It’s Not Easy Being Green

For this episode, called “Show D” on our schedules, I hung out in the greenroom with the guests for the first time. In doing this, I got the vibe of the show and could sometimes tell how the taping was going to go.

While sitting with the guests and participating in their chatter, I heard the same question over and over again: “Why is this called the greenroom? It’s not even green.” This was something I — an English major, writer, and voracious reader — could not answer, but I love word-origin research, so I called my friend — a true-blue Hollywood insider — to pick her brain.

Throughout her tenure on Star Trek: Enterprise, Trek Throat gave me inside information on the show, answered my dumbest “how does television work?” questions, and with filled me up with lots of industry gossip. This time, however, I had her completely flummoxed. She wrote me, “Sorry I can’t really help. I’ve just never heard an explanation for it, which is strange because all those things have explanations.”That path cold but spurred on by the intoxicating pursuit of knowledge, I did what most of us in this Internet age do, I Googled it.

As most of us know, the greenroom — sometimes incorrectly spelled as “green room” — is a room where performers or guests hang out to relax (or vomit from nerves) before going on stage or set. The word first appeared in 1701 in a publication written by Colley Cibber, a Drury Lane dramatist and actor. The original reference reads, “I do know London pretty well, and the Side-box, Sir, and behind the Scenes; ay, and the Green-Room, and all the Girls and Women~Actresses there” and is found in Cibber’s comedy, Love Makes a Man.

I recalled references to green baize in Jane Austen’s 1814 novel, Mansfield Park. The misbehaving cousins of perfectly angelic and perfectly boring Fanny Price were getting up a play in their uncle’s absence. Back in the day when “play acting” was considered a shameful and degrading profession, the writing was already on the wall for the Bertram family. More to the point, Fanny’s cousins and friends are building a stage and particularly want green baize (a felt-like fabric used to cover billiard tables) for the green curtains. Why they couldn’t make curtains from any old fabric of whatever color is a mystery but must mean something. They also discuss having a greenroom:

“…it is the very room for a theatre, precisely the shape and length for it; and the doors at the farther end, communicating with each other, as they may be made to do in five minutes, by merely moving the bookcase in my father’s room, is the very thing we could have desired, if we had sat down to wish for it; and my father’s room will be an excellent greenroom. It seems to join the billiard-room on purpose.”

Word Detective states that there is a belief that the room was painted green to soothe the the performers eyes after spending so much time looking into the bright, harsh lights on stage. Word Detective also offers, “A related (but not quite as likely) theory proposes that since limelight is itself slightly greenish, it made sense for actors to apply their makeup in a room with green walls,” and finally concludes with:

There are other theories about “green room,” such as the suggestion that artificial grass was originally stored there (unlikely, as props usually have their own storage area), but until someone comes up with something better (and some documentation would be nice), I’ll stick with the “easy on your eyes” explanation of “green room.”

Merriam-Webster’s site offers a transcription from the WAMC public radio show, “Word for the Wise”, which explains theories but gives no solid answer:

Although there are plenty of colorful theories purporting to explain the origin of the term (the room was painted green in order to ease the strain of bright stage lighting; acting companies in Shakespeare’s day were said to have worn green livery; stage shrubbery was once stored there), in fact, the origin of the term remains uncertain.

Well, great. There’s nothing like getting hot on the trail of something only to find that there doesn’t seem to be any definitive answer. As a side-note, this research made me look up the origin of “limelight,” which I will save for another week. Can you stand the suspense?

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