The Secret Life of Props

Catalan Rowel Spur, ca. 1400 (from

by Gary Taylor

One of the many virtues of my faithful computer Jeeves (introduced in the previous chapter) is that he doesn’t complain if I wake him up at 3 or 4 in the morning. He listens patiently as I tap on this keyboard and repeat sentences out loud to myself, over and over, and revise them, over and over

The sentences in question, most recently, were all about spurs. In Wellington in 2009 David Carnegie pointed out to me that, in Act Two of my reconstruction of The History of Cardenio, both Cardenio and Fernando should be wearing spurs. In the early modern theatre spurs were code for “this person has just been riding a horse” (like a modern actor coming on stage taking off a motorcycle helmet). This was one of many moments when I was especially glad to be working with a director who specialized in “original stage practices”. I proposed that spurs should also be included in the scene where Sancho arms Quixot, also in Act Two, thereby creating a visual and thematic parallel between the Cardenio plot and the Quixot plot in adjoining scenes. In theory.

In practice, the cardboard spurs provided by the props department were not at all convincing. This was not Carnegie’s fault; he was working with a very limited budget, and the design elements of the show were provided by a separate class of undergraduate students, over which he had no direct control. So I told myself that the spurs were a good idea, and that they would work fine in an ideal future production with an ideal crew and an ideal budget. I left them in the stage directions, and forgot about them. I focused my attention on the characters.

Now I am working on the future production that I imagined then. The budget may not be ideal, but this time I am involved with the show from the very beginning. Last week we had our first table reading. Terri Bourus (the director) has put together a wonderful cast, and everyone was exhilarated by the reading. The assistant director read stage directions, sporadically, so I was reminded of the spurs, and I resolved that this time they would be real and convincing.

Then, last Friday afternoon, Terri and I met with the production’s designer, Clark Foster, at a local coffee shop. Construction of the theatre is still not complete, so we can’t meet there, and the offices next to the theatre have been monopolized by Music and Arts Technology, so we can’t meet there, and IUPUI has no existing theatre department so there is, of course, no existing store of costumes or props, and hence no spurs. But the play requires lots of costumes, not only because it has so many characters but because some of them—especially Cardenio and Violenta—keep changing the way they look. We show Clark some costumes and accessories we bought on what was supposed to be a vacation in Baja in December. (That’s also where I found and bought the painting by Ivan Hernandez Olivera that is now being used in all the marketing for the show: at a shop called “Indian Hands” in the San Jose art district). Fortunately Clark likes the clothes as much as we do. Fortunately, also, he’s a pro. We both feel really lucky to have him working on the production. Brainstorming with him, we even realize that we can use the clothes we have in better ways than we’d anticipated when we bought them.

But we did not buy spurs in Mexico. I realize that the spurs have not been on Terri’s mind. It dawns on me that I am probably the only person paying attention to them. Brean Hammond’s Arden edition of Double Falsehood wrote about my use of the coffin throughout the play, and several subsequent revivals of Double Falsehood  (including Doran’s RSC Cardenio) have stolen—I mean, “borrowed”—the idea. Sarah Neville started working on procuring the right kind of coffin for this production almost as soon as she read my script. But Hammond didn’t mention the spurs, and Neville hasn’t mentioned the spurs, either. Nobody seems to find them interesting.

So, after the meeting with Clark, I ask Terri, “Tell me the truth: are the spurs working?” And she answers, “No. They aren’t getting in the way of the story, they are not distracting or disturbing, but they aren’t adding anything either.” We’ve already printed out the script for all the actors, but I ask her if I can do another re-write, specifically about the spurs. She says ok, as long as I get it done by Monday morning (because the second table reading would be Tuesday). And she will have the final say about whether to incorporate the revisions in the script for this production. Having been an actor herself for most of her life, Terri is a very actor-oriented director. She knows that some actors don’t like changes to the script during rehearsals. During her own acting career Terri has been told to make changes as she’s standing in the wings about to step on stage, but we can’t do that here.

What, at such short notice, can I do to make the spurs work, as theatre and as poetry? In a modern theatre I can project giant close-up images of spurs onto a screen, but Shakespeare and Fletcher could not have done that, and in everything to do with this script I am limiting myself to what was possible and likely in 1613. I decided to try with the spurs what I have already done with the major roles in the play. In the summer of 2009, after Wellington, instead of revising scenes I revised parts that didn’t satisfy me: Fernando, Cardenio, Violenta, Lucinda, one at a time, straight through from beginning to end. We know that actors worked from a “part” or “side”, so early modern playwrights would have seen their scripts transformed into a set of separate manuscript roles, and it would be natural to start composing with that eventual textual embodiment in mind. Certainly, writing separate parts for the principal characters proved to be, for me, a stimulating creative exercise.

The problem with the spurs is that they were, literally, tacked on. They had been added to the stage directions, and added to the actors’ boots, but not added to the dialogue. If they were going to mean anything, they had to be talked about, they had to be used, they had to become part of the play’s (and the audience’s) imaginary. Both Shakespeare and Fletcher elsewhere and often wrote about literal and metaphorical spurs. We can’t bring panting, kicking, rearing horses onto the stage, so we cannot give Fernando or Cardenio or Quixot the animal companion that identifies him as a horseman, a chevalier, a caballero, a chivalric knight errant.

Doran had noticed the references to horses in Double Falsehood, and he went to visit the Hyde Park Barracks of the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment (pp. 168-70), and then wrote a scene featuring “a rather whippy riding crop” and  “a Spanish saddle and a wooden saddle-stand” (p. 190) . Reading his published script last May, I thought this was Doran’s best new scene. But then I was disappointed by it in the two performances I saw in July. Only now, struggling with my own props problem, without an RSC budget or RSC access to the royal stables, do I realize why I was dissatisfied by Doran’s utterly real props. First, they confined the horse imagery to Fernando—part of what seemed to me a general inflation of Fernando’s part, at the expense of Cardenio’s. (The riding whip was taken, consciously or not, from David Garrick’s adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew, to indicate a gender bully: been there, done that, what else you got?) Second, the props in that scene didn’t connect to anything else in the play: they looked splendid, they caught the eyes of the audience for a few minutes, but they didn’t go anywhere, they didn’t accumulate significance, they didn’t tell a story.

My spurs could not dominate the stage like Doran’s wooden saddle mount and saddle. But they could, indeed had to, appear in more than one scene. I didn’t know why, but I wanted to write the new material backward. First, I wrote two new lines for the Duke at the end of the play; promising Cardenio golden spurs. (Teaser: you’ll understand why, when you see the show.) Then, I added two lines to Cardenio’s first mad scene, where he already says—in lines preserved in Double Falsehood– “riding shall be abolished” and “Let the barbed steed Loose to his native wildness”. Cardenio is here explicitly abandoning his identity as a chivalric horseman, so throwing away his spurs would be a natural gesture. It embodies the act of renunciation, self-degradation, identity-destruction, that Theobald’s adaptation only talks about. This moment when Cardenio holds the spurs in his hands, and does something with them, happens right after the episode where Quixot and Sancho discover the saddle he has abandoned in the mountains, and do something with it. In fact, the saddle that Cardenio abandoned is still on stage when we see him throw away his spurs, too.

But these two moments—in Act Four’s first mad scene, and Act Five’s final scene—will make climactic sense to an audience only if the significance of the spurs has already been established earlier. And the obvious place to do that is Act Two, where in Carnegie’s production Cardenio and Fernando and Quixot all acquired spurs. Moving backward, still, I first worked on Quixot’s arming scene. Instead of leaving the spurs as an unspecified part of the armor that Sancho attaches to Quixot, I made them the second thing that Quixot asks for (after his “sword Castilian”). And I made Quixot reiterate their significance when his transformation into a knight errant is complete, “from spur to helmet”. Suddenly, it made perfect sense that the scene ends (as it has always done) with an exchange of speeches about Rozinante: for Quixot, his imaginary new identity requires him to accessorize himself so that he can ride the magnificent horse of a mounted warrior.

Immediately preceding this arming scene is a sequence requiring rapid changes of locale, after Cardenio and Fernando both leave court. Cardenio rides to deliver Fernando’s message to Violenta, while Fernando rides to deliver Cardenio’s letter to Lucinda. Cardenio rides from Violenta’s farmhouse back to his home town, where both his father and Lucinda live. There he meets Fernando, who sends him riding back to court—in order to fetch money that Fernando can use to purchase . . . horses. Thus, this sequence of three scenes depends on riding horses and buying horses. Fernando’s aristocratic status means that he has always been a horseman; but Cardenio, by contrast, has just become one, as a result of his elevation to the status of Fernando’s intimate friend and a court favorite. So all three of these male principals in Act Two wear spurs, but each has a different relationship to them.

Of these three scenes, the most important is the third, and it is also the one which absolutely must, because of the plot, talk about horses. Still working backward, I began there, in the dialogue between Fernando and Cardenio. In last week’s script (and in all my previous incarnations of the play), the necessary plot-twist about purchasing horses had come out of nowhere. Now, I made it emerge from the preceding dialogue, a seemingly irrelevant digression by Fernando, as he feels his way toward the betrayal of his friend.

The scene before that is the shortest in the play, a mere twelve lines, enacting Fernando’s arrival at Don Barnard’s house and his first sight of Lucinda. Like Doran, I had always wanted to show the audience that disastrously transformative first encounter between them. But as it stood, the mini-scene began with a long stage direction, first bringing on Don Barnard and his household at one door, then Fernando at the other. In the Wellington performances this had involved a bit of awkward dumb show. Now, I supplied the mime with dialogue, spacing out the entrances, beginning with Marcela and the other servants, talking about the exciting unexpected arrival of an amazing horse and amazing horseman, then Don Barnard entering with his daughter and silencing the indecorous servants, then Fernando. Three extra lines of blank verse established this social pyramid, and also clearly distinguished Fernando’s conspicuous-consumption high-fashion aristocratic spurs from Cardenio’s more ordinary accessories.

In the preceding scene, Cardenio makes his own spurred debut, and I wanted it to be noticed, but the emphasis there could not be on the magnificence of his horse and equipment. Instead, I adjusted the dialogue to emphasize the speed with which he has ridden from court, and his resolution to ride on to Lucinda just as quickly as possible. For Cardenio the spurs are functional; for Fernando they are ornamental and symbolic; for Quixot, they are symbolic, too, but they are also unintentionally parodic, because he doesn’t have Fernando’s resources or youth. They are like tacky Star Trek memorabilia he picked up at a fan convention thirty years ago and still treasures.

This retrograde process eventually led me back to the scene between Fernando and Cardenio at court. Like Doran, I had always recognized that the play needed an early scene between Fernando and Cardenio, to establish the nature of their relationship, and like Doran I followed Cervantes in setting that scene at court. But that’s the only resemblance between our two scenes. I had always ended the scene with Fernando’s decision to leave the court, and take Cardenio with him, as a way of re-establishing the primacy of their male-male relationship. But now I realized that the half-line “Hunting?  What say you?” was utterly inadequate. No actor could make those words do all the work they needed to do. Fernando has to explain what is so thrillingly charismatic about the expensive hobby of riding horses, and especially hunting on horseback (so important to King James, and to the upper-class fox-hunting horsey set in Britain ever since). Shakespeare wrote passionately and brilliantly about horses throughout his career, and Fernando needs to be equally eloquent in this scene. And Fernando also, as the dominant partner socially and politically, has to change the pace. The preceding scene, “the bowling scene”, is the most relaxed in the entire play. Fernando now ends his scene with Cardenio with the imperative “quick, quick!”, as they exit in different directions. He establishes the velocity of the following three scenes, and more generally of the entire sequence from this exit to the wedding scene, which Lucinda tries but fails to slow down.

The spurs work as a metonymy for the horses that the play needs, narratively and symbolically, but cannot have. Thomas Shelton translated the Spanish of Cervantes into English; but Shakespeare and Fletcher, in order to make a play of that novel, had to translate the horses of Cervantes into spurs worn by actors. The problem in Wellington was not that the props department failed to provide good props, or that a modern urban audience failed to pay attention to an accessory that belongs to an essentially agricultural world. The problem was that, until last weekend, Gary Taylor had failed to pay attention to the spurs, and hence had failed to pay attention to the offstage horses, and hence had failed to pay attention to what, literally and figuratively, moves these characters. And moves them fast.

Monday morning I read Terri the changes. She approved. I spent the rest of the day notifying each actor whose part had been changed (in some cases by only a single word or phrase). We asked Clark to prioritize getting the spurs, so that the three actors (Ty, Tom, and Jonah) can start wearing them, getting used to them, playing with them, incorporating them into the way they walk, into their embodiment of their characters, even before they get the rest of their costumes.

This is why I have always been determined not to publish my own reconstruction of the play until I could work with a group of experienced actors and crew through the entire practical process from the initial decision to perform the play through to the end of the last performance and the last audience talk-back.

Now, with the spurs behind me (sorry, bad Shakespearian pun), I have to start learning my lines, as under-study for Duke Angelo. . . But I don’t need Jeeves for that, so I’m going to let him take the rest of the night off.


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