Tag Archives: Drury Lane

Preparing the Drury Lane Pantomime, Part 3, 1901

The following comes from a 1901 magazine article. Part 1 and part 2 were published previously:

In making human heads the artist plays a very important part, being able with his brush to present them old or young, ugly or becoming, with the same foundation. The old “big-head” of pantomime is practically now obsolete, being replaced by a much lighter mask made in three pieces. Masks that at one time weighed ten pounds now scale only two and a-half. There are also half-masks for animal impersonators, such as Mr. Charles Lauri. The mask fixes upon the lower part of the head and works with elastic springs, moving with the movement of the wearer’s mouth. The upper part of the face is “made-up” to represent the animal being impersonated.

Painting the Model. Photograph by The Press Studio.
Painting the Model. Photograph by The Press Studio.

But perhaps one of the most skilful “properties” ever turned out is the “Blondin donkey.” This was first roughly designed on paper, giving details of the interior arrangements. The performer for whom the dress is intended has to be measured in almost the same way as a tailor measures for a suit of clothes. Much depends upon the accuracy of the figures—the length of the back, arms, legs, and girth. The head is made of papier-mâché, and the body of baize, the latter being padded in such a manner that when the wearer dons the dress it is a close fit and there is no room to fall about inside it. The padding also protects the wearer in case of rough-and-tumble usage. The back-legs of the donkey are worked with the legs of the man, but the front-legs of the animal are fitted with crutches reaching from the feet to the knees. On these crutches the man rests his hands and moves the legs about at will. The mouth, eyes, ears, and tail are worked by means of strings communicating with the man’s hands. Other animals are made on similar lines, the elephant requiring two people to work it.

There are many tricks dear to the “knockabout” which make a call upon the ingenuity of the property-man, and in which padded wigs and padded clothing play an important part. One man hits another over the head with a chopper, leaving the latter apparently sticking in his skull. The wig is padded with cork, in which there is a groove, that receives the chopper.

But one might go on enumerating like instances of the skill of the property-man for an indefinite period. To put it briefly and comprehensively, he is always equal to any call  upon his services.

“Preparing the Drury Lane Pantomime.” Illustrated London News and Sketch 25 Dec. 1901: 372. Google Books. Web. 11 Apr. 2017. <https://books.google.com/books?id=I5hRAAAAYAAJ>.

Preparing the Drury Lane Pantomime, Part 2, 1901

The following comes from a 1901 magazine article. Part 1 was published previously:

When a large model in papier-mâché is made, similar to those shown in the photograph, the plaster cast is necessarily a very heavy affair and takes several men to move it.

If an article is required the like of which is not to be found on the face of the earth—a grotesque and imaginative figure—then a rough design is first sketched on paper, and the model made from this. Pantomime articles are frequently treated in this way. Most plaster casts are kept in stock for future use.

Fitting Together. Photograph by The Press Studio.
Fitting Together. Photograph by The Press Studio.

In addition to the clay and papier-mâché modelling, there is a considerable amount of carpentering and, in the women’s department, needlework to be done. They also have to manipulate metal, and, upon the occasion of my visit to Drury Lane, I was shown an exact model of a Maxim. Everything was complete and full-size, the water-jacket being of brass. It was made workable, and the noise which the real weapon makes when in action was cleverly imitated by turning a small crank at the back.

The Women's Department. Photograph by The Press Studio.
The Women’s Department. Photograph by The Press Studio.

Many cunning devices are resorted to by the property-man. For instance, in making a basket of eggs, an ordinary wicker arrangement is fitted with a papier-mâché cover representing a pile of eggs. In this cover, however, spaces are left for the introduction of model eggs which can be taken from the bulk at the will of the carrier. This materially assists the illusion.

Trick musical instruments, too, are very effective. A man picks up a carrot on the stage, puts the end to his mouth, blows, and it is a whistle. The model of the carrot is built round the whistle, holes being allowed for notes and mouthpiece. The painting, however, masks these from the eyes of the audience.

“Preparing the Drury Lane Pantomime.” Illustrated London News and Sketch 25 Dec. 1901: 372. Google Books. Web. 11 Apr. 2017. <https://books.google.com/books?id=I5hRAAAAYAAJ>.

Preparing the Drury Lane Pantomime, 1901

The following comes from a 1901 magazine article:

Preparing the Drury Lane Pantomime

The property-master and his assistants are the “handy men” of the theatre. It is not generally known what a great deal depends upon the nimbleness of their fingers and the applicability of their minds. There is scarcely anything they cannot do in the way of constructive modelling. Almost everything that is required on the stage of a theatre is supplied by the property-man. If the real thing is not obtainable, or not desired, then a faithful imitation must be produced—an imitation, mark you, that, if it does not actually “take in” the beholder, must secure his admiration for its truthfulness. In short, the property-man is a kind of intellectual multum-in-parvo.

Making Clay Models. Photograph by The Press Studio.
Making Clay Models. Photograph by The Press Studio.

A great many theatrical properties are made of papier-mâché. It depends upon the nature of the article. At Drury Lane Theatre, where the accompanying photographs were taken, they have a well-equipped property-room and a large staff. Indeed, they are busy all the year round making something. The process of papier-mâché modelling is very interesting. The first stage is to form a model of the article required in clay, the latter being beaten into workable pliability with a wooden mallet. When the model is complete—and this first stage is not by any means the least skilful of the whole operation—it is treated to a coating of plaster-of-Paris, and a cast obtained. The latter, in its turn, is lined with papier-mâché, the process being a somewhat lengthy one, for the paper is carefully stuck on in thin layers until the required thickness is reached. Then it is removed from the plaster cast, and, being in sections, must be fitted together. This done, it is hung up to dry, and a very strange collection of objects are thus frequently seen in close propinquity—a rabbit ready for the cooking-pot, the head of a horse, a colossal egg, a bunch of grapes, a sea-serpent, a round of beef, a drinking-cup, a policeman’s pneumatic truncheon, a head of celery, cabbages, carrots, bloaters and kippers, all jumbled up in inextricable confusion.

After the drying come painting, gilding, and silvering. In the first-named the artist must apply many subtle touches of nature which make the whole akin to the real thing. And wonderfully like those models are made. It is quite appetising to gaze upon the representations of a succulent round of beef, a tender and plump-looking chicken, a bunch of juicy grapes, with the very bloom so skilfully introduced, and many other toothsome commodities to memory dear.

“Preparing the Drury Lane Pantomime.” Illustrated London News and Sketch 25 Dec. 1901: 372. Google Books. Web. 11 Apr. 2017. <https://books.google.com/books?id=I5hRAAAAYAAJ>.

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.

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.)