How “Good Luck” Broke my Leg
“Good luck, Mallory!” a girl says to me. She has to be joking, walking around to each person and telling him or her “good luck” with a smile on her face.
I’m mildly horrified because it’s the opening night for my drama team’s annual Christmas musical and we’re backstage, preparing to begin. Doesn’t she know that it’s bad luck to say good luck in the theatre?
“Macbeth Macbeth Macbeth! Double, double toil and trouble!” A peal of mocking laughter rings through the backstage area, followed by the crew’s frantic shushing.
I bite my lip, my pre-show anxiety ratcheting up 10 notches as soon as I hear those words. What are they trying to do, curse us?
The show begins and, soon enough, I’m onstage. I don’t forget any of my lines or miss any of my cues. Everyone’s singing sounds wonderful. The anxiety I felt earlier gives way to excitement. It couldn’t be going better, and my worries seem to be all for naught.
Until, of course, something goes wrong. Suddenly, I’m sprawled across center-stage and the ending chords of the song begin to play, inciting instant panic.
That’s my cue to exit, to get behind the curtain but I find myself frozen and in excruciating pain. The accompanist looks at me with wide eyes and Jessica, the stage manager and my best friend, beckons frantically at me to move.
I take a deep breath and stand. So far, so good. The first step I attempt to take is an entirely different story. My right knee pops audibly and gives way, and I fall again. Oh god. My panic increases tenfold, and all I can think is to get backstage. I stagger a few steps and Jessica, breaking all the rules of stage managing, reaches out from behind the curtain to help me.
“It’s my knee,” I tell her breathlessly. “I don’t know what happened.” At that moment, I hear the cue for my re-entrance and I instinctively begin to do just that, only to fall onto some twig-like freshman boy who is half my height.
“Mallory can’t walk. You’ll have to do this without her,” one of the crew members hisses, and my fellow actors share a moment’s confusion, all staring at me as I lean against Jessica, looking — and feeling — pathetically crippled.
The show must go on, as the old stage saying goes. After a few minutes, I reappear, rolled onstage in an office chair by a fellow cast member. I explain my disappearance — and injury — on a “fight for the last Christmas sweater at Macy’s.”
“Never do last-minute Christmas shopping,” I sigh dramatically as the others nod seriously and the audience laughs. During the last scene, the pain in my knee becomes so great that I begin to cry halfway through — I dismiss it as great emotion induced by the touching (but cheesy, at best) Christmas love story.
The day after my injury, I hobbled into class to find my drama teacher giving a stern lecture about the importance of respecting theatre beliefs and superstitions.
For the theatrically inclined, it’s bad luck to wish someone good luck. Generally, actors and musicians say “break a leg” instead. There are many theories and urban legends as to why this is.
My personal favorite explanation is that some actors may say “good luck” to their rivals, while really hoping their rivals will break a leg. So if saying “good luck” really means “I hope you break your leg,” then saying “break a leg” really means “good luck.”
“Macbeth,” the Shakespeare play, is also a taboo to name in a theater. The legend behind this superstition is that the witches’ chants that Shakespeare uses in the play were stolen from actual witches, who were so upset that they cursed the title of the play.
If “Macbeth” is uttered out of context in a theater or a playhouse, the show becomes cursed. Instead of referring to the play by its title, actors instead use the phrase “the Scottish play.”
These are superstitions, of course, like believing that black cats are bad omens or that breaking a mirror brings seven years’ worth of bad luck. To an actor, however, they are generally taken pretty seriously.
I don’t consider myself a very superstitious person, but I still cringe when I hear “good luck” said before a performance. “Macbeth” is one of my favorite plays but the title causes a strange shudder to run down my spine.
It turns out that I tore two ligaments in my right knee that night, and I will never know exactly how that happened.
The story of my injury remains an infamous one within the drama department, even though it’s been four years since it happened. Aside from an illustration of “the show must go on,” it serves as a dire warning of what happens when theatre superstitions are broken.
“Saying ‘good luck’ really will break someone’s leg. Remember Mallory?” I’m not so sure if that’s true — I’m incredibly clumsy, after all — but maybe the theater gods really were angered or the witches’ curse really does exist. If so, then I guess you could say I’m living proof.