Tag Archives: 1912

Ancient Stage Properties, 1912

The following comes from a 1912 issue of The New York Times:

British Museum Contains Rich and Interesting Collection of Curious Relics.

Not the least interesting of the thousands of exhibits at the British Museum are those connected directly or indirectly with the stage. There is nothing in the Babylonian section pertaining to the subject, but the Egyptians supply us with what is probably the oldest wig in the world; a wig, it is true, that was in no way connected with the drama, but one that will compare favorably with the finest creations of the theatrical perruquier. Strangely enough, the tresses are made of plated crêpe hair, exactly similar to that used by modern actors for mustaches.

In the Graeco-Roman department may be seen the cosmetic box of a Roman lady. The white and flesh-colored chalks and rouges are similar to those used for “making up” in the days previous to the invention and manufacture of grease paint. There are also two objects of the theatrical life of the past that have their replicas in the theatres of the present day. One is a thin, oblong slab of stone bearing the Latin words “Circus plenus,” which was occasionally to be found outside a Roman circus, and corresponded to the familiar modern notice “House Full.” The other is a plain ivory disk displayed in the Egyptian room, but which would hardly attract attention. This common-looking object is a theatre check or pass, but whether of a temporary or permanent character cannot be ascertained.

Much the richest department in stage objects, however, is the Graeco-Roman, where one case of stage exhibits may be seen. Here are to be found specimens of the masks worn by actors, which were modeled according to strict rules. They were made of terra-cotta, and must have been very uncomfortable to wear (Editor’s note: We now know the actual masks were made of linen. The terra-cotta masks were models which were never actually worn). There are also numerous statuettes in bronze and terra-cotta of actors wearing their masks in the various characters they impersonated, in addition to models of masks of every description and kind. A good idea of the manner in which plays were staged in those days may be gathered from the scenes from plays as depicted on vases and a terra-cotta lamp. In the wall cases may also be seen various objects illustrating the gladiatorial combats in the arena, also the swords, helmets, and badges of those doughty champions. In addition, there are also several specimens of the discus, the throwing of which was one of the features of the late Olympic meeting, and of the weights held by the athletes in the jumping contests.

To come to more recent times, there is in the British mediaeval room a beautifully carved casket made from wood of the mulberry tree in Shakespeare’s garden, which was presented to David Garrick when he received the freedom of Stratford-on-Avon. A little further along, in the Ethnological Gallery, may be seen a very fine collection of marionettes and puppets used in the Javanese theatres. The figures are articulated, and worked by means of thin sticks attached to the limps. The Javanese are passionately fond of these shows, which are even more popular in Java than the old-fashioned “Punch and Judy” used to be in this country, or “Guignol” in France. In fact, they very much recall the fantoccini or puppet shows which delighted our forefathers.

In this same gallery are many quaint costumes and masks worn in primitive dances by the savage races of the globe, the most remarkable of which are perhaps some tortoiseshell masks fashioned to resemble crocodiles (Editor’s note: This is a horrible way to describe other cultures. I leave it in to remind us that much of our knowledge of non-Western cultures originally came from racist sources, and this type of thinking may still color our current views, even when the language has been made more politically-correct). Although these dances were generally of a religious character, they were nevertheless essentially pantomimic, and bear some analogy to the mystery play of mediaeval times.

“Ancient Stage Properties.” New York Times, 29 Sept. 1912, p. S4. The New York Times Archives, www.nytimes.com/1912/09/29/archives/ancient-stage-properties-british-museum-contains-rich-and.html.

20000 Objects in Opera Property Room, part 6, 1912

The following is the final portion of an article which first appeared in the New York Sun in 1912. You can catch up on the first part, the second part, third part, the fourth part and the fifth part.

When the [property man] was asked what is the hardest part of his work he sighed and said he thought it was clearing the stage after an act and getting it ready for the next one. In theatrical and ordinary musical companies the chorus and supers are required to go to the property room after the things they are to carry and to return them there when they are through. But this isn’t the custom in grand opera.

No matter how much truck has been in use, guns, spears, swords, garlands of flowers and any number of smaller things, everybody just dumps what he or she is carrying, throws it down wherever it happens to fall and rushes off to the dressing rooms. Immediately carpenters strike the scenery and others begin to set it for the next act.

In the midst of this turmoil the property man must gather up the things left lying around by the members of the company before they can proceed to put out the new set of props. What care and quickness this entails can be understood by studying some complicated scenes, as the first two in “The Girl of the Golden West.”

In each of these over 100 properties must be correctly placed before the curtain goes up. Actual count of those in the second act runs away up beyond a hundred and includes such a wide range of things as a papier mâché pappoose, furniture, draperies, toilet articles, dishes, tinware, white slippers, white cotton gloves, pack of playing cards, whiskey bottle, candles, matches, trunks, a washing hanging on a line (or it looks like it, at least), and so on. These not only have to be put on but got off too. The latter is generally accomplished by rapidly dumping all small articles into clothes baskets. They can be sorted out later if necessary.

This article was originally published in the New York Sun, February 25, 1912, page 16.

20000 Objects in Opera Property Room, part 5, 1912

The following is the fifth portion of an article which first appeared in the New York Sun in 1912. You can catch up on the first part, the second part, third part and the fourth part.

In addition to the mass of less frequently used properties which are distributed among the storehouses there are at the opera house itself five large rooms filled with hundreds and hundreds of the objects oftenest in demand. In one of these rooms, which is called the armory, are rows of helmets, great stands of spears, racks full of guns, innumerable swords, including the famous one of Siegfried, the white one of Lohengrin and that of Telramund. Here is Caruso’s armor, which, as he dislikes to wear or carry anything heavy, is made of aluminum. His helmets are of aluminum too. These stage weapons are never sharp enough to do any damage, even if some one accidentally got in their way.

The guns are the real thing and are loaded with powder. A permit to keep explosives on the premises has to be had every time an opera is given in which guns are fired or conflagrations imitated.

In one of the property rooms at the opera house, which is always spoken of as “Frank Furst’s room,” an employee is generally at work rubbing up gun barrels, swords and armor, or polishing brass armlets. Guns are used not only on he stage, as in “Tosca” and “Carmen,” but off stage in taking up cues.

If a great crash is to be produced half a dozen stage hands are armed beside them with a prompt book following the score. As the cue approaches he counts, “one, two, three, four, five!” At five they fire simultaneously, while at the same time there comes a clap of stage thunder. The resulting noise is big enough for any kind of a crash.

A curious phase of the property department’s work is the way it sometimes has to dovetail a job with some other department. For instance, in the last act of “Tosca” there is a flag which floats on the top of the tower. It really does float, the breeze blowing it with every appearance of naturalness. An electric fan adjusted behind the side scenes provides the breeze. In this case the flag is put in place by the property department, while the electric fan belongs to the electrical department, which must see that it is set up and running.

In the second act of “Madama Butterfly” several large Japanese lanterns with standards are brought in by Suzuki and set about the stage. Lights are burning inside them. The third act opens with the same scene after a lapse of several hours, which passage of time is indicated by having the lights in the lanterns flicker and go out one by one. This is the way it is done. When the lanterns are brought on they contain lighted candles which come under the head of properties and which therefore are put in and lighted by some one in that department.

When the curtain goes down a property man takes out these candles. Then an electrician sees that the standards are placed over metal plates in the matting, Suzuki having set them in approximately the correct position. Then he puts in electric bulbs, wires from under the stage are connected with the metal plates, contact is secured through the base of the standard and the resulting light is then turned on and off from below to simulate a flickering candle flame. After the scene the electrician comes and gets his bulbs before the property man can carry off the lanterns.

This article will conclude in a later post. It was originally published in the New York Sun, February 25, 1912, page 16.

20000 Objects in Opera Property Room, part 4, 1912

The following is the fourth portion of an article which first appeared in the New York Sun in 1912. You can catch up on the first part, the second part and the third part.

Fans too! Of course there must be real Japanese fans for “Butterfly,” and these are easily secured. For “Carmen,” however, it isn’t always a simple matter to find just the right thing. It must be a large fan painted with scenes of bull fights.

Last year the property man was down in Mexico, and seeing a lot of fans which were just the right thing and cheap too, he laid in a liberal supply. The Metropolitan company hasn’t given “Carmen” since, but when it does the fans will be ready.

In “La Gioconda” the ballet dancers representing the noon hours have fans of an unusual design. And in “Donne Curiose” Geraldine Farrar carries a small fan, but it is her own. She is said to be the only Metropolitan artist, by the way, who provides her own properties. She does it from choice. The only “prop” she does not furnish is the dagger with which she kills herself in “Butterfly.” The only other artist who provides any of the props (except some that have their own swords) is Emmy Destinn, who in the last act of “La Gioconda” uses her own dagger and her own basket of flowers.

“You would think,” said the property man, “that they would rather furnish certain small articles, such as eyeglasses or watch fobs. They could keep them with the costumes with which they should be worn.

“Sometimes they must have a key or some coins or a purse in their pocket, and you would think they might keep these themselves. But they don’t. Of course you can understand why. It would make them responsible for having the thing when it was needed on the stage.

“As it is, the property man has to see that the key is in the artist’s pocket, that he has his eyeglasses or lorgnette (just the right pair too), his purse or loose coins or dagger, or poison vial, or ring, or whatever he is going to use. If he or she, as in “Tosca,” is to carry a walking stick, we must hand it out and not make any mistake about it either. Not such a simple matter when you realize that we have about fifty of these sticks of different designs.”

This article will continue in a later post. It was originally published in the New York Sun, February 25, 1912, page 16.

20000 Objects in Opera Property Room, part 3, 1912

The following is the third portion of an article which first appeared in the New York Sun in 1912. You can catch up on the first part and the second part.

In “Donne Curiose” there are short columns on which candlesticks are placed. But they are always called “Pique Dames” columns because they were made for it in the first place. The same way with some tablecloths which are used in several productions. The plot book always calls them “Traviata tablecloths” because they were first provided for that opera.

More interesting even than the size of this great mass of material is the attention to artistic and historical veracity in its selection and designing. One would think the same swords and spears could be made to do duty in many operas. Of course, the same ones occasionally reappear, as in the Ring, but not often. Even the poles to which banners and pennants are attached are not the same in “Carmen,” for instance, as they are in “Le Cid” or “Le Prophète.” The fashion in the metal points which crown these poles wasn’t any more the same in different periods than the style of headgear was the same for Queen Elizabeth and Queen Victoria.

So just because of that one detail there are a dozen different sets of these poles and spears at the opera house. Probably not half a dozen persons in the audience would know whether a spearhead was historically correct even if they happened to notice its shape. But if the point was radically wrong some one would be sure to see it and apparently wouldn’t be able to see anything else in the entire production. Not long ago one of these particular persons wrote to the management complaining about the revolvers in “The Girl of the Golden West.”

Oddly enough this connoisseur of guncraft was a woman. She said she was amazed that the Metropolitan Opera Company, usually so careful about historical accuracy, should have in the Puccini opera pistols so unlike those carried by the gold seekers in ’49. As a matter of fact those guns are genuine old ones secured at considerable cost and trouble.

Then there is the detail of playing cards. Anybody would think a pack of ordinary cards would serve every purpose. Not at the Metropolitan! Those in “The Girl” are American cards; those in “Carmen” are foreign ones with quite different pictures from ours, and those in “Donne Curiose” are a different shape, much longer and wider than cards of the present day.

This article will continue in a later post. It was originally published in the New York Sun, February 25, 1912, page 16.