If you have ever harbored dreams of fame and glamor, you may have imagined kicking back in the “green room”—perhaps along with a few tipsy celebrity friends and a bottle of fine champagne—awaiting your call to stage or screen. In this talk-show era, we hear much about that revered chamber, but where did the term "green room" come from? As with certain other theatrical terms, its origins are colorfully mysterious. Pinning it down to one definitive source may be impossible, but here are a few potential reasons why this glitzy waiting room has been dubbed "green."
A PLACE TO MEET ROYALS
The first two appearances of the term "green room" has nothing to do with the stage. In the October 7, 1666 entry in the Diary of Samuel Pepys, Pepys describes going with some of his friends to ask the king for money for the Navy, and he writes, “we were called in to the Green Room” to address the royals.
The color of the royal room was also addressed the next year when the Earl of Lauderdale wrote in a letter, “O it wold doe your heart good to see what a new world we have heir & how bravely all the Kings busines goes on. Now we have no green roome, all is fairely treated in Councell.”
No one knows for sure what the green room means in this case, but it’s believed to be in reference to the color the room was painted (there’s a Green Room in the White House for this reason). More importantly, there is zero evidence that these two royal green rooms have anything to do with the green room in question.
GREEN ROOM WITH CHOCOLATE
The term first appears in writing regarding the stage in the comedy A True Widow by English playwright Thomas Shadwell, which he published in 1678. In the play, the sophisticated Stanmore tells the interfering Lady Busy about a conversation with the “coxcomb” (a very vain man) Selfish about Stanmore’s prospective bride, Gertrude. Stanmore explains, “Selfish, this Evening, in a green Room, behind the Scenes, was before-hand with me ...” and goes on to protest the morals of young Gertrude.
In 1697, the term appeared again in a play—in the anonymously written The Female Wits. In it, a character called Praiseall gushes to the assembled actresses, “I’ll treat you all in the Green Room, with Chocolate.”
Green room may have stemmed from “scene room,” a term used in some theaters to describe a backstage waiting area or dressing room. Other historians and dictionaries suggest that it came from one specific theater—the Cockpit-at-Court, London—where one of the dressing rooms was covered in green baize fabric.
RED GREEN ROOMS
That literal color explanation of the room—as in green baize decoration—might be completely wrong. That’s because of the curious fact that many green rooms of that early era of English theater had red walls. Some historians claim that the confusion arose from the fact that baize fabric came mainly in green or red variants. Being cheap, and great for covering up shabby backstage walls, some theaters chose red and some chose green. More confusingly, many theaters also used heavy green baize for their stage curtains. Because of this, “behind the green” became a theater slang term meaning backstage.
It wasn’t all baize, however. Some theaters certainly began to paint their between-scenes rooms green, but that may have happened only because the term "green room" had come into such common use. (Though some actors claimed that green was soothing to the eyes.)
And red comes into another strange (and probably not very likely) story. According to an explanation featured in The Guardian, fake blood—sometimes splattered accidentally onto the walls of the green room between scenes—looks less obvious on green walls than on white ones.
DEAR GREEN PLACE
Perhaps “green” originally referred not to a color but to a place—a grassy lawn type of green where the building housing the dressing room was located. Going back further into history, consider that most plays took place out in the open on simple, makeshift stages. In those circumstances, actors may have changed their costumes or hung out between scenes “on the green,” on the grass behind the stage.
GREEN ABOUT THE GILLS
You’re backstage. You’re nervous on your big night, waiting for your call to perform. Under those stressful circumstances, you might look at little “green” with nausea—especially if, as in many traditional theaters, the green room contains no sink.
Another face-related explanation is that traditional theater makeup was rather green in color. Caked on before the show or between scenes, it highlighted the face under the stage lights (and covered all manner of nasty 18th-century skin conditions). However, it took a long time to dry without cracking, so actors waited in the "green room" until it had fully cured.
GREENGAGES, APPLES, AND PEARS
In Cockney slang, certain words or short phrases denote other words or phrases with which they rhyme, for example, “whistle and flute” for “suit,” “apples and pears” for “stairs,” and “bacon and eggs” for “legs.” According to one theory of the origins of "green room," it comes from “greengage,” a variety of plum but also rhyming slang for “stage.”
You may have heard the term “greenhorn” used to describe a rookie or young person inexperienced at his or her job. Originally, this term referred to a young animal with new, “green” horns. So, perhaps in a similar way, the “green” in green room was in reference to youth or inexperience. In Shakespearean times, most actors were very young [PDF]—often little more than children, especially for the female roles—so in some ways they were all quite “green.”
NOBODY KNOWS FOR SURE
The study of phraseology often throws up obscure-but-fascinating terms like "green room." These intriguing idioms give us all a chance to play linguistic detective (though probably not on stage.)
If you ever find yourself in that green room, chilling out with your talented buddies, you might get a chance to impress them with your wisdom about the potential origins of the name of that fabled space. Think of it as therapy—a way to calm your nausea, sound a little less "green," and prepare yourself for your big moment. “Break a leg,” as they also say in theatrical slang—but that’s a whole other story.