Category Archives: Education

Historical and scholarly views of props

Stage Properties Expenses

1716 Prop Expenses

Last week, I shared photographs of some of the historic props at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. One additional artifact in their collection is this account report for the stage prop expenses incurred during three shows at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, in 1716.

Stage Properties Expenses
Stage Properties Expenses, image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The text, as best as I can decipher, reads:

Wednesday, County Wake

  • paid for Ballad, 3 pence
  • for Blood, 2 pence

Thursday, The Rover

  • The use of A Great Picture, 2 shilling and 6 pence
  • paid the Carriage to the house & back, 6 pence
  • For A Quarter of A pound of Counters by Order of Mr. Wilks, 1 shilling

Friday, King Lear

  • For A Truss of Straw, 1 shilling
  • Lightning, 6 pence
  • For Blood, 2 pence
  • For Switches, 2 pence

The final total for the three days of performances is 6 shilling and 3 pence.

The bill is signed by the three managers of the theatre, Robert Wilks, Colley Cibber and Barton Booth (no relation to Edwin and John Wilkes). There is additional text added in pencil that reads, “June 1st 1716 Thurmond’s Benfit.”

A few months ago, I posted a magazine article which listed a tongue-and-cheek imagining of some of the props stored backstage at the Drury Lane Theatre in 1709.

Merchant of Venice bond

Props at the Victoria and Albert Museum

While it is interesting to read about how props have been constructed and used throughout the long history of theatre, it is rare to find surviving examples of actual props from bygone days. After a production, props are either integrated into a theatre’s prop storage, taken home by the cast and crew, or simply disposed of. I would hazard a guess that most historical props are kept in private collections or buried deep in the back of stock rooms at old theatres, with no way of knowing just what is out there. Luckily, some of these items do make their way to museums who recognize their historical value. The Victoria and Albert Museum in London has a few such items in their collection related to props.

Merchant of Venice bond
Merchant of Venice bond, image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The first is this bond from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. For those unfamiliar with the story, Shylock lends Antonio (the aforementioned merchant) 3000 ducats; if Antonio cannot repay, he must give Shylock a pound of his flesh. This bond secures the deal and is a critical prop during the courtroom scene where Antonio’s fate must be decided.

This bond was used by Henry Irving during the production of The Merchant of Venice which opened at the Lyceum Theatre in 1879 (the museum states it opened in January, but all accounts list its opening as November). The production was designed by Hawes Craven. It is made of beige vellum mounted on cream cotton cloth with black petersham ribbon and burgundy-painted metal seal. The dust and age is a deliberate treatment done by the prop maker. Interestingly, this prop has some areas torn on purpose and stitched together with double cotton thread; it seems likely this was done so the same prop could be torn up each performance and reattached before the next one.

Irving’s production of Merchant was one of the most influential at that time, as well as one of the most popular and long-running. You can find scores of books and articles delving into every aspect of this production and his performance.

This prop came to the British Theatre Museum (a branch of the V&A which closed in 2007 and whose collection was absorbed into the main museum) in 1968 by Lady Wolfit. It had probably belonged to her husband, Sir Donald Wolfit, a well-known English theatre actor-manager, who had died just a few months prior to the Lady’s donation.

Property Sword
Property Sword, image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Next is this property sword, also used by Henry Irving for an 1895 adaptation of King Arthur. The sets, costumes and props for this show were designed by Arthurian artist Edward Burne-Jones. This prop is based off of a sword used during the Holy Roman Empire for coronation ceremonies, known as the “Sword of Saint Maurice”.

Property Sword
Property Sword, image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The prop itself has a pommel made of carved brazil nut wood with an embossed and painted metal scabbard. It was built between 1894 and 1895.

Bakst Designs
Bakst Designs, image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The final image is a drawing showing the stage property designs done by Léon Bakst for a production of the ballet La Spectre de la rose at the Diaghilev Ballets Russes in Monte Carlo in 1911. The pencil, watercolor, gouache and gold paint drawings show a green wing cushioned chair, a sewing frame behind a curtain on a curtain rod, a harp, and a bed with blanket and pillows. You can find more of his set designs on his official site, as well as his costume designs. This is the only example of his prop designs that I have ever come across.

Construction of a Table

The Construction of a Table

From Furniture Designing and Draughting (1907), by Alvan Crocker Nye, we have this wonderful diagram on how to make a table.

Construction of a Table
Construction of a Table

The top row shows names of the common parts of a table.

The next two images show a number of ways of attaching the legs. The one on the left shows the frame both being doweled to the leg and using a mortise and tenon. The frame itself is connected with blocks which tongue into a groove in the frame. The drawing on the right shows a cleat screwed to the top, with a leg tenoned into the cleat.

Continuing down the drawing is a “section of a built-up top”. As a solid wood top is expensive and hard to come by, tops were often built up with a core and covered with a finish veneer to make it look like a piece of solid wood. A piece of cross veneer was placed between the core and finish veneer; this is a piece of veneer in which the grain runs perpendicularly to the core and finish veneer.

The bottom row shows various means of securing the top to the frame. The left shows a screw which is countersunk nearly halfway through the height of the frame. The middle illustrates a pocket hole screw. The drawing on the right shows the blocks which were previously illustrated up above.

Who was the first property maker?

When I say “the first property maker”, I mean in terms of a professional person who earns a living making props. People have made props throughout history in many theatrical traditions; they certainly haven’t appeared from nowhere. Many traditions probably sustained quite a class of artisans devoted to the theater, particularly in Ancient Greece and Rome. Certainly too, there are many forms of theatre outside of our Western traditions. What I am looking at is the first group of people known as “property makers” who could make a living building props for professional theater. For that, we must look to the origins of what, in many ways, has become our idea of modern theatre and performing arts, the Elizabethans.

The pinnacle of Tudor, Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre centered around the monarchy, which hired many types of artists to perform at Court, festivals and pageants, and licensed other forms of entertainment throughout the city. Though various officers were tasked with this job earlier, the first official “Master of the Revels” with an independent office was Sir Thomas Cawarden in 1544. The office and storage facilities were consolidated to a dissolved Dominican monastery at Blackfriars. Cawarden was known for his skill in taking sketches and turning them into fully-realized productions. This required a whole “production team”, as well as the ability to communicate the needs of the stage to a group of skilled craftsmen who understood the special considerations which theatre requires. After Cawarden’s death in 1559, the office moved to the priory of St. John of Jerusalem in Clerkenwell.

The office moved several times throughout its history; in 1608, it came to be located in the Whitefriars district outside the western city wall of London. The Master of Revels at the time, Edmund Tilney, described that the Office:

…consisteth of a wardrobe and other several [i.e. separate] rooms for artificers to work in (viz. tailors, embroiderers, property makers, painters, wire-drawers and carpenters), together with a convenient place for the rehearsals and setting forth of plays and other shows….”

[Halliday, F. E. A Shakespeare Companion 1564–1964. Baltimore, Penguin, (1964)]

Tilney also noted that the office served as a residence for the Master and his family, as well as other personnel.

The records kept by the Office of the Revels informs much of what we know about the artisans hired to furnish the theatre with its physical “stuff” and the money spent on materials. It was not just writers and actors who were beginning to develop into a new profession at this time, but a whole range of carpenters, tailors, plasterers, wiredrawers, painters, plumbers and others who were becoming a new “theatrical artisan” class. Some of these artisans appear in the records steadily employed for periods of thirty or even forty years.

One of the first artists to be listed in the Revels records as a “property maker” is a man named John Carowe (or Carow or Caro). He was first employed in 1547 for the coronation of Edward, and continued to work as a property maker, joiner and carver until his death in 1574. In these records, “property making refers” not just to hand props like heads and swords, but also to the custom construction of stage furniture and large scenic devices (such as wagons and hell-mouths). In this account of expenses paid between December 1573 and January 1574, we see some of the things Carowe has provided to the Revels:

John Caro, Property maker, for money to him due for sundry parcells Holly and Jug for the play of Predor.–Fishes counterfet for the same, viz Whiting, Place, Mackarell, &c.–A payle for the castell top–Bayes for sundry purposes,–Lathes for the hollo tree–Hoopes for tharbor and top of an howse,–A truncheon for the Dictator,–Paste and paper for the Dragons head,–Deale boordes for the Senat Howse,–A long staf to reach up and downe the lights,–Fawchins for Farrants play–Pynnes styf and greate for paynted clothes,–Formes ii. and stooles xii, &c.–In all lxixs. ixd [69 shillings, 9 pence].

Carowe was also in charge of overseeing other property makers, as we can see in this account of the 1572 Christmas Revels, separated into individual projects:

Propertymakers: Iohn Caro, Iohn Rosse, Nicholas Rosse, Iohn Rosse Iunior, Thomas Sturley, Iohn Ogle, Iohn David for Caro.

Propertymakers, Embroiderers, and Haberdashers: Iohn Caro, William Pilkington, Iohn Sharpe, Iohn ffarington, Iohn Tuke, Iohn Owgle, Iohn David for Caro, Ione Pilkington

Propertymakers, Embroiderers, and Haberdashers: Iolin Carowe, William Pilkington, Iohn ffarrington, Iohn Tuke, Ione Pilkington, Thomas Tysant, Iohn David for Caro.

You can see one of the property makers is named John Rosse, and another John Rosse Junior; like many crafts at this time, the evidence points to fathers passing their skills along to sons to keep the theatrical traditions alive. It would seem that Carowe made some of his props in his own shop, which must have been thriving, while others were constructed in the Revels Offices mentioned at the beginning.

The First Prop Master in America

In his book, Thirty Years Ago: Or, The Memoirs of a Water Drinker, William Dunlap describes what may very well be one of America’s first prop masters (or property-men, as they were called then). Written in 1836, it is an intimate look at the earliest theatres in New York City. First, he describes the housing of the backstage workers, which stood behind the theatre:

Opposite to the back or private entrance to this building, stood a lofty wooden pile, erected for, and occupied by, the painters, machinists, and carpenters of the establishment; to the north of which (where now the above-mentioned temperance hotel is planted), were several low, wooden dram-shops, and other receptacles of intemperance and infamy; and to the south, several taller wooden houses, occupied by the poor and industrious; one of which tenements, immediately adjoining the scene-house, was the residence of John Kent, the property-man of the theatre, and his wife. We have seen in the last chapter, that among other properties, he was to furnish a tarrapin-supper for the young manager and his joyous companions. As some of my readers may not be sufficiently initiated in the mysteries of stage-management, I will tell them what a property-man is.

Good to his word, Dunlap describes a property man’s responsibilities circa 1811.

Though, in such matters, I do consider my authority as indifferent good, yet I will first give higher. Peter Quince says, “I will draw a bill of properties, such as our play wants;” and Bottom, who appears to be the manager, gives us a list of beards, as “your straw-coloured beard, your orange-tawny beard, your purple-in-grain beard, or your French crown-coloured beard, your perfect yellow.”

That I may not mislead, let me note, that actors in the year 1811 found their own wigs and beards; but then property beards and wigs were supplied to the supernumeraries, the “reverend, grave and potent seignors” of Venice, the senatorial fathers of Rome, or parliamentary lords of England.

Quince performed the part of the prompter, whose duty it was, to give a bill of properties to the property-man; and these consisted of every imaginable thing. In the Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example, one property is an ass’s head; which, if not belonging to the manager, or one of the company, the property-man must find elsewhere. Arms and ammunition, loaded pistols for sham mischief, and decanters of liquor for real:—(for though the actors could dispense with the bullets, they required the alcohol,)—love letters and challenges—beds, bed-linen, and babies—in short, the property-man was bound to produce whatever was required by the incidents of the play, as set down in the “bill of properties” furnished by the prompter. Such was the office of John Kent, besides furnishing suppers occasionally for the manager, and doing other extra services, for which he was well remunerated, and experienced the favour of his employer.

He then describes the background of the property man, John Kent, and his wife:

Kent and his wife were old. In youth they had been slaves to the same master, under that system established and enforced on her colonies by that nation who at the same time boasted, justly, “that the chains of the slave fell from him on his touching her shores;” that he became a man as soon as he breathed the air of her glorious island; yet, with that inconsistency so often seen in nations as well as individuals, sent her floating dungeons with the heaviest chains, forged for the purpose, to manacle the African, and convey him to a hopeless slavery among her children in America; even refusing those children the privilege of rejecting the unhallowed and poisonous gift. But England has washed this stain from her hands; while the blot remains where she fixed it, and has produced a cancerous sore on the fairest political body that ever before existed.

Mr. and Mrs. Kent were not Africans by birth, but descendants from the people so long the prey of European and American avarice; and by some intermixture of the blood of their ancestors with that of their masters, their colour was that which is known among us as mulatto, or mulatre; still they were classed with what people of African descent (who abhor the word “negro”) call “people of colour.”

A few pages later, Dunlap provides a physical description of Kent himself:

Between the table and the door sat a man of sturdy frame, but time-worn; his age appeared to be sixty. He was darker than the woman, and his features more African. His crisped iron-grey hair thickly covered his head and shaded his temples. His forehead was prominent; with many deep wrinkles crossing it; while farrows as deep marked his cheek. His dress was that of a labourer. It was neat, but here and there patched with cloth that denoted the colour originally belonging to the whole garment. He held his spectacles in his left hand and his snuff box in his right. His eyes, full of respectful attention, were fixed on the figure nearest to the table and lamp; as were also, but with a more earnest gaze, those of the reclining invalid.

Dunlap then reveals how Kent became a property man through a dialogue with Emma Portland, the “heroine” of his memoirs:

“How came you to be brought so intimately in contact with theatres, and theatrical people, Mr. Kent?”

“I’ll tell you, miss. My master wished to give me a trade, and as I always had a notion of drawing, he put me apprentice to a house and sign-painter that lived in John-street, near the play-house: and it was by waiting upon my ‘bos‘ that I got my first knowledge of actors; for as there was no scene-painters then in the country, and he having some little skill, (little enough to be sure,) of that kind of work, he was employed for want of a better; and I ground the paints, and mixed them, as he taught me. So, by and by, as I could draw rather better than bos, I became a favourite with the actors.”

“That drawing over the fire-place, I understand, is one of yours.”

“Yes, miss; but I can’t see the end of a camels-hair pencil now.”

“How long is it since you practised scene-painting?”

“This was in the year seventeen hundred and seventy four, at which time Mr. Hallam went to England. Mr. Henry was the great man of the theatre then, and a fine man he was. When I left New-York, to go to Canada, there were four sisters in the old American Company, the oldest was Mrs. Henry; and when I came back, after the war, the youngest was Mrs. Henry, and the other two had been Mrs. Henrys in the meanwhile, and were still living. This was a long time ago. Things have mended.”

Later in the book, we learn some more of Kent’s early life through another dialogue with Emma:

“I was born, as I have told you, Miss Emmy, in this city, when it was a poor little place compared to what it is now; when the park, now level as a floor, and filled with trees, was called the fields ; no houses, but some mean wooden ones, around it; and neither tree nor green thing to be seen. The people were almost as much Dutch as English. My master took me with him to Canada, when the rebels, as they called them then, were mobbing the tories—for he was an Englishman and a loyalist.”

“He was a good master to you—was he not?”

“Why do you think so, Miss?”

“Because you had a good education for—for—”

“A slave, Miss. You did not like to speak the word. Yes, I was a slave. Yes, Miss, he was a good master; but he was a master.”

“He had you taught a trade, too.”

“That makes the slave a more valuable property. He can earn more wages for his master. Having a trade, he will bring a higher price if set up at auction, to be knocked down to the highest bidder, like a horse or a dog.”

It seems strange that a “memoir” would feature an omniscient narrator and a heroine; perhaps this tale is fictionalized to some extent. Still, the details of the theatre and the lives of its workers would have been based on the realities of the day. Whether John Kent was a real historical figure or not, the first prop masters of America would have had similar lives.