Tag Archives: Macready

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.)

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.)

Friday Funnies

Here are some whimsical tales to tickle your funny bone on this Friday.

When Macready opened in “Lear” at the Nottingham Theatre the “property man” received his plot for the play in the unsual manner, a map being required among the many articles–(map highly necessary for Lear to divide his Kingdom.) The property-man, being illiterate, read mop for map. At night the tragedy commences; Macready, in full stage on his throne, calls for his map; a supernumerary “noble,” kneeling, presents the aged King a white curly mop. The astounded actor rushed off the stage, dragging the unfortunate nobleman and his mop with him, actors and audience wild with delight.

-The New York Times. February 6, 1881

Imagine King Lear being handed a mop! Priceless! This next chestnut is quite a gem as well.

The other night the critical scene in “Iris,” in which Oscar Asche “breaks up housekeeping,” was almost spoiled by a property man. To avenge a fancied wrong the man glued down the vases on the mantle which Mr. Asche breaks first. When that trying scene came Mr. Asche turned Iris into the streets as usual, and turned to the vases. With a sweep of his hand he struck them. They were so firmly glued, however, that only the tops were broken by the blow–and Mr. Asche’s hand incidentally bruised. A property man is now looking for a new job.

-The New York Times. November 2, 1902

Oh that wacky property man! This final anecdote takes place at one of the first theatres I worked at professionally.

Another story which has to do with edibles on the stage used to be told by Joseph Jefferson, who described the incident as happening in the early days of the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia. “Camille” was the piece that was being played and all was going beautifully. Then came a scene between Camille and Armand, in the course of which a a servant was to enter with lights. “In those days,” said Mr. Jefferson, “Sea Island cotton was stage ice cream, just as molasses and water was stage wine.”

Armand and Camille were seated at the table and the crowded house was rapturuously following their scene. Then in came the maidservant with the wobbliest sort of a candelabrum, but the scene was so tense that nobody seemed to notice her. However, as she set down her burden between the lovers one of the candles toppled over and set fire to the ice cream. That was more than the audience could stand and the curtain was rung down.

-The New York Times. June 5, 1910

Sounds like that show was “on fire” that night! I hope these quirky little tales leave you smiling for the weekend.