Acting Scenery

( Originally Published 1913 )

How it Helps the Play to Tell its Story

THE play that is actor proof has become familiar to the public, and needs no explanation.

Scenery that is manager proof is something newer.

" Acting scenery " " the stage set that is a member of the cast " such are some of the phrases used to describe the latest experiments in mounting plays.

The public is not altogether clear as to what these terms mean.

The New Scenery

The interesting question about scenery at present is not whether the futurists in scenic art Gordon Craig, Max Reinhardt and others are likely to succeed; because we know very well that, if they keep their heads, and avoid fads and extremes, they can hardly help succeeding. The value of impressionistic outlines, emotional colors, illusive shadows, and breadth and simplicity of effect is recognized at once. The philosophy they are working out is not wholly novel. It has always been the province of art to make us see visions, rather than to put before us exact imitations. Impressionism is nothing new, on or off the stage. We know the mysterious effect of color, the delight of filling in vague outlines for ourselves, the imaginative stimulus of deep masses of shadow. We know, moreover, that the impressionist is apt to demand ample space and the utmost adaptation in the direction and fall of light conditions more easily met behind the proscenium arch of the well-equipped theater than on the wall of the ordinary art gallery.

The question is, what connection can simple pictorial scenery make with the modern, social, intimate drama, which has rather more to say to us today than spectacle or pageant or old romance.

It must be admitted that the tables, chairs, rugs, curtains and bookcases of an ordinary house do not suggest the use of impressionistic outlines or symbolic colors. Nor is it easy to fancy a domestic scene from Pinero or Galsworthy or Thomas acted against a back drop painted with a phantom drawing room or library. We can only hope the new methods are as universally adaptable as they claim to be. For indeed some of the common stage furnishings have been so overworked in the interest of weak-minded plays, that if anybody wishes to reduce them to outlines we should not object. The tea-table, for example, and the telephone. Furthermore, if clearing stage interiors of some of their ottomans, sofa cushions, foot-stools and smoking stands would make actors less restive, and teach them to keep still when they are not doing anything, we should be glad of the riddance. The grateful repose of the Irish Players seemed traceable in a measure to their economical stage sets.

But we cannot yet quite see the harmless necessary props of the social drama sketched on canvas, or made of cheese cloth and electric lights, or thrown out altogether. We await developments.

The Old Scenery

Meantime, much good has promptly come from these brave experiments in creating reality of mood and feeling (the only reality that counts) by means of unreal and inexpensive materials in illusive light and shadow. We are roused to full consciousness of what we have long dimly felt that costly stage realism has o'er-leapt itself and begun to create unreality. Practical properties are all very well; but when they are so ingenious and expensive as to attract attention to them-selves, they are as disillusioning to an audience as if they were cheaply and absurdly impractical. Distraction is distraction, as fatal to dramatic illusion when it results from foolish extravagance as when it is mere poverty of resources.

For example : A genuine telephone switchboard on the stage becomes at once the most unreal thing in the world. Being where it does not belong, and where it must have been difficult to place, it makes a sensation which it would not in life. To the audience it is a constant reminder that the stage where it is fixed is a stage, and not the room which it pretends to be.

As a matter of fact, a cheap make-believe switchboard that could not, be manipulated at all would not destroy the illusion more completely.

For another example : The Dutch interior which served as setting for the entire drama of " The Return of Peter Grimm " failed of making precisely the right impression. It' was criticised as being too crowded with details. In reality it was no more crowded than it ought to have been to represent the living-room of an old house that had been occupied for many years by a family of Hollanders. We never criticise Dutch paintings as being " crowded." The trouble was that the scene, instead of creating a unified impression of a roomful of small objects, showed every one of the small objects themselves, thus dispersing the attention. In a painting it would be called the crudest of old style art.

As to the statement that realistic surroundings in-spire the actor, somehow that does not ring true. And when extreme examples are urged, they sound positively puerile.

In one of the plays of last season, a certain stage represented a doctor's office, with the usual furniture, including a large desk and a stack of card index boxes. The public was privileged to know press notices, probably that the desk was completely filled, drawers, pigeon holes and all, with letters and papers such as a physician would accumulate, all addressed to the stage doctor or signed with his name ; that the stationery spread before him had his name and address on letter-heads and envelopes ; and that, to crown this triumph of managerial art, the index boxes were full of cards, every one of which was completely made out.

The actor who played the part of the doctor was experienced and accomplished. It really seemed possible that he might have kept his impersonation, even if some of those cards had been left blank. In fact, any actor, who has hard training back of him is apt to resent the idea that his concept of a part can be made to depend on preposterous realism which is invisible or meaningless to the audience. An imagination that is superior to footlights, open flies, and canvas walls is not likely to suffer from the consciousness that an unused drawer in a desk is empty. Moreover, if an actor's hold on his part can be strengthened by mechanical means, it may as easily be weakened, in case some contraption is forgotten in setting the stage. What in-spires the intelligent actor more than anything else that can be furnished him in the theater is a comfortable, commodious, well ventilated dressing-room. Such humane accommodation could not, perhaps, be made to figure in a startling press notice; but it would quite conceivably encourage better art.

Difficult Transition from Old to New

Now as to the cure for the false realism which evokes no mood in the spectator and creates no artistic illusion. It seems reasonable enough to say, as the futurists do, that it is useless to mitigate or change the old methods that they must be swept aside, and a new beginning made. To the impartial spectator, a great deal of the laborious and costly scenery of the day does seem to be based on wholly unsound concepts of dramatic and theatric effect, so that when it is " simplified " it looks to be merely cheapened. And one point is by now very clear that the new stage-craft, however inexpensive, is destined to be anything but cheap in its total impression. Its effects are costly, even when little money is used to create them.

To illustrate the difficulty in modifying conventional scenery according to imaginative methods: One of the latest elaborations of realistic stage setting is to create an appearance of depth, especially in interiors. Thus, if the place is a living-room or a library, the doors must give into completely furnished rooms beyond, so that the scene may seem to be in a house and not on a stage. The room being furnished, not to say cluttered, to the last detail, there is apparently nothing for the manager to do but to burrow into the background. Often, however, he defeats his own ends. Because, when a door is opened, the attention of the audience goes through into the inner room, losing all account of what the actors are doing and saying.

Now just about the time when realism-run-mad began to treat the stage as if it were a flat or a model house in a furniture store, the new stagecraft began to devise precisely opposite effects. Its back-grounds are meant to create an impression of shallowness, and are skillfully designed, not to direct the attention of the audience to the depths of the stage, but to withhold or deflect it from the drop curtain, and to turn all eyes toward the actor, who, as the distracted theatergoer needs reminding, is, after all, more essential to the play.

This is one of the ways in which the two methods work directly counter to each other. No wonder the new craftsman thinks the crowded modern stage a poor place to try out his experiments in harmonizing moods and tenses.

What is " Acting Scenery " ?

Many of our contemporary social plays are so Greek in their simplicity as to make it appear possible that the simpler and more primitive traditions might be revived in staging them.

Then there are others which seem hardly separable from the most intricate of modern stagecraft.

However, we can all understand with a little ex-planation what is meant by " acting scenery," and how it favors the new methods.

When stage scenes are conceived by the playwright along with his characters, and are built into the structure of the plot, they are then so related to theme and action, and take such significance from their part in the dramatic scheme, that they create effects quite independent of anything that a manager can do for them or to them. Outlines and suggestions are more successful in translating such effects than in working out unrelated scenes.

Usually when a scene furnishes an unobtrusive back-ground, with everything in the right key, it does all that it can for a play. But it is possible for scenery to do much more. It can be macle to take up the thread of plot and tell the story for a few moments, thus relieving the colloquy of narration, description or exposition. We know that this can be done, because we now and then see, in conventional staging, a scene that really does act, thus becoming, as the new experimenters say, a member of the company.

The best illustration I can recall offhand is from a play which is sincere and honest, but not great " The Fortune Hunter." The setting for the third act does three things at once, and does them effectually. It tells the story of an eventful winter; it helps out the exposition after the long interruption ; and it gives the new act a vigorous forward impulse.

All after this fashion :

When the curtain falls on the second act, it shuts from view Sam Graham's drugstore, dingy, poverty-stricken and forlorn, a rusty stove in the middle, a few stale drugs on the shelves, the mere travesty of a soda-water fountain at one side. It is a day in September.

The playbill gives the information that when the curtain rises again it will be spring. Moreover, the audience knows, as it generally does by the time a play is half over, what will be the culmination of the plot. But it is in a state of animated suspense as to just how everything is going to be brought about.

When the curtain lifts upon the third act it shows a white, glittering, electric lighted, ultra modern drugstore, stocked with the most pictorial of patent medicines, the most decorative of candies and cigars, and displaying an imposing soda-water fountain like an altar to all the gods at once.

The audience gasps with delight at the transformation, satisfaction in its own cleverness (for it knew Henry Kellogg would make good) and anticipation of what is coming.

The scene has acted. It is in the cast.

Now the point is not exactly that impressionism could here be used for realism, though I incline to think that in commonplace scenes like this the new staging would work very well. The point is merely that the scene is so skillfully related to the dramatic action, and takes so much of its meaning from what has happened before and what is going to happen afterward, that it has more carrying power in itself than can be given to it by the most superhuman ingenuity of stage-craft. It would be effective even if poorly and cheaply staged in the old way.

To go a step further:

Suppose that, for the sake of introducing same other scene, it was necessary to pass over the transformed drugstore without showing it to the audience.

Much narration of what had taken place, and much description of the new store, would then have to be written into the text. And an audience never cares to hear what has been done, if by any process of crowding and telescoping events it can be allowed to see for itself. The play would be weakened.

In the playwright's struggle to rid himself of non-dramatic and story-telling expedients, scenery, rightly used, can be one of his greatest helps.

Another illustration of the power of scenery to act is found in the memorable tent scene in Barrie's " The Admirable Crichton." This picturesque interior tells the story of two years of life la Robinson Crusoe on a desert island; opens the third act intelligibly without reminiscence ; and is interesting and amusing on its own account. It is emphatically in the cast, and would lend itself to artistic experiment with simple materials. If proof is needed that the whole scene is a member of the company, it is only necessary to recall the end of the act. The incident that sends down the curtain is, like all dramatic crises, seen as well as felt by the audience, there being an appeal to the eye simultaneously with the appeal to the emotions. When the boom of the gun is heard., the hero hesitates, visibly struggles with himself, exclaims " Bill Crichton 's got to play the game," and then, while the audience breathlessly watches, pulls the lever that lights the signal to the receding ship. Thus the culmination grows directly out of the material surroundings. The scenery is as truly a member of the company as Crichton or Lady Mary. It would please the futurists.

By way of contrast, conceive of an act (and modern plays furnish many examples) which would play almost equally well against any background. Perhaps the stage is set with an entrance hall which, merely to make a brighter picture, has a door and window opening into a garden. But neither hall nor garden is necessary. If that scenery were left behind or burned up, something else out of the storehouse a living room or a library or a veranda would do as well. The speeches have not grown out of the surroundings, nor have the surroundings reacted upon the mood and spirit of the characters. The colloquy has been manufactured in some rarefied atmosphere, remote from the world.

Now when the imagination of the audience is not in the least stimulated, it cannot be expected to fill in outlines or to people shady corners with dim figures. Nothing can be done with an act like this but to stage it as literally as possible. Impressionism is helpless with an act so detached from the plot, mood and theme of the play. The scene is not a member of the company.

Corrective Influence of New Stagecraft

Some one recently said that a stage director ought to be able to think in scenery and electric lights. But for the finest effects, it is the dramatist who must think in outline, color, light and shade all the time that he is thinking in the speeches and actions of his characters. Then his plays will be so harmonious and organic, and will take such admirable shape, that it will be easy to stage them by simple means; and, per contra, hard for the most realistic manager to distort or damage them. The spirit and mood of each act Can be quickly captured and easily interpreted, and there will be no gaps to tempt the intrusion of unrealated novelties. And it is to be hoped that, when there are more plays like this, if stage pictures are " held " anywhere, it will not be at the end of the acts, where they destroy all continuity, but at the beginning, so that they can talk a little in their own dumb language, before the speeches begin.

At present, scenes that help to get the story told seem rather casually introduced into plays. Acting scenery is not one of the ideals of dramatic art. But when the new stagecraft begins to prevail, its influence will be corrective and sanative. With nothing spectacular to help them out, plays will strengthen in all that is truly dramatic, and will have so much scenic art in their very structure that they can be interpreted with an economy of ways and means hitherto undreamed of.

And incidentally there ought to be one social and progressive outcome ; namely, cheaper seats in the theaters.

The new stagecraft is at least deserving of our interest and good wishes.

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