Tag Archives: property

A Property Man’s Confession, 1903

The following article comes from The New York Times, February 15, 1903:

A property man who has seen many years of service in New York theatres, and who has just lost his position on account of an oversight that almost ruined a first-night production, talked to a New York Times reporter about the difficulties that beset property men in general.

“If an actor takes any pride in his part,” he said, “he usually looks after his personal properties himself. He never takes any chances on making a bull on his part through the forgetfulness of a property man. If it is necessary for him to find a coin, a roll of bills, or a letter in his pocket, he goes to the property room for it before he goes on the stage. But if, on the other hand, he is expected to find a dagger on a table or a note hidden in a desk, he never worries about it. He takes it as a matter of course that the property man has put it there before the curtain goes up. If the property man has a reputation for forgetfulness, (and he soon loses his job if he has,) the actor or actress manages to take a look over the scene before the curtain rises to see that all is right.

“The general impression with an audience when an actor reads a letter on the stage is that he is merely glancing at blank paper and that the lines of the letter have been committed to memory with the rest of the part. As a matter of fact, this is seldom the case, especially with women. Many of them copy the letter themselves. I have even known them to copy the letter in Lady Macbeth.

“Some very amusing stage bulls have happened over the blank letter business for which stage managers have exacted a good many dollars in fines. I remember on one occasion a playwright who is known in the profession for having the lines emphasized exactly as he wants them, and who has some very peculiar ideas as to ‘business,’ decided to change an important letter within three hours of the first performance. He went to his club to write it. When the curtain went up he had not returned. The stage manager had mislaid the original letter, so the villain in the play went on with a blank letter and did the best he could from the text of the original, which he had not taken the trouble to memorize. After the first act we received word that the playwright, in his hurry to get across Broadway, had been run over by a newspaper wagon and was in a bad way at the Roosevelt Hospital. The play failed, and was taken off before he got a chance to see it. But he always blamed the failure on the letter that never came.

“My finish was over a letter to be read in a play we were producing for the first time in Brooklyn. There was a very long communication in that referring to complications over an estate, and expressed in very technical terms. The leading lady had expressly told me that she could not commit such a thing to memory, and asked me to copy it. I promised to do so, and forgot all about it. The letter was delivered by messenger to the actress on the stage, while she was talking to the man who wanted to get control of her property. She tore open the envelope, saw the blank sheet, and paused for a moment. I wondered what she was going to do. She had nerve, I tell you.

“‘Oh, these business letters,’ she exclaimed, petulantly, ‘what a nuisance they are. Here, you read it,’ handing it over to the man.

“He grasped the situation, and the blood rushed to his face. ‘Bless me,’ he exclaimed, ‘there must be something wrong about this. I must find the messenger who delivered it.’ Then he made a rapid exit.

“It took five minutes for him to get around to the prompter, and secure the manuscript of the play. Meanwhile the actress moved about the stage arranging some flowers, and toying with some things on the mantelpiece. When the actor returned he had a bunch of manuscript four inches thick, from which he read one page of typewritten letter that told what was coming in the next three acts. Some one in the audience took the story to the newspapers, and the next morning the incident got everything that was coming, and I received a note from the management with two weeks salary in lieu of notice.”

Originally published in The New York Times, February 15, 1903.

First use of “Property” in the theatrical sense

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the use of the word “property” in the theatrical sense first appeared around 1425 A.D.  In the prologue to the play, The Castle of Perseverance, the second flag-bearer announces to the audience:

Grace, if God wyl graunte us, of hys mykyl myth,
þese parcellis in propyrtes we purpose us to playe
þis day seuenenyt

(emphasis mine)

This transcription comes from The Macro Plays, edited by Frederick James Furnivall and Alfred William Pollard, published in 1904. You can see the original manuscript below:

first known written appearance of properties in the theatrical sense in the Castle of Perseverance
first known written appearance of "properties" (in the theatrical sense) in the Castle of Perseverance

In a modern translation offered by Alexandra F. Johnston, we have:

Grace, if God will grant us of his great might,
On scaffolds with costumes the roles we will play
This day sevennight

While certainly clearer in meaning, this translation has the unfortunate side effect of replacing “properties” with “costumes”, thus nullifying the Oxford English Dictionaries assertion of the word’s first appearance. Still, I think we can give the OED a little more scholarly weight in this instance.

According to Wikipedia, The Castle of Perseverance is not only the earliest known full-length vernacular play in existence, it is also important for its inclusion of a set drawing. The drawing is also one of the earliest known surviving examples of its kind. It hints that the play may have been performed in the round.

Stage and Set Design for Castle of Perseverance
Stage and Set Design for Castle of Perseverance