 'Step on a crack and your mother will turn black', which then shifted again, probably sometime in the 1950s, to its non-racist modern equivalent. Another superstition surrounding stepping on cracks linked the number of cracks one stepped on and the number of dishes you would break that day, though the origins of this version of the superstition are difficult to ascertain.
Parting at bridges, crossing bridges and walking under them
Bridges, because they are often suspended between two stretches of land or over the dangers of water, have evoked several popular superstitions. Perhaps the most common is the belief that if one says goodbye to a friend on a bridge this is a sure sign that you will never see that person again: the bridge is a symbol of separation, with each friend belonging to a different stretch of land and growing apart. There are several superstitions warning against being the first person to cross a new bridge because the Devil, called to the bridge by his envy at man's ability to build something so complex, would avenge himself by taking the soul of the first person to cross it. Sometimes animals would be sent across the bridge first as a preventive measure against such an occurrence. In Norway it was once thought that trolls lived under bridges, so it was important to have something to give them or flatter them with so they would not pester those who wanted to cross (and this myth has reached English culture in the form of the story of the Three Billy Goats Gruff). It is common for those who work on constructing bridges to leave a symbolic amount of money in the plaster or cement making up the bridge to protect it and bring it good luck in the years to come. Wine is also sometimes used for the same purpose: bottles of wine are broken against the surface of the bridge when it is opened in the same way that is done for baptising ships. In some places it is considered very unlucky to walk under a bridge while a train or other vehicle is passing above, for the perhaps obvious reason that the bridge may collapse under such weight. To counter such a superstition, people are supposed to touch the roof of their car if they are driving, or spit, or cross their fingers. Touching the roof of the car is clearly a gesture intended to hold the bridge up. But please, should you feel the need to do this while driving, only use one hand – letting go of the steering wheel altogether seems far more likely to bring disaster to the modern driver.
In the past, crossroads were considered very dangerous places where one was likely to meet spirits, in particular the ghosts of suicides (who would often be buried there so that their soul would be confused and would not know how to find its way back to the place where it died). Crossroads marked the border between the safe world of the village and the home, and the unknown where magic, danger and adventure began. It was also common to place hanging gallows at large intersections just outside cities and villages, so crossroads were unpleasant and frightening places to walk past. When it wasn't their dead bodies left hanging and rotting for all to see, the ghosts of those who had been executed could possibly also be haunting these places. In Catholic countries, small altars to local saints or to the Virgin Mary are often found at crossroads in back streets out in the countryside, perhaps the last remnant of an archaic search for protection. In ancient times sacrifices would sometimes take place at crossroads. In Scandinavia, trolls were thought to gather at crossroads, while in the British Isles it was witches and fairies, and in India and Ancient Greece crossroads marked openings to the world of the gods and the dead.
Precautions for travellers, or advice for a happy holiday
In the past, travelling could be a very frightening and dangerous activity, so it is not surprising that many superstitions evolved around the act of setting out on a journey. A traveller leaving their home would look up at the sky and at the landscape around to notice any movement of wildlife. Anything appearing on the left side of the traveller was considered a bad omen for the journey, while anything appearing on the right was considered auspicious. To return home after setting off, for whatever reason, was considered very unlucky and likely to curse the entire trip. It was recommended, if returning home was unavoidable, that the traveller leave again the following morning, or that they perform various purification rituals before setting out again, such as lighting a candle in the local church or spitting and making the sign of the cross. It was considered bad luck to look back towards home having left, and it was also considered unlucky for those left behind to watch the traveller until they disappeared behind the horizon.
A superstition that many people still believe in today relates to St Christopher, the patron saint of travellers: to wear a silver medal or to carry around a small statue of the saint is said to protect the traveller from any misfortune. This superstition is clearly based in the Catholic tradition, where patron saints are believed to protect all aspects of daily life. The name Christopher comes from the Greek kristos (Christ) and phero (to carry) and is connected to a myth about a giant to whom the baby Christ appeared in the form of a small child wanting to cross a river. The giant carried the child across. The amulets of St Christopher always depict a tall man carrying a stick and a small baby on his back or in his arms. So next time you have a holiday from hell, perhaps you shouldn't just blame the holiday rep or the monstrous building site blocking your sea-view – think about how you may be partly to blame for not having paid heed to this wealth of superstitions. Or just stop going on those package deals ...
Excerpted from Black Cats and April Fools by Harry Oliver. Copyright © 2006 Harry Oliver. Excerpted by permission of John Blake Publishing Ltd.
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