Tag Archives: 1878

Props at Drury Lane in 1709 and Theatre Royal in 1776

This is the second excerpt in 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

In the ‘Tatler,’ No. 42, [Eric: published July 16, 1709] Addison supplies a humorous list of properties, alleged to be for sale in consequence of the closing of Drury Lane Theatre. Notice is given, in mimicry of an auctioneer’s advertisement, that a ‘magnificent palace with great variety of gardens, statues, and waterworks, may be bought cheap in Drury Lane, where there are likewise several castles to be disposed of, very delightfully situated; as also groves, woods, forests, fountains, and country seats with very pleasant prospects on all sides of them: being the moveables of Christopher Rich, Esquire, [the manager,] who is giving up housekeeping, and has many curious pieces of furniture to dispose of, which may be seen between the hours of six and ten in the evening.’ Among the items enumerated appear the following:

A new moon, something decayed.

A rainbow a little faded.

A setting sun.

A couch very finely gilt and little used, with a pair of dragons, to be sold cheap.

Roxana’s nightgown.

Othello’s handkerchief.

A serpent to sting Cleopatra.

An imperial mantle made for Cyrus the Great, and worn by Julius Cæsar, Bajazet, King Henry VIII., and Signor Valentini. The imperial robes of Xerxes, never worn but once.

This was an allusion to Cibber’s feeble tragedy of ‘Xerxes,’ which was produced at the Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre in 1699, and permitted one performance only.

The whiskers of a Turkish bassa.

The complexion of a murderer in a bandbox: consisting of a large piece of burnt cork and a coal-black peruke.

A suit of clothes for a ghost, viz. a bloody shirt, a doublet curiously pinked, and a coat with three great eyelet holes upon the breast.

Six elbow chairs, very expert in country dances, with six flowerpots for their partners.

These articles of furniture, of a mechanical or trick sort, employed in pantomimes, are referred to in a letter published at a later date in the ‘Spectator’ from William Screene, who describes himself as having acted ‘several parts of household stuff with great applause for many years. I am,’ he continues, ‘one of the men in the hangings of the Emperor of the Moon; I have twice performed the third chair in an English opera; and have rehearsed the pump in the “Fortune Hunters.”‘ Another correspondent, Ralph Simple, states that he has ‘several times acted one of the finest flower-pots in the same opera wherein Mr. Screene is a chair,’ &c.

A plume of feathers never used but by Œdipus and the Earl of Essex.

Modern plots, commonly known by the name of trapdoors, ladders of ropes, vizard masques, and tables with broad carpets over them.

A wild boar killed by Mrs. Tofts and Dioclesian.

Mrs. Tofts, as the Amazonian heroine of the opera of ‘Camilla,’ by Marc Antonio Buononcini, was required to slay a wild boar upon the stage. A letter published in the ‘Spectator’ professed to be written by the performer of the wild boar: ‘Mr. Spectator,— Your having been so humble as to take notice of the epistles of other animals emboldens me, who am the wild boar that was killed by Mrs. Tofts, to represent to you that I think I was hardly used in not having the part of the lion in Hydaspes given to me. …As for the little resistance which I made, I hope it may be excused when it is considered that the dust was thrown at me by so fair a hand.’

The list concludes:

There are also swords, halberds, sheephooks, cardinals’ hats, turbans, drums, gallipots, a gibbet, a cradle, a rack, a cartwheel, an altar, a helmet, a back-piece, a breast-plate, a bell, a tub, and a jointed baby.

But this supposititious catalogue is scarcely more comical than the genuine inventory of properties, &c., belonging to the Theatre Royal in Crow Street, Dublin, 1776. A few of the items may be quoted:

Bow, quiver, and bonnet for Douglas.

Jobson’s bed. (For the farce of’ The Devil to Pay.’)

Juliet’s bier.

Juliet’s balcony.

A small map for Lear.

Tomb for the Grecian Daughter.

One shepherd’s hat.

Four small paper tarts.

Three pasteboard covers for dishes.

An old toy fiddle.

One goblet.

Twenty-eight candlesticks for dressing, and six washing basons, one broke, and four black pitchers.

Eleven metal thunder-bolts, sixty-seven wood ditto, fivo stone ditto.

Three baskets for thunder balls.

Rack in ‘Venice Preserved.’

Elephant in ‘ The Enchanted Lady,’ very bad.

Alexander’s car.

One pair of sea-horses.

Six gentlemen’s helmets.

Altar piece in ‘ Theodosius.’

The statue of Osiris.

Water-fall.

Frost scene in ‘ King Arthur.’

One sedan chair for the pantomime.

The scaffold in ‘Venice Preserved.’

Several old pantomime tricks and useless pieces of scenes.

(Dutton Cook. “Stage Properties.” Belgravia, vol. 35. 1878: pp. 284-286.)

Evidence of Elizabethan Props

I found this wonderful 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

‘In the mean time, I will draw you a bill of properties such as our play wants,’ says Peter Quince, the carpenter, when the performance of ‘the most lamentable comedy and most cruel death of “Pyramus and Thisby” has been duly agreed upon by the ‘crew of patches, rude mechanicals that work for bread upon Athenian stalls.’ ‘Properties’ have been, time out of mind, indispensable to theatrical exhibitions. When Melpomene first appeared, she grasped a ‘property’ dagger; when Thalia entered upon the scene, she carried a ‘property’ pastoral crook. Mr. Tennyson’s burthen of ‘Property, property, property,’ has been from days immemorial a sort of watchword to Thespis and his children.

Upon the Elizabethan stage certain properties were almost of the nature of set-pieces or detached portions of scenes. There were as yet no movable scenes employed as backgrounds to the figure-pictures formed by the actors; but the stage was not altogether without furniture or accessories to theatrical illusion. One of the earliest of properties was a representation of ‘hellmouth,’ very frequently employed in the performance of miracle plays and morals. Malone’s liberal quotations from the Diary or Account Book of Henslowe, the manager, under date March 10, 1598-9—the original work has unfortunately disappeared from Dulwich College, where it had long been preserved—supply curious information touching the properties, machinery, and fittings of our early stage. It is clear that rocks and steeples, trees and beacons, pictures now of Mother Redcap and now of Tasso,—in plays by Munday and Drayton and Dekker,—were freely brought upon the stage, in addition to such properties, in the stricter sense of the term, as musical instruments, weapons, armour, clubs, fans, feathers, crosiers, sceptres, skins of beasts, coffins and bedsteads, bulls’ and boars’ heads, a chariot for Phaeton, a trident for Neptune, wings for Mercury, a mitre for the Pope, a cauldron to be employed in the ‘Jew of Malta,’ and a dragon—one of the ‘terrible monsters made of brown paper’ ridiculed by Stephen Gossonin 1581—to figure in the ‘Faustus’ of Marlowe. A mysterious item,’the Moris lymes,’ is supposed by Malone to refer to the limbs of Aaron the Moor in ‘Titus Andronicus,’ who in the original play was probably tortured on the stage; in the same way, ‘ for the playe of Faetan the limes dead,’ may be understood to represent the remains of the hero of Dekker’s ‘Sun’s Darling’ after his fatal fall.

Mr. Payne Collier cites certain manuscript plays by William Percy, written probably about 1600, which are prefaced by a list of the properties requisite for their due performance. These are of the simplest kind—’ a ladder of roapes and a long fourme’ being prominent items—and were employed to vary the aspect of the stage, so that the spectator might persuade himself that the scene represented now Harwich, now Colchester, and now Maldon. A note to one of the plays explains that even the humble accessories contained in the list might be dispensed with upon occasion: ‘Now, if so be that the properties of any of these that be outward will not serve the turn by reason of concourse of people on the stage, then you may omit the said properties which be outward and supply their places with their nuncupations only in text letters.’ From this rather vague stage direction it may be gathered that for a ‘property’—a tree, a tower, a rock, &c.—was often substituted a mere inscription, such as reminded the spectator that he must understand the tapestry enclosing the stage to represent, now Thebes, now Rhodes, and now the Temple of Mahomet: wherever, in fact, the events dealt with by the dramatist were supposed to occur. We learn, on Mr. Collier’s authority, that the technical word ‘properties’ was applied to the appurtenances of the stage as early as the reign of Henry VI. in the ‘Castle of Perseverance,’ one of the oldest Moral Plays in the language. In an account of the furniture, &c., required for the play of ‘St. George’ at Basingborne in the year 1511, the terms ‘properties’ and ‘property making’ are both used, the tireman or wardrobe-keeper being called ‘the garment man.’ In the ‘brief estimate’ of the revels at Court in 1563-4 the ‘properties’ for five plays at Windsor are several times mentioned.

In the Gull’s Horn Book, 1609, there is humorous and minute advice to the gallants who, seated on three-legged stools, at a charge of sixpence each, crowded the stage, much to the annoyance of the actors and the audience in the other parts of the house: ‘Present yourself not on the stage, especially at a new play, until the quaking prologue has by rubbing got colour into his cheeks, and is ready to give the trumpets their cue that he is upon the point to enter; for then it is time, as though you were one of the properties, or that you dropped out of the hangings, to creep from behind the arras, with your tripos or threefooted stool in one hand and a Teston [sixpence] mounted between a forefinger and a thumb in the other; for if you should bestow your person upon the vulgar, when the house is but half full, your apparel is quite eaten up, the fashion lost, and the proportion of your body in more danger to be devoured than if it were served up in the counter amongst the poultry.”

He has got into our tiring-house amongst us,

And ta’en a strict survey of all our properties,

says Byeplay, referring to Peregrine in Brome’s comedy of ‘The Antipodes,’ 1640, and a description follows of various theatrical properties, ‘our jigambobs and trinkets,’ and other scenic accessories:

Our statues and our images of gods,

Our planets and our constellations,

Our giants, monsters, furies, beasts, and bugbears,

Our helmets, shields and vizors, hairs and beards,

Our pasteboard marchpanes and our wooden pies…

Peregrine is a sort of Quixote, and acts accordingly:

Whether he thought ’twas some enchanted castle,

Or temple hung and piled with monuments

Of uncouth and of various aspects,

I dive not to his thoughts; wonder he did

Awhile, it seemed, but yet undaunted stood;

When, on a sudden, with thrice knightly force,

And thrice, thrice puissant arm, he snatcheth down

The sword and shield that I played Bevis with,

Rusheth amongst the foresaid properties,

Kills monster after monster, takes the puppets

Prisoners, knocks down the Cyclops, tumbles all

Our jigambobs and trinkets to the wall.

Spying at last the crown and royal robes

I’ th’ upper wardrobe, next to which by chance

The devil’s vizors hung, and their flame-painted

Skin-coats, these he removed with greater fury,

And (having cut the infernal ugly faces

All into mammocks) with a reverend hand

He takes the imperial diadem, and crowns

Himself King of the Antipodes, and believes

He has justly gained the kingdom by his conquest.

(Dutton Cook. “Stage Properties.” Belgravia, vol. 35. 1878: pp. 282-284.)

Bric-a-brac

For some productions, the set decoration and dressing can be thought of as an entirely separate area of design. From just a few clues in a script, you need to fill a space with a lifetime’s accumulation of objects. Even the most detailed of set designers will not specify every single item on a stage; for the props person who enjoys dressing a set, choosing these objects is a vital skill.

In the book Art Decoration Applied to Furniture, Harriet Elizabeth Prescott Spofford features a short chapter on bric-a-brac. Rather than explaining how to collect bric-a-brac, she describes how these objects accumulate in a house and what they tell about the occupants. It’s like a perfect primer on set dressing. It was written in 1878, so it’s perfect for plays taking place in that time period; you can also adapt it for more modern plays by substituting “framed sports jersey” with “Moorish weapons”.

It is the bric-a-brac, the curious trifles, the movable ornaments and gewgaws used for filling up the picture, for giving an enhanced brilliancy, and creating interest — the things that “notable housewives” call trash and trumpery—that have about as much to do with the impression a room conveys as the heavier articles and their arrangement do. Indeed, a few moments’ observation in the drawing-room of any family will usually give much information concerning the grade of that family’s culture by nothing more than the character of the bric-a-brac to be seen there.

To be sure, people of moderate means must take their ornaments as they can get them — this an heirloom to be preserved with pride, if not with admiration; that a gift, and to be treated with honor, whether desired or not, although too frequently purchased with reference only to the giver’s eye, and without thought of its future surroundings — so that they are by no means responsible for the whole burden of their bric-a-brac. Yet almost every one can now and then find some small but characteristic treasure within reach, and that single characteristic thing, given due prominence, may be the one righteous individual of a perfect Sodom of worthless baubles. The absence of all trifles, though, is as betraying as the presence of inferior articles is, for if there is any evidence of much free expenditure elsewhere in the room, it is apt to show that articles sought for by the vulgar are in more esteem than those where sometimes one looks for beauty twice before finding it; and yet just as tale-telling is the presence of a multitude of the smaller affairs that have no especial value, for they declare a too eager love of acquisition and a less fastidious taste than full purse. The mere shape of a lamp shows whether people buy what their neighbors buy, or have any individual taste of their own to exercise, or give a thought to the matter of educating what we may call the aesthetic senses.

With the rest, if we have no myrrhine cups or unicorns’ horns, there are the countless things that our travelling friends bring us; there are our card-receivers, our tortoise-shell work-boxes, our brass appliques and candlesticks, our carved coral card-cases, our fans, our hand-screens, our albums between plaques of ivory, our vases of famous shape, even if of commonest blown glass, our lacquered trays and cases, our sandal-wood boxes, our bits of the strange Bombay work, our thousand and one fancy things, grotesque or severe, the tiny Xavajo basket that holds water, the bit of gold-work of Montezuma’s day, the drinking-cup of a chamois’ horn, the little Spanish dagger, whose damascene-work makes one remember the wonderful Moorish weapons with rubies set in their back like drops of blood, the brier-wood pipe that had a new intaglio cut upon it after every battle of the war, and that never will be smoked again — all these babioles can be made to illuminate a room and help its picturesque idea, even if they amount to nothing at all in the eyes of a dealer in bric-a-brac.

From Art Decoration Applied to Furniture, by Harriet Elizabeth Prescott Spofford, 1878 (pp. 224-230)