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The Stage Life of Props

The Stage Life of Props

Andrew Sofer
Copyright Date: 2003
Pages: 272
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  • Book Info
    The Stage Life of Props
    Book Description:

    InThe Stage Life of Props,Andrew Sofer aims to restore to certain props the performance dimensions that literary critics are trained not to see, then to show that these props are not just accessories, but time machines of the theater.Using case studies that explore the Eucharistic wafer on the medieval stage, the bloody handkerchief on the Elizabethan stage, the skull on the Jacobean stage, the fan on the Restoration and early eighteenth-century stage, and the gun on the modern stage, Andrew Sofer reveals how stage props repeatedly thwart dramatic convention and reinvigorate theatrical practice.While the focus is on specific objects, Sofer also gives us a sweeping history of half a millennium of stage history as seen through the device of the prop, revealing that as material ghosts, stage props are a way for playwrights to animate stage action, question theatrical practice, and revitalize dramatic form.Andrew Sofer is Assistant Professor of English, Boston College. He was previously a stage director.

    eISBN: 978-0-472-02633-3
    Subjects: Performing Arts, Sociology, Language & Literature
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Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter (pp. i-iv)
  2. Preface: Appropriations (pp. v-xiv)
  3. Acknowledgments (pp. xv-xvi)
  4. Table of Contents (pp. xvii-xviii)
  5. Introduction: Rematerializing the Prop (pp. 1-30)

    A consecrated wafer, stolen from a church by medieval Jews bent on disproving the real presence of Christ in the Host, bleeds when stabbed. A blood-soaked handkerchief mutates from a charmed talisman of love to a ghastly token of revenge as it passes from woman to man and from son to father. A dirt-encrusted skull, which inspires a Renaissance prince to strike a fashionable memento mori pose, suddenly invokes that prince’s beloved childhood companion and makes him gag. A fan that begins as an innocent birthday gift becomes devastating proof of infidelity. An unhappily married woman points her pistol offstage...

  6. 1 Playing Host The Prop as Temporal Contract on the Medieval Stage (pp. 31-60)

    I have defined a stage property as an inanimate object that is visibly manipulated by an actor in the course of performance. But it is not enough for an object to be handled by an actor; it must also be perceived by a spectatoras a prop—in other words, as a sign. Indeed, theater can be defined as that mode of perception in which spectators consent to see things as representing things other than themselves: an actor as King Lear, a chair as Lear’s throne, and so on. According to the Prague structuralists, “All that is on the stage...

  7. 2 Absorbing Interests The Bloody Handkerchief on the Elizabethan Stage (pp. 61-88)

    In my last chapter, I argued that the prop in performance is not a static or stable signifier whose meaning is predetermined by the playwright. Rather, the prop’s impact is mediated both by the gestures of the individual actor who handles the object, and by the horizon of interpretation available to historically situated spectators at a given time. Although we can speculate about what spectators at the original performance of the CroxtonPlay of the Sacramentthought they saw when the mysterious wafer appeared “sacred [consecrated] newe,” we will never know for certain. Yet the implications are radical, since the...

  8. 3 Dropping the Subject The Skull on the Jacobean Stage (pp. 89-116)

    Whether under the aegis of the church or seeking to emancipate itself from it, drama has continually appropriated the church’s holy symbols. On the medieval and early modern stage, as I have shown, both the eucharistic wafer and the bloody handkerchief contained a ghostly residue of the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the Mass. But whereas the CroxtonPlay of the Sacramentsought to shore up belief in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, even as it asserted the right of lay actors to handle the holy wafer (or, at least, some visual equivalent of...

  9. 4 The Fan of Mode Sexual Semaphore on the Restoration and Early-Eighteenth-Century Stage (pp. 117-166)

    Like the eucharistic wafer, the bloody handkerchief, and the memento mori skull, the ladies’ folding fan helped reshape the cultural signification of the English stage, but with an important difference. The fan was devoid of the sacred associations that haunted the wafer, handkerchief, and skull and inspired their theatrical appropriation by medieval and early modern drama. Despite the fact that liturgical fans had been used in the eastern Mediterranean Mass between the sixth and fifteenth centuries—theflabellum,a circular fan with pleated leaves, whisked away insects from the precious Host during consecration—English drama provides no record that playwrights...

  10. 5 Killing Time Guns and the Play of Predictability on the Modern Stage (pp. 167-202)

    At the end of act 1 of Henrik Ibsen’sHedda Gabler(1890), Hedda observes (in Una Ellis-Fermor’s translation) that she still has “one thing to kill time with”: her father’s pistols.¹ Hedda speaks more truly than she knows, for she will use the pistols not only to pass the time but to end time—both the time of her life and, almost immediately following, the time of the play. Playwrights have often played with time by using objects to speed up, retard, or suspend the action, but the stage gun is unique because its appearance immediately raises the possibility of...

  11. Notes (pp. 203-250)
  12. Bibliography (pp. 251-268)
  13. Index (pp. 269-278)