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html> Theatre Journal 56.2 (2004) 327-328
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In this work, Andrew Sofer offers a superb examination of the prop on the Western stage. The book's main objective is to illuminate the role of the prop through five case studies: the medieval Eucharist wafer, the Elizabethan bloody handkerchief, the Jacobean skull, the fan on the Restoration and early eighteenth-century stage, and the gun on the modern stage. For Sofer, the prop is a three-dimensional and dynamic contributor to the meaning of a stage production. It is neither a literary emblem reducible to an inert interpretation nor a mere appurtenance to the furniture; it is, rather, highly significant to the play's action, influencing the meaning of the play with every performance.
Sofer writes elegantly, possesses an eye for detail, and displays a brimming theatrical understanding. Each chapter highlights his central thesis that the prop plays a crucial, pragmatic role in production. In the introduction, he maintains that the prop has a twofold purpose: first, it is an object on a journey, yielding "spatial trajectories" and creating "temporal narratives" (2); second, it becomes "a concrete means for playwrights to animate stage action, interrogate theatrical practice, and revitalize dramatic form" (3). The book first examines the prop in light of the Prague Structuralist school, with its semiotic emphasis on the theatrical sign. Rather than describing the prop as an abstract signifier, as the semioticians would have it, Sofer argues that the prop is a material object manipulated by actors in the course of performance. The prop is then described as an object in motion rather than a static metaphor. For Sofer, props come to life onstage when they move physically, depending on the activities of the actor. They act as motivators of the stage action and transform the meaning of the performance (or provide counterintuitive meanings) in the hands of skilled actors. Props may become fetishized objects, haunted mediums reappearing in differing plays, [End Page 327] or disruptive devices that confound dramatic action. The prop is, therefore, "something an object becomes, rather than something an object is" (12).
Chapter 1 examines the Eucharist wafer, what Sofer calls the "ur-prop of post-classical Western drama" (31). As the wafer evolves from a Christian embodiment of Christ to a stage prop in the hands of actors, it changes from a symbol of unambiguous orthodoxy to a mutable stage property. The wafer's meaning opens up onstage, where the flexibility of representation challenges its status as the fixed presence of Christ, thereby placing the prop between "transubstantiation and representation, miracle and spectacle" (42). The next chapter examines the "apotropaic talisman" (68) of the Elizabethan bloody handkerchief. According to Sofer, the bloody handkerchief in the hands of playwright Thomas Kyd transforms the typical revenge tragedy of the era. During the late medieval period the bloody handkerchief was considered a magical totem of the Catholic sacraments; onstage during the Elizabethan era it represented Protestant rejection of Catholic idolatry. But for Sofer, Kyd's agenda is not concerned so much with advancing a Protestant religious aesthetic as it is a way to appropriate the handkerchief's "power on behalf of a newly invigorated professional theater freed from the orderly bureaucratic surveillance of a clerical hierarchy" (75). Sofer is interested in recasting the handkerchief prop as an opportunistic bid by playwrights and actors in their effort to turn the object into a sensational, and thereby theatrical, object. The book engagingly focuses the reader's attention on the theatricality of the bloody handkerchief that has heretofore been interpreted as a symbol of religious conversion.
In chapter 3, Sofer deconstructs the Jacobean skull by analyzing three plays: Hamlet, The Honest Whore (Part I), and The Revenger's Tragedy. The skull is not, as literary critics would have it, a shallow representation of the "conventional memento mori tableau," but rather a prop that "in Shakespeare's day may well have been realistically encrusted with earth and worms" (99...