I found this wonderful magazine article in Belgravia, an Illustrated London Magazine, published in 1878. It describes the history of props in Western European theatrical traditions up to the late nineteenth century. I’ve split it into several sections because it is rather long and covers a multitude of subjects, which I will be posting over the next several days.
Stage Properties by Dutton Cook, 1878
‘In the mean time, I will draw you a bill of properties such as our play wants,’ says Peter Quince, the carpenter, when the performance of ‘the most lamentable comedy and most cruel death of “Pyramus and Thisby” has been duly agreed upon by the ‘crew of patches, rude mechanicals that work for bread upon Athenian stalls.’ ‘Properties’ have been, time out of mind, indispensable to theatrical exhibitions. When Melpomene first appeared, she grasped a ‘property’ dagger; when Thalia entered upon the scene, she carried a ‘property’ pastoral crook. Mr. Tennyson’s burthen of ‘Property, property, property,’ has been from days immemorial a sort of watchword to Thespis and his children.
Upon the Elizabethan stage certain properties were almost of the nature of set-pieces or detached portions of scenes. There were as yet no movable scenes employed as backgrounds to the figure-pictures formed by the actors; but the stage was not altogether without furniture or accessories to theatrical illusion. One of the earliest of properties was a representation of ‘hellmouth,’ very frequently employed in the performance of miracle plays and morals. Malone’s liberal quotations from the Diary or Account Book of Henslowe, the manager, under date March 10, 1598-9—the original work has unfortunately disappeared from Dulwich College, where it had long been preserved—supply curious information touching the properties, machinery, and fittings of our early stage. It is clear that rocks and steeples, trees and beacons, pictures now of Mother Redcap and now of Tasso,—in plays by Munday and Drayton and Dekker,—were freely brought upon the stage, in addition to such properties, in the stricter sense of the term, as musical instruments, weapons, armour, clubs, fans, feathers, crosiers, sceptres, skins of beasts, coffins and bedsteads, bulls’ and boars’ heads, a chariot for Phaeton, a trident for Neptune, wings for Mercury, a mitre for the Pope, a cauldron to be employed in the ‘Jew of Malta,’ and a dragon—one of the ‘terrible monsters made of brown paper’ ridiculed by Stephen Gossonin 1581—to figure in the ‘Faustus’ of Marlowe. A mysterious item,’the Moris lymes,’ is supposed by Malone to refer to the limbs of Aaron the Moor in ‘Titus Andronicus,’ who in the original play was probably tortured on the stage; in the same way, ‘ for the playe of Faetan the limes dead,’ may be understood to represent the remains of the hero of Dekker’s ‘Sun’s Darling’ after his fatal fall.
Mr. Payne Collier cites certain manuscript plays by William Percy, written probably about 1600, which are prefaced by a list of the properties requisite for their due performance. These are of the simplest kind—’ a ladder of roapes and a long fourme’ being prominent items—and were employed to vary the aspect of the stage, so that the spectator might persuade himself that the scene represented now Harwich, now Colchester, and now Maldon. A note to one of the plays explains that even the humble accessories contained in the list might be dispensed with upon occasion: ‘Now, if so be that the properties of any of these that be outward will not serve the turn by reason of concourse of people on the stage, then you may omit the said properties which be outward and supply their places with their nuncupations only in text letters.’ From this rather vague stage direction it may be gathered that for a ‘property’—a tree, a tower, a rock, &c.—was often substituted a mere inscription, such as reminded the spectator that he must understand the tapestry enclosing the stage to represent, now Thebes, now Rhodes, and now the Temple of Mahomet: wherever, in fact, the events dealt with by the dramatist were supposed to occur. We learn, on Mr. Collier’s authority, that the technical word ‘properties’ was applied to the appurtenances of the stage as early as the reign of Henry VI. in the ‘Castle of Perseverance,’ one of the oldest Moral Plays in the language. In an account of the furniture, &c., required for the play of ‘St. George’ at Basingborne in the year 1511, the terms ‘properties’ and ‘property making’ are both used, the tireman or wardrobe-keeper being called ‘the garment man.’ In the ‘brief estimate’ of the revels at Court in 1563-4 the ‘properties’ for five plays at Windsor are several times mentioned.
In the Gull’s Horn Book, 1609, there is humorous and minute advice to the gallants who, seated on three-legged stools, at a charge of sixpence each, crowded the stage, much to the annoyance of the actors and the audience in the other parts of the house: ‘Present yourself not on the stage, especially at a new play, until the quaking prologue has by rubbing got colour into his cheeks, and is ready to give the trumpets their cue that he is upon the point to enter; for then it is time, as though you were one of the properties, or that you dropped out of the hangings, to creep from behind the arras, with your tripos or threefooted stool in one hand and a Teston [sixpence] mounted between a forefinger and a thumb in the other; for if you should bestow your person upon the vulgar, when the house is but half full, your apparel is quite eaten up, the fashion lost, and the proportion of your body in more danger to be devoured than if it were served up in the counter amongst the poultry.”
He has got into our tiring-house amongst us,
And ta’en a strict survey of all our properties,
says Byeplay, referring to Peregrine in Brome’s comedy of ‘The Antipodes,’ 1640, and a description follows of various theatrical properties, ‘our jigambobs and trinkets,’ and other scenic accessories:
Our statues and our images of gods,
Our planets and our constellations,
Our giants, monsters, furies, beasts, and bugbears,
Our helmets, shields and vizors, hairs and beards,
Our pasteboard marchpanes and our wooden pies…
Peregrine is a sort of Quixote, and acts accordingly:
Whether he thought ’twas some enchanted castle,
Or temple hung and piled with monuments
Of uncouth and of 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, thrice puissant arm, he snatcheth down
The sword and shield that I played Bevis with,
Rusheth amongst the foresaid properties,
Kills monster after monster, takes the puppets
Prisoners, knocks down the Cyclops, tumbles all
Our jigambobs and trinkets to the wall.
Spying at last the crown and royal robes
I’ th’ upper wardrobe, next to which by chance
The devil’s vizors 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.
(Dutton Cook. “Stage Properties.” Belgravia, vol. 35. 1878: pp. 282-284.)