Sacred Texts  Sagas & Legends  England  Index  Previous  Next 


It is curious that Brand should not have noticed the superstitions of actors and actresses, for they are as essentially a modern growth as those he has dealt with so fully were of ancient origin; moreover, to compare the two together is to see striking points of difference and analogy. The difference is that the superstitions of the theatre are all of them based on a firm belief in the principle of Luck; they are secular from beginning to end, and without a spark of religious association. The analogy lies in the fact that, like many of the old suptrstitions, they are groundless for the most part, being no more than ipse dixits of leading artists, supposed to be borne out by the experience of the rank and file.

To whistle in a theatre is a sign of the worst luck in the world, and there is no offence for which the manager will scold an employee more quickly. Vaudeville performers believe it is bad luck to change the costumes in which they first achieved success. Old actors believe the witches' song in Macbeth to possess the uncanny power of casting evil spells, and the majority of them strongly dislike to play in the piece. Hum the tune in the hearing of an old actor and the chances are you will lose his friendship. Actors will not repeat the last lines of a play at rehearsals, nor will they go on the stage where there is a picture of an ostrich if they can avoid it. Let them try the handle of a wrong door when seeking the manager of a theatre, or the office of an agent, and they regard it as an omen of failure. The looping of a drop curtain, the upsetting of a make-up box, are the certain forerunners of evil, just as certain shades of yellow in a tie, or vest, or hat, are thought to exert an injurious influence. Even the orchestra leader would not allow a musician to play a yellow clarionet--everything would go wrong if he did. Faults of memory are also attributed by actors to the costume he may be wearing. Certain wigs bring luck, and some actors will wear one even though the part does not need one.

"If an actor's shoes squeak while he is making his first entrance, it is a sure sign that he will be well received by the audience.

"To kick off his shoes and have them alight on their soles and remain standing upright, means good luck to him, but if they fall over, bad luck is to be expected. They will also bring him all kinds of misfortune if placed on a chair in the dressing-room.

"If, when an acrobat throws his cuffs on the stage, preparatory to doing his turn, they remain fastened together, all will go well; but if, on the other hand, they separate, he must look out for squalls.

"Cats have always been considered the very best fortune-producing acquisitions a theatre can possess, and are welcomed and protected by actor and stagehand alike. But if a cat runs across the stage during the action of the play, misfortune is sure to follow. Bad luck will also come to those who kick a cat.

"The actor goes the layman one better in mirror superstitions. He believes it will bring him bad luck to have another person look into the mirror over his shoulder while he is making up before it.

"As much care must be taken by the actor on making his entrances as in the repeating of the lines. Not for their importance as an effect on the audience, but to avoid the 'hoodoo' attached to certain entries. For example: To stumble over anything on making an entrance, the actor firmly believes, will cause him to miss a cue or forget his lines.

"If his costume catches on a piece of scenery as he goes on, he must immediately retrace his steps and make a new entrance, or else suffer misfortunes of all sorts during the rest of the performance.

"Even the drop-curtain contributes its share of stage superstitions, as nearly every actor and manager believes it is bad luck to look out at the audience from the wrong side of it when it is down. Some say it is the prompt side that casts the evil spell, while others contend it is the opposite side. The management not being sure from which side the bad luck is likely to accrue, places a peep-hole directly in the centre.

"The players are not the only ones in the theatre having superstitions. The 'front of the house' have their pet ones as well.

"In the box-office, if the first purchaser of seats for a new production is an old man or woman, it means to the ticket-seller that the play will have a long run. A young person means the reverse. A torn bank-note means a change of position for the man in the box-office, while a gold certificate, strange to say, is a sign of bad luck.

"The usher seating the first patron of the evening fondly imagines that he will be lucky until the end of the performance, but if the first coupon he handles calls for one of the many thirteen seats, he is quite sure that it will bring him bad luck for the rest of the night."

To the usher, a tip from a woman for a programme also spells misfortune, and few of the old-timers will accept it. A woman fainting in the theatre is sure to bring bad luck to the usher in whose section she is seated. Not to hear the first lines of the play is to invite misfortune, so he believes.

"An usher feels sure that if he makes a mistake in seating the first person in his section, it is sure to be quickly followed by two more. The first tip of the season is always briskly rubbed on the trousers-leg, and kept in the pocket for the rest of the season as a 'coaxer.' To receive a smile over the footlights from one of the company also brings luck."

It would be a futile task to try to discover the origin of all these separate superstitions. Fortunately it is not necessary, for there is an easier and more natural solution. The omens and mascots of stage life have their source in the artistic temperament. We do not find these superstitions in the life of the music hall artist, at least not in the same degree; and whilst the actor-manager of a theatre might have some scruples for the superstitions of the profession, the manager of a music hall would have none at all, because he faces business on a purely business basis. Now, that is the difference between the actor-man and the commercial-man; the former has to deal with a crowd of uncortainties--the fickleness of the public, the machinery of the stage, the health of the troupe, lapses of memory, and a score of other items equally trying. Add to this the constant endeavour to act a picture in his own mind, or to interpret a part in a classic drama, and you have a psychology full of weird possibilities in its conclusions. Viewed from this standpoint, the actor's superstitions are to some extent natural; were he not of the artistic temperament he would be lacking in the sympathy his art requires. But still, he would not be the worse for shedding a few of these intellectual oddities; for, after all, most of them are based in fear and a lack of self-confidence.

Next: (10) Christening Ships