The Secret Regions of the Stage

From “The Secret Regions of the Stage”, by Olive Logan, originally published in 1874.

The property-room of the theatre is a quaint and curious place. Here are kept the innumerable miscellaneous objects used on the stage, from the phial of poison which the apothecary selects from his beggarly array of empty boxes and sells to Romeo, to the banquet with which Macbeth regales his guests, and which the ghost of Banquo so unceremoniously interrupts. Purses full of tin coin; letters blank and letters written for certain pieces; kingly crowns; fairy wands: soldiers’ helmets, pistols, swords; pasteboard fowls, legs of mutton, and fruit — every thing, in fact, which is used on the stage, except scenery, costumes, and sets of furniture, is kept in the property-room. So motley an array is here, one wonders how the presiding genius of the place, the property-man, can remember where he puts things, and how he finds room for them when he does remember. A natural wonder, too, is that numbers of his articles do not get lost, being in nightly use, and passing, by the action of the play, through many hands. But a rule of the stage exacts a fine from any player who, being the last to use a “property,” fails to return it to the property-man, from whose hands it is nightly received by him who first uses it. Thus the ring which Juliet hands the nurse, with the injunction:

“Give this ring to my dear lord,”

is received by Juliet from the property-man, transmitted by her to the nurse, and thence to Romeo, who must return it to the property-man again. This is when a “stage ring” is used; but most Juliets have a ring of their own which they bestow on Romeo, who duly returns it to the lady after the final catastrophe. All the phials used in this play – and the poisoning is really of quite a promiscuous character in Romeo and Juliet — are obtained from the property-man, as well as the basket of (generally) too, too artificial flowers which Friar Lawrence uses when he soliloquizes in that strain of bewitching poetry and profound philosophy with which we are all familiar:

“Within the infant rind of this small flower
Poison hath residence, and med’cine power.”

The property-man is provided with a property-plot of each play — a property-plot being a list of the various articles required in each act — and it is rarely the case that an article is missing when it is required in the action of the piece. Accidents do sometimes happen, however. I remember once hearing a very animated discussion behind the scenes of a Philadelphia theatre, between the stage-manager and an actor who had played the part of the governor of the castle. The curtain should have fallen on the pardon of the hero by the governor aforesaid. In the present case it had fallen on a very different end of act; for, instead of pardoning the hero, the governor had ordered him to be dragged off to prison! You may imagine the consternation of the stage-manager, and the anger with which he assailed the unhappy governor who had muddled the piece in this manner. “Don’t blame me,” cried the actor, shaking his hands deprecatingly above his head; “blame the property-man. How could I say,’Here, receive your pardon!’ when there wasn’t the least mite of a pardon any where around? It ought to have been there on the table; it wasn’t, and I got out of it the best way I could, by saying, ‘Away with him to the dungeon.’ It wasn’t my fault.”

The missing pardon, a huge sheet of fools-cap with formidable seal affixed, was found quietly hanging in the property-room.

To give a blank letter for a written one is a frequent blunder, and often a serious one, as the actor, expecting the letter to be written for him, has probably omitted to commit it to memory. In the play of a master, to improvise is impossible, while in a play of a minor character, such as a French translation or a hurried dramatization of a current novel, it is not at all impossible that the actor is utterly ignorant of the plot of the play, and therefore could not improvise the letter if he would. The usual refuge in this case is to look wise at the blank page, mutter, “Um — um — ’tis well!” and turn up the stage — this being the commonly accepted stage idea of what people do when they read letters. How they are supposed to write them may be seen nightly at theatres, where actors gallop over the page with an uncut quill at a rate which would amaze a firstclass short-hand reporter. Other mistakes of the property-man cause Juliet to swallow her thumb in default of the sleeping potion, noble Romans to stab themselves with their manuscript parts, tightly rolled, because the more convenient and certainly more realistic dagger has been forgotten, while the number of people who have been shot to death by muskets that wouldn’t go off may be counted by thousands. It is the property-man’s duty to keep the fire-arms in order, and to load them when they are to be used on the stage. An early recollection is a military drama played at the old Bowery Theatre several years ago, in which there was a man clad in an ill-fitting and much-soiled Continental costume, who spurred a bony and (so to speak) expostulating horse up a wooden inclined plane called a “run,” and who, on arriving at the summit, near the flies, drew two enormous pistols, and shouting, “And Ginral Isryl Putnam wins the day!” pulled the triggers and produced two ridiculous flashes in the pan, that brought the curtain down amidst roars of laughter.

A careful property-man keeps his ramrod attached by a cord to the wall, so that he may not by mistake leave it in a gun-barrel after loading the weapon. Accidents have arisen from a neglect of this precaution, and also from the improper or careless loading of weapons, as was the case a short time since in Washington, where a young man was shot and killed on the stage of a variety theatre by a too-heavy wadding, which entered his head from the gun of a horrified comrade. Paper wads are very dangerous; among the other accidents possible through them is that of their setting fire to the scenery; hence in well-regulated theatres a special wadding is used, made of hair, and which will not communicate fire to surrounding objects.

From “The Secret Regions of the Stage”, by Olive Logan, Harper’s Magazine vol. 48., num. 287. April 1874. pp. 638-9