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Stage Direction

( Originally Published 1916 )

THAT stage atmosphere, in the matter of decoration of the scene, readily may be provided by an upholsterer, is a fallacy that has put into practise these many years. Yet one cannot forget that magnificence of mounting in the Attic theater, provided by rich citizens who knew little or nothing of poetry, frequently won tragic prizes over intrinsically better work.

In the test wherein " a single impression must reach the eye and ear," this time-worn method is found wanting. An artist in charge will achieve an infinitely better effect with a fraction of the material brought by the mechanic; and he will not yet reduce his furniture to the traditional two chairs, indicating that two persons are to be seated, removed when they are not. He may use pictures that are not to be pointed at, flowers that are not to have their fragrance remarked or that are not to be used in corsage or buttonhole, and pianos the keys of which are not to be touched; but one or all will have contributions to the unified impression.

Like the scenery itself, the decoration should be not so mean as to excite ridicule or contempt, or so gorgeous as to divide eyes and ears. But every picture, every rug, every piece of furniture in a setting, should be part of the general composition, and should be balanced and arranged with good taste—after the specific accommodation for the action has been made. The figurines that stand prominently at left in Act I of " As a Man Thinks," are splendid examples of accommodation of the action in this manner. They are much interwoven with the main situation of the play.

Just how far this " good taste" may go is a matter of opinion; decorations supposed to conform are found as meager as the Browne scene for " Delphine Declines," or as elaborate as the Harrison Grey Fiske mounting for Edward Sheldon's play, " The High Road," in which Mrs. Fiske appeared along in 1913. Tireless search on the parts of author and producer—and Mr. Fiske has made some truly distinctive productions—made every article used in the second scene—second named here and second of the play—an authentic copy of some famous work of art.

This, for a casual reason in the text, was the home of an art connoisseur—although it was his cultured influence that provided the heroine with an excellent education. Even the walls and moldings, one is told by an account so enthusiastic that it must have found inspiration in the press department, were reproduced from originals in European art galleries or museums. The walls—which are unique in being made entirely without an artist's brush—are hung in sea-green, interlaced with gold threads; the baseboards are of solid wood, as are also the moldings, one of the latter being a reproduction of one in an old Florentine palace; the large curtain in the archway leading to the dining room, is of English manufacture, of a pattern showing again the Chinese influence of the wall hangings; the tapestry above the mantelpiece is a copy of a priceless original owned by the Town of Saumur, on the River Loire, in France; the double doors in the center are, to the most intimate detail, reproductions of those made by Jean Goujon for Saint Malou in northern Rouen; the archway, separating the drawing room from the dining room, is Italian Rennaissance, and its prototype can be found at the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence; the Romanesque recess is of Venetian inspiration, while the small Byzantine altar in the interior of St. Mark's, suggested its shape and decorations.

A peculiarity of this deep-set window is the variety of the columns, no two of which are alike. They represent different periods of art, and include straight, fluted, spiral, and other forms. The originals of the early Italian Renaissance mantelpiece and of the Louis XIV " lit de repos " can be found in the famous Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris.

The two black lacquer chairs are Chinese Chippendale, up-holstered in Chinese patterned brocatelle of the same period, and are originals, not reproductions. The National Museum of Florence holds the originals of the sculptured side chair and the Gothic wedding chest, both of which are of the fifteenth century, while the design of the prie-dieu was taken from one of the paintings in the Venetian Carpaccio. The book of illuminated Gregorian music is a copy of a volume in the Municipal Museum in Venice, and the Gothic reliquary comes, by way of American craftsmanship, from the Cathedral of Aosta.

Above all, the piano that stands off in an upstage corner is a reproduction of a painted one by Burne-Jones; and Burnes-Jones was the first artist, it is said, to so decorate pianos.

And when one sees this fine scene out of the exposition of the play, and is duly impressed by its general air of magnificence, one's mind reverts to Jennie Deans' vision of the Palace. Besides, the point was not the influence that educated the heroine, but her accord with it—shown readily, and at infinitely less expense. The instance stands, a lesson.


As a contrast to this method of procedure, it is pleasant to turn to the work of Robert E. Jones, a young American artist, who shows promise of big things in the theater. Mr. Jones is a former instructor in the fine arts department at Harvard, and has had considerable experience in poster work, a form that undoubtedly has left its stamp upon him.

Mr. Jones was commissioned by the Stage Society of New York, which brought Granville Barker to this country, to make some experiments toward a better theater. In his characteristic manner of trying to find out reasons for all things—his attitude toward expressions of opinion is ever " How and why? "—he journeyed abroad, and made an effort as a student to reach Gordon Craig at his school in Florence, only to give up the task when nourished on naught but familiar platitudes. He thoroughly examined the Dalcroze School at Hellerau and closely studied work of Max Reinhardt, the distinguished German producer. So he is rather familiar with the " New Art."

In due course of time, he was asked to design the setting and so forth of Granville Barker's New York production of " A Man Who Married a Dumb Wife." Instead of consulting books and museums for what is grossly called the " smell of the period," he let himself be guided by the atmosphere and spirit of the play—a method that may be safe with so accurate an author as Anatole France, but not always with others. The result was a peculiarly simple and effective arrangement, with no superfluous details. I have spoken of its place in the opinion of Cortissoz.

His theory of work is that an artist should be free in technique, and should live and work in a state of creative ecstasy in which all things are possible. This theory came to him after seeing a big pageant that had been hastily devised and costumed by a band of strikers. It was to him a convincing demonstration of what intense enthusiasm can accomplish unaided by preparatory training.

Yet there may be scenes, lavish in decorative detail, that have more than the merit of mere accuracy. Belasco has provided instances of both types : Laura Murdock's cheap bedroom in " The Easiest Way," 1909, which in itself was a marvel of characterization, and the last act of " The Governor's Lady," 1912, which photographically showed one of many cheap restaurants opened and controlled by a large New York company—a company which, indeed, actually furnished the elaborate equipment then used on the stage of the Republic Theater, New York, providing a full supply of cakes, pies, and so forth for each performance. In the latter scene, intended just as the reconciliation ground of the Governor and his Lady, one could have filled an order for two fried eggs, a cup of coffee, and some incidentals common to an institution of the kind. It had not merely a scrubwoman, but also an elevator to send buttercakes from the griddle in the front window, to the room upstairs.


Due proportion must exist between the emotion and the circumstance. The stronger the emotion to be portrayed, as Henry Carlisle Wilson pointed out in an article in the Theater Magazine several years ago, the less elaborate, generally speaking, should be the decoration. Let the scholar be indicated by a cultured atmosphere, by books and other pertinent objects; the millionaire of parvenu type, by coarse luxury; the sneak thief, by squalor, and so on. And, as color is a personal and individual thing, let there be that, too—passionate hues, scarlets, lusty russets, and strong contrasting blacks for the adventuress; chaste mauves, pinks, and dove-grays for the modest bride, and splashes of raw color for the room of the college boy.


Confessedly, it is not a simple matter to provide pertinent items for a stage scene, either those adapted to actual use in the action, or those merely for atmosphere. Consequently, most producers are found covertly making collections of articles they are likely to need. Belasco has an amazing amount of such things stored away. It is said, too, that every time he goes out of town to open a new production, a certain " second-hand " man will ship a carload of " antiques " on ahead, open a store in the town, and contrive to have the distinguished manager informed of the opportunity for bargains.

When they wanted furniture in the old days, they frequently manufactured the unused, purely decorative pieces of papier-mache, when they didn't paint them on the scenery; but all that is gone by now. Fannie Brice once told me how in the early days of her career, she used to borrow the window curtain of her hotel room to help dress the set. The efficient property man maintains a list of sources where he may procure any and all of the manifold portable objects in any scene. In Winthrop Ames's production of " Children of Earth," in New York, chairs were gathered from old houses in New Jersey and Connecticut, and from old curiosity shops, the pewter from an old New England farm-house through a dealer, a saw, saw-buck, and some rain-barrels from Mr. Ames's farm in Massachusetts, and so on through a long list of objects quite as imposing as that of art miscellany in " The High Road."

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