Tag Archives: history

Parody of Heracles with the Cercopes

Ancient Greek Theatre Props

How were props used in Ancient Greek theatre? How were props made or acquired in Ancient Greek theatre? Here is a brief introduction, and also some resources to help you explore further if you wish.

The presence of props in Ancient Greek theatre

Parody of Heracles with the Cercopes
Parody of Heracles with the Cercopes

In the picture above, the actors have furniture, hand props and crowns. There also appears to be set dressing. You can see more images showing Greek theatre in action (scroll down about halfway through the page).

One of the most popular acting anecdotes involves a Greek actor named Polus. The tale was first recounted by Aulus Gellius:

Being at this time to act the Electra of Sophocles at Athens, it was his part to carry an urn as containing the bones of Orestes. The argument of the fable is so imagined, that Electra, who is presumed to carry the relics of her brother, laments and commiserates his end, who is believed to have died a violent death. Polus therefore, clad in the mourning habit of Electra, took from the tomb the bones and urn of his son, and as if embracing Orestes, filled the place, not with the image and imitation, but with the sighs and lamentations of unfeigned sorrow. (The Attic Nights of Aulus Gellius, pg. 68)

Though this anecdote is often used when talking about acting methods, it is also an interesting prop story.

Aristotle spoke of the opsis as one of the elements of tragedy. Opsis is the visual spectacle, which in Greek theatre includes the masks, scenery, costumes, and props. In Aristotle’s Poetics, he writes:

The decoration has, also, a great effect; but, of all the parts, is most foreign to the art. For the power of Tragedy is felt without representation, and actors ; and the beauty of the decorations depends more on the art of the mechanic, than on that of the poet. (The Poetics of Aristotle, translated by Twining, 1851, pg. 14)

Here, opsis is translated as “decoration.” “Mechanic” is how Twining has translated skeuopoios. Other translaters have described it as “stage machinist”, “costumer”, “stage manager”, “property man”, or “stage carpenter”.

How props were made or acquired in Ancient Greek theatre

Skeuopoios might be defined as a mask-maker, prop-maker, prop manager, or all of the above. Skeue may mean the trappings of an actor, such as equipment, attire, or apparel. Greek theatre used a lot of masks. These were impermanent objects, made of linen, wood or leather, and often included animal or human hair. This was probably the major job of the skeuopoios. If we think in terms of how theatre works today, we can imagine that the skeuopoios would have made other impermanent objects for the theatre. After all, if the theatre hired him to make masks, and they needed another object which could be made with the same skill sets, it would not make sense for them to seek out and hire another craftsman.

Perhaps the most comprehensive look at the economic and practical realities of ancient Greek theatre can be found in Peter Wilson’s The Athenian Institution of the Khoregia. In it, he describes the Khoregia, which was the cultural institution in Athens which produced the festivals, plays, and other performances featuring singing and dancing.

A khoregia will thus have brought the khoregos or his deputies into contact with a number of craftsmen. There is the skeuopoios or maskmaker. He may have also been the person who manufactured special theatrical clothing and other properties. Perhaps, as in Demosthenes’ case, a goldsmith for crowns, and even for gold-weave fabrics, will have been consulted. A less zealous khoregos could, we are told, visit the himatiomisthotes and hire second-hand costumes from him: even the scanty evidence at our disposal reveals the considerable range open to a khoregos to demonstrate his munificence or otherwise. (The Athenian Institution of the Khoregia, pp. 86-87)

J. Michael Walton posits that a number of people made all or part of their living off of theatre. Among these, he lists

…crane-operator (mêchanopoios), mask-maker (skeuopoios), costumier (himatiomisthês)… (The Cambridge Companion to Greek and Roman Theatre, pg. 288)

From this, we can see some of the specialization which exists in theatre today.

Unfortunately, none of the masks from Ancient Greek Theatre have survived today. The only visual evidence of masks and props are from vase paintings and sculptures.

How to research

Research is a vital skill for a props person. We may be given a vague description of an object or item and be expected to build something that is either historically accurate, or something that looks “correct”. For example, we all know what a dog looks like, but when we sit down to sculpt one, our minds become incredibly blank; details like the shape of the head, the proportion of the features, and how parts transition between each other are what will sell the prop. Even when a director or designer provides us with full drawings or draftings, we may still need to do research of our own to fill in the blanks or flesh out the specifics.

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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

Props Timelines

If you haven’t already found it, be sure to check out the History of Props: A Timeline of Props and Product Usage. If your show is set in 1879, and you need to know whether toilet paper rolls had perforated sheets*, then this is the site for you.

Also, if you head on over to the Designboom history page, you can dig through any number of other historical product timelines, such as the history of shopping carts, the origin of rocking chairs, and a short history of anatomical maps.

If you have any other good historical research resources, let me know. Good research is every prop person’s duty.

*perforated toilet paper rolls were first produced in 1877.