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Stage Properties or The Property Man

From an article in the ERA of the 26th of May 1878

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Mr Dutton Cook, who has frequently furnished pleasant and readable articles respecting the Stage, in the current number of Belgravia has an agreeable essay on Stage Properties. He shows us that upon the Elizabethan stage the property man was a person of some importance, and that the stage was not so bare and deficient of aids to scenic illusion as some would have us suppose, although, of course, the manner of mounting a drama to play before good Queen Bess was a very primitive affair compared with the accessories we find at the Prince of Wales's Theatre, the Court, and elsewhere. Mr Dutton Cook says, "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 terns, 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 Gosson in 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 No. 42 of The Tatler, a burlesque notice is given in imitation of an auctioneer's advertisement of the closing of Drury-lane Theatre, that a "magnificent palace with great variety of gardens, statues, and waterworks, may be bought cheap in Drury-lane, where there are likewise several castles to be disposed of, very delightfully situated; as also groves, woods, forests, fountains, and country seats with very pleasant prospects on all sides of them; being the moveables of Christopher Rich, Esquire [the Manager], who is giving up housekeeping, and has many curious pieces of furniture to dispose of, which may be seen between the hours of six and ten in the evening." Some of the lots are then specified. Rather a modest list of properties, contrasted with what would be set down at the present day, especially if the catalogue included the properties employed in the production of one of Mr E. L. Blanchard's Pantomimes. Here they are:— "A new moon, something decayed. A rainbow a little faded. A setting sun. A couch very finely gilt and little used, with a pair of dragons, to be sold cheap. Roxana's nightgown. Othello's handkerchief. A serpent to sting Cleopatra. An imperial mantle made for Cyrus the Great, and worn by Julius Ceasar, Bajazet, King Henry VIII., and Signor Valantini. The imperial robes of Xerxes, never worn but once. (This was an illusion to Cibber's feeble tragedy of Xerxes, which was produced at the Lincoln's Inn-fields Theatre in 1699 and permitted one performance only.) The whiskers of a Turkish bassa. The complexion of a murderer in a bandbox; consisting of a large piece of burnt cork and a coal-black peruke. A suit of clothes for a ghost, viz., a bloody shirt, a doublet curiously pinked, and a coat with three great eyelet holes upon the breast. Six elbow chairs, very expert in country dances, with six flowerpots for their partners."

Mr Dutton Cook pleasantly describes the labours of the property man; that mysterious personage who is never seen by the audience, who is never called to the front like the scene painter after some grand Transformation Scene or beautiful set scene; yet the strange combinations he is called upon to produce adds greatly to the effect of spectacular pieces. " He lives in a world of his own - a world of shams. His duty is to make the worst appear the better article; to obtain acceptance for forgeries, to create, not realities, but semblances. He does not figure among the dramatis personas; but what a significant part he plays! Tragedy and comedy, serious ballet and Christmas Pantomime, are alike to him. He appears in none of them, but he pervades them all; his unseen presence is felt as a notable influence on every side. He provides the purse of gold with which the rich man relieves the necessities of his poor interlocutor, the bank notes that are stolen, the will that disinherits, the parchments long lost but found at last, which restore the rightful heir to the family possessions. The assasin's knife, the robber's pistol, the soldier's musket, the sailor's cutlass, the court sword of genteel comedy, the basket-hilted blade that plays havoc in melodrama, all these proceed from his armoury; while from his kitchen, so to speak, issue alike the kingly feasts, consisting usually of wooden apples and Dutch-metal-smeared goblets, and the humbler meals spread in cottage interiors or furnished lodgings, the pseudo legs of mutton, roast fowls, or pork chops - to say nothing of those joints of meat, shoals of fish, and pounds of sausages inseparable from what are called the 'spill and pelt' scenes of Harlequinade."

There are indications that the property man will be superseded erelong by the upholsterer, for the public crave more and more for realistic effects. In these days of artistic furniture and costly decorations we must have, not pasteboard goblets and teacups, but real china; not painted deal, but rosewood and mahogany for our club furniture. Of old the bare stage sufficed for drawing-room scenes, but now a handsome carpet is a matter of course, and a mantelpiece with a French clock upon it. The property-maker, with his boards and battens, his wicker-work and gold leaf, his paints and glue and size, his shams of all kinds, is almost banished from the scene. The stage accessories become so substantial that the actors begin to wear a shadowy look - especially when they are required to represent rather unlife-like characters. Real horses, real dogs, real water, real pumps, and washing tubs are now supplemented by real bric-a-brac, bijouterie, and drawing-room knick-knackery. Amidst all this reality may we put in a plea for real flowers. There are many scenes in modern plays where the introduction of real flowers instead of the painted lilies and roses of the scenic artist would be extremely welcome. Managers will shirk the cost possibly, yet a floral display from Covent-garden would not be more expensive than a Brussels carpet.

Mr Dutton Cook tells us some curious anecdotes of attempts to carry out realistic effects on the stage in past days. In Whittington and his cat it was proposed to have real mice to be killed by a real cat, but it was feared the cat might fail to kill all the mice, and they might prove troublesome by escaping and establishing a colony in the Theatre. Mr Dutton Cook amusingly describes the various duties of the property man. "Is a snowstorm. required? He provides the snow, and showers or drifts it from the flies. Are figures of objects to be seen crossing the distant landscape, the river or the bridge? He cuts them out of pasteboard and fits them with wire that may be jerked this way and that. Does the situation require a railway collision, a burning house, a sinking ship, or an earthquake? The property man will take the order and promptly execute it. Steam shall be seen to issue from funnels, engines shall shriek, mines shall explode, waves shall mount, flames flicker, lightnings flash and thunder roar, rafters fall, and sparks and smoke and fearful saltpetrous fumes fill the Theatre - all at the bidding of the property man."

Above text from an article in the ERA of the 26th of May 1878.

Archive newspaper reports on this page were collated and kindly sent in for inclusion by B.F.