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Set Exteriors

( Originally Published 1916 )

PROBABLY the greatest difficulty confronting the scenic artist is to design—although not to execute—the outdoor setting. The interior is merely a false approximation of a man-made spot; the exterior is an artificial semblance of a further removed, natural place. This is doubtless why English scene painters of the final decades of the nineteenth century, exulted in their declared superiority of counterfeiting exteriors while belittling French excellence of interior design.

It is difficult to conceive of many outdoor sets that d0 not require floor covering of some kind. There was one in Chauncey Olcott's American production of Rida Johnson Young's Macushla," about 1913, showing the interior of a large tent, with a board floor, from which the Celtic hero watched the race won by the mare in the title role—or " name part," as professional jargon hath it. One is disposed to think this must have been an accident in the single performance where it was seen, for not merely the boards must be covered, but also the many crevices where the floor is sawn up for traps and so forth.

Steamer deck scenes also may employ the stage floor; but even that is unusual. The green cloth is most commonly used, probably because it wears well and may be had at nominal cost. In fact, it used to be a sort of institution in most theaters, having the painted cloth laid over it. The latter must be carefully spread so its design is not distorted, and both must be stretched until no wrinkles are visible—that is, as long as the ground is supposed to be level, and particularly if any dancing is to be done upon it. A loose fold would throw a dancing performer headlong.

If verdant Nature occupies the scene, the ground is built up with grass mats, little patches of imitation greensward, scattered about, with intention, of course, like oases on a desert. Their position is primarily decided by the necessity of concealing unnatural contact of certain scenery—rocks, trees, and the like, and the back drop and wings—with the floor. A grass mat once used on the enormous stage of the New York Hippodrome, weighed three tons and required about ten men to move it.


There are innumerable devices of this character employed to link the painted perspective with the real; for instance, half a bush may be painted and the rest genuine. In Richard Mansfield's production of " Henry V," called " King Henry," real soldiers in the foreground of the battle scene were incongruously combined with combatants in cut profile upstage. The New York production of " The Suburban " made an advance with painted spectators in a grandstand, having real handkerchiefs, hats, and parasols set in motion of frantic waving by a battery of electric fans offstage. Something similar was done in " The Pit." At the Gettysburg panorama, so long on view at Chicago, there was wholesale use of tricks generally like these, but without the movement; and, according to accounts, they were effective, too. In a seashore setting, one or two profile strips, appropriately painted, running the width of the scene and resting on edge upon the stage floor, may cause the illusion of painted water on the back drop washing directly on the foreground. Then the spaces between these pieces, or strips of " set water," will permit boats to glide (realistically?) upon the picture without baring the dry mechanism that keeps them afloat.


The stage rock is a nondescript article. Most casual examination of it at close range will reveal its construction of folds and twists of padded canvas drawn over five sides of a box, and the whole covered with a mixture of left-over paint.

A road that leads up a hillside generally is a separate structure, the outdoor form of a run. The actor using it descends offstage from the elevation by means of a ladder, or rough steps.


Wood wings (suggesting the woodland) constitute one of the oldest devices retained by the modern stage. In the oldest recorded scene plots of the German theater one still finds the designation " Waldflügel Each is hinged and set upright, the two sections forming a little more than a right angle at the side of the scene, with painted surfaces in view of the audience, and the back part serving the purpose of a backing. If a wing is not a two-fold, but just a single piece, it may be held in place by a stage brace, or a sort of garden rake fastened to the lower rail of the fly gallery, and adjustable at any angle. The part ex-tending outward upon the stage, known as the flipper, often has a reinforced, irregular edge, simulating a bush, rock, or tree trunk in profile. This is the cut wing. If the wing is an unusually tall one, such as they use in large opera houses, it may have a small additional piece, hinged on the front edge of the flipper, close to the floor, and turned inward to make a more stable three-sided foundation. This little part also is known as a flipper.


The back cloth or drop is painted in flat or in perspective. Painted perspectives for stage use are mostly generalized below the eye because of the many points of view in an audience. The level of the eye (or center of vision, as some artists call it) is ordinarily that of the spectator seated in a middle orchestra chair. In some of the older theaters abroad the center of vision was gauged from the king's box.


Practical, as a term applying to things that may be put to actual use, does not necessarily mean that every part is genuine, or, rather, " built." A wall may be practical at one point only, as was the case in an operatic production some ten years ago, when a soldier supernumerary placed his scaling-ladder against an insecure place in counterfeit masonry, and so crashed through, as he mounted upward, into the false and uncomfortable bushes on the other side.

This sort of uncertainty, as to physical permanence of scenery, requires the actor to be ever ready to meet the exigencies of his particular case. No better illustration of this may be found than that occasion, localized in an early American theater, when a scene showed the prows of two vessels of war, projecting on the stage from either side, while players, representing sailors, fought back and forth, and stagehands, on their hands and knees, labored up and down beneath painted canvas to simulate waves. Then one of the latter unexpectedly put his bewildered head through a rotten bit of the " ocean." The moment was excruciatingly funny. But it was a " sailor " on a ship above, who had presence of mind to shout " Man overboard ! " and pull the stagehand through to safety on deck, and so save the play.

A practical set house would be one where a person may enter; but the windows may be merest pretenses, neither to be opened nor looked through. Yet, in the same category is the first act setting of " The Temperamental Journey," produced by Belasco in New York, 1913, showing at left a house which not only might be entered, but the windows of which might be raised and lowered, shutters opened and closed—and it may be depended upon that Belasco, with his customary taking advantage of every possibility in a scene, did raise and lower and open and close—while the room seen through was actually furnished throughout with chairs, pictures, curtains, and so forth.

In most cases, however, a practical set house may be relied upon to serve as real with its steps, its porch, and its door. In the same way, (without discussing how near the seashore wells may be sunk), a practical well-head implies not merely that water may be drawn from it, but also that windlass and spout are workable. To be sure, a well has but one function, whereas a house has many.

Occasionally trees appear as practical pieces. In Gals-worthy's " Joy," produced in America at a special matinee of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts at the Empire Theater, New York, early in 1914, and particularly in Besier's " Lady Patricia," produced in the same city along about the same time, with Mrs. Fiske, where the entire scene was in the branches, they may be climbed; in " Sky Farm " a tree may not only be climbed, but the village cut-up may pick real apples from certain of the limbs.


Borders are by no means imperative in outdoor sets. In " The Greyhound " a great blue backing, or " cyclorama," stretches around, upward, and leans forward to indicate the heavens about the marine picture; in the first act of " The Marriage Game," the last of " Madame Sherry," and the final scene of " Polly of the Circus," similar de-vices are supplemented by sky borders—simple, straight-edged strips of blue cloth, plain, or more deplorably, representing clouds.

The prime purpose of the sky border, or almost any other border employed in exteriors, is not so much to frame the picture at top as to hide the naked stage and the hanging stuff in the flies. Could some method be devised to move this hanging stuff temporarily away there might be infinite stage skies with apparently no interference between the ground and the blue dome above. I append a suggestion to this of a folding gridiron, made on the plan of the familiar collapsible hat-rack, on toggle-joints at the sides, to close forward, with all its pendant drops, and so forth, to a position masked by the teaser; and, when the drops are needed for use, to glide back to its opened form and smooth operation. With reasonable care in suspending heavy doors and other miscellaneous projections, there should be no damage done in closing them all together. For use of the regular grid the supplementary device might be pushed close together in the other direction, against the back wall.

In German theaters, they long ago overcame the ugly joining of wings and borders by making each set of them in a single piece, having the wings just leg drops at the sides. This form is known as the bogen.

The continuous cyclorama—that is, one that is continuous around the sides as well as the back—is 0f German origin. To make room for it at the sides, the flying bridges have hinged ends that may be raised up out of the way.

Moving panoramas are of comparatively early origin. They have continuous lateral movement—like a roller-towel turned sideways—over vertical cylinders placed in the wings, and are used chiefly to present the illusion of progress of what are really stationary figures. Approaching land in a vessel supposedly at sea, finds splendid presentment here. An improvement was made by Neil Burgess, who so long appeared as the Widow Bedott in " The County Fair," by Charles Barnard. Burgess used the moving panorama in conjunction with a tread-mill upon which ponies ran in the horse-race. This device, leased from Burgess, later proved a striking feature of " Ben Hur."

In that popular melodrama, " Shadows of a Great City," two prisoners escape from Blackwell's Island and swim for the New York shore. The scenery moves while they re-main fairly still; yet the illusion comprehends the complete progress, and would be excellent indeed but for some halts filled in with intercalary dialogue.

At the Metropolitan Opera House, New York, Lautenschlager installed four panorama drums at either side of the stage. At the Coliseum, in London, they keep the upper edge of the full-height moving panorama from flapping by threading it in and out between a series of small supple-mental rollers in the flies.

Now and then one does see a stage sky that seems to go endlessly upward without the view being intercepted by those painfully disillusionizing " sky borders," as in " Prunella," at the Little Theater, of New York, in 1913, which used the same scene, with minor changes, throughout. There were borders here made of overhanging branches of trees; but that the sky was infinite was readily apparent.

The foliage border, used in a sort of glorified form in " Prunella," is a more elaborate and familiar affair than the sky strip. It generally shows interlacing branches, of which the wings are the trunks.


Sometimes it is not advisable to have the trunks in the wings, so some of a given border is made to hang further down (at one or more points as desired), and tree trunks, built in the round, are placed on the floor of the stage so that their tops are hidden by the low portions. Such a border is known as a half-leg drop.

In the leg drop, the tree trunk is a continuation of the tree border itself, simply a cut-out strip of canvas with a short, heavy batten at bottom, and not round, or half round, as the other trunks are. Legs and half-legs are used in interiors sometimes, to show columns and so forth. The gigantic Egyptian columns in the setting designed by Jules Guerin for the production of " Antony and Cleopatra " at the New Theater that was, were made almost completely in the round, in sections that might be fitted one on top of another, and large enough to carry stagehands upward inside on ladders, to arrange lines and other fastenings.


It is a marvel to many people how the detached, or semi-detached, bits of canvas one sees on a foliage border, are held in place without sagging and showing themselves to be what they are instead of what they represent. This difficulty is met by the use of a coarse netting called scrim, that. may be seen through, that covers the apparently open places, and upon which the cut-out sections are glued or sewn. Scrim, and a firmer, closer-woven material known as gauze (some varieties of which are opaque until lighted from the rear), are used to suggest haze or distance by blurring objects behind.

Nothing, it seems, could have been finer in this respect, than the clearing of the mists by means of gauzes in Belasco's production of " The Darling of the Gods," New York, 1902. But delicate scenery of this order is very ex-pensive, and soon wears out. In a production that went on the road a season or two ago, a new set of gauze drops had to be discarded as too worn for use at the end 0f six weeks' traveling.


Nearly every " house " formerly maintained a reserve supply of scenery. This usually consisted of a " street " drop, in one, a " woods " scene with wings and borders, for a full stage, a "bedroom " set, and a " fancy " or " parlor " set, including a center door fancy, all of these designed with intentional vagueness that they might be

faked " on occasion, for locality and period. But theaters in large cities do not encumber their stages with this extra material, mainly on account of amended fire laws, although here and there a vaudeville theater, or a " town hall," is found with the traditional complement.

In most centers of population, scenery may be obtained at short notice from the bone-yards," or storage-houses for retired productions of varying ages, where rejuvenated old settings and new mountings of attractions that have failed to attract, are kept, and disposed of at surprisingly nominal rates. A typical instance is called to mind where a nursery set that cost some $500 to build was sold for a tenth the price.

Curiously enough, store-houses that frequently amount to " bone-yards " when projected resurrection of stored materials by original owners never takes place, are often maintained by the transfer company; so even the most successful production has the undertaker ever on its trail. Regular producing managers, however, usually save their mountings of short-lived plays and use them, in part or altogether, in new arrangements and color schemes for subsequent attractions.

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