Tag Archives: theatre history

Stage Properties Expenses

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.

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.

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.)

Nineteenth Century Prop Lists

Fourth in a series of excerpts 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, which I will be posting over the next several days.

Stage Properties by Dutton Cook, 1878

A new performance being in course of preparation, the property-maker is duly furnished with a ‘plot’ or list of the articles required of his department, there being also plots or lists for the heads of other departments: a scene-painter’s plot, a carpenter’s scene plot, and a tailor’s plot, setting forth the dresses necessary to the representation. In the pantomime season, or whenever any great pageant or spectacle is to be produced, these plots are of prodigious extent. They are fairly written on long slips of paper—like the bills of fare in coffee-rooms—and may be some yards in length. The property-maker affixes his list to the wall of his workshop, and subjects it to very careful study. Every item must be considered and remembered. Here is the authentic property plot of the first three scenes of the famous pantomime of’ Mother Goose':

  • Scene I.—Thunder, &c.; stick for Mother Goose; favours for villagers; huntsman’s whip; staff for beadle.
  • Scene II.—Golden egg; goose.
  • Scene III.—Three chairs; a knife and stick for pantaloon; a sword for harlequin; two pistols to fire behind the scenes.

And so on through a score of scenes.

‘Mother Goose’ was really a very simple affair, however. The property plot of modern pantomimes is more after this fashion:

  • Scene I.—Twelve demons’ heads; twelve three-pronged spears; twelve pairs demons’ wings; twelve tails; one dragon, to vomit fire, and with tail to move. One cauldron to burn blue; demon king’s head; one red-hot poker; four owls with movable eyes, to change to green imps; twelve squibs, to light on demons’ tails. Red fire.
  • Scene II. Fairy Scene.—Twenty-four silver helmets for ballet, eight superior; twenty-four javelins for ditto, eight superior; twenty-four silver shields, eight superior; twenty-four garlands of flowers, eight superior; silver car for fairy queen, with silver star at back to revolve; Cupid’s bow and arrows; one dove, to fly off; one plum-pudding, to walk; six mince pies, to walk; one turkey and sausages to sing and dance. White fire.

The eight superior articles, it may be noted, are for the ladies in the front rank of the ballet, who are brought more prominently before the spectators, and are usually the more skilled and comely of the troop. At the back of the stage, inferiority of aspect and accomplishment, and the evidences of time’s assaults and injuries, are supposed to escape observation.

The duties of the property-man are very multifarious. Is a snow-storm required? He provides the snow, and showers or drifts it from the flies. Are figures or objects to be seen crossing the distant landscape, the river or the bridge? He cuts them out of pasteboard and fits them with wires that may be jerked this way and that. Does the situation require a railway collision, a burning house, a sinking ship, or an earthquake? The property-man will take the order and promptly execute it. Steam shall be seen to issue from funnels, engines shall shriek, mines shall explode, waves shall mount, flames flicker, lightnings flash and thunder roar, rafters fall, and sparks and smoke and fearful saltpetrous fumes fill the theatre—all at the bidding of the property-man.

(Dutton Cook. “Stage Properties.” Belgravia, vol. 35. 1878: pp. 289-290.)

Props at Drury Lane in 1709 and Theatre Royal in 1776

This is the second excerpt in 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, which I will be posting over the next several days.

Stage Properties by Dutton Cook, 1878

In the ‘Tatler,’ No. 42, [Eric: published July 16, 1709] Addison supplies a humorous list of properties, alleged to be for sale in consequence of the closing of Drury Lane Theatre. Notice is given, in mimicry of an auctioneer’s advertisement, that a ‘magnificent palace with great variety of gardens, statues, and waterworks, may be bought cheap in Drury Lane, where there are likewise several castles to be disposed of, very delightfully situated; as also groves, woods, forests, fountains, and country seats with very pleasant prospects on all sides of them: being the moveables of Christopher Rich, Esquire, [the manager,] who is giving up housekeeping, and has many curious pieces of furniture to dispose of, which may be seen between the hours of six and ten in the evening.’ Among the items enumerated appear the following:

A new moon, something decayed.

A rainbow a little faded.

A setting sun.

A couch very finely gilt and little used, with a pair of dragons, to be sold cheap.

Roxana’s nightgown.

Othello’s handkerchief.

A serpent to sting Cleopatra.

An imperial mantle made for Cyrus the Great, and worn by Julius Cæsar, Bajazet, King Henry VIII., and Signor Valentini. The imperial robes of Xerxes, never worn but once.

This was an allusion to Cibber’s feeble tragedy of ‘Xerxes,’ which was produced at the Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre in 1699, and permitted one performance only.

The whiskers of a Turkish bassa.

The complexion of a murderer in a bandbox: consisting of a large piece of burnt cork and a coal-black peruke.

A suit of clothes for a ghost, viz. a bloody shirt, a doublet curiously pinked, and a coat with three great eyelet holes upon the breast.

Six elbow chairs, very expert in country dances, with six flowerpots for their partners.

These articles of furniture, of a mechanical or trick sort, employed in pantomimes, are referred to in a letter published at a later date in the ‘Spectator’ from William Screene, who describes himself as having acted ‘several parts of household stuff with great applause for many years. I am,’ he continues, ‘one of the men in the hangings of the Emperor of the Moon; I have twice performed the third chair in an English opera; and have rehearsed the pump in the “Fortune Hunters.”‘ Another correspondent, Ralph Simple, states that he has ‘several times acted one of the finest flower-pots in the same opera wherein Mr. Screene is a chair,’ &c.

A plume of feathers never used but by Œdipus and the Earl of Essex.

Modern plots, commonly known by the name of trapdoors, ladders of ropes, vizard masques, and tables with broad carpets over them.

A wild boar killed by Mrs. Tofts and Dioclesian.

Mrs. Tofts, as the Amazonian heroine of the opera of ‘Camilla,’ by Marc Antonio Buononcini, was required to slay a wild boar upon the stage. A letter published in the ‘Spectator’ professed to be written by the performer of the wild boar: ‘Mr. Spectator,— Your having been so humble as to take notice of the epistles of other animals emboldens me, who am the wild boar that was killed by Mrs. Tofts, to represent to you that I think I was hardly used in not having the part of the lion in Hydaspes given to me. …As for the little resistance which I made, I hope it may be excused when it is considered that the dust was thrown at me by so fair a hand.’

The list concludes:

There are also swords, halberds, sheephooks, cardinals’ hats, turbans, drums, gallipots, a gibbet, a cradle, a rack, a cartwheel, an altar, a helmet, a back-piece, a breast-plate, a bell, a tub, and a jointed baby.

But this supposititious catalogue is scarcely more comical than the genuine inventory of properties, &c., belonging to the Theatre Royal in Crow Street, Dublin, 1776. A few of the items may be quoted:

Bow, quiver, and bonnet for Douglas.

Jobson’s bed. (For the farce of’ The Devil to Pay.’)

Juliet’s bier.

Juliet’s balcony.

A small map for Lear.

Tomb for the Grecian Daughter.

One shepherd’s hat.

Four small paper tarts.

Three pasteboard covers for dishes.

An old toy fiddle.

One goblet.

Twenty-eight candlesticks for dressing, and six washing basons, one broke, and four black pitchers.

Eleven metal thunder-bolts, sixty-seven wood ditto, fivo stone ditto.

Three baskets for thunder balls.

Rack in ‘Venice Preserved.’

Elephant in ‘ The Enchanted Lady,’ very bad.

Alexander’s car.

One pair of sea-horses.

Six gentlemen’s helmets.

Altar piece in ‘ Theodosius.’

The statue of Osiris.

Water-fall.

Frost scene in ‘ King Arthur.’

One sedan chair for the pantomime.

The scaffold in ‘Venice Preserved.’

Several old pantomime tricks and useless pieces of scenes.

(Dutton Cook. “Stage Properties.” Belgravia, vol. 35. 1878: pp. 284-286.)