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Union Of The Arts

( Originally Published 1916 )

THERE is more than character to be considered in the stage scene—the emotional tone of first the act and then of the play as a whole, to be incorporated in the setting.

Huntly Carter notes that M. Meierholdt, manager of Mme. Kommisarzhevsky's theater at Petrograd, " was probably first with the idea that the drama is to be represented and interpreted in a ` spiritual theater' by means of an outer synthesis expressing an inner synthesis." This is what in the theaters of Europe is called " stylization." " Simply stated," says Mr. Carter, " this is a demand for the representation of the soul of the drama by every means available.

" When Wagner first made known the theory of his synthesis of music, chant, and color," Mr. Carter continues in essence, " it came as a revelation to most men. Here indeed was a means of realizing the secrets of the spiritual world. Here was a way to express the subtle nuances of the poetry of life. When chant failed, there was music; when music failed, there was decoration to carry on the action. Or so it seemed. Gradually, however, reformers began to detect a serious flaw in the ` Master's' scheme. It was found that he had invented not a unified design, but a threefold one, composed of music, chant, and decoration running simultaneously. Then the complaint arose, ` This is wrong; you cannot hear the chant for the music; and you cannot enjoy academic scenery while the music and chant are going on.' one the less, the Wagner synthesis has invaded and held the stage till to-day the sins of the poet of the ` Niebelungen' are still repeated; and even Max Reinhardt repeats the fallacy of the Wagnerian three-fold motive. He gives us music, song, speech, acting, dance, and decoration, repeating instead of expanding and supplementing each other."

Reinhardt, it appears, was the first to call into his search for the simplified scene, work of the great plastic artists, men who sought the soul rather than the representation of it; and thus, says Mr. Carter, he " has given the scene a ` feeling' part instead of a ` thinking' part in the play, and enabled it to contribute to the general effect of sensation in mass, and not in wearisome detail."


An attempt of considerable interest was made in 1913 to provide " psychological " scenes for the variety " turns " at the London Coliseum. The task was entrusted to H. Kemp Prosser, and, in keeping with the frank character of the entertainment, he aimed for a poster effect throughout. Therefore, the act typified by the monologist and singer of topical songs, had a great yellow drop, with variously expressive faces painted upon it. For the ballet or revue, there was a black-and-white room, showing a window with squares of black around it, a design repeated on the floor, walls, and so forth; and an orange-dotted background to a green scene, with wheels and scintillating stars to suggest movement, served for the bicycle act.


Here is where color comes in. There is a physical connection between those things that influence the eye and those to which the ear is attuned. A certain number of vibrations produce sound; more, heat, and still more, light through the color gradations of the spectrum.

So the artist chooses his colors for the general tones of the act and play in which his settings are to serve, by the well-known laws that blue is mysterious, yellow cheerful, and so on, modified by the knowledge that the setting is but a background, and by the fact that places have conventional color values of their own—the tropical lands of great passions, hues of barbaric intensity; the countries of the north the slower vibrations of cold color; Egypt its blue; India its ranges of primaries, and China its nocturnes. Thus the artist finds a combination of color notes, in addition to his tricky schemes of diverging lines, for emphasizing his points and contributing to beauty.

With the element of beauty for its own sake, which, important as it is, seems to be the least vital thing in a setting, the matter of harmonious colors is concerned greatly. In general, the scheme of so combining and contrasting warm and cold colors that the background is always made of cold, or receding, colors, and the foreground, where the action takes place, is emphatic with warm, affords satisfactory results; but now and then an artist appears like Leon Bakst—of Oriental inspiration—who is daring enough to put unmodified hues of emerald-green, orange, and deep violet in unheard-of artistic juxtapositions, and successful enough to find his striking creations hailed around the world as excellent adaptation of means to an end.


Leon Bakst was born in Petrograd in 1868, but came to Paris at the age of twenty-seven, where he has lived and worked practically ever since. He received his early art training under Albert Edelfeldt, a Finnish artist of the " Impressionist " school. He returned to Petrograd some-what later, and started a magazine called the World of Art, to which he contributed a series of grotesque but remark-able designs and caricatures; but Russians were not kindly disposed toward his work, and he went back to Paris. Shortly afterward, Serge de Diaghileff, a wealthy Russian nobleman, came into the life of Bakst and became his patron. At an exhibition in Paris in 1906, arranged by De Diaghileff, Bakst was " discovered." In 1909, with the premiere of " Cleopatre," the first of the De Diaghileff Ballets Russes, for which he designed scenery and costumes, he made his stage debut; but his present name was made principally through his harem setting for the ballet " Scheherazade." He lately was given the Nobel prize for art for his achievements.

His ideas of color are very well defined. " I often have noticed," he told an interviewer in Paris shortly before the Ballet Russe sailed to America in 1916, " that in each color of the prism there exists a gradation which sometimes expresses frankness and chastity, sometimes sensuality and bestiality, sometimes pride, sometimes despair. Any of these may be given over to the public by the effect one makes of the various shadings. That is what I tried to do in Scheherazade.' Against a lugubrious green I put a full blue of despair, paradoxical as it may seem. There are reds which are triumphant; reds which assassinate. There is a blue which can be the color of a St. Madeleine, and there is the blue of a Messalina.

" It is in lines as well as in color that I make my emotions. In ` Thamar,' in ` Narcisse,' in ` Antar,' I sought to bring out in the costumes the plastic ideas which correspond to ideas in literature. It is in the costume, as well as in the decoration and ornaments I put in, that I carry the unity of line. Sometimes I bring out the purely mystic in stage settings, as in D'Annunzio's ` St. Sebastien,' which I produced last year. Because the subject-matter was essentially Christian, I used the cross in a thousand variations for the basis of my linear ornamentation, not only hidden in the costumes and accessories and ornaments in the beautiful play, but even in the lines of the landscape and building of the scenery. My method is generally to take a simple motif and vary it indefinitely so as to create a harmony of color and line."

Ronsin, who collaborates with Poiret in Parisian gowns and house furnishings, designed a somewhat startling interior setting for the New York production of the Hungarian operetta, " Sari," made by Henry W. Savage in New York, 1913. It was splashed with vivid color and outlined with a broad, flat strip of complementary hue.

Several important observations remain to be made concerning the stage work of Leon Bakst, but none more imperatively than that these weird figures and scene designs that have come as his forerunners to America show but a phase of his work—the decorative, the fanciful, part of the drama where imagination runs rife, the spectacle, the revue, and the ballet. America waits to see his mounting of a grim realistic play where the decorative would be out of place.


It seems a truism that a background ceases to be such when it obtrudes, acts, as has been said, more than the actors. Yet the strong contrasts and vivid coloring of the real out-of-doors may well appear at times in exteriors. But even here, good taste seems to prohibit the use of complementary colors—from opposite ends of the spectrum—together in their full intensity, though they may prove effective if neutralized by mixing each with some of the other—the resultant tones being quite in keeping with the infinite reflections in nature. Once more in general, when intense colors are to be used, they should be confined to small areas, balanced by larger areas of much less intensity.

Livingston Platt, in " Twelfth Night " for Margaret Anglin, endeavored to be " strictly Oriental in feeling and atmosphere, the gardens brilliant and splashed here and there with scarlet, the palace languorous and dim with soft suggestiveness. In ` As You Like It ' the woods are purely of the outdoors, reaches and stretches and colors of the forest, oaks and stumps and leaves. In ` The Taming of. the Shrew,' the endeavor was to imitate the wealth of the Rennaissance, dark woods, tapestries of mauve, scarlet, black, and splashes of yellow, with little furniture but that for actual use, carven chairs and tables; and for the outside scenes floods of light and hidden shadows. All these," he thinks, " have combined to make pictures appealing to the imagination and reminiscent to the informed."

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