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Prompters and the Prompt Corner

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The Prompt Side of the stage in most British Theatres is to the left of the actor, or to the right of the audience. Here will be found the Prompt Corner and Prompt Desk where nowadays a Stage Manager sits or stands and cues the show from start to finish. The Stage Manager is also normally responsible for Prompting the cast if they should forget a line, hence the name. In some Theatres a stage manager will sit out front and be responsible for Prompting only, something which used to occur at the National Theatre in the 1980s when I worked there, but this is by far the exception rather than the rule today. Professional actors rarely need Prompting these days so the Stage Manager is rarely called upon to actually Prompt, although they do follow the script and can do so if necessary.

However, many years ago the job of Prompting was far busier and actors needed to be Prompted regularly. The article below is an interesting and amusing look at the Prompter, and the Prompter's job in the 19th century. (M.L.)

 

The Natural History of Prompters

From an article in the ERA, 18th of August 1883

Until a very few years ago, says " J. M. M.," a writer in a New York paper, the drama was the most conservative of all arts. It clung to its traditions with astonishing tenacity, and except in the matters of costume and scenery the theatre of twenty or even ten years ago was very much what it had been in the days of Kemble and Edward Kean. But when reform, or more properly speaking innovation, set in it came like a whirlwind and drove tradition right out of the dramatic world and tore tradition up by the roots.

The legitimate actor was the first to feel the effect of the innovating storm and he was blown to some remote corner of the earth, from which he has only lately emerged. The manager-actor suffered nearly as badly, and the devastation wrought on stock companies was so terrible that not even at this moment do they show any considerable signs of recovery. But terrific as the storm was it was not powerful enough to shake one relic of the past from the rock of ages to which it clung. The prompter "did not pale before the fury of the gale," and we have him with us still.

Not only does the prompter exist, but he lives, breathes, and acts (when he is permitted to act) just as he did in the days of our grandfathers, and probably performs his functions in the identical manner adopted by prompters in Shakespeare's time, or by the gentlemen who "held the book" when Roscius was an actor in Rome. The immutability of prompters is one of the most curious studies connected with the stage. In the very few theatres where stock companies exist, and where, season after season, new faces are seen, the prompter never changes. Generations of leading men, soubrettes, comedians, and leading ladies pass over the stage, but the occupant of the "prompt box" is always the same. A speculating manager, in the course of, say, six years, takes out six successive attractions of entirely different character, and has a complete change of company each season, but he never changes his prompter. A superstitious actor was heard to declare his belief in the immortality of the prompter, just as Sam Weller did his faith in the undying nature of the jackass. But then this is absurd, for dead prompters have been seen, though it must be admitted that the spectacle is a very unusual one.

Now how do men become prompters? It is quite certain that no youth stricken with the dramatic fever sets out on his theatrical career with the ambition of becoming a prompter. The old argument that a prompter is an actor who has failed cannot be maintained, because in that case there would be more prompters than actors in the profession. Our opinion is that prompters, like men of genius, are born and not made, They find themselves holding the book at the "first entrance" despite all their ambitious longings and in defiance of all the promises of their youth. The call-boy sometimes develops into the prompter, but not often. Call-boys are too erratic in temperament to take to anything so sober and severe as prompting, and much oftener blossom in advance agents and speculating managers. Apparently it is an accident which compels one actor in a company to undertake, temporarily of course, the duty of prompting; but in truth it is destiny, and when the utility man, second heavy, or second old man drops for a few days into the prompter's chair, fate has clutched him, and to that or similar chairs he will cling while he lives.

In these United States and in the kingdom of Great Britain there are a dozen prompters who were once prosperous managers. They directed theatres with the dignity and autocracy befitting their elevated position. But in an evil, or perhaps happy hour, they have visited the stage during a performance. The prompter is for the moment absent (it is remarkable how often the prompter is absent), and the manager, in an easy, condescending way, takes up the book, follows the dialogue, and gives the word to some imperfect actor. From that moment he is doomed. The days of his management are numbered, and his future and lasting career as a prompter may be seen in the distance. This sounds like superstition, and perhaps it is, but I have a vivid recollection of this sort of fatality.

About a dozen years ago there was a manager of this city who had directed theatres for at least twenty years. He wore diamonds in his shirt front, lived in a mansion, and fared sumptuously every day. I was engaged playing in a farce in his theatre, during the progress of which the prompter took one of his many leaves of absence. The manager strolled on to the stage, and, noticing the empty prompt box, stepped into it. He was marching towards his destiny. He took up the prompt book. The fates were closing round him. He began to follow the dialogue, and finding that the actors were what is called "Matey" in the text, he gave some of us "the word." His doom was sealed. When the farce was over, the old man of the company whispered to me in a tone of awe — "Mr Blank (the manager) will die a prompter." The prophecy has not been quite fulfilled, because Mr Blank still lives, but the diamonds have disappeared, the mansion has melted, the sumptuous fare is no more, and last season Mr Blank was "holding the book" in a very small theatre in Philadelphia.

Prompters are occasionally permitted to act, but only in exceptional circumstances. The cast must be a particularly full one which permits the stage-manager to give the prompter a part. In the first place, it is a moral certainty that, though the prompter will be "well up" in everybody else's lines, he will not know one of his own. Then, when the prompter acts he can find no time to visit the dressing-rooms, and he is sure to have no properties. He seizes the most inappropriate garments from the wardrobe, and with these and any kind of a wig he can borrow he repairs to the prompt-box. His duties call him to various parts of the stage, and he literally dresses in "spots." As for "make-up," he never thinks of that until two minutes before his appearance is wanted on the stage. Then he rushes frantically to somebody's dressing-case, dabs some carmine on his cheeks, or perhaps on his nose, for he has no time to look at a glass, rushes back to the prompt-box, claps a wig on his head wrong side front, and dashes on the stage after having kept it waiting at least a minute, and then finds that he cannot remember a line of his part. When he comes off he vituperates the property-man and chases the elusive callboy all around the stage until he catches the youth, and boxes his ears for not being in the box to prompt the prompter.

An experienced actor sitting in the "front" can always detect the prompter when that functionary appears on the stage. If among the players there is one worse dressed than the others, and somewhat less than half "made up," that will be the prompter. The acting-prompter is only happy when he can "go on" the stage without the necessity of undressing. If he is permitted to thrust his pantaloons into his boot-tops and wear a domino and a big slouched hat, he is comparatively joyful. But even then he is to be detected, for the boot-tops will very likely not be a pair, and he is sure to allow his domino to fly open and reveal his modern coat and vest amid the mediaeval habiliments of his fellows. I have detected the prompter even in the chorus of witches singing the music of Macbeth.. There have been perhaps thirty people on the stage, twenty of them in dominos and long beards, but the "witch" with her striped pantaloons peeping beneath the domino, and whose beard was hanging down on one side, and who sang mercilessly out of time and tune, was our friend the prompter.

It is hard to tell why, but prompters are almost always given to cribbage. They invariably have a pack of cards in the theatre, and when they think the piece is running smoothly they leave the book in the hands of the call-boy and dive into some dressing-room and challenge the low comedian or the first old man to one "quick game " of five-card cribbage. The most inveterate cribbage-playing prompter I ever knew held the hook in a Brooklyn theatre for several years. He played cribbage during all the long scenes, and was often seen running up from the dressing-room to ring down the curtain with "fifteen two, fifteen four, and a pair" in his band and the cribbage-board under his arm. This prompter, by the way, was the only exception to the rule of prompters living and dying in their calling. But then he took to politics, became a member of the Assembly at Albany, and was therefore capable of violating any tradition or upsetting the best established of theories. However, he is not an old man yet, and politics are Precarious, and, perhaps, he may end his days in the prompt-box after all.

One might suppose that the most painful moments of a prompter's life occurred on the first night of a new piece, when the actors get mixed up in their dialogue or positively "Stick" in the text. On the contrary, I can declare from experience that these are the happiest moments of a prompter's existence. I have seen prompters glow with excitement and joy when the Poor actors have been foundering through a complicated scene. They have rubbed their bands with delight, and actually embraced the call-boy in their satisfaction. A very ancient prompter of my acquaintance never relaxed his habitual gloom until the actors got wofully mixed in their speeches. Then be would drop the book on the floor, dance in glee, and shout "They're sticking, by Jupiter, they're sticking!" He was, however, hardly as incorrigible as the old Irish prompter, who when a stick occurred and the leading man, sidling to the Prompt-box, muttered "give me the word," unctuously
answered, "Certainly, me boy ; what word do ye want:"

The above text was first published in the ERA, 18th of August 1883.

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