Tag Archives: elizabethan theatre

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.

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.)

The Swan theatre in London in 1596, by Johannes de Witt

Shakespeare’s Props

As yesterday (April 23) was William Shakespeare’s unofficial birthday, I thought I’d write a bit about props and Shakespeare. At the Public Theatre here in New York City, we’re starting to gear up for Shakespeare in the Park, starting with Twelfth Night. It will feature Anne Hathaway (the Bride Wars star, not Shakespeare’s wife).

A lot of what we know about props in Shakespearean times comes from Henslowe’s Diary, which incidentally, never once mentions William Shakespeare. It does, however, contain a detailed record of the day-to-day theatre business of Philip Henslowe, a theatrical entrepreneur involved in nearly all aspects of the Elizabethan stage. Included in his diary is an inventory of “all the properties for my Lord Admiral’s Men, the 10 of March 1598:

Item, 1 rock, 1 cage, 1 tomb, 1 Hell mouth… 1 bedstead.
Item, 8 lances, 1 pair of stairs for Phaethon.
Item, 1 globe, & 1 golden sceptre; 3 clubs
Item, 1 golden fleece, 2 racquets, 1 bay tree.
Item, 1 lion’s skin, 1 bear’s skin; Phaethon’s limbs, & Phaethon’s chariot, & Argus’s head.
Item, Iris’s head, & rainbow; 1 little altar. . .
1 ghost’s gown; 1 crown with a sun.”

You can see many typical props here. Furniture, weapons, and set decoration all appear on the list. Heads are another common prop made by prop shops. The list also contains what we would consider small set pieces. As Elizabethan theatre had no “background” scenery, it made sense for a set of stairs to be made and maintained by the same person or people who made and kept track of the bedstead.

It is a fairly straightforward props list. When you read a Shakespeare play, the stage directions will be pretty explicit about what props his actors probably used. In Romeo and Juliet, when it is written that Juliet “snatches Romeo’s dagger”, it most certainly meant she (technically, he) grabbed a prop dagger, rather than miming the action. The style and construction of the dagger is less certain, though many scholars contend it would have been an Elizabethan dagger, rather than a more historically or geographically accurate one.  In other words, the dagger in Julius Caesar would have been the same dagger as in Romeo and Juliet, which would have been similar to the daggers carried by the audience.

Perhaps one of the most problematic stage directions is The Winter’s Tale‘s “exit pursued by a bear”. Without uncovering new archaeological evidence, we will probably never know whether a real bear was used or not. But for the rest of the props, between Henslow’s diary, and de Witt’s drawing of the Swan theatre (pictured below), we get a good overview of props in Shakespeare’s time: weapons, furniture, minor set decoration and small set pieces, and fake (I hope) body parts.

You can find more about Henslowe’s Diary by perusing the public domain Henslow’s Diary Companion on Google Books. I also found a great deal of information at Internet Shakespeare. If you click around, you’ll find an archive of Shakespeare in Performance, including an archive of artifacts from past performances of Shakespeare’s plays. This includes not only drawings and photographs, but also props lists, scene breakdowns, and other production notes.

The Swan theatre in London in 1596, by Johannes de Witt
The Swan theatre in London in 1596, by Johannes de Witt