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Amateur Plays - Scenery And Costumes

( Originally Published 1923 )

VERY little need be said regarding the usual conventional sets, whether they represent interiors or exteriors. The purpose of this chapter is (1) to suggest simple but effective means of staging without using the conventional sets, and (2) to lay down a few principles as to costuming.

By means of the simple devices about to be described, the amateur is enabled to do with-out " box sets " and all the paraphernalia of the old stage. The tendency nowadays is away from naturalism in setting ; the aim is rather to supply simple but beautiful back-grounds with as little obvious effort as possible; to suggest rather than to represent. When the word " conventional " is used it is intended to convey the meaning not of " old " and " hackneyed ", but of " simple "" sugggestive." Beardsley's drawings are conventional because attitudes and lines are conventionalized.

In the main, there are three sorts of setting which may be used for practically all kinds of plays. They have been successfully tried out on numerous occasions, and few plays have been found which cannot fit at least one of them.

1. The first and simplest of them all consists of draperies and tall screens. The Greek classics and Shakespeare are particularly effective with this sort of background: Where Greek plays are given, a peristyle of wooden pillars up-stage, behind which may be hung white or tinted curtains, is especially desirable. Any Greek, and most Latin plays, can be produced with this setting. Often such plays are given in the open. If the performance takes place in the daylight, there is no difficulty as to artificial lighting ; but if it is at night, then a flood-light must cover the stage. This is placed toward the back, or else behind the audience.

Shakespeare is seen at his best with the simple background. A sort of cyclorama may be constructed by using curtains hung at the back of the stage, upon which is thrown light from one place : behind the proscenium arch, from above, or from one of the sides. Suppose that " The Comedy of Errors is the play to be performed. The first scene of the first act is A hall in the Duke's palace." This, of course, should be printed on the program, but on the stage all that is needed is a suggestion or two, like a gilded chair, and a painted white bench or two. These are not needed in the action, but they serve to create an atmosphere. The second scene is A public place." Absolutely no " props " or furniture are needed ; indeed, their very absence indicates the " place." The first scene of the second act is the same. The curtains around the stage must be made in sections, in order to allow the actors to enter and exit through them. The lines are always sufficient to indicate where a person is coming from or going to. In the first scene of the third act, Dromio of Syracuse says :

DRO. B. (within). Moine, malt-horse, capon, coxcomb, idiot, patch

Either get thee from the door, or sit down at the hatch :

A house is evidently intended to be represented, but it is not necessary that we see it : Dromio of Syracuse can speak from behind the curtain. The convention will readily be accepted. Nor is it necessary to differentiate the various public places ", except for the sake of variety : perhaps a bench or two now and then will accomplish this purpose. And when, in the first scene of the fifth act, the public place is "before an abbey ", still there is no need of any definite set pieces. From time to time, doubtless some special article of furniture or set piece of some kind will be mentioned in the text, not elsewhere, in which case it can easily be supplied.

This Shakespeare-without-scenery " is not the only method by which Shakespeare can be performed, but it is the easiest and, if done with taste, the most effective.

Let us now take rather a more difficult play, " Twelfth Night." The first scene of the first act is " An apartment in the Duke's palace."

Dost thou conjure for wenches, that thou call'st for such store,

When one is one too many ? Go, get thee from the door.

The Duke sits on a sort of throne or sofa. In Max Reinhardt's production of this play at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin, the set consisted simply of a semicircular lounge extending all the way across the stage. It was covered with dark blue plush ; the hangings were of the same color. A warm yellow light directed from above flooded the stage.

Either a throne or sofa for the Duke, then, and a few other chairs for the remaining characters, who sit down the musicians stand — or else, following Reinhardt, a semi-circular lounge. This is all. The second scene is "The seacoast." The stage is bare here. The third scene is " A room in. Olivia's house." Different chairs or sofas and a throne for Olivia. The following scene is the same as scene one. The first scene of the second act is the seacoast once more. The next is " A street." No furniture. The third scene is " A room in Olivia's house " ; evidently not the same as that in which Olivia first appeared. The room is probably in or near the wine cellar. A table, therefore, and three or four chairs, will not be amiss. The next is the same as in act one, scene one. The fifth scene of the second act is " Olivia's gar-den." Here the stage business requires a few definitely placed shrubs and a bench or two.

Malvolio comes down-stage Center, while the others are hiding behind one of the benches, either Left or Right. These benches, as indicated in the diagram, are partially concealed by shrubs. Baytrees, planted in green-painted tubs, make especially good decorations. They can be used on many occasions, as will be shown later. Nor, in the case of the scene from " Twelfth Night' , are they so high as to conceal the actors who are supposed to be hidden behind them. The following scene is the same. The second scene of the third act is the cellar room again. Following this is " A street"; then " Olivia's garden" once more. The next new scene is the first of the fourth act : A street before Olivia's garden." Perhaps a little variety can be introduced in the shape of a shrub or two. The remaining scenes are repetitions of those already considered.

The suggestions above given are extremely summary, but, if acted upon, will be seen to prove sufficient.

2. Out-of-door scenes of a more elaborate character, in plays like Rostand's " The Romancers ", often require more complicated sets ; they may still be produced with the most elementary sort of. background, how-ever. The stage directions of this play are as follows:

SCENE The stage is divided by an old wall, covered with vines and flowers. At the right, a corner of BERGAMIN'S park is seen; at the left, a corner of PASQUINOT'S. On each side of the wall, and against it, is a rustic bench.

This is set in the following manner:

The background hangings may be of tan burlap or else dark green. Gaps, covered by the folds, must be made up- and downstage to allow the actors to enter and leave the stage. The wall must be constructed of solid wood, in order to support the actors, and painted to suggest bricks. There is a rustic bench against each side of the wall. Though they are not mentioned in these preliminary directions, there are other rustic benches, down-stage to the extreme right and left. These are used later in the act.

In the second act, " the wall has disappeared.

The benches which were formerly against it, are removed to the extreme right and left. [The extra benches mentioned in the first act have of course been. removed.] There are a few extra pots of flowers and two or three plaster statues. To the right is a small garden table, with chairs about it." This scene is set as follows :

The third act stage directions are : "The scene is the same except that the wall is being rebuilt.

Bricks and sacks of plaster lie about." A few bricks may serve to indicate the partly finished wall.

Since the scene of this play is laid at first in parks, there ought to be some suggestion as to this fact. Here bay- or box-trees can be used. Perhaps three or four should be arranged more or less symmetrically at the back of the stage, and as many to the right and left, down-stage. One or two can be added, close to the wall. This is all that is absolutely necessary.

The foregoing remarks have been applied largely to romantic plays, but what is to be done in modern realistic pieces? There are two courses open, besides the conventional one (using box sets)

The first method is to use the regular hangings as before and set a few needful articles of furniture about the stage. This is not realistic, but there are many realistic plays which can be produced without correspondingly realistic settings. Of course, where windows are referred to and used, there must be real windows, and where a character is directed to hang a picture on a wall, there must be a wall. How-ever, there are many realistic plays where box sets are not required. Hermann Sudermann's " The Far-away Princess " is a case in question. The author has definitely suggested a certain setting for the play, but as his suggestions are not absolutely essential they may be modified. The directions are :

" The veranda of an inn. The right side of the stage and half of the background represent a framework of glass enclosing the veranda. The left side and the other half of the background represent the stone walls of the house. To the left, in the foreground, a door; another door in the background, at the left. On the left, back, a buffet and serving table. Neat little tables and small iron chairs for visitors are placed about the veranda. On the right, in the centre, a large telescope, standing on a tripod, is directed through an open window. Rosa, dressed in the costume of the country, is arranging flowers on the small tables. FRAU LINDEMANN, a handsome, stoutish woman in the thirties, hurries in excitedly from the left."

If the dramatist's stage directions are implicitly followed, a realistic set will be required. The scene as set according to the diagram, has, however, often been used :

Once more, the little shrubs may be used in order to give an atmosphere of outdoors.

Or, to take an example of a ` modern-interior " play in which the same Conventionalized scenery may be used to advantage — Alfred Capus' " Brignol and his Daughter " (published by French) is set as follows :

SCENE : An office, fitted up with various articles of parlor furniture —rather pretentious in appearance. To the right, a table with letter-files, and a safe; beside the safe, a bookshelf. At the back is the main entrance; there are other doors, right and left, one opening upon a bedroom, the other upon the parlor.

Here the setting is so usual, so conventional, that no actual room is required merely the table, chairs, safe, etc., as called for. Of course, it is not imperative that such plays should be set in this manner: the arrangement with screens about to be described is usually the best way. The point here to be impressed is that realistic sets are not always required for realistic plays.

3. By the introduction of screens — not to be confused with the large screens mentioned by Gordon Craig, however practically any realistic play can be produced. The diagram below will afford some idea of the very simple principle :

Three screens, about seven feet high, made in three sections, and covered with burlap or some similar material, are all that will usually be required on a moderately small stage. These can be set in various ways. If an ordinary room is called for, they may be set as in the above diagram.

" Brignol and his Daughter " may be staged by using three screens (as in the diagram above) : the opening at the back is the center door; the doors on the right and left are the openings left between the lower ends of the side screens and the inside of the proscenium arch. The furniture is set in this scene as it is required in the stage directions. If the proscenium opening is too large, then the grand drapery can be lowered to within two or three feet of the top of the screens, and the side screens, behind the sides of the proscenium arch, brought closer together. Behind the screens representing the room, burlap or a suitable substitute may be hung. To take concrete examples once more, the setting of the first act of A Scrap of Paper " (the adaptation by J. Palgrave Simpson) is thus described in the text :

Drawing-room in a French country house. Windows to the floor, R.C. [Right Center] and L.C. [Left Center], at back, looking out on gardens and park. The window L.C. is at first closed in with barred Venetian shutters. The window R.C. opens on the garden. Fireplace, C. [Center] between the windows, surmounted by a mirror. On each side of the mirror is a bracket, within reach of the hand; the one R. supporting. a statuette of FLORA, the other, L., empty. Doors, R. E [See diagram] and L. E. Sofas R. and L. up-stage. At C. of stage is a round table, with a lamp, and an embroidery frame, a book and other objects scattered upon it in great disorder. Chairs R. and L. of table. Arm chairs R.C. and L.C., downstage. The furniture is to be rich but old-fashioned, and a little worn. Carpet down.

Five screens are here required: one at the back, behind the fireplace; and two on each side of the stage. Only two of the three folding sections of each are used.

The fireplace must be " practical " — that is, it must have a wooden framework. In case a mirror is desired, it can be lower than a mirror usually is, and made of mosquito netting, to avoid reflections. A very few pictures may be hung on the screens. The hangings at the back of the stage masking the bare walls - are of the same sort as have been described before, but the color of the screens must harmonize with them.

With such a background, and by means of screens, shrubs, and a few necessary set pieces, like the wall in the Rostand play, the author has seen a dozen widely different plays produced by amateurs, in not one of which was the slightest noticeable discrepancy or anything that would shock even the theatergoer who is accustomed to the elaborate and often un-necessary, settings of David Belasco.

As may be easily imagined, the possibilities of variation upon these simple settings are infinite. Experimentation, as always, will re-veal new fields.

Before closing the chapter, a word may be said of the flat background near the curtain line. About four or five feet behind the curtain line i.e. the place where the curtain falls to the stage — hang a drop, either of burlap, or else a white drop like that used in stereopticon lectures. This, either played upon by lights in " the house ', or from behind the stage, forms a striking background for scenes of pantomime, a street — as in Twelfth Night" a wall, a forest, almost anything. Such a screen was most effectively used in one scene of Reinhardt's production of " Sumurûn." A still more striking effect was achieved in a performance of " Peer Gynt " at the Lessing Theater in Berlin. The scene was the one in which Peer Gynt is before the pyramid in Egypt. About five feet behind the curtain line a white screen was dropped. Diagonally across this screen was thrown a dark purple light, while over the remaining space a saffron yellow played. That was all, but the suggestion of the vast shadow of the pyramid and the yellow sunlight and the yellow sands of Egypt was far more impressive than any representation of the pyramid and desert could be.

In case the effect of a distant city is desired, then another (darker and thicker) cloth, cut to represent the outlines of buildings and the like, can be sewed against the drop, thus producing the effect of a silhouette.

In fine, the whole problem of staging resolves itself into this : achieve your effects in as simple a way as possible; suggest, do not try to represent ; scenery, which ought indeed to be a delight to the eye, is after all only back-ground. Experiment, but never hesitate to ask the advice of those who know the basic principles of color, line, and form, as well as those who have technical knowledge of every branch of the art and craft of the theater.

Costumes. In his introductory remarks to " The Romancers Rostand says that the action may take place anywhere, " provided the costumes are pretty." This is the basis of the few brief remarks to be made here on the subject of costumes. It must not be concluded, however, that any costumes may be used on any occasion. A modern play must have modern costumes — except in such plays as " The Blue Bird " and " Chantecler "-and a " period play " must at least approximate in spirit the age in which the action transpires. But it makes little difference whether Hamlet wears a tenth or eleventh century Danish costume, or one of the age of Elizabeth. It is a well-known fact that in Shakespeare's days there was little or no regard for historical accuracy in costumes, and that even in the historical plays the actors wore contemporary clothes. The point to be impressed is not that we should play Julius Caesar " in dress clothes, but that such discrepancies as were allowed in Elizabethan days could not have made very much difference, and that nowadays it is not worth while to spend too much time over details. In Greek plays it is well to use Greek costumes, because we have long been accustomed to associate some sort of archeological detail with plays of a certain age; and besides, Greek costumes are beautiful. But, and this is of great importance, do not strive to be historically exact so long as costumes are beautiful and harmonize with the setting, and so long as they are not absurd or too much out of harmony with the play, they are good. There are numerous exceptions. Where a play definitely calls for a distinct atmospheric setting — like Bennett and Knoblauch's " Milestones " — then the utmost effort must be made to obtain correct costumes and setting. But the reason why the first act of this play requires historical accuracy is that the audience knows very well what mid-Victorian clothes are like. If the play were given in the year 2500 A.D., it is safe to say that Elizabethan or Queen Anne costumes might do just as well.

However, historical accuracy, when it can be obtained as easily as not, is never superfluous.

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