Stage Superstitions of the Late 1800s

In the late 1800s stage superstitions were attached to the theatre partly because people everywhere were rumored to believe in good and back luck and fate and destiny. For instance, stockbrokers claimed to have lucky and unlucky days, sailors had their superstitions related to the sea, and so did brides and grooms when it came to marriage. With all the good and bad luck circulating, it was not surprising that members of the theatrical profession embraced their own set of superstitious beliefs. Among these was the belief in the evil eye, boots, the number thirteen, Fridays, black cats, ghosts, peacock plumage, stumbling, and umbrellas.

The great diva and soprano-voiced nineteenth century opera singer Adelina Patti was claimed to be a “perfect bundle of superstitions.”[1] She believed in the evil eye — a belief that a malevolent look upon a person would inflict bad luck or injury upon that person. She embraced it to such a degree, she refused to appear on stage if a cross-eyed conductor led the orchestra. She also insisted upon wearing either a bracelet or a necklace because she thought it was the only thing that would counteract the evil glances of wicked-possessed people. The highly acclaimed singer also attributed several fires and deaths to the evil influence possessed by owners of eyes that squinted.

stage superstitions - Adelina Patti

Adelina Patti. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Another of the stage superstitions that Patti and other actresses, who reached a “high pinnacle” in acting, embraced involved boots and according to The Era:

“They preserve, with the utmost care, the boots they wore at their debut, and make a point of wearing them on the first nights of engagements for ever after. Some of the dainty must surely be considerably the worse for wear by now, and unless the foresight of the original maker led him to provide, by some cunning, elasticity of material for the corns and bunions of middle age, Madame Patti and her compeers must suffer considerably through their devotion to this particular fad.”[2]

The number thirteen was claimed by some actors and actresses to be “decidedly unlucky.” For instance, French actors and actress feared the number thirteen and reputedly “would go hungry to bed rather than sit down a thirteenth guest at any table.”[3] In England, it was a different story there many actors and actresses thought the number thirteen functioned as a fairy godmother charm. Certain English actors, Letitia Elizabeth Rudge (Letty Lind) who was also acrobat, and Frederick George Hobson who was a comedian and dramatist, claimed the number thirteen brought them nothing but good luck.

Fridays were considered a fateful day practically all over the world in the late 1800s. In the theater it was “looked upon … as one to be carefully avoided when setting forth on a theatrical campaign.”[4] One actor, Edward O’Connor Terry, one of the most influential actors and comedians of the Victorian Era, liked to be contrary. He claimed Friday was his most favorite day. In fact, Friday was always the day he chose for any new production. Charles Lickford Warner felt differently. In his response to a newspaper correspondent’s questions about Friday, Warner noted, “I myself will never sign a contract or do anything connected with the theatre on Friday; certainly I would never produce [a play] on a Friday.”[5]

Edward O'Connor Terry, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Edward O’Connor Terry. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Another of the stage superstitions held by almost every nineteenth-century actor and actress involved black cats. The appearance of a black cat on stage or in a person’s dressing room reportedly brought good luck. Supposedly, the good luck followed an artist or a play depending on where the cat appeared. Madame Albani, a leading soprano of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, believed in occupying the same dressing room at the same place every time she appeared. She also attributed all her success to the lucky appearance of a black cat in her dressing room. It first happened at her debut in Covent Garden in 1878, the same year that author and humorist Mark Twain visited Zermatt, Switzerland and climbed the Riffleberg Mountain.

stage superstitions

Black cat. Public domain.

Many theatrical people had a profound belief in the ghost that “walks.” The French singer Madame Peschard went further believing in actual ghosts. She told a story about seeing a ghost on a darkened evening. According to Peschard:

“[S]he noticed a lady at some distance in front of her, and was struck with the vagueness of her outline. As she drew near, the lady started to cross the street just as a cab came along, … [and the] horse and cab could be plainly seen through her intervening figure. Then it glided slowly across to the other side … and vanished through the solid … wall of a house opposite.”[6]

Perhaps, all these stage superstitions — the evil eye, thirteen, Fridays, black cats, and ghosts — started with the eighteenth and early nineteenth theatre performers. Marie Laurent, who was born in 1826, predicted trouble and disaster whenever the curtain started its ascent but then suddenly returned to the floor. There was also Mademoiselle Rousseil, who was one of Sarah Bernhardt’s rivals. Rousseil “invariably went on foot to the theatre by the same road she took the first time.”[7] Anais Fargueil, another French actress born in the early 1800s, likewise had superstitious beliefs. However, her beliefs were extremely unusual as she was known to always carry a birth caul and hug it close whenever a dog howled or a cock crowed.

Sarah Bernhardt in Costume, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Sarah Bernhardt in Costume Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Peacock plumage was another of the stage superstitions that was considered problematic. For instance, during one theatre season (1879-1880), imitative decorations of peacock plumage were removed from the Prince of Wales’s Theatre after opening night because some audience members were taken ill. The peacock feathers were blamed for the problem, but it wasn’t just those in the audience who had a problem with the colorful feathers. Actors and actress were often against them because according to Garnet Welch, an Australian writer, dramatist, journalist and publisher:

“[D]uring the rehearsal of Whitting and his Cat in Sydney (Australia], found, upon inspecting the transformation scene, that the scenic artist had painted one very elegant ‘cloth’ with a design of mammoth peacock feathers. Horror-stricken he immediately ordered the cloth to be ‘painted out’ and covered with a fresh design, thus, in his own mind, and in the opinion likewise of his family and many of his company, averting some fearful calamity which would assuredly have happened had those malignant peacocks’ feathers remained. I remember further, the afternoon when a peacock, which had strayed from some neighboring yard, perched upon the roof of the Alexandra Theatre. The endeavours which were made, for a long time unsuccessfully, to fight that bird of evil omen away were frantic in the extreme, and the sigh of relief which escaped the managerial lips when the unfortunate creature was at last dislodged, and drive forth, like the scapegoat of old, was as profound as it was undoubtedly genuine.”[8]

stage superstitions - peacock

Peacock in full plummage. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Among the stage superstitions that many actors and actresses dreaded was to stumble when going on stage. However, it did not always take a disastrous turn as noted by John Lawrence Toole, an English comic actor, actor-manager and theatrical producer who became famous for his roles in farce and in serio-comic melodramas. He remarked that on 9 July 1853:

“I made my first appearance on the Edinburgh stage as Hector Timid in the play of ‘The Dead Shot.’ I had travelled from Dublin, and arrived in Edinburgh in the afternoon, very tired and weary. I put up at Milne’s Hotel in Leigh Street, and after a rehearsal went to bed fairly worn out. I left instructions with the landlady to call me and bring me a cup of tea at a certain hour which would give me plenty of time to get to the theatre; but she forgot her instructions, and I was still sleeping when a messenger arrived from the theatre to enquire for me. The curtain was up. I was in a terrible fright. I sprang out of bed, dressed, rushed to the theatre, and was just in time to scramble upon the stage and take up my cue. In entering, I stumbled over a mat and almost fell, and this so worried and upset me that throughout the whole piece I was nervous and wretched. Next day, however, I was agreeably surprised to find the critics unanimous in their praise of my acting, specially pointing out how ‘appropriate to the character of Hector Timid was the uneasy manner and faltering gait of the young comedian.”[9]

John L. Toole. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The last of the stage superstitions that was fearful was the belief that opening an umbrella on stage was unlucky. According to the Shields Daily News in 1886:

“Why? Probably because an umbrella implies a shower. Now, a shower of what? They threw applies at Moliere, and pipe bowls, when he did not give satisfaction. Probably oranges and other missiles were also used in the wild days of the drama. Now, just as we think that to buy a pair of skates provokes a thaw, so to put up an umbrella suggest and may (in the view of the superstitions) provoke a rain of unpleasant missiles.”[10]

stage superstitions - umbrellas

“A Meeting of Umbrellas” by James Gillray 1782. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

References:

  • [1] -, Tenbury Wells Advertiser, 31 October 1893, p. 3.
  • [2] “Stage Superstitions,” in The Era, 19 May 1894, p. 12.
  • [3] “Superstitions of the Stage,” in Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette, 7 Oct 1893, p. 4.
  • [4] “Theatrical Notes,” in Pall Mall Gazette, 8 September 1897, p. 1.
  • [5] “Stage Superstitions,” in Dundee Evening Telegraph, 3 November 1898, p. 3.
  • [6] “Stage Superstitions,” in Pall Mall Gazette, 4 January 1888, p. 11.
  • [7] “Superstition on the Stage,” in Pall Mall Gazette, 31 December 1887, p. 11.
  • [8] “Stage Superstitions,” in The Era, p. 12.
  • [9] The Theatre, Vol. 25, 1890, p. 273-274.
  • [10] “Stage Superstitions,” in Shields Daily News, 10 September 1886, p. 4.

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