The Collation

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This Post Stinks, or, ‘I hope that the stuff will not smell too vilely’

John Masefield has a burning question he needs answered. Literally.

Writing from his home Hill Crest in Boar’s Hill, Oxford, the Poet Laureate asks theater production veteran Allan Wade a crucial question about staging his home theatrical production of Macbeth.1 He registers a particular anxiety about the potential for stinking up the place—and not with bad acting.

Autograph letter signed from John Masefield, Oxford, to Wade regarding how "to give the effect of a boiling pot"
Autograph letter signed from John Masefield, Oxford, to Wade [manuscript], 19th or 20th century, [after 1917]. Folger call number: Y.c.3869. Images from the Folger Reference Image Collection (side 1 and side 2).

Dear Wade,
The basket of dresses has reached me safely; many thanks for it.
Could you please tell me what stuff is usually burned in the witches’ cauldron in Macbeth. to give the effect of a boiling pot? Please let me know, on the enclosed card, will you?
I hope that the stuff will not smell too vilely.
With kind regards.
Yours sincerely,
J. Masefield

In a kitchen, a boiling pot requires fuel to heat the vessel, a vessel to hold its contents, and a concoction to boil that smells heavenly (usually!). In the theater, achieving the same effect requires layers of lighting, props, and practical effects—and apparently, it stinks.

Intrigued by unanswered questions, I started an investigation into theatrical effects and pyrotechnics from the early modern English stage to the present.2 Two research questions from the letter guided me: 1) what “give[s] the effect of a boiling pot”? and 2) did it stink?

Before “Fire Burn and Cauldron Bubble”

First, to establish a knowledge baseline for myself, I investigated how the first performances of Macbeth could have staged a bubbling cauldron. When I am unfamiliar with a topic I want to research, I often start with a familiar resource. In researching early theater, I like to search the Lost Plays Database (LPD) for evidence of plays lost to time. LPD includes historical context and citations alongside primary source evidence that contextualizes extant plays with lost ones—often providing two answers in one place.

In my current quest, a quick search for “cauldron” returned two lost plays: Bendo (or Byndo) and Richardo and Tom Dough (Dove), Part 2. Both plays deployed cauldrons to stage boiling people alive—a common theatrical trend flipped into overdrive by Lord Strange’s Men.3 In their Bendo and Richardo (1592), Bendo falls into a boiling cauldron of pitch in a tower treasury, set as a trap by the Duke whose treasure Bendo was in the act of pilfering. Another theater company, The Admiral’s Men, played Tom Dough, Part 2 (1601), in which two dastardly innkeepers rob their wealthy guests by situating the guestroom bed over a trapdoor to a boiling cauldron. Both productions certainly call to mind the addition of “poison’d entrails throw” to the cauldron in Act 4, scene 1 of Macbeth. As the LPD entry for Bendo and Richardo notes, it is entirely probable that the same cauldron was also used in “Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus and The Jew of Malta, as well as their ‘fryer bacvne’ (widely identified as John of Bordeaux)”. Could it also be that the Lord Strange’s Men took their cauldron and its practical effects with them when six of their actors joined the King’s Men (formerly Lord Chamberlain’s Men) who eventually staged Macbeth?

Next, what is a bubbling cauldron without its fire? There are a few ways early theater tackled the problem of producing fire onstage. Obviously, they used flames—burning tallow, powdered varnish for flashes of light, or hemp (for controlled timing of burning) would bring the desired effect.4 Squibs—a type of pyrotechnic that combined sulfurous brimstone, coal, and saltpeter (itself derived from dung)—were lit to provide the stinky thunder in many productions, including Macbeth.5

We also know from LPD that the Warwick’s Men production of The Knight in the Burning Rock (1579) used aquavit as fuel for the burning rock effect, held in glass vessels.6 Most importantly for our second research question (did it stink?), historical records indicate that the production used “Rosewater to Alay the smell thereof.”7 In this timeframe, rosewater was a popular cover-up in the stinky lives of early moderns; however, other smell-masking scents have been proposed, including burning juniper or other fragrant plants, incense, or even the audience smoking tobacco.8 The historical evidence cited in LPD connects the fuel for this early English stage fire with stink—especially low to the ground burning, such as would appear under a cauldron. From here, I felt ready to investigate what Masefield could have used in his home production in the early 20th century.

Masefield’s cauldron choices

From the mid-18th through the early 20th centuries, practical effects and pyrotechnics developed to include more fuels for different types and durations of fires. Smoke effects also developed so that these effects were separately deployed, adding to the layers of techniques available to theater technicians. Early fire fuels discussed above were still in use but were eventually eclipsed by the large-scale implementation of other fire and smoke techniques.

Some of the most consequential materials added to theater effects practice during this time included:

  • Lycopodium powder—dried clubmoss spores, not terribly smelly. These hydrophobic particles were used for lightning, flashes, and torches.9 Danger of uncontrolled powder entering the house.
  • Red or blue fire—a combination of metal salts (strontium nitrate for red, copper nitrate for blue) and sulphur, possibly stinky, but less smelly than squibs. Used to attain a smoldering glow, including fire ashes.10 Danger of explosion and fire.
  • Dry ice—solid carbon dioxide that sublimates in air and/or water, has a “sour zesty odor” (according to one poetic Wikipedian). Used for low fog or smoke. Danger of frostbite and suffocation.

Innovations in pyrotechnics did not decrease the level of danger for performers and audience members. Instead, they fueled (sorry) in the theatergoing public both a craze for pyrotechnic displays and an astonishing number of theater fires—“1,100 major conflagrations in the world’s theaters and countless smaller fires” in the 19th century.11

Once I knew what typical methods were in use and available to Masefield, I wanted to make sure I looked for evidence directly connected to Macbeth productions that fit the time frame of the letter. To better understand what contemporary professional productions were doing to make their cauldron bubble in Macbeth, I turned to the Shakespeare in Performance: Promptbooks from the Folger Shakespeare Library database.12 This collection of our digitized Shakespeare promptbooks is essential for theater research because the books record the director’s decisions for staging of productions, from cuts to casting, fight sequences, lighting, and other practical effects.

Shakespeare in Performance search results, sorted newest to oldest.
Shakespeare in Performance search results, sorted newest to oldest.

As you can see in this image, I searched for “Macbeth,” and then filtered by the play title, finally sorting my results from newest to oldest. This allowed me to see the early-20th century productions at the top of the page. I then opened each record and used the contents list to navigate to Act IV, scene 1, to find the cauldron scene stage directions. After looking through the late-19th and early-20th century promptbooks, I zeroed in on some fascinating options for Masefield to use for his bubbling cauldron.

In the Frederick Kaufman production of Macbeth starring E.H. Sothern and Julia Marlowe (November 10, 1910), the cauldron scene is elaborately described in the promptbook:

Promptbook pages depicting stage layout and stage directions for Macbeth.
Promptbook pages depicting stage layout and stage directions. Folger call number: PROMPT Mac. Fo. 8. Downloaded from Shakespeare in Performance.

…A large rugged flat top rock is L [stage left]

This is a trick rock and the large cauldron of the witches^which has no bottom^sets on top of it, but there is room enough for the three witches to join hands and move around the cauldron. On the floor beneath the cauldron is the chemical for generating the smoke which is blown up through the cauldron at the cue—“Boil thou first i’ the charnel pot.” This chemical is on a low stool.

Is it possible the chemical “on a low stool” is dry ice? Dry ice wasn’t commercially available until 1925, however, it was first observed and available in 1835. I certainly hope it wasn’t a mixture of hydrochloric acid and ammonia—while effective, it would have been hard to control and, of course, stinky.

Stage directions for a Macbeth production.
Folger PROMPT Mac. 11. Downloaded from Shakespeare and Performance.

In James K. Hackett’s November 2, 1920 Macbeth, steam and electricity provided the effects. You can see in these images that steam curls from the cauldron for emphasis during certain lines, along with “TLR”—thunder, lightning, and rain. At the end of the scene, the lights are cut that emanate from the cauldron, signaling the end of the witches’ rite. Not too smelly, and very impressive.

Another promptbook with directions for a production of Macbeth.
Folger call number: PROMPT Mac. Fo. 9. Downloaded from Shakespeare in Performance.

Finally, Masefield could have used “pellets.” Henry Jewett’s Macbeth on March 7, 1927 had the witches throw a pellet into the cauldron each time they listed an ingredient. I think this promptbook provides the strongest evidence that dry ice was in use—pellets are their industrial unit. If the witches wore gloves, they would have been protected from frostbite, and water could have been in the cauldron to accelerate sublimation of the pellets, speeding up the smoking effect. I’m open to hearing other ideas in the comments!

If John Masefield were to get in touch with the Researcher Services team via our Ask a Librarian form today wanting to know how to make a boiling cauldron, I’d direct him to this video for help (5:45 for fire and smoke effects). Ultra-sonic foggers that use high-frequency pulses in water seem much safer than any option listed above—and definitely less stinky.

  1. Although the Hamnet catalog record for Y.c.3869 does not indicate who “Wade” is, I would propose that he is Allan Wade, theater worker and correspondent with W.B. Yeats and editor of his letters. John Masefield also corresponded with W.B. Yeats and worked in the theater from 1905-1926. He first took up supernatural staging when he adapted The Witch (1913) from Norwegian playwright Hans Wiers-Jenssen’s Anne Pedersdotter (1908). Finally, three ALS and one postcard from John Masefield to Allan Wade held in the NYPL Archives and Manuscripts collection. As for the date of the letter, we can say it was written after 1917, since that was the year Masefield moved to Hill Crest (ODNB).
  2. I was remarkably patient in researching this question, however, having known of this letter for 2 years.
  3. Manley, Lawrence. “Playing with Fire: Immolation in the Repertory of Strange’s Men.” Early Theatre 4(1), 2001, p. 115-129. Accessed January 8, 2021 from https://jps.library.utoronto.ca/index.php/eth/article/view/7446/4434. While limited space prevented me from further discussion, I highly recommend reading this short article, which provides excellent context surrounding Fox’s Actes and Monuments and executions for treason prior to and during Elizabeth I’s reign that occurred near the Theatre as influences on the pyromania and bloodthirsty productions staged by Lord Strange’s Men.
  4. Daly, Nicholas. “Fire on Stage.” Technologies of Fire in Nineteenth-Century British Culture, special issue of Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century, 25 (2017). Accessed January 8, 2021 from https://19.bbk.ac.uk/article/id/1796/.
  5. Gil Harris, Jonathan. “The Smell of Macbeth” in Shakespeare Quarterly 58(4), 2007, p. 465-466.
  6. Harris indicates that it seems unlikely that squibs were used for indoor performances, due to their lingering stink, which suggests that aquavit is the lesser of evil smells. Outdoor fireworks were used in other entertainments, including in the Beargarden in Southwark, where, in one account, a spinning rose of fireworks dropped apples, pears, and “rockets” into the crowd (Lupold von Wedel travel narrative from 1584-85, reproduced on Theatregoing).
  7. Dugan, Holly. “Casting Selves: Rosewater, Casting Bottles, Court” in The Ephemeral History of Perfume: Scent and Sense in Early Modern England. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011, p. 42-69.
  8. For the role of incense in early modern theater productions, see Holly Pickett, “The Idolatrous Nose: Incense on the Early Modern Stage” in Religion and Drama in Early Modern England: The Performance of Religion on the Renaissance Stage. Ed. Jane Hwang Degenhardt and Elizabeth Williamson. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2011. 19-37. I am grateful to Holly Dugan and Holly Pickett for sharing their sources and suggestions with me on this topic.
  9. See Stage Effects: How to Make and Work Them by A. Rose (1928), p. 56 for an in depth discussion of lycopodium powder for torches. Lycopodium powder was first observed as early as 1662, but wasn’t used onstage until 1765, in the Paris Opera’s production of Rameau’s Castor et Pollux, according to James A. Rice, “Operatic Pyrotechnics in the Eighteenth Century” in Theatrical Heritage: Challenges & Opportunities. Leuven University Press, 2015, p. 23-40. Accessed January 8, 2021 from https://sites.google.com/site/johnaricecv/operatic-pyrotechnics.
  10. Daly, “Fire on Stage.”
  11. Read firsthand accounts of some theater fires on Theatregoing. Fortunately, theater fire came under much stricter regulation in the Victorian era, leading to the natural end of major stage displays. Daly, “Fire on Stage.”
  12. Available by institutional subscription only. Get in touch with our reference team via our Ask a Librarian form to learn how to find it at your institution, or through the Folger—we are happy to help!

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