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General Terms Applied To The Set Scene

( Originally Published 1916 )

A SCENE is said to be set when it is arranged for exhibition to an audience. The word is used in this connection both as a noun and as a verb. The action contrary to the latter sense, to take the scene apart, is to strike it.

Generally speaking, there are three kinds of scenery: drops, borders, and flats.

A drop is almost any flat piece, retaining its form by battens across top and bottom, and let down from the flies so that the lower edge joins the floor of the scene, and the top, as viewed by the audience, continues upward out of sight. Drops are perhaps better known to the public as curtains. Nowadays they more closely approximate flats, because their flapping edges of days gone by are held in position by light wooden frames in back. All drops are suspended in the flies and lowered as required. They are raised straight up—never rolled in better equipped theaters.

Borders are simply abbreviated drops, cut off near the top. They do not touch the floor of the scene, but are used to represent clouds, overhead foliage or ceilings—in short, almost any lateral, vertically hung piece used to make the top of the set scene. They are kept in the flies.

Flats are light wooden frames with painted canvas stretched over them. They are kept in the wings, or at back," against the back wall of the stage. Flats are kept in " packs." The pack for the next set to be placed is called the " live " pack; that which has been used and put aside, the " dead " pack. " Running the packs " is the vernacular for moving them to and from position.


In front of the actual scene are some pieces of a special nature, those which form, so to speak, the picture frame. The first piece inside the proscenium arch is the fire curtain, which, when let down, covers the entire opening. It is sometimes of iron or steel, but more frequently of asbestos cloth. It is also known as the asbestos drop, and occasion-ally as the green curtain. The law requires its use as a fire precaution. In most places, it is supposed to rise at the beginning and descend at the close of each performance, to insure its working when needed to shut off a blaze on the stage from the auditorium and the audience.

Perhaps the safest curtain in use during the first decade of the twentieth century, is that at the former New Theater, New York. It descends in a channel on either side of the proscenium arch, and completely seals the opening. In construction, it has a face, on the side toward the audience, of thin plates of steel bolted on angle iron; and, fastened to the side nearest the stage, is vitrified asbestos, to protect the metal and keep it from warping. Over the bolts that hold the asbestos, is a coating of fireproof cement, so finely secured that even smoke cannot penetrate it.

Of course, steel curtains are very heavy. That at the Century, as the New Theater is now called, weighs eleven tons. Its two counterpoises together register ten and one-half tons; and these are ingeniously contrived to sustain the weight. Thus, that at right is hung over two pulleys so that it supports the left side of the curtain, and that at left the opposite division of weight in the same manner, the arrangement providing that if either counterpoise should let go—which is not probable, as it is constantly inspected—the other would check descent by wedging.

Various kinds of fire curtains have been suggested; and, for a time, the notion of an unbroken sheet of falling water was popular—until some one pointed out that the audience would be able to look through it, and possibly see a conflagration backstage that would start a riot. Edwin O. Sachs, the noted British authority on theater construction, advises a small sealed door in the fire curtain, that, after the curtain has been lowered, some competent person backstage may step through it to reassure the alarmed audience.

The next piece is a sort of border, in most cases representing festoons of rich hangings. This is called the " grand drapery," although, curiously enough, in France, where Harlequin was an importation, it long has been known as " Harlequin's cloak." A simple, straight-edged form is called a proscenium.

A third piece is the act drop, which, as its name implies, is run up and down to define intervals in the play. It is upon this drop that much decorative genius is usually expended. It may be just the impersonal picture of nothingin-particular, supported below by panels of local advertising —an advantage taken of audiences these many years; it may be designed with exceedingly bad taste; it may be a combination 0f gorgeousness and simplicity woven over fine tapestries, as the drop in the Playhouse, ,New York, or that in the Booth Theater of the same city; or it may be as beautifully ornate as the wonderful drop made by the Tiffany Studios for the Mexican National Theater.

But a curtain of the last-named sort, however beautiful, presents some practical—although not seriously important—handicaps. In fact, these may not exist at all if the theater is one such as the Moscow Art Theater and the modern German theater at Düsseldorf where there are no applause and responses. If there are such responses, then spectators may behold the familiar and much-decried acknowledgments of late villain and recent heroine, bowing, hand in hand, as the curtain rises and descends. Where this convention persists, playhouses may use the sort of double curtain, to be seen in the Century, Booth, and Little Theaters, New York.

By its advantages, plaudits are acknowledged by the players removed from the scene and hence from their characters, without raising the drop at all. Here the curtain, sustained by wooden frames behind, which are hooked together during rise and fall, has its folds divided in the middle so actors may step before it; and the opening so made is screened by a flap behind, pulled back by attendant stage-hands. One very great advantage of this is that histrionic acknowledgments may be made without delaying. the striking of one scene or setting of the next. And—as remarked before—dispatch is an important factor backstage.

A curious " act drop " that seems an adaptation or counterpart of the steam curtains used in the opera house at Beyreuth has been employed occasionally in outdoor American pageants, notably at the pageant celebrating the centennial of peace with Great Britain in 1915 at Lexington, Mass. This consists of a sheet of steam to shut off the picture, rising from a perforated pipe which extends across the scene. Upon this, colored lights are sometimes brought to play.

Another exceedingly unique " drop " was devised by the late Clyde Fitch, who was ever prolific in matters of stage contrivance. It was designed for his play, " The Girl With the Green Eyes," 1902, though never put into actual use before an audience because of mechanical difficulty. When the heroine plans to kill herself at the end of the play by inhaling sulphur fumes, the pans of sulphur were strung across the stage at the curtain line; and, as the " fumes " grew denser, strips and then broader tongues of silk were shot upward by currents of air from below to simulate flames and smoke, until the whole proscenium opening was closed in.

I must not dismiss the subject of theater curtains without mentioning the famous curtain at the New York Hippodrome, which sinks out of sight into the floor instead of rising. This is not precisely a novelty, for there remain indications that such a curtain was used in the ancient Roman theater. It is suspended from great cables, which come through openings in the ceiling. Incidentally, these openings are sometimes used as points of vantage for lights to be cast upon the stage. Of course, these cables make perpendicular lines visible during performance; but one does not seem to mind them at all. When Charles Dillingham assumed control of the Hippodrome in 1915, his stage director, R. H. Burnside, conceived the idea of using this curtain for a novel effect. At conclusion of one act of " Hip, Hip, Hooray," he had the entire chorus of girls range themselves in a single line across the stage, and, stepping on a little ledge just below the top of the curtain, ascend with it.

It has proven a source of some wonder to me that while we have had curtains that part as traverses and disappear at the sides—although these probably are the most natural because there is something decidedly ridiculous in seeing an actor cut off at the head and so on down by a descending drop; curtains that go up and curtains that go down, no one seems to have adapted the iris diaphragm of the camera to stage use. I mean that adjustable aperture before a camera lens that begins as a pinhole which may gradually be made larger until it simultaneously disappears at top, bottom, and sides.

I proposed this curtain to Winthrop Ames; but he pointed out that in order to install it, it would be necessary to cut the floor; and, at the Little Theater, that would have interfered with the revolving stage. So I set to work to contrive an iris curtain that would not require cutting of the stage, and further, at suggestion of Robert E. Jones, the artist, one that would close in always at the level of the actor's head, that that would be the last thing visible, and, further still, one that might close in at either right or left. The result of my experimenting I am illustrating herewith.

Some other curtains that I should like to develop for use in revues, perhaps, or children's plays, are first, a curtain that will revolve from some small object, a parasol, say, until it grows into a whirling design that will fill the proscenium arch; then a curtain that may be apparently built up by masons as a solid granite wall at conclusion of one part, to be raised out of sight as a simple curtain at beginning of the next; or, perchance, a row of shrubs along the curtain-line that will grow even more wonderfully than the plant of the India juggler, into a wall of green leaves, before the very eyes of the audience.

Steele Mackaye, father of Percy Mackaye, planned, and, I believe, actually employed for a time at his Scenitorio in Chicago, a curtain of light. That is, he crossed the spread rays of two powerful calciums, one in each wing, at the curtain-line, with the rest of the stage in darkness. If one has particularly noticed a spotlight cast from the wings upon an otherwise darkened stage, he will recall that it was quite impossible to see through the beam to the space beyond. They were going to employ a curtain of light at Percy Mackaye's masque, " Caliban," produced in New York in 1916 in celebration of the Shakespearean centenary; but for some untold reason it was abandoned.


Now come the sides of the picture frame. (Stage people do not call it that, but it is so termed here for convenience.) These are narrow, vertical strips of scenery—one upon either hand—painted as drapery, perhaps, or as columns, or, at any rate, something quite different from the settings in the play. Each is known as a tormenter. No one knows exactly why. The term is bewhiskered with cobwebs of ages past. An old actor once told Wendell Phillips Dodge, general press representative to David Belasco, that some famous thespian within his time had christened the piece because it always interfered with his exits. This would seem likely, provided one did not hear of the term so long ago that it could not have been applied in his generation, for the permanent side doors to most stages, that survived the Elizabethan period, were constantly employed by actors; and anything in the way must have been disconcerting.

It has been suggested that the name arose because a heavy curtain—as in the theater of Moliere-once hung across the entrance at this point, and entangled the actors as they went on or came off; but more likely it was coined and circulated because it tantalizes the audience in cutting off its view of backstage doings. Possibly that also ex-plains why the first border (all the borders are numbered consecutively from front to back) is called the teaser.

The range of a spectator's vision is limited quite effectually, for the combination of pieces about the proscenium arch may be adjusted to frame a small scene as well as a large one. Even when the set scene is so small that the extended tormenters cannot cover the gaps at the sides, the spectator's opportunity is nipped in the bud by the artist, whose difficulty is easily overcome—most simply when the scene is a room. The side walls coming toward the audience, are turned sharply outward at right angles, and continued till they are overlapped by the tormenters. In exteriors, the same principle is applied by the employment of a house or wall, or a row of trees, or other readily conceived device. A prolongation of this kind is known as a return. The return is part of the scene itself.


Sir Hubert von Herkomer, in his experimental theater at Bushey, England, has a contracting and expanding architectural proscenium to frame the top and sides of the stage picture, he contending that the drapery, tormenter, and teaser are obsolete makeshifts. " We would not make a frame too large for a painting at the Academy," he has said; " why do it for the stage picture? "

While I substantially agree with this view, I still cannot help but feel that there is something to justify the familiar devices—possibly that the framed picture of the stage scene cannot be variously hung, like a painting, or viewed at varying distances. The stage scene is ever compelled to be a compromise, like drama itself, for it appeals to many persons at once, while the painting is designed primarily for individual appreciation. It is emphatically true, how-ever, that masking a scene by tormenters and border is not always satisfactory. In the first place, the frame itself may not by any means match the picture. That is one reason that when " A Pair of Silk Stockings " went on tour, it carried its own false proscenium.

At the Court Theater, Vienna, which was completed in 1888, the proscenium arch comprised two frames for the stage picture, a fixed architectural frame first, and an adjustable frame inside with wing pieces on chariots, which could be set closer together or further apart as occasion demanded, while the first border could be raised or lowered to correspond. The space between the frames—some three feet—was occupied by the act drop and the fire curtain.


It will be noticed that in the construction of most theaters, the sides of the proscenium arch extend as solid walls in a straight line to the side walls of the stage itself. They are pierced, perhaps, by those fireproof doors, in-tended solely for the use of inspecting firemen, that lead to the auditorium. Incidentally will be remarked the sides of the auditorium which begin at the arch and widen out to the last row of seats, thus leaving a sort of room, triangular in shape, on either side, between proscenium and auditorium walls. It is a space rarely utilized to the fullest possible degree by the boxes, which must be well forward to command full view of the stage; so in most theaters, it is just plain waste.

Of late years, those acquainted with the practical necessities of the physical stage, particularly with the glut of traffic in the front of the wings, on both sides, where electrician, curtain man, prompter, players, and others have to ply their respective duties, turned the proscenium walls so as to include this space and provide elbow room for all those named.


The advantage of this arrangement has been evident for some little time in Daniel Frohman's second Lyceum Theater, New York, where on the left side of the stage (always from the actor's viewpoint) is the unobtrusive cabinet for the prompter, so situated that it commands view of scene and of audience, and fitted with chair, rack for the prompt book, and full set of cue signals running to the various persons employed in progress of a performance.

A place similar, save that it requires the prompter or stage manager, as he is more honorably known, to stand, and not so far on the stage proper with the consequently better point of view, is to be seen at Winthrop Ames's Little Theater, but a block distant. Considered from the angle of comfort, this arrangement is better, for the prompter can run his own errands if the signals fail to work, and can stretch now and then, whereas the Lyceum plan makes it awkward to get out during the play.

It is always preferable to have instructions given directly from person to person, without any medium such as lights, bells, or speaking-tubes, just as it is desirable that carpenter, electrician, and property man command full survey of their respective fields from their working positions. It minimizes chances of error and accident. But, as omnipresence is generally out of the question, recourse must be had to mechanical aids. At the Metropolitan Opera House, New York, the prompter's table—a photograph of which is re-produced in the present volume—is equipped with a sort of hatch, through which the prompter may speak directly into the orchestra pit, and by an arrangement of mirrors, look down. Push-buttons signal the various portions of the stage; and close by are rheostats controlling the mechanism that produces effects of wind, thunder, and lightning.

In the Little Theater are supplementary speaking-tubes communicating with flies, electrician, dressing rooms, orchestra leader, and so forth. A series of electric pilot lights ranged above the prompter's desk, placed in circuit with the corresponding button signals, automatically in-forms the operator whether or not the cues are given. The elevator to the dressing rooms discharges its passengers immediately beside the stage manager, so he may check the actors, too.

Directly over his head are the electrician and his board. From his position, this controller of currents commands view of scene, flies, and from a little door but a few square inches in size, just outside the proscenium arch, of the house —and footlights when the curtain is down. In the Lyceum the switchboard is not so conveniently situated; but the electrician has a little platform jutting out over the prompter's head, where he may tiptoe on occasion, to see how things are getting on. At the Belasco Theater, the electrician has a large tilted mirror above his tall board, to reflect the stage; but a ceiling piece on the setting renders this useless.


The rise in value of real estate has placed stage space at a premium. Usually there is some cramping in consequence. It is always preferable to have the " shops " of electrician, property man, and carpenter directly in the wings for ready access to the stage; but these quarters rarely find themselves closer than in the dock. More frequently they are up two or three stories in the theater building, as in the Century Theater, New York. One may usually build up into the air or dig into the ground when side space is not available.

Two more features to be carefully considered in theater construction, are the stage doors, one to admit actors and other persons on pertinent business—past an attendant Cerberus, who is quite invariably stationed there if there is any discipline backstage at all, who keeps the dressing room keys like a hotel clerk, and who is usually retired from more distinguished service to the drama—and another, some six or eight times as large, closed by enormous iron shutters, or, if too large for that, as in the Century Theatre of New York, by a large curtain of canvas, to let scenery in and out.

It is the latter opening which provides marked difficulty, for it must be so situated that through it may be brought mainly those long drops which are rolled on battens and cannot be folded. Here the wide side-alleys compelled by fire law for theaters of over a given capacity, are found exceedingly useful. In small theaters, where alleys are not required, the problem is solved in various ways. The old Hurtig and Seamon's theater—now revamped and called the Apollo—in New York, while not particularly diminutive, brought its scenery in from the street in front, through a passageway that led under the auditorium—although the auditorium happened to be raised considerably on a super-structure.

No arrangement seems quite as ingenious as that in the Little Theater, New York, where the back wall of the auditorium opens in two great panels like a Dutch window, and permits passing of rolled-up drops through the lobby, where the panels are hidden beneath a painting, directly over the orchestra chairs, to the stage.

Practically everything depends upon the physical arrangement of the house; and as this varies greatly with different sites, no hard-and-fast plan may be dictated.

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