Tag Archives: theatre history

Friday Funnies

Here are some whimsical tales to tickle your funny bone on this Friday.

When Macready opened in “Lear” at the Nottingham Theatre the “property man” received his plot for the play in the unsual manner, a map being required among the many articles–(map highly necessary for Lear to divide his Kingdom.) The property-man, being illiterate, read mop for map. At night the tragedy commences; Macready, in full stage on his throne, calls for his map; a supernumerary “noble,” kneeling, presents the aged King a white curly mop. The astounded actor rushed off the stage, dragging the unfortunate nobleman and his mop with him, actors and audience wild with delight.

-The New York Times. February 6, 1881

Imagine King Lear being handed a mop! Priceless! This next chestnut is quite a gem as well.

The other night the critical scene in “Iris,” in which Oscar Asche “breaks up housekeeping,” was almost spoiled by a property man. To avenge a fancied wrong the man glued down the vases on the mantle which Mr. Asche breaks first. When that trying scene came Mr. Asche turned Iris into the streets as usual, and turned to the vases. With a sweep of his hand he struck them. They were so firmly glued, however, that only the tops were broken by the blow–and Mr. Asche’s hand incidentally bruised. A property man is now looking for a new job.

-The New York Times. November 2, 1902

Oh that wacky property man! This final anecdote takes place at one of the first theatres I worked at professionally.

Another story which has to do with edibles on the stage used to be told by Joseph Jefferson, who described the incident as happening in the early days of the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia. “Camille” was the piece that was being played and all was going beautifully. Then came a scene between Camille and Armand, in the course of which a a servant was to enter with lights. “In those days,” said Mr. Jefferson, “Sea Island cotton was stage ice cream, just as molasses and water was stage wine.”

Armand and Camille were seated at the table and the crowded house was rapturuously following their scene. Then in came the maidservant with the wobbliest sort of a candelabrum, but the scene was so tense that nobody seemed to notice her. However, as she set down her burden between the lovers one of the candles toppled over and set fire to the ice cream. That was more than the audience could stand and the curtain was rung down.

-The New York Times. June 5, 1910

Sounds like that show was “on fire” that night! I hope these quirky little tales leave you smiling for the weekend.

Who was Thurston James?

If you work in props, you’ve probably run across the name of Thurston James. He has written both The Theatre Props Handbook and The Prop Builder’s Molding & Casting Handbook, two books which, despite being over twenty years old, remain necessary texts on any prop person’s bookshelf. He has also written The Theater Props What, Where, When: An Illustrated Chronology from Arrowheads to Video Games and The Prop Builder’s Mask-Making Handbook, making him one of the most prolific authors in the realm of props.

Thurston James was born in Lawrence, Kansas, in 1933. He was a descendant of Jesse James, the infamous outlaw of the West. According to his obituary:

Thurston James passed away Friday, August 27, 2005, near his home in Sherman Oaks, California. He was in the process of mailing the latest issue of The James-Younger Gang Journal which he published. The cause of death presently is unknown. Thurston will be interred at Rose Hills Cemetery, Whittier, California.

This obituary also points to an album of Thurston James’ “rap” songs. I’ve posted the Christmas Rap so you can hear Mr. James’ rapping prowess:

In addition to his books, Mr. James has published an article on Chemicals in the Spring 1995 issue of Theatre Design and Technology, as well as a Layman’s Guide to the Chemistry of Theatre Crafts in  the first issue of the now defunct Proptology magazine.

He was also working on a book about lighting effects which he never finished. You can see a whole wealth of photographs from that book at Danny Truxaw’s website.

Ancient Greek Theatre Props part 2

A while back, I wrote about how props may have been acquired and used in the theatre of the ancient Greeks. Since then, I’ve found some more out.

Apulian bell-krater by the Schiller Painter. ca. 370 BCE. Würzburg, Martin von Wagner Museum H 5697
Apulian bell-krater by the Schiller Painter. ca. 370 BCE. Würzburg, Martin von Wagner Museum H 5697


This vase shows Telephus threatening Orestes. Though several Ancient Greek plays dramatize this scene, modern scholars believe this vase depicts Aristophanes’ parody of Euripides’ version. More importantly, this vase is one of the rare examples of an illustration of an actual theatrical performance.  We see the “baby” which is held is actually a wine skin with Persian booties tied on the bottom. It is filled with wine so it could “bleed” as it is cut open.

Note this is not a “special effect”, at least in this context. In the play, Mnesilochus believes he is about to kill a baby, but as he unwraps its clothing, he realizes it is actually a wine skin. As the play is a parody, this may actually be describing a well-known prop trick. Our modern comedies have many examples of when a character realizes he or she is actually in a movie (or play) and the objects being used are merely “props”, ie cheap or poorly-made imitations.

The following comes from The Attic theatre: a description of the stage and theatre of the Athenians, and of the dramatic performances at Athens. The first quote speaks of statues. In some theatres, statues actually fall under the oversight of the scenic artists, but they can be the responsibility of the props department as well.

In addition to the scenery in the background the stage was of course decorated with such objects and properties as were required by the particular play. Aeschylus is said to have been the first to adorn the stage in this manner (Vit. Aesch. p. 6 Dindf.). If the scene was a palace or a temple, statues of the gods were generally placed in front of it, and are frequently referred to in the course of the drama. For instance there was the statue of Athene in front of her temple in the Eumenides, and the statues of the tutelary deities before the palace of the Atreidae in the Electra of Sophocles. In the Hippolytus there were two statues in front of the palace of Theseus, one of Artemis the huntress, and the other of Cypris the goddess of love. When Hippolytus returns from the hunt, he offers a garland of flowers to the statue of Artemis, but refuses to pay the slightest homage to the statue of Cypris, in spite of the remonstrances of his attendant. Again, in the country region depicted in the Oedipus Coloneus the statue of the hero Colonus stood in a conspicuous position (Aesch. Eum. 242; Soph. Electr. 1373, O.C. 59; Eur. Hipp. 70–106.). Other examples of the practice of decorating the stage with statues are frequently to be met with both in tragedy and in comedy.

The book next speaks of altars, obelisks, tombs and benches. Again, these items may fall under other departments, such as scenery. The point is not to quibble over the “prop-iness” of these objects, but rather to provide a catalog of the various objects which may have been found in an Ancient Greek production.

Altars again were very common objects upon the Greek stage. In the Supplices of Aeschylus the fugitive maidens take refuge round an altar. The Oedipus Tyrannus opens with the spectacle of a group of Thebans kneeling in supplication before the altar of Apollo (Aesch. Suppl. 188–200; Soph. O.R. 1–3, 142.). Another very ordinary feature in the stage-decoration was the stone obelisk in honour of Apollo of the Highways. It was an ordinary practice among the Greeks to place such obelisks in front of their houses. Their presence upon the stage is frequently referred to both in tragedy and in comedy (Poll.iv. 123; Aesch. Agam. 1080 ff.; Schol. Eur. Phoen. 631; Arist. Vesp. 875.). Various other objects were occasionally required by particular plays. There was the tomb of Darius in front of the palace of Xerxes in the Persae, and the tomb of Agamemnon in front of the palace of the Atreidae in the Choephori. In the Oedipus Coloneus a rocky ledge was required for Oedipus to rest himself upon. In the Acharnians and the Knights a few benches must have been erected upon the stage to serve as a rude imitation of the Pnyx. Walls, watch-towers, and beacon-towers are mentioned by Pollux; and the presence of other similar decorations and erections can be inferred from the extant tragedies and comedies (Aesch. Pers. 684. Choeph. 4; Soph. O.C. 19; Poll. iv. 127.).

Finally, this text discusses chariots and animals. I’ve given my opinion about whether an animal is a prop or not; a chariot, on the other hand, most certainly is.

There was one piece of realism which the Greeks were not averse to, and that was the presence of horses and chariots upon the stage. There are many instances in tragedy of per sons from a distance arriving in a chariot drawn by horses or mules. The vast size of the Greek theatre, and the length and narrowness of the stage, made it peculiarly suitable for displays of this character. In the Agamemnon of Aeschylus Agamemnon and Cassandra approach the palace in a chariot; Agamemnon remains seated there for a considerable time, while he converses with Clytaemnestra; he then dismounts and enters the palace, leaving Cassandra still in the chariot. In the Prometheus the chorus of the Oceanidae enter the stage in a car. In the Electra of Euripides, when Clytaemnestra comes to visit her daughter at the country cottage, she arrives in a chariot, accompanied by Trojan maidens, who assist her to dismount. Several other instances might be mentioned. Animals for riding were also introduced upon the stage. In the Prometheus there is the winged steed upon which Prometheus makes his entrance; and finally in the Frogs of Aristophanes Xanthias rides in upon a donkey (Aesch. Agam. 782–1054, Prom. 135, 279, 284; Eur. Elecr. 998, 999; Arist. Ran. 27.).

Kabuki Props

San-nin Kichisa Kuruwa no Hatsu-gai 1860 by Toyokuni III
San-nin Kichisa Kuruwa no Hatsu-gai 1860 by Toyokuni III

Kabuki is a traditional form of theatre in Japan which began around four hundred years ago. It is a highly stylized form of theatre, and its use of props is very formalized and full of tradition. I thought it would be interesting to take a look at how they use and make props in Kabuki. I don’t speak or read Japanese, so while I took care to double and triple-check all the terminology, someone more knowledgeable than I may still find mistakes. Still, I hope you’ll find what follows to be a good overview of props in Kabuki theatre.


The word for props is 小道具, or kodōgu. Kabuki distinguishes between different categories of props just like those of us in English-speaking countries. If you need a refresher, check out my article on the different categories of props, as well as an illustration of these categories. Hand props are called 持ち道具, or mochidōgu. Mochidōgu include accessories, swords and other weapons, fans and armor (or yoroi); basically, everything which is portable. Set props, such as furniture, set dressing and other items left on stage for the duration of the performance, are known as dedōgu. Large props are named 大道具, or ōdōgu. In the US, we would consider ōdōgu to be scenery; indeed, the Japanese treat it as a separate department as well, with different technicians involved, so we will not spend any more time on it here.

Props which are used up at each performance (consumables and food) are called kiemono. Props which are broken and destroyed each performance are kowaremono. Vehicles and portable shrines are known as norimono. Rigged and trick props are called shikake, or shikake mono. A great example of a shikake mono is a branding iron with a button-activated electric filament which ignites a match head to produce a puff of smoke. Red paint on the iron also serves to leave a red mark on the actor being branded (McNicol 33). Kabuki also considers several other items to fall under the realm of props, such as animal costumes (nuigurumi), footgear (hakimono) and headgear. Unlike in the US, snow, snowflakes and artificial blossoms (tsuri eda) are responsibility of ōdōgu, rather than the prop makers (Scott 155).

Among the most difficult props to make are the decapitated heads, known as 首 (kubi) or kirikubi. Kubi are divided up into dakubi, or “low-class” head, and jōkubi, or “high-class” head. Dakubi are usually cotton forms stuffed with wood shavings, sometimes covered in Japanese paper, with crudely painted features and hair. The neck may have a piece of red cloth attached. Jōkubi are more realistic and well-made. They can be carved out of oak or paulownia wood, or made of papier-mâché over a wooden base (hariko no kubi). The construction of these were reserved for master carvers, who attempted to capture the exact likeness of whichever actor it was supposed to represent. Examples of jōkubi from the Meiji era (1868-1912 CE) still remain in existence at the Fujinama warehouse (more on Fujinama in a bit). Continue reading Kabuki Props

Women in Props

Earlier this month, I shared an article about a busy prop shop in midtown Manhattan, circa 1898, which was owned and operated by a woman. It reminded me that I’ve neglected to research the contribution of women to the world of props throughout the centuries.

Just as “property man” was the common term for one who works in props from the early 1600s through World War II, so too does “property woman” appear in the descriptions and literature on theatre. The Oxford English Dictionary tracks its earliest usage to a one-act play published in 1795 titled New hay at the old market. An actor playing a prompter speaks the line:

Oh ! that alters the case. Well, let it be handsome; do you mind? Stud it with brass-nails, and cover it with the best Morocco—and tell the Property-woman to put a good soft velvet cushion in it, dye hear ?

I’ve dug up an even earlier reference from 1780. In his Remarks upon the Present Taste for acting Private Plays, R. Cumberland, Esq., writes:

Happy author, who shall see his characters thus grouped into a family-piece, firm as the Theban band of friends, where all is zeal and concord, no bickerings nor jealousies about stage-precedency, no ladies to fall sick of the spleen, and toss up their parts in a huff, no heart-burnings about flounced petticoats and silver trimmings, where the mother of the whole company stands wardrobe-keeper and property-woman, whilst the father takes post at the side scene in the capacity of prompter with plenipotentiary controul over PS’s and OP’s.

The use of the term “property-woman” appears in both America and England throughout the nineteenth century up through the early twentieth century. In many instances, it is the gender equivalent of “property-man”, describing anyone who works in props, from what we consider today to be a property master, to a property artisan and even a run crew person who handles and tracks the props backstage during a performance. In other cases, it appears to define a more specialized backstage role, used interchangeably with “wardrobe woman” and even “dresser”.

In today’s theatre, we have ceased using these gender-specific terms, and have switched to more descriptive titles, such as properties artisan, properties carpenter and properties director. However, you occasionally hear the term “property mistress” used clumsily in place of “property master” when the property master is a woman. It turns out this term was actually used fairly frequently in the early twentieth century. An example comes from a 1921 article in Century Magazine, by George P. Baker:

Just before a piece goes into rehearsal it is read to the artistic and producing force as well as to the actors, all of whom watch it for the special problems it may have for them. Immediately after the reading, copies of the play are handed to the costumer, designer of scenery, property mistress, the person in charge of lighting, and the stage-manager. As soon as possible, these meet individually with the author to make sure that they know exactly what he wants, and, as groups, to establish their plans cooperatively.

While the twentieth century may seem late in the game for women to take charge of props, keep in mind that the idea of a property master in general did not take shape until the mid-nineteenth century. People may have had the duties of a property master, but it fell under a different job (usually the prompter or an assistant).

Strangely, the term all but disappears throughout the middle of the century, only to start popping up again in the late 1980s. By the twenty-first century, more and more theatre companies were switching the job title to the more appropriate (and gender-neutral) “properties director” to describe the person in charge of the props shop. Individual shows still use the term “property master”, and most Playbills and programs use that term whether it was a man or woman doing the job. “Property mistress” shows up only in informal usage and in fluffy news articles.