Scenery, Decoration, And Costumes Prepared
( Originally Published 1916 )
THE floor of the stage is a part that few persons in an audience notice. Yet it is prepared with as much care as any other portion of the scene. It is always in harmony with the rest—that is, without quibbling, wherever the set is properly arranged; and, to all intents and purposes, it really is what it represents.
Much ingenuity is exercised in covering the bare boards; and recent seasons have seen some truly wonderful examples of it. The ordinary device is what is known simply as a " ground," " floor," or " stage " cloth. This is neither more nor less than a great sheet of painted canvas, or other material, spread over the entire visible stage. It is made in various patterns, representing anything from a lawn to a parquet floor or a tessellated pavement. The imitation is usually worthy, and will bear close inspection.
Rival managerial interest was mildly aroused during late seasons, by the use of a shellacked linoleum, which proved excellent counterfeit of a hardwood floor. Examples were seen in Margaret Anglin's 1914 American revival of " Lady Windermere's Fan," staged by George Foster Platt, and later in the New York production by J. Fred Zimmerman, of " Within the Lines." The hardwood floor, made, like the front of a roll-top desk, of narrow strips glued to a cloth in back so it may be rolled up, is in common use for clog dancers in vaudeville and revues. Of course, rugs are used frequently for interiors, but almost always on top of ground cloths.
Care is taken, too, that adjoining rooms, showing in glimpses beyond the scene proper, are provided with rugs or carpet of different design, to aid the illusion of their being separate compartments, complete in themselves, and furnished in individual style. This principle is, of course, applied to 'everything seen thus through a doorway—save an alcove, perhaps, such as that seen through a modified doorway in the second scene of " The High Road," in which Mrs. Fiske lately appeared—although there are occasional difficulties to complicate its working.
In " As a Man Thinks," by Augustus Thomas, produced about 1911, one act showed a setting with two doors at back. The hall and stairs, glimpsed through the door at right, and the room through that at left, were arranged with the excellent taste and rare directing skill of the author; but it happened that the tones of the backing walls were respectively of contrasty colors, and it was difficult to imagine anything but an impenetrable division where they were supposed to run together behind the wall of the scene. Accordingly there seemed a jarring note when a character walked directly through, past both doors, from the wall to the contrasting room. It was entirely possible, of course, but disturbed for the moment. The colors were too much divorced from each other. This digression still has a lesson which applies to coverings of stage floors.
When a ground cloth is employed, it is the first part of the scene to be placed in position; and upon it is erected that structure which is to impress audiences with the joint air of stability and beauty. One thing that quickly destroys the illusion of floor cloths, and incidentally is a menace to those actors who walk " with their eyes on the stars," is their tendency to wrinkle and curl at the edges. A guard against this was invented along about 1914 by William A. Hanna, master carpenter to Winthrop Ames, and installed in the Little Theater, New York. It is in the form of a long, flat iron plate, about six inches wide, extending across the curtain-line and clamping down upon the cloth, its weight holding it in position. This also prevents curling.
If the scene is a room it is soon closed in. (In fact, there are few settings used in the average production that may not be placed, if necessary, within five minutes. But that is no reason for overworking a stage crew.) The ceiling piece, which is usually just a large flat, is lowered in a vertical position from the flies just back of the teaser, and the bottom edge swung upward until it is on a level with the top. If there is room enough, the set of lines that produce the upward turn, are kept permanently fastened to the far edge. Then the flats which are to constitute the walls of the room, are slid into place and lashed together.
Lashing flats together so their edges fit snugly enough to conceal the joining, is a comparatively simple matter by what appears to have been an American invention, a way of starting a light line from a ring at the top of usually the right side of one flat, over a row of single-pronged cleats running alternately first on one flat and then on the other, from top to bottom, and fastening it on a double cleat near the bottom of the second piece.
When the foreign company of " Sumurün " was imported to New York by Winthrop Ames about 1911, they brought an unsatisfactory system of wooden buttons for accomplishing the same end, but were quick and glad to discard it for the method described.
This kind of interior—all enclosed save by the " fourth wall," through which the audience looks into the heart of things—is known as a " box," or " sealed," set.
Removal of the fourth wall has been presented as the most convincing proof of inherent falseness in arrangement of the modern theater. Consequently there have been attempts—although rarely in conscious exploitation of the theory—to treat the fourth wall as an entity. Hamlet, we are told by some champions of the notion, refers to his father's picture as hung there.
Forbes-Robertson, as the Passer-By in " The Passing of the Third Floor Back," sat with a companion, in the fore-front of the stage, and warmed his hands at a glow from a fireplace imagined in the fourth wall; his disposition of doors and window in the other three walls militating against any other arrangement. Indeed, use of the fourth wall, in a broad sense, is hoary with tradition; and characters without number have beheld their Nemeses, saviors, race-horses, and what-not in a distance that, to non-acquiescent minds, was merely the front of the balcony.
The uses mentioned are no more novel than the spectacle of the dramatis personae of " Seven Days," produced several seasons ago at the Astor Theater, New York, looking from a housetop into a " street " occupied by the audience itself. However, the objection that these things—like the remark of the character that " this could have happened only in a play "—only emphasize the unreality of convention, can find little ground in Trilby singing her hypnotic " Sweet Alice, Ben Bolt," to her real audience that is still imagined in the dramatization. Further discussion of the fourth wall will be made in a more pertinent connection.
There are times when one ceiling piece may do for two settings in the same play; and there is nothing inartistic about the economy, even sometimes when there are material differences to complicate its use. An example of this occurred in " Beverley's Balance," the comedy in which Margaret Anglin appeared at the Lyceum Theater, New York, in the spring of 1915. In one act a chandelier was suspended from the ceiling; in the other there was none. The solution was simple. First, the chandelier was attached and drawn up in the usual manner, and for the second, the chandelier was removed and a conventional decorative piece was drawn up after the same fashion. It was by no means incongruous.
All sets must be elastic to a certain degree for adjustment to the various stages while on tour. One often observes, from behind the scenes, that a ceiling piece extends backward considerably more than is warranted by the side and rear walls of the room. This usually implies that the stage is smaller than that upon which the initial production was made. Upon the next stage where this play is presented, this ceiling piece may be used to its outermost edges, and almost every square foot of it may be in full view of the audience.
If the scene is stretched to its utmost at the sides and still fails to fill the available stage, it may, of course, be masked by moving the tormenters closer together and lowering the teaser. If so very low, as Act I of " A Fool There Was," in which Robert Hilliard appeared for so long, and adjustments of teaser and grand drapery fail to cover the gap between, the act drop may be halted at an appropriate point in its ascent, the point marked on the curtain rope by tying a bit of black tape, perhaps, about it.
Sometimes borders are used to represent the ceiling, an old-fashioned way, but a trifle more economical in the financial sense and in the way of setting the scene, than the single piece. Of course, each variety of border has its special descriptive term; but the borders also fall into general divisions, of which, owing to frequent use, the " kitchen " border (usually depicting the cross-beamed ceiling), and the " fancy " border (for parlors, drawing rooms, and the like) are familiar to the most uninformed persons about a stage.
Walls of a room are not always made of flats. There are occasions when they are made entirely by the carpenter without a touch of the artist's brush. Such were those in Alan Wilson's fine room in " The High Road." But flats may be so well painted that they serve the purpose quite as well. The only real fear need be the careless slamming of a door to make the canvas quiver. Margaret Anglin had a solid mahogany set for " Beverley's Balance," said to be from the original production of " Within the Law," but finding it cumbrous in transportation, she discarded it for walls of canvas. And no one seemed to notice the difference. Certainly the substitute answered all requirements.
Flats used for interior walls are either " wing " flats (or just " wings "), for the sides, or " back" flats, which require no comment. Flats—particularly the wing flats—are often hinged; and then they are known as two-folds and three-folds, but rarely of greater division.
A very common thing in set interiors is the " center door fancy." This is the more or less ornamented entrance placed in the middle of the back wall, and always distinctive enough to be recognized. It is the only " set piece " that is suspended in the flies when not in use. Hennequin tersely describes the set piece as any structure built out from a flat or standing isolated on the stage.
The set piece is usually supported from the rear by an adjustable prop known as a " stage brace." I do not find mention of the stage brace until about 1888, and then it is referred to as a new device. This merely is an extension rod fitted at the upper end with a hook to catch in a corresponding eye placed on the scene, and at the bottom with a large thumb-screw to fasten it to the stage floor.
It scarcely is necessary to say that the center door fancy belongs to a fancy set, and would be incongruous with any-thing else. But it is a piece in good standing, as has been attested by Howard Lindsay, stage manager for Margaret Anglin, in a poem he composed in its honor. It begins :
O Center-Door-Fancy that hangs in the flies,
In the flats are doors, windows, and other openings, as needed. Windows that may be opened—and nowadays most of them are so contrived—are rather heavy affairs, and hence are well supported in stout frames, the whole detachable from the scene, and firmly braced from the rear. The door that shoots its bolts so truly home, and fits so evenly in its place, is never removed therefrom, for jamb and door are permanently hinged together, the former having a triangular brace that swings out at a right angle at back, and holds it securely in position. When the scene is struck, this brace folds in against the door, out of the way.
Wherever the exigencies of the scene permit, doors are opened outward, and, in side walls, are hinged to the upstage sides of their frames. This arrangement admits of effective entrances and exits. If it becomes necessary to have a door turn inward, it is still swung on the upper side so as not to conceal those going in or out.
Clayton Hamilton, in his " Studies in Stagecraft," makes mention of that winding staircase, elaborately devised for the New Theater revival of " The School for Scandal," which led upward from below, so that actors going out that way, were compelled to impair the effectiveness of Sheridan's witty exit speeches by turning their backs upon the audience. He pointed out, too, that had the staircase been arranged so the actors would face front in going out, the corresponding entrance lines would be lost. The old way, he concludes, by which the characters went out a door in the back flat to a stairway imagined offstage was infinitely better.
While compensations of this interesting experiment were probably not enough to outweigh its disadvantages, there were some—for instance, the exit of Snake, excellently played by Cecil Yapp. Mr. Yapp, a pantomimist of no mean ability, had given his character a peculiar, clammy, Heeplike gesture of the hands, and this, the last thing seen of Snake as he descended the stairs, left a vivid impression of the figure.
Through the doorways, windows, and other apertures of a scene, are observed the necessary backgrounds. These are termed backings, named individually in accordance with what they represent, as " street " backing, " hall " backing, and so on. Usually these backings are two-folds, turned like screens so the audience may not see beyond them; but, when possible and practical, they are just drops, which are readily disposed of in being hauled up into the flies. Drop backings often each serve for two or more doors, or a door and a window. Upon backings are painted what one is supposed to see when looking through a door or window or other opening.
An interesting, although not exactly unique, use of backing was in Margaret Mayo's " Polly of the Circus," produced in New York, 1908, by Frederic Thompson. The scene first showed an upstairs room in the parsonage; and the adjoining church could be seen through the window. Only that portion of the church that corresponded in height to the second story of the house could be presented to view. Accordingly the backing was lowered to that position.
A later scene revealed the back yard of the parsonage, where the same backing was used, but this time showing the church from the ground up. Therefore the backing was raised to its full, height. However, in this case, the backing was more correctly known as a " back " drop. When the production went on the road the crew was not always particular about lowering the drop for the early scene; and audiences were sometimes startled to see a second story that was apparently on the first floor.
Occasionally, on a very narrow stage—narrow from front to back—one sees a character stroll through a door-way into a conservatory, perhaps, which apparently recedes further than the stage itself; and, while one knows the impossibility, the character continues his walk to the very end of it. That illusion, so familiar to the playgoers of a past century, is created by the use of a false perspective. The floor, beginning at a point just beyond the door sill, ascends gradually on an incline—imperceptible to the aver-age spectator, but quite sharply at that—giving an excellent effect of considerable distance. The bottom of the back wall of the conservatory is in reality higher than that of the stage, but it appears further away in being nearer to the vanishing point in the perspective. This incline is known as a " run." Runs are always " practical."
Practical is an adjective applied to anything on the stage that may be put to actual use. A window is practical if it may be raised or lowered; a door if it may be opened; a chair if one may sit on it. As a matter of common sense, however, the term is not applied when the practicableness of an object is obvious.
According to the same common-sense way of looking at things, small sections of steps are known as one-step, two-step, three-step, and so forth; but fourteen stages of progress ordinarily would not be called a fourteen-step, but, quite prosaically, a flight of stairs.
Backstage veterans do not use technical terms needlessly. They are intended for purposes of clearness and quick understanding, and not for dialect.