Tag Archives: theatre history

Props in the time of Moliere

Molière (1622-1673) performed his plays in Paris, where theatres were inside and lit by candles. He performed at the salle du Petit-Bourbon at the Louvre, followed by the Palais-Royal. Finally, he performed some of his works at Versailles for King Louis XIV. We know quite a bit about the acting styles, the sceneography, and the costumes of his time. But how were props dealt with? Where did they come from, and who was in charge of them?

We can piece together information of how Molière acquired and used props by looking at the general theatre conditions in France at the time. We also have some actual surviving props from his theatre company, and several record books. The picture which forms is similar to conditions in theatres of adjoining countries and eras, such as Elizabethan England. There is some form of bureaucratic control in the theatre buildings, including people responsible for commissioning props. There does not appear to be “prop makers” or “prop masters” per se; rather, the theatre troupes, composed of the actors and a manager, are responsible for maintaining their own stock of props for the shows they perform (this, of course, is where the term “property” comes from).

General Theatre Conditions

The French theatre in Molière’s time customarily employed several people. The decorateur, or theatrical painter, decoraged the stage and auditorium. He worked with the machinest to produce all the scenery and machines.

The official now called the Régisseur in those days went by the name of premier garçon de théâtre; he had to superintend all the properties and keep account of them, to supervise the supers or assistants used in the different plays, and to see that “all who appear before the public are decently dressed and wear proper shows and stockings.” He also performed small parts, rang the bell when the play was to begin, and warned the actors when it was their turn to enter. Under his orders there were four stage-servants, half “machinists,” half call-boys.

A History of Theatrical Art in Ancient and Modern Times: Molière and his times, by Karl Mantzius; Vol 4, 1905; pg 97.

We can glean some more information from L’Impromptu de Versailles (The Impromptu at Versailles, written in 1663). This one-act farce by Molière was written in response to criticisms against him, and the actors in this troupe played exaggerated versions of themselves as they rehearse a new play. We can pull off-handed remarks about the props and their use to construct a bit of information about standard practices of Molière and his company. For example, in scene IV, Molière instructs his actors: “Those coffres, Mesdames, will serve you for easy-chairs.” The actors obey; we can assume that the actors would have been familiar with using rehearsal furniture at least some of the time, otherwise they would have expressed objection or confusion. The French word “coffres” translates to “chests” or “trunks”. As for the easy-chair, the fauteuil was an upholstered arm chair popular at that time.

In a previous post about Molière’s move from Le Petit Bourbon to the Palais Royal, we pick up clues that props (along with scenery and machinery) were stored behind the curtain of the theatre.

Surviving Props

La Comédie-Française is one of the state theatres of France. In its collection is the armchair used by Molière during Le Malade imaginaire (The Imaginary Invalid).

Moliere's armchair
The chair Moliere died in during The Imaginary Invalid

The chair is a Louis XIII style armchair made of wood, upholstered with black sheepskin, and set on casters. It is 4 feet by 2 feet 2 inches by 2 feet 8 inches (123 x 68 x 82 cm). It was first used in 1673 by Molière for the premiere of Le Malade imaginaire, and is the chair he died on during the performance. It was used by successive actors playing Argan until 1879. That’s 209 years, math-wizard. At that point, it had become so worn that a replica was made for the current Argan and the original placed on display.

Click for a larger view of Moliere's chair
Click for a larger view of Moliere's chair

A nitecap worn by Argan (played by Molière) is also housed there.


A 1674 remount of "The Imaginary Invalid"
A 1674 remount of "The Imaginary Invalid"

An engraving of a 1674 remount of The Imaginary Invalid (the year after Molière’s death) shows the stage picture.

Close-up of props in "The Imaginary Invalid"
Close-up of props in "The Imaginary Invalid"

The armchair appears to be the only set prop. Set dressing is nonexistent. The only hand props are the fan, and the spears held by the guards on the far sides of the stage. Really, the fan should be considered a personal prop. At this time in France, it was the actress’s (and actor’s)  responsibility to costume herself, even at great expense. Conceivably, the fan could have been her personal property as well. Since the plays at the time used archetypal characters, and the settings were very consistent, one might surmise that props were mostly pulled from their stock, which would have been fairly modest. After all, if they used the same armchair for 209 years, the modern convention of purchasing and constructing new props for every single production was probably not practiced at that time.


Other information for reconstructing the public performances are found in 4 existing accounting books kept by Molière’s company. Basic production costs covered include lighting, heat, printing and posting of playbills, and wages to production staff and theatre personnel, such as the concierge, copyist and prompter, orchestra, ticket-seller and ticket-taker, door monitors, the décorateur, actors’ domestics, ushers, and candle-snuffer. Extraordinary expenses include building and operating stage machines, fabricating costumes and stage properties, wages paid to singers, instrumentalists, and dancers.

One of these accounting books is the register of Charles Varlet de la Grange. He was an actor in Molière’s troupe and kept a daily account of the business dealings, as well as major events in the members’ lives. You can check out a description and photos of La Grange’s register, or read Édouard Thierry’s edition (in French). By studying this register, we can find out what props were used in his various plays, and whether there were any “prop” tricks. For example, in L’École des femmes (The School for Wives), first performed in 1662, props mentioned include a chair in III.2 and a purse with some counters to serve as coins for I.4.

According to La Grange’s reports, Le Malade imaginaire received a lavish staging with “the prologue and intermèdes filled with dances, vocal music, and stage properties”. The theatre troupe had to order the wood, iron, and canvas for carpenters, upholsterers, and painters. The first two carpenters were named Caron and Jacques Portrait. The workers were paid by the day. For its 1674 revival , La Grange listed the following production expenses: menuisiers (carpenters), ouvriers et assistans (workers who operated the machinery and set-changes), 2 laquais et decorateur (2 lackeys and the set-designer), and surcroist de chandel (candle supplement).

Similar records can be found in registers by La Thorillière and Hubert, two more members of Molière troupe. You can read the original register of La Thorillière (in French) for more fun.

Why the term “prop master”?

Why do we use the term “property master”? In our modern world of “directors”, “managers”, and “heads”, why use the word “master”? Where does it come from?

The term “property master” is in reference to the old European guild systems. In a guild, a person would apprentice to a master for several years, learning the trade. He (or she) would then become a journeyman, traveling from one master to the next, practicing their craft in exchange for housing and a daily wage. Finally, one would apply to the guild for membership, often having to complete a masterpiece showing competence in your given trade. Only a master could run their own shop. Thus, a props master denotes one who is proficient in the craft of props, and is qualified to run a props shop.

Did props people actually belong to a guild in the Middle Ages? Probably not; as seen in my previous post, guilds supplied the props for Medieval pageants. Thus, the bread was supplied by the master bakers, and the ships provided by master shipwrights. A “property-master” would be redundant. It would appear that the term did not exist while guilds were predominant in Europe.

The term “property” was used in a theatrical sense since at least 1425 A.D. We have evidence of what these properties are from the late Middle Ages on through the Elizabethan Period. We know that the companies accumulated and stored props, that they commissioned special props from the guilds, and that the actors themselves would supply a lot of the more personal props. However, we don’t know the term for the person who would head the organization of all these props. Perhaps there was none, and the duties were split between the owners, managers, and artists of the company.

We first hear about a general “property-man” in 1749. W.R. Chetwood’s A General History of the Stage describes a property-man as “the person that receives a bill from the prompter for what is necessary in every play; as purses, wine, suppers, poison [etc.]”. The earliest occurrence of the term “property-master” I could dig up is in England in 1831. This sentence appears in “The Royal Lady’s Magazine”:

The other parts were filled as usual, Curioni being the Idreno, and Lablache the Assur. Curioni makes a woful [sic] mistake in dressing himself like a Cherokee Indian: somebody should instruct him, that there is more than one India, and that he errs in thinking he is king of that which is in the west. Talking of costume, cannot the property-master find something more resembling a crown than the bottomless tin-pot which is at present stuck on Arsace’s head.

The Royal Lady’s Magazine. July, 1831 (pg. 56)

It would appear than that the head property-man began to be called a property master well after the guilds had begun their decline. This terminology is also confusing because a props shop does not operate as a guild in the legal sense. Some occupations, such as electricians or contractors, are required to be licensed, which is similar to the requirement that a crafts-person belong to a guild in order to participate or run a shop. A property master does not need a license nor any specific schooling or degrees to operate.

Unofficially of course, a props career still operates like a guild in many ways. I began as an “apprentice in props”, followed by a property carpenter journeyman position at the Santa Fe Opera. The Actors Theatre of Louisville where I once worked also hires journeyman. (Check out “The Wanderers“, an interesting look at the modern revival of journeymen artisans in Europe.) The idea, if not the name, of journeyman can be seen in the career paths of many theatre artisans as they travel from theater to theater taking a variety of seasonal and over-hire positions to build their resumes and portfolios.

You don’t hear a lot about formal apprenticeships anymore, where a beginner spends five to seven years cleaning the shop of a master in exchange for knowledge and housing. Many theaters have apprentice programs (sometimes called “internships”) which last for a season or a year, some of which are quite good. There are of course, many other theaters which hire apprentices and interns and use them merely as cheap labor, imparting no guidance or knowledge whatsoever. We all like the satisfaction of solving a problem on our own, but the value of being taught the basics in the beginning cannot be underestimated. It is highly inefficient for so many people to be reinventing the wheel every year in theatre, especially when there so many more worthy prop challenges.

But I digress. What I’ve described here is the most reasonable sounding theory I’ve heard on why the head of a props department is called a “property-master”. If you’ve ever heard your own theories, or heard additional evidence either for or against this one, let me know!


Medieval Theatre and Trade Guilds

Drawing of a mystery play by David Jee, from Thomas Sharp's "Coventry Mysteries", 1825
Drawing of a mystery play by David Jee, from Thomas Sharp's "Coventry Mysteries", 1825

How were props made in Medieval theatres? Before Shakespeare’s time, European theatre consisted of festivals and traveling religious pageants. Trade guilds were maturing into full-fledged institutions by the fourteenth century. It would seem that most of the props (and other production values) were provided by these guilds.

Gradually, too, the priests lost their hold even on the plays themselves; skillful actors from among the laymen began to take many of the parts; and at last in some towns the trade-guilds, or unions of the various handicrafts, which had secured control of the town governments, assumed entire charge…

Generally each play was presented by a single guild (though sometimes two or three guilds or two or three plays might be combined), and sometimes, though not always, there was a special fitness in the assignment, as when the watermen gave the play of Noah’s Ark or the bakers that of the Last Supper. In this connected form the plays are called the Mystery or Miracle Cycles…

(A History of English literature for Students, by Robert Huntington Fletcher, 1916: pp. 85-88)

Thus it would appear the productions were very artisan-based; a ship was built as a ship would be built, rather than as some cheap facsimile. We read further that:

at York before 1378 the management of the different plays was already divided out between the different crafts, and it is probable that the allusions to the method of representation which have been gleaned from later records apply equally well to these fourteenth century performances…

On the morning of the performance each pageant would be rolled out of its shed and dragged in its turn to the first of the ‘stations’ at which the plays were acted. The first performance over, the pageant would be dragged through the streets to the second station, and then the play repeated. At York each play was performed twelve times, and occasionally oftener, the choice of the stopping places or stations being determined by the liberality of the owners of the adjacent houses. These contributions were much needed, for the cost of the plays fell heavily on the guilds; five or six of them had sometimes to club together to produce a single pageant, while the sharing of the expenses led to frequent disputes. In a few cases the reason for the assignment of a play to a particular guild is obvious; thus the Shipwrights or Fishmongers commonly interested themselves in Noah and the Flood, while the Goldsmiths and Goldbeaters played the Magi. But as a rule the wealth of the guild and the cost of the necessary dresses and stage properties were the chief considerations.

(Chamber’s Cyclopædia of English Literature, by Robert Chambers, 1902: pp. 47-48)


Each guild was entrusted as far as possible with a performance in harmony with the character of its own craft; thus the building of the Ark was represented by the shipwrights. The number of these associations seems startling, until the great subdivision of labour in the Middle Age is considered, and the jealousy lest one craft should encroach on the domain of another. We hear o’ bladesmiths, sheathers, buckle-makers, girdelers, corvisors (shoemakers), spicers, fletchers (arrow-makers), pinners, needlers, and whittawers (workers in white leather).

(English Literature: From the beginning of the age of Henry VIII, by Richard Garnett and Edmund Gosse, 1903: pp. 223-225)

In many ways, it would seem the guilds provided these pageants as a way to showcase the skills of their members and advertise their abilities. Between the numerous guilds, these pageants must have had quite the variety of props and costumes. Some of these pageants lasted all day, encompassing the entirety of sacred history. By dividing up the parts between the different guilds, it became economically feasible.

Let’s look at some of the more practical aspects of Medieval theatre production.

The expense accounts of the guilds, sometimes luckily preserved, furnish many picturesque and amusing items, such as these: ‘Four pair of angels’ wings, 2 shillings and 8 pence.’ ‘For mending of hell head, 6 pence.’ ‘Item, link for setting the world on fire.’…

To the guilds the giving of the plays was a very serious matter. Often each guild had a ‘pageant-house’ where it stored its ‘properties,’ and a pageant-master who trained the actors and imposed substantial fines on members remiss in cooperation.


We can compare this to a later account of expenses in my previous post on Theatrical profits and expenses in 1511.

Finally, let’s take a quick look at the construction of some of these props and effects:

There could be little attempt at scenery, but details of costume and stage fittings are abundantly supplied by the account books of the municipalities, when these have been preserved, and are full of curiosity and interest. The representation of Paradise naturally surpassed the powers of the scenic artists of that period, but they were perfectly at home in Hell, and especial pains were taken with Hell mouth, delineated as the literal mouth of an enormous monster, and with the pitchforks and clubs of the demons. The latter implements were considerately made of wadding: but the gunpowder which the fiends are enjoined to carry about various parts of their persons, if not mere brutum fulmen, in which case it might as well have been omitted, must have been productive of considerable inconvenience to the performer.

(Garnett and Gosse)

Ha ha, blowing up performers with gunpowder. That’s props!

Props and plots

I’ve written previously about the first use of the word “property” in the theatrical sense. But what about the shortened form of the word; when were they first called “props”?

The Oxford English Dictionary places its earliest written appearance in 1865, in a book called The slang dictionary; or, The vulgar words, street phrases, and “fast” expressions of high and low society. Many with their etymology, and a few with their history traced. It says simply,

Props, stage properties. Theatrical

Obviously, it would have been in common verbal usage before this. I wonder if the dictionary considers “props” a fast expression of high or low society. Looking at the frequency of its appearance in writing, it would appear the word was well-accepted by the mid-1880s.

We get a much more comprehensive definition in the Otago Witness (a New Zealand newspaper) in 1886. It also describes “plots” as they are used at the time.

“Props,” the abbreviation in use for “properties,” is a very important term. Everything stored at the theatre for use on the stage is a “prop”; these are the manager’s props. The actor’s props are the articles of clothing which he has to provide for himself. These vary according to the status of the company; managers of repute providing everything except tights and a few other articles, while needy managers like their company to have a “wardrobe” of their own. “Plot” is used with a somewhat peculiar significance. There are a number of “plots” to every play. Thus the “scene plot” is a list of the various scenes. The “flyman’s plot” is a list of the articles required by the flyman, or man in the “flies.” There is similarly a “gasman’s plot.” The “property plot” includes all properties used in the piece, and the prompter is responsible for their all being to hand at the proper time. The least important of the prompter’s duties, indeed, is to prompt.

Property plots themselves have been referenced much earlier (as early as 1847), and the idea of drawing up a bill of all props for a show has been seen as far back as Shakespeare.

Musings of a jobbing designer

Martin Morley kept a blog over at Sceno:graphy.org (now no longer updated). He provides a fascinating look at life as a scenic designer in the UK from 1968 to the present. In addition, he has dipped his toes into the world of prop-making as well during his career. In one post, he gives a brief glimpse into how prop-making happened at the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh in the late 1960s:

I found I had an aptitude for prop making and polystyrene carving which was just coming into its own for 3D work. This was of course long before the days of vac forming. Pretty well everything was made in house with the exception of everyday furniture which was generally trawled from junk shops and the like. Hector Riddle, the head of props was quite outstanding: I remember the Bofors gun he created for Events While Guarding the Bofors Gun was especially impressive. It was the level of care taken on the details that stood out.

The rest of the posts are equally as enlightening and informative.