Behind the Scenes at the Theatre, 1861

Originally published in Dwight’s Journal of Music, 1861.

Now let us step into the “property room.” This is under the charge of an individual known as the “property man” of the theatre, and “theatrical properties” are the various articles other than dresses used in the representation of plays; consequently the property room of a large theatre is quite a museum, and really a very curious sight to one who visits it for the first time.

Here are embroidered purses of gold (filled with broken china and tin), fat pocket books of (newspapers) bank notes by rich old uncles in farces, kings’ golden sceptres, fairies tinselled wands, goblets of gold, flagons of silver, tin cups for peasants’ revels, and papier mache chickens and roast beef for dinner scenes, caskets of jewels, gorgeous Dutch metal candelabras, signet rings for monarchs, and staffs for beggars and witches, Othello’s handkerchief, the witches’ cauldron, Romeo’s vial of poison, Shylock’s scales and knife, Falstaff’s jug of sack, Friar Laurence’s rosary, Prospero’s wand, clubs for mobs, shillelaghs for Irishmen, writing aparatus for lovers to write hurried letters, kings to sign death warrants, and spendthrift’s heirs to draw bills, the “letters” used in different standard plays, all alphabetically arranged and properly superscribed ready for use, so that they serve whenever the play is performed, wills and deeds with broad seals and black marks made to look well “from the front,” crown jewels, jugs of ale without the ale, and a thousand other things used in mimicking life and representing romance.

We must not, however, forget the armory part of the property man’s charge, not the least curious part of his collection. Hero the visitor finds stands of muskets enough for a company, glittering spears for a Roman legion, gleaming battle axes for barbarians, curved scimitars for Moslems, and straight blades for true cavaliers, Spanish rapiers, Highland claymores, Toledo blades, and English broadswords. The fasces of tho Roman lictors and pole-axes of the Queen’s guard stand side by side, the executioner’s big axe and block repose grimly in a corner, while on the walls are daggers of all sorts and sizes, from the delicate one which the maiden draws as a protection against dishonor, to the broad blade bared by the murderer or ‘front wood robber,’ who steps softly over the stage when the lights are turned down, to thuds of the big fiddle; pistols, tomahawks, and other murderous implements in glittering profusion.

Whenever it happens that any of these properties are needed, the prompter makes a requisition on the “property man” the morning before the play in which they are used is performed, and the latter sees that they are ready in the evening, either in the dressing-room of the actor, if they are to be carried upon the stage, or upon the stage in their proper scene and position. The property man is generally an expert in imitating real articles with papier-mâché, paint, gold leaf, tinsel and Dutch metal; he manufactures the dragons, demons’  heads, and furnishes the blood, thunder and lightning, stormy waves, and sun and moon for the establishment.

From Dwight’s Journal of Music, Volumes 19-20, by John Sullivan Dwight, 1861, pp. 228-229

2 thoughts on “Behind the Scenes at the Theatre, 1861”

  1. What the heck is Dutch metal? I also find it interesting that we have ‘Kings to sign death warrants’ maybe we should let those guys out…I know once we had Prince Albert in a can…

  2. I thought it was metal you cooked in a Dutch oven, but apparently it’s imitation gold leaf made from brass.

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