Tag Archives: Merchant of Venice

Merchant of Venice bond

Props at the Victoria and Albert Museum

While it is interesting to read about how props have been constructed and used throughout the long history of theatre, it is rare to find surviving examples of actual props from bygone days. After a production, props are either integrated into a theatre’s prop storage, taken home by the cast and crew, or simply disposed of. I would hazard a guess that most historical props are kept in private collections or buried deep in the back of stock rooms at old theatres, with no way of knowing just what is out there. Luckily, some of these items do make their way to museums who recognize their historical value. The Victoria and Albert Museum in London has a few such items in their collection related to props.

Merchant of Venice bond
Merchant of Venice bond, image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The first is this bond from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. For those unfamiliar with the story, Shylock lends Antonio (the aforementioned merchant) 3000 ducats; if Antonio cannot repay, he must give Shylock a pound of his flesh. This bond secures the deal and is a critical prop during the courtroom scene where Antonio’s fate must be decided.

This bond was used by Henry Irving during the production of The Merchant of Venice which opened at the Lyceum Theatre in 1879 (the museum states it opened in January, but all accounts list its opening as November). The production was designed by Hawes Craven. It is made of beige vellum mounted on cream cotton cloth with black petersham ribbon and burgundy-painted metal seal. The dust and age is a deliberate treatment done by the prop maker. Interestingly, this prop has some areas torn on purpose and stitched together with double cotton thread; it seems likely this was done so the same prop could be torn up each performance and reattached before the next one.

Irving’s production of Merchant was one of the most influential at that time, as well as one of the most popular and long-running. You can find scores of books and articles delving into every aspect of this production and his performance.

This prop came to the British Theatre Museum (a branch of the V&A which closed in 2007 and whose collection was absorbed into the main museum) in 1968 by Lady Wolfit. It had probably belonged to her husband, Sir Donald Wolfit, a well-known English theatre actor-manager, who had died just a few months prior to the Lady’s donation.

Property Sword
Property Sword, image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Next is this property sword, also used by Henry Irving for an 1895 adaptation of King Arthur. The sets, costumes and props for this show were designed by Arthurian artist Edward Burne-Jones. This prop is based off of a sword used during the Holy Roman Empire for coronation ceremonies, known as the “Sword of Saint Maurice”.

Property Sword
Property Sword, image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The prop itself has a pommel made of carved brazil nut wood with an embossed and painted metal scabbard. It was built between 1894 and 1895.

Bakst Designs
Bakst Designs, image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The final image is a drawing showing the stage property designs done by Léon Bakst for a production of the ballet La Spectre de la rose at the Diaghilev Ballets Russes in Monte Carlo in 1911. The pencil, watercolor, gouache and gold paint drawings show a green wing cushioned chair, a sewing frame behind a curtain on a curtain rod, a harp, and a bed with blanket and pillows. You can find more of his set designs on his official site, as well as his costume designs. This is the only example of his prop designs that I have ever come across.

Monday Morning Minutia

Traveling and unpacking have kept me from delving deep into my own writing, but the internet still has plenty of interesting things for the props person.

  • “Sheepless” Magazine has a nice feature on Paper Mâché Monkey, the theatre design studio run by Grady Barker and Meghan Buchanan. They did some work on our Measure for Measure this summer. Before officially starting their company, they also took over the prop fabrication on Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and Merchant of Venice when they moved from the Public to Broadway. It’s a well–put together article, and great to see them starting to get some attention.
  • I almost missed this the first time around, but Erich Friend highlighted some new fake candles on this Theatre Safety Blog. These were designed and patented by Disney Imagineers to go in the newly renovated Haunted Mansion. They look much more like real candles than previous versions, especially up close (at least, they do in the videos). I hope the price is right when they finally become available in the US.
  • Finally, About.com has a brief article about “Hero Props”, the company run by Seán McArdle.

Midsummer Errata

Tonight and tomorrow night finally see the official openings of our two Shakespeare in the Park shows done in repertory: A Winter’s Tale and Merchant of Venice. I’ve been working on these shows since February, so it’s a bit strange at the moment to think of them as “done”.

Merchant received a particularly glowing review in the New York Times. It spends a bit of time discussing the set, and even goes so far as to point out particular props, something which is exceedingly rare in reviews at this level.

A spotlighted ticker-tape machine sits commandingly center stage as the play begins, right across from a manual exchange board.

That ticker-tape was made by the very talented Natalie Hart. The body was re-purposed from the inside of the gramophone machine which also appears on stage; the plastic dome had to be custom made by a plastics company she found. It seems one company in America used to make acrylic bell jars like the one we needed; I remember buying one for a ticker-tape machine I had to build back in 2002. When Natalie contacted them and told them it was for a theatre show, the owner asked, “Is it for Beauty and the Beast“? It would seem many productions of that show eventually find this same company. Unfortunately, they have ceased manufacturing them, and the only options these days is to have one custom-built like we did, find a used one, or go with the dangerous option of using a glass one on stage.

I’ll be remiss if I don’t thank all the other artisans, shoppers and interns who worked so hard on these two shows and helped create something so wonderful and amazing. I’ll be sure to go into more depth of what I’ve experienced and learned from these once I get some rest and some photographs.

Later this month, I’ll be attending my first S*P*A*M conference in the Bay Area. S*P*A*M (The Society of Properties Artisan Managers) includes the heads of properties departments at most of the countries regional theatres, educational theatre programs, and many other theatres of comparable size. Every year they have a conference to network, share stories and experiences, and take part in some activities. This is my first time going since I’ve joined, and I’m really excited to both meet so many people I’ve heard about and communicated with through email, and to visit San Francisco for my first time.

We will be touring the prop shops of Berkeley Repertory Theatre and American Conservatory Theater, as well as the Pixar Studios. In addition, we will be participating in a workshop by Monona Rossol, the President and founder of Arts, Crafts and Theater Safety, Inc. Those of you who’ve spent a summer at the Santa Fe Opera know her from the annual Safety Day which all artisans and employees are required to attend every two years. I’ve been through her seminar twice as a properties carpenter; it will be interesting to attend as a properties master.

On a final note, if you visit this website regularly, you may notice it undergoing various tweaking and modifying. If you have any comments or suggestions on how to make it more useful in terms of organization, or more pretty in terms of… prettiness, please feel free to share them with me.