Monday December 18, 2017 Q&A

Why don't actors wear green on stage?


1 It hinders concentration

2 It could be deadly

3 It doesn’t stand out on stage

Answer: In the Middle Ages, wearing green could kill you.

Nowadays, green is associated with health – just think of the green cross used to indicate a pharmacy, and the color of surgeons' gowns. It also represents nature and everything organic – and of course Greenpeace. Yet it used to be an unpopular color that people distrusted.

The Romans considered green to be barbaric. By the Middle Ages, painters and dyers were using plants such as ferns, the green part of leeks and birch bark to try and make the color. But it was chemically unstable and did not take well. Green came to represent instability, gambling and fate; it was also the color of the devil, miserliness and greed.

In Renaissance theatre, green was shunned because it was thought to bring bad luck. It was still a difficult color to make, so green clothes were not dyed but painted with verdigris, a beautifully green copper mixture. However, the mixture also contained acid, oxides and lead and so was very dangerous – and even deadly. The poor actors who had to wear green clothes often ended up being poisoned. There was no danger if their skin came into contact with the verdigris, as it was water resistant. But they could easily be poisoned if it got into a wound, or if it regularly got on their hands and they ingested it. Back then, hygiene wasn't what it is today. Molière, for instance, allegedly died while wearing a green costume, which only made the color even more unpopular.

Copper is found in numerous foods and is essential for the proper functioning of the body. However, it becomes toxic once the amount ingested exceeds 35mg a day over a long period, causing serious inflammation of the liver. Verdigris, which is created by oxidizing copper and often occurs naturally on old copper taps, has frequently been used as a poison. This deadly copper salt can be created by immersing the metal in vinegar.

Over the centuries, numerous dishes have been seasoned with this salt to get rid of a rival. Verdigris was even used to add poison to firearm ammunition, making a surface wound potentially lethal. And let's not forget that grape vines are sprayed with copper sulfate, which also acts as a powerful fungicide, and Paris green and Schweinfurt green were used in sewers to get rid of rats.

In fact, Schweinfurt green, otherwise known as Empire green, was Napoleon's favorite color – and could well have cost him his life. It is made by mixing arsenic with copper acetate. The island of St. Helena, where he spent the last six years of his life in exile, has a humid climate. His death was most likely caused by the noxious arsenic fumes emanating from the bright green wallpaper in his bedroom.

Michel Pastoureau,
Vert Histoire d’une couleur

Van Eyck lthe spouses Arnolfini

Thanks to Hubert Girault for his input
Laboratory of Physical and Analytical Electrochemistry, EPFL