Tag Archives: property-room

Props in Caroline England

Richard Brome was an English playwright of the Caroline Era, coming just on the heels of Shakespeare. In his 1640 play The Antipodes, he describes the inventory of properties and costumes of a typical company at the time. In the scene, a character named By-Play is describing how another character named Peregrine entered the company’s prop room and, thinking everything was real, set forth on “conquering” all the props.

Richard Brome
Richard Brome

“He has got into our tiring house[ref]The tiring house was a backstage area for actors to change costumes and grab props before going back onto stage (http://www.bardstage.org/globe-theatre-tiring-house.htm)[/ref] amongst us,
And ta’en a strict survey of all our properties,
Our statues, and our images of gods,
Our planets, and our constellations,
Our giants, monsters, furies, beasts, and bug-bears,
Our helmets, shields, and visors, hair, and beards,
Our paste-board march-panes, and our wooden pies.
Whether he thought ‘t was some enchanted castle,
Or temple, hung and piled with monuments
Of uncouth and various aspects,
I dive not to his thoughts. Wonder he did
Awhile, it seemed, but yet undaunted stood;
When, on a sudden, with thrice knightly force,
And thrice puissant arm, he snatcheth down
The sword and shield that I played Bevis with,
Rushed among the ‘foresaid properties,
Killed monster after monster, takes the puppets
Prisoners, knocks down the Cyclops, tumbles all
Our Jigamogs and trinkets to the wall.
Spying at last the crown and royal robes
I’ the upper-wardrobe, next to which, by chance,
The devil’s visor hung, and their flame-painted
Skin-coats, these he removed with greater fury;
And (having cut the infernal ugly faces
All into mammocks,) with a reverend hand
He takes the imperial diadem, and crowns
Himself ‘King of the Antipodes,’ and believes
He has justly gained the kingdom by his conquest.”[ref]Wall, James W. Rise and progress of the modern drama. Knickerbocker, v.44, July, 1854, p.70. Google Books. Web. 27 June 2016. <https://books.google.com/books?id=zJtdXXOxOK0C&pg=PA70#v=onepage&q&f=false>.[/ref]

Original text of script
Original text of script

The Property Man, 1884

The following appeared in an 1884 issue of the Bismarck Weekly Tribune:

One of the Most Important Individuals About a Theatre

“One of the most useful and important functionaries about a theatre is the property man,” said one who has grown gray in the business the other day. “By the property man is meant the person whose duty it is to furnish the properties for all the plays produced, and to see that they are placed conveniently at hand to be ready when wanted. Properties are everything used in a play except the scenery. The carpets, furniture and curtains, guns and pistols, pocket-books, money, candles, matches, cigars, pianos, pictures, food and drink, letters, musical instruments—all these and countless other things come under the head of properties.

The Property-Room

“Every theatre has what is called a property-room where these things are kept. It has very much the appearance of a pawn-broker’s shop, except that nothing is wrapped up and there is no counter. Come in here and see for yourself,” he continued, as he led the way into a dingy room at the back of the stage, where there was a most heterogeneous collection of such articles as he had named.

“Few people have any idea of the care and responsibility of a property man. He has more on his mind than anybody else about a theatre. There are 150 different things, large and small, that he must remember, and woe betide him if he forgets any one of them or fails to have it in its proper place at the right time. People who visit the theatre have no idea how dependent they are on the property man for their pleasure, for if he forgets anything or does not have everything just as it should be it will give rise to a contretemps, which will retard the action of the scene and mar its whole effect.

A Choice of Pistols

“For example; It is part of his duty to attend to all the fire-arms used on the stage. In the most critical part of the play the leading man is to rescue the leading lady from the tolls of the villain by killing him with a pistol shot. The property man selects the best pistol in his collection, cleans and loads it carefully, fires it off in the property-room to make sure that it won’t miss fire, loads it again, and in a perfectly comfortable frame of mind gives it to the leading man as he goes on for his great scene. The critical moment arrives. The leading man cries out in his most terrible voice: ‘Die villain!’ and pulls the trigger, but the pistol doesn’t go off, so the villain must either fall and die without having been shot, or else he must live on, succeed in abducting the beautiful maiden and thus ruin the play.

I am sorry to say that property men, being somewhat given to profanity, divide their firearms into three classes—the sure, the very sure, and the d****d sure. The first are given to the most unimportant of the supers, the second are given to those of somewhat greater importance, while only the last are ever given to the people who play important parts and whose guns must go off in order to carry out the plot of the play.

“The Property Man”, The Bismarck Weekly Tribune, Oct 31, 1884, pg 2. Reprinted from The Philadelphia Times,

Belasco’s Property Room part 2, 1920

The following is the second part of a 1920 article on David Belasco’s property collection. The first part was posted a few weeks ago:

The Array of Relics

by Frank Vreeland

The cabinets which line the walls and occupy the middle of the room have their contents classified and arranged in order. One contains scores of French clocks which have long since ceased to keep tabs on eternity, another has dozens of colonial candlesticks and mediæval lanterns, and a third holds yards of cut glassware of all periods that would cause a high priced smash if any spook started skylarking among them. On wires near the ceiling are strung expensive violins in cases, ancient Indian wicker work which was used in “The Heart of Wetona,” and Crusaders’ helmets with chain mail netting to ward off stings more vicious than the best Jersey mosquitoes could give. Continue reading Belasco’s Property Room part 2, 1920

Behind the Scenes part 2, 1890

The following comes from an 1890 news article in the San Francisco Morning Call. The first part can be found here:

Though he borrows household effects and commonplace things that can be readily had, he manufactures much. In the banquet scene of “Macbeth,” which is often represented with fully 100 persons before the audience, the shining tankards, brilliant cups, luscious-looking aggregations of fruits, even the fowl, are made of this unique paper [papier-mâché].

Who has ever gazed upon the immense cannons, the lifelike horses, the warlike accouterments in the battle scene of “Henry V,” and was not impressed with their faithfulness to the real? Yet the admiring spectator would laugh himself tired if he saw the “property boy” pick up a horse with one hand, put a cannon under the opposite arm and walk off complacently after the curtain went down.

The hankering of the propertyman after imitation has originated many interesting effects by novel methods. Several times in the American drama, “Held by the Enemy,” there is occasion to feign the sound of horses’ hoofs moving rapidly on a hard road, as if the animal were carrying his rider at a deep gallop. This noise is counterfeited by a patent wooden clapper, slapped on a marble slab covered with a piece of rubber. The operator using both hands can moderate as he chooses the steps of the supposed horse, from apparently a long distance to just outside the scene, with startling vividness.

Published in The Morning Call, San Francisco, December 25, 1890, pg 19. Originally written by Felix Barnley in 1887.

Behind the Scenes, 1890

The following comes from an 1890 news article in the San Francisco Morning Call:

Behind the Scenes

The property-room is a theatrical sepulcher. Buried in dust and stage debris are mementos of histrionic grandeur. A warrior’s helmet is crowded by a three-legged stool; the figure of a proud god, whose presence shed luster on the perspective of a “bleached alley,” is degraded by the oppression of a big old candlestick that hangs across his breast; the soft-toned mandolin, (the fellow in the orchestra was making the music) whose notes as they wafted into life under the gentle touch of the fair player, wooed back her recreant lover, hangs on a wall, a veritable “fake.”

It never had any strings, nor had its companion, the crazy-looking violin. With dented sides and lonesome looks vessels of golden hue are piled in one corner beside a lot of rag carpet.

Here is a stack of muskets not one which was fired in a century, if appearances go for anything. There is an ink-well that never was blackened by writing-fluid, and a pen used to sign death-warrants and marriage-certificates that had its point blunted in inditing signatures that never showed on paper.

There are huge letters and pretentiously sealed packages with never a line in them.

All about, in shabby disillusion, is seen the mechanical mimicry of the objects in real life.

The propertyman is an artist in his way and in these days of stage realism as essential to the success of a play as the author himself. Gone are the times when a table and a few chairs were all he had to “set” in a scene. This age demands that he be a skilled mechanic, able to manipulate the stage substitute for wood and minerals, papier mache, so that his talent will produce anything from a strawberry to an armored knight or the skull used in the grave-digger’s scene in “Hamlet.”

As a result his worth to the stage has been elevated, and his salary climbs up into high-priced figures.

Published in The Morning Call, San Francisco, December 25, 1890, pg 19. Originally written by Felix Barnley in 1887.