The term “Break a Leg” has been around in the theatrical world since the eighteenth century. It is often said to an actor who is about to go on stage and is meant to be a sign of good luck. It’s a strange thing to say, you might think, but like most things, there is a reason why it exists and why it then makes sense. This is how it came about.
In the Haymarket, which is a road running south from Piccadilly Circus, you will find a rather grand-looking theatre, the Theatre Royal, Haymarket. Grand building, grand name. But it started off being known as the Little Theatre. In those days, you had to get a licence before you could operate as a theatre and the only person able to grant one was the king. Fine, but when the owner produced articles ridiculing the monarch, it was no surprise that the application was turned down.
Enter Samuel Foote who took over the theatre in the mid seventeen hundreds. He applied for a licence but the king still refused. Foote was not the sort of person to take no for an answer and so he came up with a cunning plan as they say. He did not charge his audience to attend his plays but instead, charged high prices for other services such as food and drinks during the show. This got round the problem of the licence but it did not make the king any happier. He made it clear to Foote that he would never grant him his licence.
We now switch to the king’s brother, the Duke of York. Apparently, he overheard Foote boasting at how good a horseman he was. This caused the Duke to issue a challenge; a race between them the next morning. Foote agreed and the next morning, the Duke turned up with two horses. He gave one to Foote. Unfortunately for Foote, the one he was given had never been ridden or tamed.
So, it wasn’t long before Foote met the ground. He was badly injured which included a broken leg. The Duke of York felt bad about what he had done and so, in recompense, he granted Foote a theatrical licence to put on his plays at the Haymarket. The Little Theatre became the Theatre Royal in 1766 and hasn’t looked back since. And the term, break a leg? That passed into theatrical folklore and means that disaster can be changed into success.