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The Collation

Trappings of the stage

January 2022 croc mystery image
January 2022 croc mystery image

Thanks to those who registered your guesses on our most recent Crocodile Mystery. All of the guesses gazed upward, when the answer actually lay underfoot. While these strange designs resemble theatrical lighting effects, they are, in fact, designs for stage trap doors.

R.B. [Bayley] was not satisfied with the status quo. Here, we see a dissatisfied theater-worker write to theater impresario and actor Robert William Elliston to argue his perspective. R.B. found stage trapdoor openings unbelievable, especially in productions of Macbeth, writing to R.W. Elliston to argue his point.

Autograph letter initialed from R.B. to R.W. Elliston, Drury Lane [manuscript], 1825 July 18. Folger MS Y.c.879 (1).

He writes,

The plan is a simple one, and novel in plays…and as the public is easily gulled by any kind of excellent trickery, the adoption…would be no doubt perfectly successful.

Vanishing through stage doors had always a disgusting effect, and in any opinion destroys the interest, because one witnesses what is so notoriously removed from nature. A person cannot rise or descend quick enough to illude the sense or the sight, & why a trap door should be exactly round or exactly oblong or square, I do not see any sufficient reason.

Suppose trap-doors were made any irregular shape (take the above shapes for example) would not they look, when open, more like a chasm in the earth, or more like the earth opening to emit or receive whoever is to be sent forth or received, than a square or round stage door? Decidedly so. Therefore, sire, I recommend this to your serious consideration.

On the letter, you can see R.B.’s designs for a trap door do look much more like “chasms in the earth” than a typical trapdoor. On the following page, R.B. continues with a design for Macbeth Act I, scene 4, in which Macbeth and Banquo meet the witches for the first time. He doesn’t care for how that scene is typically staged, either.

I have known about this letter for a few years and use it frequently during instruction sessions because of the interesting comparison it draws between the possibilities for trapdoors when staging Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus and William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. It also gives students room to discuss performance interpretations of text and the reality of making ideas come to life. Returning to this letter again, however, the trapdoor designs caught my attention when I realized the name R.W. Elliston was associated with a trapdoor in another item in our collection.

Alas, poor Ghost! [R.W. Elliston whipping the legs of the Ghost who is being lowered through a trap, Hamlet, act I, scene 1] by George Cruikshank, 1857. Folger call number: ART File E47 no. 11.

In this image, we see R.W. Elliston (left) whipping the legs of an actor dressed in armor descending through a trapdoor as he fights to keep his composure. This print is another one of my favorites to share in instruction sessions because its humor opens the floor for excellent conversations about the relationships between stage mechanics, acting, and backstage operations. Once it dawned on me that R.W. Elliston was the common denominator between these two trapdoor items, my desire to learn what is happening in this image had to be satisfied.

The story is even wilder than I could have imagined. My own words cannot do it justice, so the full account is reproduced for you below, excerpted from George Raymond’s The life and enterprises of Robert William Elliston, comedian. Illustrated by George Cruikshank and “Phiz” [pseud. of Hablot Knight Browne].1

Whilst on the subject of “outrages” we must beg leave to narrate an act of surpassing audacity, to the cost of poor [William] Dowton.

During the representation of some piece, wherein Dowton had to be lowered by means of a trap through the stage, his face being turned towards the audience, Elliston and [Vincent] De Camp, who were concealed below, had provided themselves with small ratan [sic] canes, and as their brother actor was slowly descending to solemn music, they applied their sticks sharply and rapidly to the thinly-clad calves of his legs.

Poor Dowton, whose duty it was to look as dignified and intrenchant as a ghost, smarting under the pain, curvetted with his heels, like a horse in Ducrow’s arena. Choking with rage, he was at length wholly let down, and being now completely out of sight of the audience, he looked earnestly round to discover the perpetrators of the violence. As to Elliston and his companion,–it was decamp with each of them; but at this moment Charles Holland, dressed to the very finish of fashion, worthy of [Colley] Cibber himself, was crossing from one of the rooms. The enraged actor, believing him to have been the offender, seized a mop at that moment immersed in most un-seemly water, and thrusting it in Charles’s face, utterly destroyed wig, ruffles, point-lace, and every particle of his elaborate attire.

In vain Holland protested his innocence, and implored for mercy; his cries only whetted the other’s revenge, and again and again the saturated mop was at work over his finery.

Somewhat appeased at last, Dowton quitted his victim; but in the meantime, the prompter’s bell had announced the commencement of the piece in which Holland was to have appeared. What was to be done? The drama was proceeding, Holland already called to the stage! All was confusion thrice confounded. An apology for “a sudden accident to Mr. Holland” was made, and the public informed “that De Camp had kindly undertaken to go on for the part!

Alas, poor Ghost, indeed! Interestingly, the print published in Raymond’s book does not include the caption “Alas, poor Ghost!” This indicates that the print in our collection might have been sold separately from the Elliston biography. Nowhere in the account does it say what character William Dowton was impersonating as he descended through the trapdoor, but it seems likely that his “duty to look as dignified and intrenchant as a ghost” inspired the caption. It is also possible that adding a Hamlet paraphrase would have boosted the sale of this standalone print designed by the famous caricaturist and book illustrator George Cruikshank. It is a testament to R.W. Elliston’s fame and prestige (and preference for comedy) that Cruikshank, the illustrator of Tristram Shandy, was engaged to illustrate Raymond’s biography of Elliston.

What made Elliston so special that he should be petitioned to change the shape of trapdoors or merit a biography? We can gather some clues from the opening lines of his obituary:

Elliston gone at last, a gay, clever, impudent giddy Elliston! The man of contradictions. The best and worst comedian of his time; the best and the worst manager; the best and the worst companion: the best and the worst schemer, dead or alive; a man who was ruined by his own dexterity: and who, if he had but half his talent for doing everything, and could have escaped his determination to do everything at once, might have been among the opulent of the age.

R.W. Elliston began his career as an actor, skilled in comedy, working his way from well-known performances in Bath, Bristol, and touring companies in the 1790s until he took his place as a lead actor at Drury Lane Theatre in 1804. It is very likely Jane Austen saw him perform during his tenure in Bath, with most scholars acknowledging that her time spent attending theatrical performances there influenced her novels Mansfield Park and Persuasion.2 Prominent critics adored him, including Leigh Hunt and Charles Lamb, the latter of whom wrote multiple essays about Elliston in his Last Essays of Elia.

After Drury Lane was destroyed by fire in 1809, Elliston turned to theatrical management. He was known as “the Great Lessee” and “the Napoleon of the Theatre” for his ability to acquire and maintain multiple theaters after his transition from actor to impresario. He owned or leased the Royal Circus (Surrey Theatre), Manchester Theatre Royal, Croydon, Birmingham, Worcester, Shrewsbury, Olympic Pavilion, Leamington, and Coventry. His crowning achievement, however, was taking over the management of the rebuilt Drury Lane Theatre.3

Elliston was financially unsuccessful overall, but his approach to theater changed the way performing arts were perceived, especially when performed in theaters that did not hold a royal patent. During the time of his acquisition of these theaters, only “legitimate” plays could be performed in London theaters Drury Lane and Covent Garden year-round, and at the Haymarket in the summertime. Theaters without the royal patent were held to strict rules as to performance length and type, including restrictions on the amount of speaking in proportion to singing and dancing. Elliston’s brilliance was to get around these restrictions by staging many adaptations of “legitimate” theater pieces in pantomime or short adaptations that showcased the theatrical talents of the performers and proved the capabilities of other theaters to stage all types of pieces. The royal patent for theaters was eliminated in 1843, after Elliston’s death in 1831. His successful artistic management of non-patent theaters contributed to the opening of performances to all venues. Once he took the helm at Drury Lane, Elliston finally entered the world of serious drama, but as we see in the Cruikshank illustration, the antics of pantomime remained in his blood.

To me, the most interesting part of the “Alas, poor Ghost!” image is that it captures a moment in which the actor is between two worlds. I enjoy peeking into the mechanical workings of the stage (read an earlier post here for a discussion of cauldron trapdoors). Trapdoors operate through a series of weights and counterweights, which are described in some detail in Stage Effects: How to Make and Work Them, by A. Rose.4

January 2022 croc mystery

Stage Effects describes how to operate grave and star trapdoors (p. 46-47).

While there are a few different kinds of trapdoors, the grave and star trapdoors remain common to this day. Even though R.B. railed against them in his letter to R.W. Elliston, we can see evidence of these trapdoor styles in use in productions through images, including in a delightful model of Drury Lane held by the Victoria and Albert Museum. The model features six grave and star trapdoors across the front of the stage, giving us a sense of what the pre-reconstruction setup for trapdoors was at this storied theater once managed by Elliston.

January 2022 croc mystery image

Theatre model, ca. 1911 (made for child actor Renée Meyer).

The split perspective of the “Alas, poor Ghost!” image seemed unique to me, but to test my hypothesis, I went in search of other images of trapdoors used in productions. I found that this illustration is atypical of the trapdoor image genre because it focuses equally on the above stage and below stage business. As you will see in the following images, most depictions focus on either the audience’s view of a trapdoor scene or the production perspective, rarely both.

I was able to find at least one other image created by George Cruikshank of a trapdoor scene, also from Hamlet. In this image, John Philip Kemble confronts the Gravedigger in his “grave trap,” capturing yet another humorous trapdoor moment during an otherwise serious production.

George Cruikshank. “A startling effect” [caricature of J.P. Kemble as Hamlet, in act V, scene 1]. London: Richard Bentley, 1846.

Similarly, two prints from the Victoria and Albert Museum show characters disappearing through trapdoors in pantomimes from the same period as “Alas, poor Ghost!”5 Below the stage, we can see the two trapdoors at work in more items from the V&A.

January 2022 croc mystery image

Grave trapdoor depicted in “Below the stage – the cellar – the slider away and the trap ready – angels in the lowers depths preparing to ascend,” 19th century. Courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum.

January 2022 croc mystery image

Star trapdoor depicted in “Pantomime Songs” songsheet, ca. 1890. Courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum.

In these images we can see the counterweights and platforms, trapdoors, production staff and actors all working together under the stage to create magic above. The Theatre Royal Richmond has preserved the trapdoors from their original Georgian building, which you can see in detail. Looking at the preserved trapdoor mechanism, I wonder at the actors’ ability to keep their full costume contained in such a small space!

Trapdoors themselves also occasionally play a role in plots, including in the famous climactic scene in the Stanley Donen film Charade (1963). In it, Cary Grant saves Audrey Hepburn from death in the prompter’s box when he pulls the lever on a trapdoor in the stage of the Comédie Français, plunging Walter Matthau to devastating injury, if not death.6

Outside of the movies, trapdoors have caused real harm to performers. Open holes in stage floors can be dangerous (even if your fellow actors aren’t attacking you from below!), as we see in this poster for stage accident prevention.

January 2022 croc mystery image

“Don’t Set Traps,” Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, 1942. Courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum.

Miscued trapdoors have hurt quite a few actors through the years; however, the Wicked Witch of the West seems to have fallen under a particularly bad star (trap). Margaret Hamilton and her stunt double each were badly burned when the trapdoor malfunctioned during her disappearance from Munchkinland when filming The Wizard of Oz (1939). In 2005, Idina Menzel had almost completed her run as Elphaba (so called before she became the Wicked Witch of the West) in Wicked when she fell several feet into a miscued trapdoor and broke a rib.7 Menzel returned a couple of nights later to say her farewells after proclaiming she had “melted” through the trapdoor.

Even if trapdoors do no physical harm, they certainly can deliver emotional hurt, especially when they are used to unceremoniously dismiss someone from the stage. In a new British reality dating series, Love Trap, contestants are dropped through a trapdoor if they are not selected to move forward in the competition. On top of being a terrible way to treat human beings, this is a disservice to trapdoors, made to give us nothing but delight.

  1. London. Routledge & Co. 1857, p. 117-118.
  2. Gay, Penny. Jane Austen and the Theatre. Cambridge University Press, 2002, p. 19.
  3. Theatre Royal Drury Lane has well-preserved stage machinery, including hydraulic stage lifts, which can be seen in images here.
  4. London: Routledge, 1928.
  5. Kabuki theater also uses trapdoors frequently. Read more about this style of performance art on the UNESCO: Intangible Cultural Heritage site.
  6. Fun fact: The credits for Charade do not include the copyright symbol ©, which was a requirement to secure U.S. Copyright before 1972. Therefore, the film itself is in the public domain, however, Harry Mancini’s music is under copyright. Since the score is practically a character unto itself, it’s unlikely we’ll see a silent” Charade any time soon.
  7. McKinley, Jesse. ”For a Fallen Witch, an Uplifting Farewell” New York Times (1923-); Jan 10, 2005. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times with Index pg. B1.