Properties of the English Miracle Plays, 1906

The following comes from a 1906 master’s thesis by Allie V. Parks titled, “Stage Properties, Costumes, Scenery and Music of the English Miracle Plays.” These were religious pageants performed in England from the 10th to the 16th centuries. I’ve reformatted the text a bit to make it a little more readable, since it is already challenging trying to decipher the Middle English text:

We find in the stage direction mention of the stage properties as follows.

  • In the Coventry Mysteries page 249 — and ther xal be a lytil oratory with stolys and cusshonys clenly be- seyn plyche as it were a counsel-hous.
  • page 259- Here Petyr and John gon forth metyng with Symon leprows beryng a kan with watyr.
  • page 261- Here Cryst enteryth into the hous with his dispiclis, and ete the Paschas lomb.
  • page 277-  Here he takyth the basyn and the towaly-
  • p. 283 — and some dyagyaed in odyr garments with swerdys, gleynys, and other straunge wepons, with feyr and lanternys and torchis lyth.
  • p 296- Here thei xal bete Jhesus about the hed and the body— and settyn hym on a stol, and castyn a cloth ovyr his face-
  • p. 316 And qwhem he is skorgyd, thei put upon him a cloth of sylk, and settyn hym on a stol, and puttyn a kroune of thornys on hese hed with forkys; and the Jewys knelyng to Cryst, taking hym a septer and skorning him, and than thei xal pullyn of the purpyl clothe, and don on ageyn his owyn clothis; and leyn the crosse in hese necke to berynt, and drawyn hym forth with ropys.
  • p. 335– a ladder to take Cryst from the cross.
  • p. 337–  and leve the Maryes at the Sephulchere.
  • p. 336 Here thei shall leyn Cryst in his grave.

The last named reference would seem to indicate that some sort of grave or tomb was one of the stage properties of this play.

  • p. 332–Pylat, Annas and Cayphas go to ther skaffaldys.
  • p. 25- Then God douthe make the woman of the ribbe of Adam.

It would seem that a rib-bone was actually used in the creation scene. On p 388 of Chambers ‘Medieval Stage’ in the inventory of the Company of Grocers, Whitsun Plays, this item also relating to the rib occurs, A Rybbe colleyrd Red.

Another reference to the use of swords on the stage, occurs in the stage directions of the ‘Chester Plays,’ Early English Text Society edition, page 81.  “Here Abraham takes and binds his sonne Isaake upon the alter, and makes a signe as though he would cut of his head with the sword; then the angell comes and takes the ends and stayeth it saying”

In the Chester Plays by the Shakespeare Society p. 65, Heare Abraham taketh a sword and fier. In this play also Abraham is directed to take a “sorde” and make as though he would cut of his son’s head.

Chambers in The Mediaeval Stage, p. 377, from “The Hall book of the Corporation of at Leicester” gives, 1546-7 Pd. for makynge of a sworde & payntinge of the same for Harroode. This sword was probably made of wood, as it required painting, and on page 345- For the hyre of a sworde. On page 345 are also items of expense, For two bagges of leder, and For gunpowder.

Parks, Allie V. “Stage Properties, Costumes, Scenery and Music of the English Miracle Plays.” Thesis. University of Illinois, 1906. Internet Archive, 29 Oct. 2013. Web. 18 Oct. 2016. <>.

Friday Rehearsal Notes

6 Theatre Workers You Should Know – American Theatre just picked Karin Rabe Vance as one of this month’s theatre workers. Karin is the props master at the Alley Theatre, which just had a major renovation done to their production facilities. Her shop produces some enviable work, and as a fellow S*P*A*M member, she is a great help to the props community.

Designer Lez Brotherston claims boom in theatre admin jobs has taken toll on technical roles – I once walked the facilities of a theatre company which had gone out of business and were auctioning off their building and assets. The admin office was filled with rows and rows of desks; they probably had 30 people working in there. But they had no production or technical workers on staff, and produced only one show a year. I’m sure other reasons exist for their bankruptcy, but I can’t see how a setup like that could ever be successful, even with a constant infusion of cash. Anecdotally too, it seems more and more young theatre artists want to get into the admin side of things, and fewer want to do any of the hands-on work. But ultimately, you can’t get a show in front of an audience by sitting in front of a computer all day or by talking in a meeting. You have to physically build, paint, sew, wire, and source every last bit, and then heft it through the theatre door.

Free Download for Halloween: The Coffin Chapter – Just in time for Halloween, or perhaps for your remount of Christmas Carol, comes this free chapter from one of Lost Art Press’ books. It’s a lot of hand woodworking, but you can easily adapt the instructions to build one with power tools. I’m dying to try this out.

The Humble Book Bundle: Cosplay – If you haven’t heard of “Humble Bundles”, they take a bunch of products and let you buy them all for however much you want to pay, with all the money going to charity. From now until October 28th, they have a bundle of cosplay books, which feature a lot of stuff that prop builders will find interesting. They are all e-books, but it’s very high quality stuff; some of the books have been reviewed here before, and others are by well-known prop builders whose work has been featured on this blog. Check it out before it’s too late!

Land of Props Links

Backstage and Now the Boss: ‘The Only Girl in the Building’ – The New York Times takes a look at Jennifer Diaz, the first female head carpenter in IATSE Local 1. Besides exploring her career, it is also a great look at the inner workings of the most famous stagehand union.

Behind the Scenes at the Guthrie for “Sense and Sensibility” – Twin Cities Live talks with Patricia Olive, the prop master at the Guthrie Theater and fellow S*P*A*M member. They also talk with Linus Vlatkovich, the props carpenter for the show, who has been at the Guthrie for 44 years.

Scare Trick or Treaters with a Pneumatic Moving Box – Make Magazine has this great little tutorial on using two syringes to make a pneumatic opening box. There’s no air compressors or electrical parts here, just cheap, simple trickery.

The History of Wine Containers: Featuring Guest Writer Emily Kate – Your play takes place in the past; what kind of container does your wine come in? Emily Kate looks at the history of how wine was stored. You don’t want to make the anachronistic mistake of using a box of Franzia in your Ancient Egyptian show.

Sine Curve Tutorial – Finally, Lost Art Press shows us how to draw a smooth sine curve, which is a little detail often found on period furniture.

Saturday’s Monstrous Links

First Person Monster Blog with Shannon Shea – Shannon Shea is a well-known creature and effects artist who worked on films like Predator, Batman Returns, Terminator 2, and Jurassic Park. He has not updated his blog in a few years, but it has a treasure trove of stories and information if you are willing to dig through the archives.

How to Make a Halloween Mask “Sculpting” – Ed Edmunds shows you how to sculpt a scary monster mask out of water-based clay in this half hour video.

Building a Life-Size Replica of Poe Dameron’s X-Wing – Not quite life-sized, but still pretty amazing.

Got bored, made electric shaver (handheld heatwire foam cutter) – Here is a short little tutorial about making a hot wire cutter run off of a 9V battery.  I am not sure why you would want a hot wire cutter that is the same size as a knife blade, but here you go.

Strike Anywhere Versus Safety Matches

If your production is permitted to use live flame, a match can be one of the most frustrating props to get right. In real life, we barely notice when it takes a few attempts to light a match, but on stage, we want the match to light up on the first stroke. First we need to know about the two main types of matches: safety vs strike anywhere.

What is the difference between safety matches and strike-anywhere matches? A match requires a mix of chemicals in order to ignite, including phosphorus. On a strike-anywhere match, all the chemicals are contained in the head. On a safety match, the phosphorus is not on the match head, but rather on a special striking surface. It is only when you draw the match against that surface that you have the correct combination of ingredients. A strike-anywhere match can be lit against any surface with enough friction; a safety match needs a strike plate containing phosphorus.

Safety match versus Strike Anywhere Match
Safety match versus Strike Anywhere Match

The above picture shows the visual difference between the two. The head on a safety match (top) is a solid color; usually red or blue, though newer ones can be green. The head of a strike anywhere match is red with a white tip; the white tip is the phosphorus.

In theatre, we want consistency, and most productions opt for the strike-anywhere match. You can light it off of a sheet of sandpaper; I found 300 grit is pretty good. A lot of shows will tape small rectangles of sandpaper on various hard surfaces around the set so the actor can light the match wherever they are. With a safety match, the chemicals on the striking plate are consumable, so the matches get progressively harder to light unless you switch out a fresh strike plate every so often.

Using strike anywhere matches takes some foresight, since it has gotten nearly impossible to just run out to a store and buy them. You probably need to order them online. They are not difficult to find, but they may take a few days to ship because of regulations against sending them by air.

You can buy in bulk, though they tend to lose their effectiveness over time. For optimum storing, keep them in an airtight container or bag along with a pack of silica gel desiccant.

As far as the historical accuracy of matches, both types appeared at basically the same time. The nineteenth century saw a lot of change and evolution in matches. You can find a lot of information online, but be careful with what you read; many sites will have interesting trivia about matches, but will neglect to tell you which matches were widely used and which were expensive novelties.

Basic archetypal wood matches using white phosphorus were widely used between 1830 and 1890. Many nineteenth century match boxes did not contain a striking surface, but rather had a loose piece of sandpaper inside that one used to light it. They also needed to be kept in an airtight container, so you would not see piles of loose matches out in the open.

The strike anywhere match as we know it came around the beginning of the twentieth century, as the use of white phosphorus was banned around the world and alternatives were found.

Safety matches began appearing around the middle of the nineteenth century.

Besides keeping your matches dry and making sure you have the correct striking surface, the other way to help your actors light a match is to use matches with a larger head and a sturdy shaft. Kitchen matches will often use thicker wood for their body than “standard” matches. Camping matches are typically beefier too; however, if they are “windproof”, it will be harder to blow them out, which can be dangerous onstage. Fireplace matches have some of the biggest heads; their shafts can often be nine inches or longer, but you can cut them down to whatever length you need.

One final disclaimer: the use of live flame onstage should only be done when you have the approval of the venue and the local fire marshal. Many jurisdictions will not allow any fire at all, even a single match. You need to take all possible precautions, including having someone backstage on “fire watch”, standing ready with a fire extinguisher. Wherever the actor disposes of the match, whether an ashtray or other container, you should fill with a bit of water, non-flammable gel (like Vaseline), or sand. The proper flameproofing of all props, scenery, and costumes around the match is also vital.

Making and finding props for theatre, film, and hobbies