Tag Archives: 1878

Macready and his Deer Skin

This is the final excerpt from a magazine article in Belgravia, an Illustrated London Magazine, published in 1878. It describes the history of props in Western European theatrical traditions up to the late nineteenth century. I’ve split it into several sections because it is rather long and covers a multitude of subjects.

Stage Properties by Dutton Cook, 1878

When Macready produced ‘As You Like It,’ with great completeness, at Drury Lane in 1842, he was anxious to procure a real deer-skin for exhibition in the forest scenes, and by way of illustration of the song ‘ What shall he have that killed the deer?’ The Duke of Beaufort seems to have gathered that some difficulty had arisen in the matter. Macready enters in his Diary: ‘The Duke of Beaufort called and inquired of me about the deer-skin I wanted for “As You Like It.” He very courteously and kindly said he would send to Badminton, and if there was not one ready he would desire his keeper to send one express. It was extremely kind,’ concludes the tragedian, evidently deeply touched by the ducal interest in a stage property.

Only one word more about stage properties.

Mr. Three-stars, the eminent tragedian about to appear for the first time upon a provincial stage, made express inquiries concerning ‘the acoustic properties’ of the house. Thereupon the anxious property-man rushed into the presence of the manager. ‘We have not got all the properties yet, sir; Mr. Three-stars wants the acoustic properties.’ ‘Get them at once, then; let Mr. Three-stars have everything he wants!’ was the prompt reply of the energetic manager.

(Dutton Cook. “Stage Properties.” Belgravia, vol. 35. 1878: pg. 293.)

George Frederick Cooke’s Body as a Prop

This sixth excerpt from a magazine article in Belgravia, an Illustrated London Magazine, published in 1878, describes the history of props in Western European theatrical traditions up to the late nineteenth century. I’ve split it into several sections because it is rather long and covers a multitude of subjects, which I will be posting over the next several days.

Stage Properties by Dutton Cook, 1878

‘One man in his time plays many parts.’ Did George Frederick Cooke, the tragedian, when he personated Hamlet—he must have been a very indifferent Hamlet—ever think that his skull would be handled by a later Hamlet and appear upon the scene as the skull of Yorick? Yet this strange event came to pass. Cooke died in 1812, and was buried in the strangers’ vault of St. Paul’s Church, New York. Some ten years later Kean [Eric: The actor, Edmund Kean], fulfilling an engagement in America, resolved that due honour should be paid to the remains of the departed tragedian, whose memory he affected to hold in extraordinary veneration. With the permission of Bishop Hobart, the body was removed from the strangers’ vault to the public burial-ground of the parish, and a handsome monument was erected at Kean’s expense. Many lamenting friends and admirers attended the ceremony: ‘tears fell from Kean’s eyes in abundance,’ writes Dr. Francis, who relates the story in his ‘Old New York.’ But in the transfer of the coffin from the vault to the grave the dead actor’s body was subjected to strange mutilation. Kean possessed himself of one of the toe-bones; ‘it was a little black relic, and might have passed for a tobacco-stopper.’ Some other devotee stole the head; Dr. Francis may not have been the thief, but he became the receiver. He writes: ‘I may here perhaps invade the sanctity of burial transaction; but the occurrence to which I allude is innocent, and may be deemed curious as well as rare. A theatrical benefit had been announced at the Park, and “Hamlet” the play. A subordinate of the theatre hurried to my office at a late hour for a skull; I was compelled to loan the head of my old friend George Frederick Cooke. “Alas, poor Yorick!” It was returned in the morning, but on the ensuing evening, at a meeting of the Cooper Club, the circumstance becoming known to several of the members, and a general desire being expressed to investigate phrenologically the head of the great tragedian, the article was again released from its privacy, when Daniel Webster, Henry Wheaton, and many others who enriched the meeting of that night, applied the principles of craniological science to the interesting specimen before them. The head was pronounced capacious, the function of animality amply developed; the height of the forehead ordinary; the space between the orbits of unusual breadth, giving proofs of strong perceptive powers; the transverse basilar portion of the skull of corresponding width. Such was the phrenology of Cooke. This scientific exploration added to the variety and gratification of that memorable evening. Cooper felt as a coadjutor of Albinus, and Cooke enacted a great part that night.’

The toe-bone appropriated by Kean was not to be used as a property, but treasured as a relic of ‘the greatest creature that ever walked the earth:’ for so the dead tragedian was described by the living. His first words to his wife on his return from America were, ‘I have brought Charles [Eric: His son, actor Charles Kean] a fortune. I have brought something that the Directors of the British Museum would give ten thousand pounds for! But they sha’n’t have it.’ On special occasions he compelled his friends and associates to go down upon their knees and reverently kiss the precious relic. There can be little doubt that the actor’s intellects were at this time seriously deranged. The toe-bone was placed upon the mantel-piece; Mrs. Kean and the servants were strictly enjoined not to touch it upon any pretence whatever. It remained unmolested for several months. Occasionally the actor explained its merits to an intelligent visitor, otherwise it received his sole homage. ‘His wife detested it. The servants hated it. The maids were afraid of it. …At last—it was one dull evening, when Kean had been absent from home for several days, and his wife was tired of waiting and watching for him—the detested toe-bone presented itself to her sight, a few bitter words escaped her,… she eyed the object of her husband’s adoration with the most sincere disgust. …Finally she seized it, protecting her fingers with a piece of paper, and threw it out of window! Kean, discovering his loss, was furious. His wife held her peace. It was in vain that he examined and cross-examined the servants. “Mary,” he said at length, in tones of the deepest melancholy, ‘your son has lost his fortune. He was worth 10,000l. Now he is a beggar!”‘

(Dutton Cook. “Stage Properties.” Belgravia, vol. 35. 1878: pp. 291-293.)

Skulls used in Hamlet

This fifth excerpt from a magazine article in Belgravia, an Illustrated London Magazine, published in 1878, describes the history of props in Western European theatrical traditions up to the late nineteenth century. I’ve split it into several sections because it is rather long and covers a multitude of subjects, which I will be posting over the next several days.

Stage Properties by Dutton Cook, 1878

Nor is he more necessary to pantomime and melodrama than to Shakespeare. Grimaldi, indeed, upon occasions, finding a scarcity of the appliances necessary to the business of harlequinade, resorted to the public markets, and made live pigs, ducks, and geese do duty for the usual property animals—the property-man, very likely, thinking poorly of such efforts of nature in comparison with the works of art he would have produced had time permitted; just as Mr. Johnson [Eric: His name is actually Alexander Johnston, not Johnson], the machinist of Covent Garden, viewing Chunee, the real elephant at Drury Lane, is reported to have said: ‘I should be very sorry if I couldn’t make a better elephant than that!’ But as a rule no performance is possible without the property-man. What, for instance, would ‘Macbeth’ be, bereft of its properties: its witches’ cauldron, eye of newt and toe of frog, apparitions, torches, crowned kings, the dagger with which Duncan is slain and the bloodstains which are afterwards to render Macbeth’s hands ‘a sorry sight’? How could ‘Hamlet’ be played without the partisans of Francisco and Bernardo, the fencing foils for the last scene, the poisoned cup out of which Gertrude is inadvertently to drink, the book Hamlet is to read, denouncing its slanders, the miniature portraits upon which he is to descant, and that famous skull—once adorning the shoulders of Yorick, the king’s jester—over which he is to muse?

This skull seems oftentimes to have been no figment or property of pasteboard, but a real thing—there being so many skulls about in the world, and obtainable at a small cost—although there is a story told of a sheep’s head being brought on as a property to serve the purpose of the scene, and enable Hamlet to meditate as usual and point the accustomed morals. This involved a bad compliment to the departed Yorick, however, and assumed the complete ignorance of the audience in regard to comparative anatomy. Nor is it to be believed that Hamlet could seriously repeat his philosophical speeches, gazing steadily the while at the straightened forehead of the innocent sheep. Macready relates in his Diary of his performing ‘ Hamlet’ at Boston, U.S., in 1848: ‘Was struck at the grave scene with the extraordinary weight of the skull which was given to me. I thought it was loaded; then it occurred to me it might be filled with earth—but no. Mr. Ayling observed to me it might be a negro’s skull; looking at the receding forehead, I perceived it was so. But, directly, this circumstance seemed to confirm to me Agassiz’s theory, that the brain did not develop itself after childhood; the brain does not grow, but the bone does. The weight of this skull went in confirmation of this ingenious theory.’ Of a subsequent performance at Richmond in the same year he writes: ‘Acted Hamlet, taking much pains, and, as I thought, acting well; but the audience testified neither sensibility nor enthusiasm, and I suppose it was either not good or “caviare to the general.” They gave me the skull, for Yorick’s, of a negro who was hung two years ago for cutting down his overseer.’

(Dutton Cook. “Stage Properties.” Belgravia, vol. 35. 1878: pp. 290-291.)

Nineteenth Century Prop Lists

Fourth in a series of excerpts from a magazine article in Belgravia, an Illustrated London Magazine, published in 1878. It describes the history of props in Western European theatrical traditions up to the late nineteenth century. I’ve split it into several sections because it is rather long and covers a multitude of subjects, which I will be posting over the next several days.

Stage Properties by Dutton Cook, 1878

A new performance being in course of preparation, the property-maker is duly furnished with a ‘plot’ or list of the articles required of his department, there being also plots or lists for the heads of other departments: a scene-painter’s plot, a carpenter’s scene plot, and a tailor’s plot, setting forth the dresses necessary to the representation. In the pantomime season, or whenever any great pageant or spectacle is to be produced, these plots are of prodigious extent. They are fairly written on long slips of paper—like the bills of fare in coffee-rooms—and may be some yards in length. The property-maker affixes his list to the wall of his workshop, and subjects it to very careful study. Every item must be considered and remembered. Here is the authentic property plot of the first three scenes of the famous pantomime of’ Mother Goose':

  • Scene I.—Thunder, &c.; stick for Mother Goose; favours for villagers; huntsman’s whip; staff for beadle.
  • Scene II.—Golden egg; goose.
  • Scene III.—Three chairs; a knife and stick for pantaloon; a sword for harlequin; two pistols to fire behind the scenes.

And so on through a score of scenes.

‘Mother Goose’ was really a very simple affair, however. The property plot of modern pantomimes is more after this fashion:

  • Scene I.—Twelve demons’ heads; twelve three-pronged spears; twelve pairs demons’ wings; twelve tails; one dragon, to vomit fire, and with tail to move. One cauldron to burn blue; demon king’s head; one red-hot poker; four owls with movable eyes, to change to green imps; twelve squibs, to light on demons’ tails. Red fire.
  • Scene II. Fairy Scene.—Twenty-four silver helmets for ballet, eight superior; twenty-four javelins for ditto, eight superior; twenty-four silver shields, eight superior; twenty-four garlands of flowers, eight superior; silver car for fairy queen, with silver star at back to revolve; Cupid’s bow and arrows; one dove, to fly off; one plum-pudding, to walk; six mince pies, to walk; one turkey and sausages to sing and dance. White fire.

The eight superior articles, it may be noted, are for the ladies in the front rank of the ballet, who are brought more prominently before the spectators, and are usually the more skilled and comely of the troop. At the back of the stage, inferiority of aspect and accomplishment, and the evidences of time’s assaults and injuries, are supposed to escape observation.

The duties of the property-man are very multifarious. Is a snow-storm required? He provides the snow, and showers or drifts it from the flies. Are figures or objects to be seen crossing the distant landscape, the river or the bridge? He cuts them out of pasteboard and fits them with wires that may be jerked this way and that. Does the situation require a railway collision, a burning house, a sinking ship, or an earthquake? The property-man will take the order and promptly execute it. Steam shall be seen to issue from funnels, engines shall shriek, mines shall explode, waves shall mount, flames flicker, lightnings flash and thunder roar, rafters fall, and sparks and smoke and fearful saltpetrous fumes fill the theatre—all at the bidding of the property-man.

(Dutton Cook. “Stage Properties.” Belgravia, vol. 35. 1878: pp. 289-290.)

Real Objects versus Constructed Props

This is the third excerpt from a magazine article in Belgravia, an Illustrated London Magazine, published in 1878. It describes the history of props in Western European theatrical traditions up to the late nineteenth century. I’ve split it into several sections because it is rather long and covers a multitude of subjects, which I will be posting over the next several days.

Stage Properties by Dutton Cook, 1878

The maker of properties, although an important aid to theatrical representations, is never seen by the audience; he is of scarcely less value to the stage than the scene-painter, but he is never called before the curtain to be publicly congratulated upon his exploits. His manufactory or workshop is usually in some retired part of the theatre. He lives in a world of his own—a world of shams. His duty is to make the worse appear the better article; to obtain acceptance for forgeries, to create, not realities, but semblances. He does not figure among the dramatis personæ; but what a significant part he plays! Tragedy and comedy, serious ballet and Christmas pantomime, are alike to him. He appears in none of them, but he pervades them all; his unseen presence is felt as a notable influence on every side. He provides the purse of gold with which the rich man relieves the necessities of his poor interlocutor, the bank notes that are stolen, the will that disinherits, the parchments long lost but found at last, which restore the rightful heir to the family possessions. The assassin’s knife, the robber’s pistol, the soldier’s musket, the sailor’s cutlass, the court sword of genteel comedy, the basket-hilted blade that works such havoc in melodrama, all these proceed from his armoury; while from his kitchen, so to speak, issue alike the kingly feasts, consisting usually of wooden apples and Dutch-metal-smeared goblets, and the humbler meals spread in cottage interiors or furnished lodgings, the pseudo legs of mutton, roast fowls or pork chops—to say nothing of those joints of meat, shoals of fish, and pounds of sausages inseparable from what are called the ‘spill and pelt’ scenes of harlequinade.

Of late years, however, our purveyors of theatrical entertainments, moved by much fondness for reality, have shown a disposition to limit the labours of the property-maker, to dispense with his simulacra as much as possible, and to employ instead the actualities he but seeks to mimic and shadow forth. Costly furniture is now often hired or purchased from fashionable upholsterers. Genuine china appears where once pasteboard fabrications did duty—real oak-carvings banish the old substitutes of painted canvas stretched on deal laths and ‘profiled,’ to resort to the technical term, with a small sharp saw. The property-maker, with his boards and battens, his wicker-work and gold leaf, his paints and glue and size, his shams of all kinds, is almost banished from the scene. The stage accessories become so substantial that the actors begin to wear a shadowy look—especially when they are required to represent rather unlife-like characters. Real horses, real dogs, real water, real pumps and washing tubs are now supplemented by real bric-à-brac, bijouterie, and drawing-room knick-knackery.

Faith has been lost, apparently, in the arts of stage illusion; the spectators must be no longer duped, things must be what they seem. But this system of furnishing the stage with actualities, or of combining the real with the imaginary, with a view to enhancing scenic effect, is not absolutely an innovation—at least, some hints may be found of it in Addison’s account of the opera of his time. While allowing that an opera—and entertainments dependent upon spectacle for their success were included in that term—might be extravagantly lavish in its decorations—its only object being ‘to gratify the senses and keep up an indolent attention in the audience’—he urged that common sense should be respected, and that there should be nothing childish and absurd in the scenes and machines. ‘How would the wits of King Charles’s time have laughed to have seen Nicolini exposed to a tempest in robes of ermine, and sailing in an open boat in a sea of pasteboard! What a field of raillery would they have been let into had they been entertained with painted dragons spitting wildfire, enchanted chariots drawn by Flanders mares, and real cascades in artificial landscapes! A little skill in criticism would inform us that shadows and realities ought not to be mixed together in the same piece; and that the scenes which are designed as the representations of nature should be filled with resemblances and not with the things themselves. If one would represent a wide champaign country filled with herds and flocks, it would be ridiculous to draw the country only upon the scenes and to crowd several parts of the stage with sheep and oxen. This is joining together inconsistencies and making the decoration partly real and partly imaginary.’

Pursuing the subject, he relates how sparrows have been purchased for the opera house—’to enter towards the end of the first act and to fly about the stage… to act the part of singing birds in a delightful grove.’ Upon a nearer inquiry, however, he finds that, ‘though they flew in sight, the music proceeded from a concert of flagelets and bird-calls which were planted behind the scenes.’ So many sparrows, however, had been let loose in the opera of ‘Rinaldo,’ that it was feared the house would never get rid of them, and that in other plays they might make their entrance in very improper scenes, so as to be seen flying in a lady’s bed-chamber or perching upon a king’s throne. ‘I am credibly informed,’ he continues, ‘that there was once a design of casting into an opera the story of Whittington and his Cat, and that in order to it there had been got together a great quantity of mice; but Mr. Rich,”the proprietor of the playhouse, very prudently considered that it would be impossible for the cat to kill them all, and that consequently the princes of the stage might be as much infested with mice as the prince of the island was before the cat’s arrival upon it; for which reason he would not permit it to be acted in his house.’ In conclusion, he mentions a proposal to furnish the next performance of the opera with a real orange grove from Messrs. Loudon and Wise, the Queen’s gardeners at this time, and to secure a number of tomtits to personate the singing birds,’ the undertakers being resolved to spare neither pains nor money for the gratification of the audience.’

(Dutton Cook. “Stage Properties.” Belgravia, vol. 35. 1878: pp. 287-289.)