Wednesday, 15 July 2015

The language of the Theatre

It's that time of the year again when many of us will be tuning into the Proms, ultimately climaxing in the great show of red, white and blue and patriotic songs on the last night. In dedication to the proms and the thousands of great on-stage performances that take place each year up and down the country, here's a brief history of some common words to do with theatres and shows.

If a performance goes well, actors and everyone involved with the production would like to think the audience will explode with applause. 'Explode' derives from the mid-sixteenth century and comes from the Latin ‘explodere’ meaning to drive out by heavy clapping. In other words, 'to reject scornfully' by booing something or someone off the stage. 'Ex' means ‘out’, 'plaudere' means ‘to clap’.

All plays have a start. 'Exposition' means the beginning of the plot when the scene is set and the characters are met and first understood. It derives from the Latin ‘exponere’ which is a verb meaning ‘to expose, publish or to set out’.

Many plots have a climax. 'Climax' comes at the end of a play or a performance. It comes from the Greek ‘klimax meaning ‘a ladder’ because, metaphorically, the top rung of suspense has been reached at the climax of something.

After an exposition and climax, we have an ending. 'Denouement'  is a word that refers to the end of a performance. It originates from the French ‘dénouer’ meaning ‘to untie or unknot’ because that's what happens with the plot at the end of a play...it all becomes clear. In other words, the string is metaphorical for the plot.

Some people may sit in the gallery. 'Gallery' refers to the cheapest seats up high, close to the ceiling that had pictures painted on it of the Classical Gods. Sitting high up, close to these extravagant paintings was likened to sitting in an art gallery.

Many actors and actresses have greenrooms. But why green? Green was seen as a calming or healing colour and, to some extent, it still is. A room in a theatre would be painted green and people who were performing would sit in the room to recover from the bright light they faced when on stage. Lime was burned to create this intense light, and this is where we get the word ‘limelight’ from. So ‘greenroom’ and ‘limelight’ are closely linked.

Some plays require the use of masks to hide identities and contribute to the layering of a plot. The Roman word for ‘mask’ is ‘persona’. As we know, the word ‘persona’ now means a specific character or person, not necessarily in a play at all (anyone can be a persona). This is also the root of ‘personality’ and ‘personal’ i.e. belonging to a specific person.

Performers may be asked to ‘show a leg’. This idiom, which now means to get a move on or do your best, is nautical slang for when females were allowed on ships overnight with their sailor boyfriends or husbands. In the morning, women had to show a hairless leg over the side of the bunk to stay in bed, whereas a hairy leg meant the men had to get up and start their duties. ‘Show a leg’ may be used more nowadays when directors want their performers to get to the stage for the start of a show.


Finally, superstitions are still rife in theatres. For example, it is still considered bad luck to say ‘Macbeth’ in a theatre as it is believed the play curses the show. This may stem from reports that the actors who first played Macbeth and Lady Macbeth died after the first early performances. However these are just superstitions. Actors tend to use ‘The Scottish Play’ to avoid bad luck. If an actor mutters the M-word before a show by accident, they are required to go outside, turn three times, spit, swear and knock to be allowed back in. ‘Break a leg’ is similar. The idiom is an ironic alternative to uttering ‘good luck’, as wishing good luck is also seen as cursed. 

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