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The Stage Picture

( Originally Published 1916 )

WITH all this harping on the old problem of the stage picture—which has not been without its beneficent effect—have come a few true variations on the leit motif. One of these developed in Germany within the decade, at the Künstlertheater at Munich.

Its director, Georg Fuchs, based his experiment on the premise that the third dimension in a stage scene is an impossibility. Therefore he gave it up entirely, and con-fined his settings to the twin dimensions, length and breadth. The result was, as the director desired, that the actor, who is the mouthpiece and living symbol of the actual play, was kept constantly in the foreground for emphasis of voice and gesture, by a perfectly flat scene, against which he was thrown in virtual silhouette. This " relief " stage, as it is called, has been illustrated at the Little Theater, Chicago, in a production entitled " The Sermon on the Mount." Maurice Browne, a young Englishman who began directing the destinies of the Little Theater in that city in 1912, has been the means of bringing a number of the "newer" stage principles to this country.

While the much-talked-of scenery of Leon Bakst usually, if not invariably, is designed for a full-dimension stage, his work is lacking in plastic features. The quay scene in " La Pisanelle," has ships, cordage, intended cargoes, and all, painted with gorgeous effect in flat on the back drop; and other examples of his work show human figures painted in as well. The harem scene in " Scheherazade," which first won him fame, is almost all on a single drop.

In 1899, considerably earlier than the Fuchs innovation, Adolphe Appia, a Frenchman, writing in an alien tongue and an alien country, curiously enough, published a series of designs in a book called " Opera and Stage Mounting " (" Die Musik und die Inscenierung"), chiefly to reform the backgrounds of Wagner operas previously postulated by the " master's " elaborate productions at Bayreuth. This volume anticipated the doctrine of Fuchs, that the actor must be the all-important factor in a production, but accepted the principle which had been in universal practice, that, to all intents and purposes, the stage is a three-dimension space, and should receive emphasis of its plastic qualities. This Appia proposed to give in the way of " atmosphere," by means of dextrous lighting of simple scenery. In brief, it essentially was a flat scene to be given a plastic appearance.

This seems in accord with the view of Sir Hubert von Herkomer, the celebrated English artist, who has done much experimenting with lights in his private theater at Bushey. He believes in visual illusion. " Painting and modeling," he says, " should be no more obvious than make-up." Wagner, too, pointed out, in his dramatic writings, that mental deception is preferable to physical deception in stage mechanism. " Appia's suggestion that the lights should increase and diminish, rise and fall, with the emotion of the scene," says C. Ricketts, writing in the Fortnightly Review in 1912, " and that shadow should blot out Tristan when he falls in imagined death, might be effective if the means are not too obtrusive. Many of Appia's effects are finely imagined, the luminous rock in ` Rheingold,' the drifting shadows in ` The Walkure,' the incandescent pillar in `Manfred;' others are merely ingenious, such as a shadow cast by a trellis in the moon-light in the second act of `Carmen.' " Many of Appia's designs are reproduced in the closing pages of his book. They show not only the lighting of one part of a scene, but different stages of lighting of the same scene. They are well worth examination. I wish we could have an adequate translation of the book into English.

An older device was taken down from the shelf and dusted when Karl Hagemann, of Mannheim, Germany, and now of the Deutsches Schauspielhaus at Hamburg, lately recreated in effect the " relievos " or " practicables " mentioned by Algarotti in 1767, and won for his experiment the appellation of " plastic " stage. Hagemann made his entire scene in relief, ranging the pieces before a semi-circular cloth sky drop which extended around from one side of the proscenium arch to the other. Incidentally, he employed a sort of conventional front for his plays, in the shape of two great " built " columns, running up into the flies on either side of the stage. The stage was made smaller on occasion, by lowering black draperies before the rear pair.


Ponderousness of the properties employed by Hagemann militated against their extended use when the action required shifting. Still, he managed to change his scene now and then by using a revolving stage. But he became more and more sparing in his decoration, indicating new scenes, as in his production of " Hamlet," by hanging pictures and draperies on the conventional front,

Josef Urban produced a development of the permanent scene changed by decoration alone, at the Boston Opera House, everything being changed around a " skeleton " set.

In Hagemann's " Faust," the church scene consisted of but two columns, draperies, and tall candlesticks bearing lights. In the witches' scene in " Macbeth," there were merely dark, indistinguishable draperies, and a caldron from which came a weird light on the faces of the closely grouped hags; and, incidentally, the two highest notes of an organ were played a blood-curdling pianissimo through-out.

Hagemann's perfected plan is therefore not one of absolute realism, but merely an extreme example of a three-dimension stage, having length, breadth, and thickness. In its essentials, it follows out that principle spoken of so long ago, iterated by Charles Lamb in " Of the Imaginative Faculty in the Production of Modern Art," and reiterated by Percy Fitzgerald in " The World Be-hind the Scenes," 1881.

" When Jennie Deans found herself at the Palace," says Fitzgerald, in his statement of advantage of suggestion over reproduction in scenery, " there was not before her eyes a sort of upholsterer's inventory of rich furniture and such details of royal decoration, but simply the idea of magnificence and general impression of costly things."


This idea of suggestion in stage settings has become even more literal than Hagemann's interpretation of the " plastic" stage. " One tree," says E. H. Sothern, as mock prophet of the " New Movement " in the Chicago Record-Herald, late in 1912, " with a limelight on it, solitary on a dark stage, will, perhaps, after the Japanese fashion, suggests a forest; one plate a banquet; one swallow a summer," adding that the chief aim in such symbolism seems to be to achieve its end by being " as obscure as possible." And bearing in mind the great expense of the usual production, he thinks that, on the whole, such economical conditions will be welcome.

Every one may not agree when he remarks the negligible influence of such radical departures in saying " Men and women who followed in the steps of Oscar Wilde, and actually walked the streets of London with lilies and sun-flowers in their hands, who perambulated in knee-breeches and ` greenery-yallery' frocks, did, in the end, affect the color of wall-paper." For, after all, the " Impressionist " school—which is, not new, either—made substantial changes in art, bringing about a compromise between the existing rut and the newer extreme. The far-removed experiments of Craig, Fuchs, Hagemann, and the rest, are likely to produce a reaction that will strike a happier and saner medium between their efforts and a deplorable tendency in another direction.

Leaving the correctness of two or three-dimension settings as an issue to be debated for a long time to come—although the present tendency is truly toward the latter—the " function " of the scene is approached as another angle. And one thing here seems to find a place in common agreement : that the scene is primarily a background to the action.

Therefore, there early appears a " school " to hang all settings as simple, unobtrusive curtains. Jocza Savits's new Shakespearean stage at the Court Theater in Munich in the late nineteenth century, was one of the first of these, being designed to eliminate distractions that might come through appeal to the eye. The plan has since been followed, in variously modified forms, for productions in general, not only abroad, but on this side of the water.


An advance from this " return " to simplicity, which is supposed to provide the worker with a dispassionate viewpoint, is the system of screens devised by Gordon Craig, put into concrete form by Constantin Stanislawsky at the Art Theater, Moscow, in the Craig version of " Hamlet," 1910, and shown in reduced, rudimentary form in a number of productions by Maurice Browne at the Chicago Little Theater. Indeed, Craig's earlier drawings —and he studied draftsmanship for the specific purpose of making these—provided great curtains for almost everything.

In the Moscow " Hamlet," occupying three years of preparation, which Craig publicly wished had been twenty, the scenes were shown as successive arrangements of a few curtains with some most particular folds, a gray, hinged screen, devoid of decoration, rising to the full height of the proscenium arch, a blue background glimpsed now and then, and some supplementary cubes, squares, and cylinders. The masses of shadow that Mr. Craig loves so well to play with, were shown contrasted in the deep recesses of the partially folded screen, with high-lights projected by a number of flood lamps. Where possible, but a single ray of light was employed, in conformation with Craig's plea for simplicity.

Conservative reviewers pronounced it all monotonous in line and mass (a radical verdict at that); and, of course, others were wildly enthusiastic and disseminated the Craig propaganda to the four corners of the earth. Certainly the production has had its theatrical influence.

Even the skeptics confessed that one really could tell the locality intended in each scene. Whether this recognition came from textual earmarks or not, one cannot say.

However, Louis Calvert—himself a practical stage director with some advances to his credit—lost all patience, and in the London Era in 1912, declared that " Mr. Craig's scheme has nothing to do with the art of acting at all; and what I wish this admirable designer would do is to establish his 0wn theatrical art quite separately, and allow actors and the current art of the drama to go on in their own historic fashion."

Indeed, it does seem that Craig is a bit hypnotized by beauty for its own sake, a view sustained by the story recently told by St. John Irvine, the distinguished English critic. Craig was privately showing a model for a scene in the room of William Butler Yeats, Irish poet and dramatist. " What a pity," exclaimed Craig at last in rapt admiration of the lighting, " we can't abolish the seats from the theater s0 the audience can move about and see my shadows ! "

Browne's foremost example of Craig in Chicago appears to have been more Browne than the gifted son of Ellen Terry, for he aimed to produce a tincture of Craig and rather more radical Chinese simplicity of line and color. The bill was a farcical comedy entitled " Delphine Declines," by Oren E. Taft, a sort of play that seemed ill-adapted to " new " mountings. An embankment scene, overlooking a river at night, was indicated by a fairly low screen covered with ordinary undyed sacking, backed by a tightly stretched dark blue curtain—a version of Craig's celebrated plain blue background—upon which was cast a slight red light from below. The effect was carried out in decoration and costumes. Two tables and four chairs, of absolutely simple design, sufficed for four persons moving about, the characters costumed in black and white save one, who had her black dress relieved by a red flower.

Martin Harvey, the English producer, whose work of recent years has been seen in Canada as well as in England, even expressed a belief, in a London interview in 1913, that there will come a time when stage backgrounds will be quite as vague and shadowy as those to be seen in paintings by the old masters. " I am convinced," he said, " that just in this way, producers can well afford to leave a large amount to the imagination of the audience, who may be trusted to fill in the gaps for themselves." Harvey has been influenced by many leaders in the new movement, particularly by Reinhardt, in whose London production of " Oedipus " he appeared, and with whom he collaborated in producing a version of The Taming of the Shrew."


Along in 1914 Granville Barker—by his own statement largely guided by Craig—made his London production of " A Midsummer Night's Dream," which was subsequently brought to New York. In response to the vast amount of criticism to which he was subjected—an experience duplicated in the American metropolis—he stated that he simply would not have " realistic " scenery.

" For one thing," he said, " it is violently at odds with everything in the plays themselves, and for another it is never realistic. In the second place, I do not care to go in for an exact reproduction of the Elizabethan stage. Historical accuracy, which is its sole virtue, is wasted on a present-day audience. And so we have come to adopt a conventional decorative background, one that will reflect light and suggest space; and to this we have added, where necessary, something which, while formal and decorative, will suggest whatever of the garden green or of the out-of-doors is needed."

This decorative background, contrived by Norman Wilkinson, was something startling in its curious green mound constantly used to show out-of-doors, conventionalized trees, which resembled the old-fashioned tiers of comports employed to sustain quantities of fruit on holiday tables, and unwieldly looking white gauze canopy with entwined electric lights and colored glass balls, for Titania.

The whole was arranged for ready change, on alternate " Elizabethan front, middle, and rear stages—only, unlike the Elizabethan stage, a curtain was used between front and middle sections.

As Huntly Carter suggests in an appendix to his illuminating and authoritative book, " The Theater of Max Reinhardt," Mr. Barker, wanting neither empty stage nor customary scenery, strikes a compromise in a sort of décolleté stage—a decorated screen to hide the stage walls. Nay, rather mainly to hide the side walls, for Mr. Barker used a whitewashed back wall as part of his scene. One is informed by divers mediums through which he conveys his views to a gravely attentive public, that he would do away with scenery altogether, only that he fears to shock audiences accustomed to some sort of pictorial back-ground.

Truly, most scenery for several centuries, has been devised, partly at least, to gain a simple end that frequently has been lost sight of in scenic estimate—to hide the secret regions of the stage. This accomplished, much scenery has stopped there. In all events, the necessity of hiding the walls seems tacitly admitted everywhere and at all times. Can it be that Mr. Barker, who has produced Sophocles, derived his idea of a decorative background that is more or less permanent, from the ancient theater? Or is that making the distinguished gentleman too much of an archaeological product?

Barker's productions seem to have evolved another platitude—that the now common desire to abolish scenery is inspired by the inadequacy of present devices to produce illusion. Specifically, his decorative background may be construed hereby into an expression of weakness, a feeling that we haven't the means to do it rightly, so why try? Accept instead something that appears to be no more than what it is.

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