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Function Of The Setting

( Originally Published 1916 )

IN " A Study of the Drama," by Professor Brander Matthews, an entire chapter is devoted to traditions and conventions of theater and drama; and in it is what appears to be conclusive demonstration that the playgoer who refuses to accept any convention cannot consistently be a playgoer at all. For instance, a convention that appears even in works of " advanced " dramatists is having characters in a play localized in Italy, perhaps, conversing in an alien tongue—say French.

It is because people have been willing to accept conventions, to be dispensed with when possible to get along without them, that drama has endured throughout many vicissitudes. It was because Count Leo Tolstoi declined to accept conventions of the opera, such as the fact that its people sing instead of talk, remarks Professor Matthews, that he found nothing but disillusionment in a contemporary production of " The Ring of the Niebelungen " at the Moscow Imperial Theater, regarded by most others as an artistic event.

" In a wood-and-papier-mache cavern, the first act of the second day," said the Count, betraying himself at once, " an artificially bewigged and bewhiskered singer swings, with the thin, white hands of a loafer, an absurd sledge-hammer above a fantastic anvil, making unseemly grimaces while he sings incomprehensible words; another actor, dressed like a bear, walks about on all fours, and finally Wotan, King of the Valhalla gods, who is no bigger than an average-sized man, struts about also rigged out in wigs, and sings to his comrades what is actually meant for the public to hear." And so on wrote the irritated Count through a long protest that seemed less against the use of scenery and stage decoration in general, than in opposition to its inadequacy.


It is Royal Cortissoz who, invited by Granville Barker to consider his New York productions, particularly of " A Midsummer Night's Dream," from " a purely pictorial point of view," defined, in the Tribune of February 22, 1915, not merely the position of Mr. Barker, but also the seeming fallacy of most leaders in the " new " scenic movement. In the work of Norman Wilkinson, who designed the scenes under direction of Mr. Barker, Mr. Cortissoz finds " a detachment from the fundamental conditions of the stage, a detachment shared by more than one member of the newer school of dramatic decorators.

" In the criticism of art, questions of fitness are constantly to the fore. Is the easel picture in scale? Is the mural painting part and parcel of the wall in which it is embedded ? Does the facade of a building exactly express the inner organic purpose of the structure? It is equally pertinent to ask if the stage picture is in harmony with the genius of the theater. Is it adjusted so perfectly to the spoken word and the appropriate action that the eye and ear register a single sensation?

" Above all, does it make an inevitable fourth wall to the darkened house, its lights exposing another world as the latter is exposed by an open window? To receive the ideal impression of such a picture, the beholder should use his imagination; he must give the stage director his due `poetic license; ' must meet him half way." The critic continues that the producer is called upon to strike a perfect balance between two issues that are, indeed, interdependent : " to beguile the spectator with his picture as a picture and yet preserve the dramatic illusion, all life and atmosphere, which is what the spectator is there for."

The setting designed by Robert Jones for " A Man Who Married a Dumb Wife," was the only one found entirely satisfactory from the pictorial standpoint. " Here the idea of pictorial treatment of stage things might easily enough be regarded as conclusive," he said. " The scene being laid in a street, with the action going forward therein, or in a house whose windows look down upon it, it is legitimate for us to be shown it ` in the flat,' so to say. The matter of atmosphere, which goes with depth, is quite reasonably excluded. To observe the actors as so many figures in a painting or a print, seems the most natural,thing in the world."


Imposed upon the scene, after it has fulfilled its function of being a background, is the obligation of accuracy. It must clearly visualize the place and period in which the action is situated, leaving out superfluous details as in any work of art, but still having enough to lend interest to the whole.

" Characters are formed for their association with the actual topography," says W. T. Price, discussing scenery in his " Philosophy of Dramatic Principle and Method," " modified by the architecture and many things involving habits and point of view of life. The mountaineer could not well do without his altitudes and perspectives. The cotton field is the conventional expression of Southern life; and, in short, many actions could take place in but one locality, and certain characters and modes of thought are found there only."

Desire to establish place led to a pretty device, seen in Belasco's production of " The Darling of the Gods," 1902, where the first thing disclosed to view was a front drop showing a picture, in which had been incorporated into a pleasing whole, the essential features of a Japanese landscape. Presently this faded out—it was a gauze, lighted from behind—into the first setting of the play itself. It would be hypercritical to say much about the ugly opaque batten on the gauze drop, which marred the illusion as it was drawn up out of sight.

To obviate this evil one thinks, parenthetically, of heavy glass weights to keep the gauze in shape and yet be trans-parent, or a light cast on the batten alone to keep it from showing black. Better still, why not keep them straight by having weighted wires running through openings in the stage, attached to the lower edge? They would not interfere with the actors, and certainly not with the view. But pardon me; my parenthesis threatens to become a digression.

Benjamin Chapin used a device in the vaudeville adaptation of his play " Lincoln," where the gauze at opening showed the general exterior of the White House, with its lawns and foliage, just before the interior which followed, gradually came into view. It appeared even before that in vaudeville in a nautical sketch of the singing partners, MacKenzie and Shannon, showing the deck of a yacht before the cabin. A still more ingenious plan was devised—although not put into practise—by Winthrop Ames for his production of the prize play, " Children of Earth," 1915. His program was to show a frontispiece—actually designed by Franklin Booth—a country road leading to the village in the valley beyond, where the action was set. The symbols were forceful and all in the best of taste.

There are other angles of accuracy, too, illustrated in the scene of the Governor's room at the Albany Capitol, in the Fiske production of " The High Road," in which Mrs. Fiske appeared at the Hudson Theater, New York, in 1913. This scene was shown as part of the exposition to the mod-ern action which began in a subsequent act. Therefore, some of the portraits of governors on the walls were not given as in the real room, because several terms had passed before the coming of the scene where the present day began. Thus, the exposition was quite literally in the past.

Tradition frequently dictates its own variety of accuracy in a scene. That is why Appia tried to combat the traditional productions of the Wagner operas. It was to break away from the hide-bound prescription that the English artist, Hugo Rumbold, completing scenery and costumes for William Faversham's projected " Romeo and Juliet," showed a setting in which the famous balcony was dispensed with. Mr. Rumbold argued that the rope ladder was superfluous in the old arrangement, which came merely from the physical state of affairs on the Elizabethan stage; so he had the lovesick maiden stand, instead, in an arched window some fifteen feet up in the pink wall of a Veronese villa, the whole situated in a moonlit garden of blue and purple cypresses.


Novelty of scene is desirable as unusual viewpoint is needed in the play itself, and for much the same reason, although it must not distract at wrong moments. There-fore clocks used in settings are usually made small and dark, or turned at angles so the audience is not constantly inquiring the time. It is no advantage to make a distracting note obscure in character, like the bold motto over the fireplace in " The Talker," with its quaint unfamiliar lettering, for the spectator automatically reverts his attention to it time and time again, to puzzle it out.

Frederic Thompson had installed, at great expense, a wonderful effect of moving shadows of leaves on the parsonage lawn in " Polly of the Circus; " but he had to relinquish it because people would nudge each other to remark it. The gentle swaying of the boughs in the American production of " Prunella " came perilously near distracting, only the producer, Winthrop Ames, had them moved just at lulls in the action. The sense of sight is ever quicker than the sense of hearing; even a dangling sash has been known to distract playgoers' attention from more important things.

It is because it is well to have novelty that will not distract, that the practice of nineteenth century managers, whereby no one entered upon a scene after the curtain rose until every detail of the setting had been observed by the audience, is commended. The setting thus is comprehended once and for all; and further reference to detail is casual. David Belasco has been particularly apt in combining this space of time with that necessary to get belated playgoers seated, and at the same time having actors on the stage occupied with some simple " business."

His production of " Marie-Odile " in 1915, is a convenient illustration. It was some time after the curtain rose, before the heroine, who was discovered dusting the convent table, chairs, floor, and so forth, or any other character, uttered an intelligible word. Nuns passed and repassed, the bell was rung, Latin prayers were mumbled, and so on. The complete atmosphere of the convent was conveyed with the scene before the play began. Those who missed the atmosphere did not miss the play; and those who were present for the atmosphere found that much more enjoyment. But here was a setting that stood throughout the performance.

Curiously enough, and because it is apt to jar at wrong moments, simple beauty in a scene is an almost dangerous element. A beautiful scene, when first disclosed to view, almost invariably will get a round of applause for its own sake. If the producer checks this by prompt entrance of character, the audience will take its time to see it anyway, in odd glimpses between more diverting things. Of course the painter is pleased with this approval of his services; and it may have been because of this, in contradistinction to Belasco's aim, that Garrick's scene painter, De Loutherbourg, stipulated, as tradition says, that his scene must occupy the stage alone and first for a given length of time, for full appreciation.


Literal dramatic fitness imposes further demands upon a setting that have particularly to do with that portion of the stage known as the " acting zone." This term is probably a successor to the "focus," which was correct before the picture-frame stage came in. The acting zone generally is the middle of the stage proper, which Huntly Carter says may be found worn into a hollow in most modern theaters where vanity of the actor holds sway. In brief, it is that part of a stage which may best be seen from any part of the auditorium. And here the scenic artist endeavors to place all important and much-used points in his setting.

A point of this kind may be a table, such as that used to stand about while cross-examining the unfortunate young murder suspect in " The Third Degree; " or a closet, such as that in which the supposed burglar hides in " A Pair of Silk Stockings; " or a door, similar to that through which " Medea " appears after her infanticide, or that through which " Tess of the d'Urbervilles " emerges with her bloody dagger.

The matter becomes complicated when m0re than one point in a setting requires emphasis. I tried to cover this in " Master of Myself," a recently written play. In Act III the emphatic point is a French window through which one man was to throw another; in Act IV, where the same interior setting served as background, it was a door through which a dreaded appearance was to be made.

The scene was designed in the now-familiar " V-shape "—that is, two walls of the room being slanted backward to meet each other, so as apparently to show just a corner of the interior. At right was the door; at left the window. In Act III the left wall was made longer and the right shortened so that the window came center; in the final act the order was reversed—the right wall extended and the left shortened, so the door became the dominant thing. Some-thing of the kind was devised for a production at the former New Theater, New York, but it was feared the change would distract attention from the play, and it was abandoned.

But it was Clyde Fitch who, in his last play, " The City," derived most profit from the " V-shaped " set; and, as already pointed out by that critic of discernment, Clayton Hamilton, in his collection of reprinted pieces entitled " Studies in Stagecraft," the scene was made to achieve its effect as an integral part of the play, with no actors on the stage. A wide doorway in one of the slanted walls, revealed a hall and staircase beyond. The father went out through this door, a sound was heard as of something heavy falling, and voices of people who at once came rushing through the hall and down the stairs, disclosed the fact that the old man had died suddenly of heart failure.

It is not the mere placing of an emphatic point, but also the artist's deftness of pictorial composition, which contrives all lines of his setting to converge at the center of interest. Mr. Hamilton, whose fund of splendid illustration seems exhaustive, here points to the third act setting of Knoblauch's " The Cottage in the Air " at the former New Theater, as a masterpiece of the kind. In the fore-ground of this beautiful landscape, designed by Hamilton Bell, of the New Theater staff, the receding walls and sloping thatched roofs of charming cottages to right and left, inevitably led the eyes to the gate at center, where characters came and departed.


The better setting has a psychological as well as a literal side; and in it is found the first real step toward a unified appeal of action and scene. It is observed in the third act setting of " The Truth," revived by Winthrop Ames in 1914, where the conglomerate room in the apartment of Mrs. Crespigny, reveals at once the character of the woman who occupies it with poor, foolish old Roland. It is seen again in " The Music Master," Belasco, 1908, where the cheap room of Herr von Barwig and its threadbare furnishing, immediately strikes one as a vivid, symbolic summary of its inmate.

And the message need not always be positively conveyed; it may be an effect of contrast. Could anything have intensified an action more than Clyde Fitch's setting of the hanging of Nathan Hale in an orchard in full bloom? In " Children of Earth," Winthrop Ames, 1915, in which a middle-aged woman suddenly realizes that she has never lived her life, there is a vast significance in the dead-looking old apple tree which blooms forth in a burst of glory with the coming of spring. Further, the somnolent air of the country in " The Rose of the Rancho," Belasco, 1906, is projected with the first rise of the curtain.

In 1882, Belasco, in the " Passion Play " at " Lucky " Baldwin's Grand Opera House at San Francisco, transformed the auditorium to represent a cathedral, and used hangings of sackcloth as he did in 1915 at the Belasco Theater, New York, for Edward Knoblauch's story of poor little " Marie-Odile." At the " Passion Play," he carried his atmosphere even into the lobby of the theater.

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