The Picture Frame
( Originally Published 1916 )
FROM time to time in the past thirty years or more, the. stage picture has emerged upon an extended apron from the frame in which it had been set with so much difficulty. Upon this apron actors came forward in much the old manner, and discussed their affairs.
At first it seemed like the mere overlapping of tradition, and so excited comparatively little comment; but, with the more recent appearance of the platform stage in America in the 1914 revivals by Margaret Anglin, in the revivals by Annie Russell—who used work of Grace Olmsted Clarke, said to be the only woman who literally painted scenery in addition to designing it and, more particularly, in the 1915 productions of Granville Barker in New York, it was hailed as a distinct step forward in the " new art " of the stage.
In all likelihood, its purpose now and then has been new; but, fundamentally, it seems but a revival—or, to admit of two minds both innocently running in the same channel--a re-creation of so-called " alternate " stages known to Shakespeare. When an Elizabethan dramatist wanted to change his setting, which in his case consisted of just a few essential properties, he could save delay by revealing it behind the drawn traverses, and confining the second part of his action to the inner stage. His next change might be to close the traverses and bring his players to the fore again. Thus, it was a method of quick shifting that may or may not have generally obtained then, but which has survived as a simple expedient more elaborately illustrated in revolving drop, sliding, and wagon stages.
This fact was attested a full season before Barker invaded New York, by Livingston Platt, an American artist, who was discussing his use of the forestage in Margaret Anglin's then current Shakespearean revivals in the metropolis. Its greatest advantage, he said, was the elimination of waits; and he pointed out that the longest delay in the Anglin productions was thus fifty-three seconds, and the shortest ten. And Mr. Platt spoke from a varied experience gained at the Royal Opera House at Bruges, and the Toy and Castle Square Theaters in Boston, while he remarked the Elizabethan derivation of this device, which he had employed a considerable time before in the New England city.
Indeed, use of the alternate stages formed by platform and the space beyond the curtain, made it possible to do justice to Shakespeare, for frequent changes of scene in his works, readily made in his day when so much was left to the imagination, have taken so much time in elaborate revivals, that the text of his plays has necessitated cutting to conclude them in time for commuters' trains.
WAGNER'S " MYSTERIOUS FOREGROUND"
Leaving this application of the forestage temporarily aside, one recalls the Festspielhaus which was erected for Richard Wagner at Bayreuth, Bavaria, in 1876, under the " master's " direction, with funds secured by floating of bonds and broadcast formation of Wagner societies. On the stage of this famous house, which was designed by Gustav Semper, was what Wagner called the " mysterious foreground," a front proscenium in addition to the regular frame, intended to separate the stage from the audience, give the necessary effect of distance, and add mystery to the presentation.
But for the fact that Goethe, under influence of Elizabethan tradition, had previously, in 1829, planned a similar forestage for his Weimar Theater, designed by the architect Schenkel, as permanent side curtains at the front, one might take this for an outgrowth of the two sloping plat-forms between which Wagner's orchestra played, and which cast the sound forward toward the stage for full support of the voices.
Here, then, is another use of the forestage, making it not primarily for change, not essentially for actors, but to re-move the picture far enough for the spectator to get a proper perspective—almost like a frank attempt to approximate that scientific manner of looking at a picture a diagonal and a half away.
But as long as there are producers who must utilize every nook and cranny of their houses for either patrons or literal play—and these business men have sound justification—and as long as there are actors striving to get as close to their public as possible—and physical nearness is a quantity to most of them—the forestage will not remain untenanted.
In use for action, it gains something in coming down a couple of steps to a ground below the stage level; and this is found in Europe in one of the theaters of Max Reinhardt, who uses it to further his theory of intimacy, and in America in the 1915 productions of Barker. One of its advantages was particularly evident in Barker's interpretation of " A Midsummer Night's Dream," where the nobles at the " play within the play " occupied the foreground, and the action could readily be seen over their heads. But, after all, people could see over their heads when the traditional platform was erected on the stage proper to show the same.
THE "FOURTH WALL"
Use of the forestage for " intimacy " immediately resurrects the old question of the " fourth wall." In a unique " review," to be mentioned in some detail later, Royal Cortissoz, the eminent critic, expressed a happy conception of the " fourth wall," which seemed absolutely new. It ran to the effect that instead of the fourth wall being located at the curtain line, as an imaginary boundary for the scene, the stage scene itself, regarded in all its length and breadth and thickness, is the fourth wall of the auditorium.
This is amplified in a much earlier expression of Percy Fitzgerald's, in his interesting collection of papers entitled " The World Behind the Scenes." " Spectators have a kind of power of being present in a sort of supernatural way, and are, as it were, in company with the figures," he says in his opposition to the familiar geometrical way of looking at the matter. " The scenery is for them but an indication, as some background is necessary for a statue, or as we look from a window on a landscape. We are in the room, listening and looking on, but in no particularly de-fined locality."
A REINHARDT METHOD
One may easily develop this theory of intimacy and consequent desire for everything plastic or " in the round " into an unlimited encroachment upon the auditorium—as Reinhardt is sometimes doing, notably in " The Miracle," in his effort to create an emotional unity—with no intervening curtains, proscenium arch removed, or disguised, to destroy all idea of division, a background of solid structures, with massive corners and angles for greater verisi-militude, that may clutter up the stage as much as need be because his players have, on the Greek principle, a space in the amphitheater itself with spectators sitting around, and free entrances and exits.
Abroad, the circus is frequently mentioned in the same breath with Reinhardt; so why may not Americans think, by way of illustration, of their own Col. William F. Cody, " Buffalo Bill," who has long come, with the other members of his " Wild West Show," through a proscenium framing an elaborate stage picture, into an arena, say of Madison Square Garden, New York, about which sit a multitude of people, ranged in tiers?
The Greek orchestra has been named, antedating the Italian and English court masques which used the entire floors of their halls as well as their stages. Developing the intimacy idea this far seems to reduce the stage scene to a negligible quantity—to all intents and purposes a " two-dimension " stage; and when it gets to that it has fallen far from its high estate.
FORESTAGE ADVANTAGES AND DISADVANTAGES
The three great values of the forestage thus appear to be, first, a facility for quick change; second, a removal of the picture to a nice distance from the eye, and, finally, an intimacy for those scenes enacted directly upon it. The two last-named advantages can never come together; and, as for the greater part, only nondescript scenes that are generally of broad character are performed on this conventional front, it seems in most cases like a waste of good space, and no real advantage over the ordinary arrangement.
The ordinary way offers a compromise between intimacy and aloofness; and it really has a modified forestage marked off by tormenters and teaser. If the aloofness here seems a negligible quantity, one surely may find artists—the same who, to borrow a celebrated expression of Gordon Craig's, " on a paper but two inches square can make a line which seems to tower miles in the air "—to decorate the familiar narrow proscenium frame, without widening it, with an effect of distance.
It appears that the proscenium arch may be too far removed from the front of the stage, or too ill-defined. When Charles Dillingham assumed control of the New York Hippodrome in 1915, he realized that the existing arch which was located almost at the extreme back of the stage, leaving the stage floor itself projecting in a vast semi-circle out into the audience, made the stage picture somewhat far off from the spectator, while the players, necessarily step-ping out of the picture, tended to destroy the illusion. So a false proscenium arch was built much further front; and it was surprising how much the intimacy was increased, while they were enabled to create an illusion of great depth by building scenery at the sides, far out on the stage.
Where the emotion of a scene is broad enough to stand by itself without the slightest dependence upon locality—like the badinage of Launcelot Gobbo and his father in " The Merchant of Venice "—the conventional forestage, which is confessedly no-place-in-particular, becomes a convenient ground; but it may be questioned whether or not it would lose if indicated, by decoration or otherwise, as a pertinent place. In other words, it might be quite as far front, before the other scenes, as the neutral place, and still use scenery.
Yet, in maintaining the neutrality of the ground as an intermediate strip between the world of Reality and Make-Believe, there may be times when the significance of the play comes closer home in bringing the characters forward. Does not Peter Pan frankly say to the audience, in the midst of events, "You do believe in fairies, don't you?" But it would seem that this coming away from a play while still trying to remain in it, is not always the right thing.
It may do for " Peter Pan " and " Sumurün " and other fanciful compositions where everyone is only pretending anyway, but for the grim dramas of Ibsen it would be a mockery. I want to note here the curious but striking observation made by Huntly Carter in his valuable work, " The Theater of Max Reinhardt," that " intimacy resides in high-spirited, not low-spirited, drama."
In " Sumurun," the production made first by Reinhardt in Europe, and then imported to America by Winthrop Ames, the idea that all the characters were only pretending their bloody tale, was emphasized (to prevent the audience taking it too seriously) by using a pathway from the audience to the stage, upon which the fantastic figures made their first entrances. This pathway was welcomed as an innovation in the theater; but it really was an adaptation of a convention of the old Chinese theater, where the audience is even more frankly asked to pretend. The pathway there is used to indicate that characters come from a distance. All through " Sumurun," the audience, when likely to be-come appalled at the series of gruesome murders, is re-minded that the characters are but puppets, and not to take them too seriously, by the dreamland scenery, the procession of shadows, and when the hunchback, alone among the litter of bodies, at the very end, motions the curtain down.
THE TRUE PRINCIPLE
Here, then, is what appears the true principle in all this shifting back and forth over the curtain-line: There are plays where a forestage is pertinent and plays where it is not; and these misconceptions that would keep a forestage as conventional ground, in acting use, throughout a repertory of plays ranging from imagery to stark realism, are not to be followed.
It is true that Barker, at Wallack's Theater, New York, retained in " The Doctor's Dilemma " the conventional front he had used so tellingly in " Androcles and the Lion; " but the reason merely was that to remove it when he wanted it for coming productions, would have been unnecessary expense and would have kept the theater dark for several nights. As partial proof that he had no other reason was the fact that he kept the action of the first-named play entirely within the frame, even folding in a rug that projected on the platform in a "V-shaped" set. It is true he thus set his picture back at nice distance from the eye, but the acoustical improvement without the apron, would have been compensation to many for its loss.
In the scenes designed by Josef Urban for the Boston Opera, particularly in " The Tales of Hoffman "—virtually the first basis for American judgment of his work—is observed a tendency to make this neutral ground a temporary thing depending on the attraction. He designs a new one for each piece. Urban's proscenium thus has something of the character of the play, and is an expedient a trifle less artificial than that of more than one contemporary. An example of the Urban inner arch—though not nearly so pronounced in kind as that for the opera—was shown in the production of " Twelfth Night " for Phyllis Neilson-Terry in New York in 1914.
A curious inversion of tradition occurred at the time, when critics, particularly Lawrence Reamer, of the Sun, noted the fact that action on the forestage was inadequately lighted, and one could not see the faces of those who came front, not even the features of that lady who was the main attraction of the reviewers' evening. It was largely on account of bad lighting that the platform stage was retained for so long; and here the bad lighting was advanced as a reason for abolishing it.
Kenneth Macgowan, dramatic editor of the Philadelphia Evening Ledger, writing in the Century Magazine in 1914, describes the special Urban proscenium for " The Tales of Hoffman " as an unobtrusive gray, with square door-ways in them; for " Don Giovanni," "a brighter gray-green, with doorways curved to Saracenic arches of Spain; and through these doors came the people of the operas."