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Theatre Of Today - The Social Forces: Modern Theatre Architecture

( Originally Published 1914 )

A GLANCE at the theatres of the eighteenth century will convince us how vastly removed our contemporary theatre structure is from its essential purpose. For our theatre, on its architectural side, is simply one of the many eighteenth century elements that have been carried over into modern life. While the meaning has changed utterly, the form, the hull, has been retained. The modern theatre building is an archaism.

For our theatre architecture, like the royal subvention, is a remnant, a "hang-over," from the days when art was a mere ornament for the aristocracy. The royal subventioned theatre, in Germany at least, has been partially remoulded until it approximates, in some measure, its modern democratic purpose. And to a certain extent, of course, the modern theatre building has been worked over until its archaic form is not so troublesome. But essentially it remains the theatre of royalty and of the court. Since it was established, the whole view of society, including that of its artistic life, has been changed; whereas the eighteenth century thought of society as developed "from the top down," we think of it as developed "from the bottom up." That is, speaking broadly, our laws, customs, kings and governments, are to us the product of the people; to the eighteenth century mind the people were the product of the laws, customs, kings and governments. With such an absolute change of front in our view of society (and of society's theatres) there is demanded an equally radical change of front in the basis and method for developing its art institutions (including its theatre buildings). But until the last few years nothing of the sort has been attempted; we have been content to modify the worst features of the outmoded aristocratic theatre, and make it serve as best it could.

The modern theatre started, of course, in a thoroughly democratic way. It was at first no more than a performance of wandering players or jugglers in the open street, while the common people stood on the pavement (corresponding to the Elizabethan pit) and those who lived in the houses adjoining the street sat at their windows, which corresponded to the Elizabethan gallery or to the loges of the modern opera house. Or the play a "mystery" or "miracle" was performed on the church steps, the people standing or sitting on the grass, while the honoured guests perhaps had special seats built for them around the sides. But this democratic art, like most of the democratic arts of the Middle Ages, was attached by the aristocracy and was set to work ornamenting their lazy lives. So the primitive form of theatre was made into a fashionable playhouse with the materials at the disposal of the kings and dukes. The Theatre Farnese at Parma, for instance, was modelled on the old Roman amphitheatre (a true prototype of our modern "horse-shoe" theatre). Or theatrical performances, ballets or masques, were given in one of the larger rooms of the palace, the stage being constructed at one end, and boxes built along the walls. This three-sided auditorium was only another and more vicious form of the horse shoe, which has continued down to our day in such structures as the Residenz Theater at Munich or the old Opera House at Bayreuth. The Court Theatre in Vienna under the Emperor Leopold had its loges built on three sides of a square.

In these three-sided auditoriums, when the stage was built out from the fourth wall, the side boxes offered a fairly unobstructed view. But as the scene was placed back at some distance behind the proscenium, the side boxes became more and more useless. A modification (slight, on the whole) into the horse-shoe or semicircle, was all that was considered necessary to meet this new condition. But this modification frequently left many bad loges on the sides, as any one who has visited a European opera house can testify. Still there were enough good seats for the aristocracy, and the tradition was allowed to continue.

For on the whole the horse-shoe theatre fulfilled its real purpose very well. What was that real purpose?

A visit to any fashionable opera house anywhere will answer the question. The glitter of jewels, the soft glow of feminine flesh, the dizzy mingling of colours in the gowns who can say that these are not one of the principal reasons for the existence of the opera house, even as in the days of the Emperor Leopold? And this horse-shoe theatre, with nearly every box and every person in it visible from almost any point, fulfilled its purpose well, too well to let the undesirability of a part of the seats overbalance it. The auditorium, laid out like a vast canvas, where all the colours and spots of beauty were easily visible to every one, was too dear to be parted with. Abolish your boxes, set your auditors down in straight rows on the ground floor and in the galleries, and the whole pageant is destroyed. One might, indeed, see the coiffures and the bare backs of the ladies in front of one, and by turning around with great inconvenience and awkwardness might see the faces of those behind. But as for recognising a friend or a gallant that were impossible.

The fact is that the theatre has been a social institution rather than an artistic institution, and this fact has dominated our theatre architecture since the Middle Ages. But as the theatre became, in spirit and in purpose, more democratised, the mere display of wearing apparel and the mere recognition of friends and admirers became of minor importance partly perhaps because the democratic mob hasn't the gowns to display or the polished gentlemen to flirt with, and also perhaps partly because this democratic mob takes its art more as art and less as ornament. And further, democracy says, among other things, that if possible nobody shall have a bad seat in a theatre, no matter how few pennies he has paid for admission.

Imperialistic Germany has in this, as in so many other matters, taken the lead in practical democratisation. The Littmann theatres are perhaps the first effective attempt to construct playhouses radically according to the essential principle involved. This principle starts from the assumption that the theatre is built not to exhibit its audience but to exhibit its play. All shall therefore be arranged for the purpose of giving a good view of the stage from every seat, good acoustics and good ventilation, and this with the greatest possible economy of space and of money. Beauty is by no means a non-essential (quite the contrary), but it is to be developed from the utilitarian demands of the building.

The principle that everybody shall be able to see implies, in Professor Littmann's theory, the principle that each row of seats shall be at least eye-distance above the row in front. This makes necessary a rise in the auditorium floor, somewhat suggesting that of the old Greek amphitheatres, and from this fact Professor Littmann calls his theatre type the "amphitheatre," without implying that it is semicircular or "horse shoe" in shape, like the classical theatres. In fact, one of the cardinal principles in theLittmann theatre is that the rows shall be nearly straight, so that every one shall have a direct view of the stage. The seats can continue to rise up to an arbitrary level which Professor Littmann makes the top of the proscenium, or stage frame, so that every seat shall afford a view of the whole depth and height of the stage. Accordingly the galleries, if any, must be short, for Professor Littmann will not risk the acoustics of the ground floor by overhanging it with a long gallery. Here, then, we have all the essential specifications for a Littmann theatre, drawn from its utilitarian demands straight rows, a steeply rising ground floor, and a gallery, if desirable, starting about where the ground floor seats end, and rising only a short distance, in no case above the level of the proscenium frame; there shall be no side or proscenium boxes, and in general no boxes at all except, when demanded, that of the king at the back.

For the sake of acoustics the interior shall be constructed entirely of wood. Sometimes there are heavy pillars or rather pilasters of wood along the walls, sup-porting beams which run across the ceiling, and these are regarded as having a beneficial effect on the acoustics.1 One thing Professor Littmann insists upon that there shall be no cloth or curtains beyond what is absolutely necessary. The Künstlertheater at Munich, for instance, contains no cloth whatever in its auditorium, beyond a light carpet for the aisles. The seats are quite comfortable without being made into sofas.

This "amphitheatre" principle can be applied to many different types of building, as Professor Littmann has demonstrated. The Künstlertheater is a small experimental playhouse, made for a special type of stage. It can use, or even waste, space liberally, because its prices are high and its audience will generally be a selected one. So the angle of rise on its ground floor is very high, equal nearly to a "whole head." There is no gallery. The Prinzregenten Theater in Munich is built for expensive Wagner festivals, has nearly as steep a floor-incline, and is similarly without galleries. Both have a row of unobtrusive boxes at the back. On the whole the principle is the same in both, except that the Prinzregenten has a greater seating capacity and greater economy of space is observed.

In the typical democratic theatre, on the other hand, Professor Littmann proceeds differently. Here economy of space and money is essential. If the cheap theatre is to pay it must have as many seats as possible. The problem, as in the Schiller Theater in Berlin, is that of making profitable concessions to economy of space of getting as many seats as possible at the sacrifice of some of their ideality, while still keeping them all good. This means that there must be more rows, and hence a more moderate floor-incline, The architect found it profitable to increase the capacity to 1,450 by adding a short gallery of six rows and 250 seats, slightly overhanging the floor. There are no boxes, since these would either be too far on the side or would encroach upon the floor seats; and besides, special boxes are contrary to the democratic idea at stake. The acoustical qualities are excellent. It may be doubted whether so large a theatre is suited for all types of plays whether an "intimate" realistic drama does not lose most of its reality 100 feet from the stage. This, however, is not a criticism of the Littmann principle, which simply aims to do the best under the conditions at hand. And Professor Littmann, when the money is at his disposal, prefers to build a double theatre, one small, for the intimate pieces, and one large, for the operas and spectacles. This is, in fact, what he did in the famous theatres at Stuttgart, and it is quite likely that the idea will become popular in the near future.

Between these two extremes the "art theatre" and the "popular theatre" Professor Littmann applies his principles in many compromise cases. The ordinary court theatre, like that at Weimar or Stuttgart, contains the essentials of the amphitheatre principles, though considerably modified; when possible the boxes are removed away from the stage to a position where they will not obstruct the view. When the situation demands it Professor Littmann builds galleries, even extensive ones (for he is far from being a "utopian"). In his municipal theatres, like those of Hildesheim or Posen, he strikes a compromise between the court theatre and the democratic theatre, building galleries large enough materially to increase the capacity, in view of the necessary production of operas and spectacular pieces, yet keeping the angle of rise high enough to afford almost unobstructed vision and the rows straight enough to afford a direct view.

The Littmann principle is not, of course, the most economical in the sense of huddling the greatest number of seats into a given space. To a certain extent it sacrifices quantity for quality. But the scientific value of the experiments lies in their obtaining the greatest economy (of space and of money) on a given basis of excellence for all. Their ethical value is in their courageous assertion of the democratic principle: "There shall be no bad seats ; there shall not even be any worse seats." In Professor Littmann we find not only the technical builder or the artistic builder, but first of all the economical builder and the democratic builder.

It need hardly be added that the Littmann theatres are of the highest excellence from the viewpoint of the actor and stage-manager.

The beauty of the Littmann theatres surpasses anything in Europe. One may be horrified at this statement, as one recalls the glittering reputation of the Paris Opera House and the myriad of others that attempt to shine in its tinsel glory. And if one holds a Paris Opera House view of life that a plain space is an ugly space, that only in many curves lies salvation a man may call the Littmann theatres plain and cheap and go his way in peace. But the great buoyant principle of modern art, and especially of modern architecture, is that of simplicity. Instead of finding our beauty in endless adornment let us find it in endless selection. There may be a question as to which is the more "beautiful;" there can hardly be a question as to which is the more noble.

At all events, the Littmann theatres, and the modern German theatres in general, have chosen simplicity, and no one can deny that they have worked well. The plain walls on the exterior, cut with exquisite vertical lines and combining the most quiet and restful proportions give them a dignity which comports with a more serious and universal view of life than that of the theatre builders who held that the theatre should adorn a small and specially nurtured class. The long plain corridors of the foyers, tinted with a delicate "discreet" shade, and sometimes decorated with a vigorous frieze; the fine, candid proportions, the luxury of beautiful wood stained in rich, harmonious tones, the dignity of the square pilasters, the decent simplicity which seems to say: "We are gathered here to see something better than our clothes" among these things one feels that, in things of the theatre, at least, we are at last free of the velvet paw of the eighteenth century.

From time to time there have been uncertain attempts and more uncertain theorisings toward a type of theatre which, though always dangling before us, has not been an actuality in daily life since the days of Rome. At last, thanks to the energy of Professor Max Reinhardt, and a group of enthusiastic (and moneyed) Germans, this too has been begun in Berlin.

The type of theatre referred to is that which is sometimes known as the "folk" or "spectacle" theatre, but which we may for convenience know as the heroic theatre. It is in spirit exactly the opposite of the ideal theatre of the last twenty years the "intimate" type. It aims at magnitude the greatest number of spectators, the most universal subjects, continual "largeness" of effect produced by striking obvious means, such as great masses of people, huge stage settings, the broadest kind of declamation and gestures, and grand sweeps of emotion. It is essentially that which the Greek tragedians had in mind. But many of the classic modern plays are equally suited to such performance, and from time to time plays are being written for the contemporary theatre which would gain in dignity and impressiveness when played on such a scale.

It was a Greek revival which gave impulse to the idea in Germany Reinhardt's "King (OEdipus" performed in the summer of 1910 in the great hall of the municipal exposition park in Munich. The production was later given in Berlin, and has been repeated several times since, to the material prosperity, both of its producer's fame and of the idea which it embodied.

The performance was essentially modern, and a fair test of the heroic theatre idea. It was sneered at by the "nine times wise" because of its falsification of the Sophoclean idea. It was, in fact, utterly un-Greek. Greek tragedy, as nearly as we can know it, was a static spectacle, measured and planned, held under firm control in every detail, free only in the emotional force underlying its poetry and slight action, and perhaps repressed even in that. In the Reinhardt production there was the modern feeling, dynamic movement, a continual sense of flux, of pressure, of bursting the limits. One example will illustrate this. The Greek chorus ("chorus of Theban old men" in this case) was composed of twelve or fifteen men who stood still and sang their lines, or danced in set designs. The Reinhardt chorus was composed of several hundred men and women who rushed on the stage in terror and stretched their hands in supplication toward the altar. This picture with its hundreds of parallel and vanishing lines (the outstretched arms) pointing into space, would have been barbarous to the Greek sense. But the Reinhardt production was planned to capture the popular imagination, to thrill, to intoxicate. It was violently, breathlessly, moving. It was the old play played for modern people with modern means surely no more illegal than playing Shakespeare with elaborate scenery. At all events, it succeeded brilliantly and tested out the soundness of the heroic theatre idea.

When played in Berlin the "OEdipus" was given in the Schumann Circus, a building holding some six thousand spectators, built in the form of a circle around the circular central stage. About a quarter of the seats in the great circle were taken down to make room for the heroic setting, a magnificent Doric temple. The whole theatre, then, became much like that of the Greeks a steeply rising amphitheatre comprising more than a full half circle with a "set" at the back of the stage, and the practical stage or "orchestra" extending out into the audience. There was of course no curtain. The en-trances were made underneath the audience, from almost any direction, much as in the Roman amphitheatre.

This may be taken roughly as the type of the "heroic" theatre. It will aim first of all to hold thousands of people. The play will be performed without scenery in the modern sense, out in the midst of the audience. This last fact practically triples the theatre's capacity, since it makes the side seats as good as any others. Professor Littmann's sketches for such a theatre provide a steeply rising ground floor and two galleries, with rows of loges between, which is perhaps a wise concession to modern demands.

One of the most inspiring facts about the "heroic" theatre is that it will lower the price of admission to the size of almost any pocket-book. Such a playhouse in a large modern city, drawing on several hundred thou-sand or even several million people, nearly all of whom are economically within its range, could give very fine and elaborate performances and still make money. Such performances would hardly be continuous, but would probably be specially organised, three or four a year, and run till their public was exhausted. As to the quality of these performances, the Germans seem to have no doubt. Professor Georg Fuchs, one of the chief sup-porters of the idea, says : "It goes without saying that the first producers and actors of the age, as well as a powerful chorus, are at our disposal." He says no more on the subject; to him there is no more to be said. We may doubt whether such an opinion will hold for America, but we don't know ourselves yet.

But there is still another and more serious doubt : Will the public, in the necessary multitudes, support such a theatre? The scheme plans to give the classic dramas, as the ones best suited to this type of theatre. Will such plays, traditionally the most distant and uninteresting to the modern "average man," attract the public which now spends its pennies on the moving picture shows (the very public which must support the scheme if it is to be a success) ? To this question there is for Germany only one possible answer : Certainly they will. Can we not add that for America there is only one possible answer? Certainly they may?

Among the plays which Professor Fuchs suggests as suitable for this theatre are the "Orestes" and "Prometheus" of AEschylus ; the two "OEdipus" plays of Sophocles ; "The Cyclops" of Euripides ; several of Aristophanes' comedies ; some of the mediaeval mysteries adapted (which latter suggestion we shall amend by a vigorous "No! In the original form!"); a number of the historical plays, the tragedies and the comedies of Shakespeare; both parts of Goethe's "Faust" and his "Götz von Berlichingen;" nearly all of Schiller's dramas, and two by a "very German" dramatist, Kleist. Professor Fuchs adds some of the operas of Gluck and Mozart, and especially massive productions of the Han-del oratorios and the more splendid choral works of musical literature. And it is of course quite possible that many of the best modern authors might come to write excellently in this genre.

The nature of the performances in the "heroic" theatre would be quite special. We may take the Reinhardt "OEdipus" as a type. Since most of the action is in the open anything approaching an "illusive" scene must be out of the question. The back set, like Professor Reinhardt's Doric temple, will be only in the nature of poetic suggestion. It will establish the mood of the play rather than provide a scenic background. All charm of detail, all warmth of "intimacy" must be radically dispensed with. In compensation we have those beauties, much more precious to some people, which come from grand proportions broad "operatic" gesture, vast and noble colour schemes, the ring of heroic voices, the sense of great waves of sound and rhythms of emotion, and the suggestion of something mighty above and beyond the action, as though whole races of men were playing out their tragedy with the stars. One who has been raised in the realistic theatre will still have his doubts after the most eloquent description. But the thing once seen pleads for itself. It may be hard for us to visualise on the instant how "Macbeth," for instance, or "Henry IV," could be played in an open space, with only a conventional castle behind. Yet is was under simpler conditions than this that these plays delighted their Elizabethan audiences. And it is remarkable how easily the imagination will supply what is missing when the attention is fastened on an absorbing action or a beautiful poem. Even for us moderns it will be the easiest thing in the world to dispense with our dear painted canvas, and who can say that we shall not prize good acting and noble speech the more for it? The appeal of such pieces to the pageantry instinct in men is more powerful and common than we suppose. And we must not forget, in spite of "American conditions," that, in the words of Professor Fuchs, "the understanding, or at least the need, of art, is independent of social status."

There is perhaps little essentially to separate this type of dramatic performance from that of the open-air theatre. The mere idea of theatrical spectacles in the open air is fascinating to most of us, and year after year the experiment has been tried in some form or other, as in the remarkable "Bohemian Jinks" at Redwood Grove, California. The obvious objection, of course, is that in the ordinary American or European climate weather conditions make any systematic artistic work out of doors too uncertain to be practicable. There is always, of course, the possibility of a canvas covering for such a theatre in case of rain, and there seems little objection to such a procedure, except perhaps the loss of ideality in the scheme and danger of unsatisfactory lighting. But it surely seems possible for certain favoured climates, such as California, parts of Italy, and (why not?) Greece, to use their out-of-door theatres systematically, and develop a local type of play for the purpose.

On the whole, though, the open-air theatre will remain an ideal of the joyous, sunlit performance which we shall hope to approximate in our artificial structures.

There is one other type of out-of-door theatre which enters not at all into the scheme of the commercial or state theatre, but which might have its part in dramatic life, remaining one of the beautiful shrines of the art where the gods themselves seem to come down from their mountains to take part in the performance. This is ideally represented by the tiny open-air theatre which Goethe laid out in the gardens of the Belvidere palace near Weimar. It is entirely enclosed by greenery. Its stage is perhaps fifteen feet wide by twenty-five deep, its "wings" being merely hedges trained to a height of some six feet. In front of the stage is a sunken pit for a small orchestra, screened from the audience by shrubbery. The "auditorium" is a semi-circle, some twenty feet in diameter, terraced into three rows. The "stalls" are ordinary summer chairs. The theatre seats, at most, some twenty spectators. The scenery is only Nature's green, except perhaps for an altar for classical pieces. If there is (and surely there is) an amateur spirit growing joyously here and there, in the out-of-the-way places "where life comes from," such tiny open air theatres might be the experimental laboratories where great ideas are forged, or the altars at which pure beauty is consecrated.

It is a most important thing that the modern theatre is becoming dissatisfied with the guest rooms of eighteenth century aristocracy and is demanding a home of its own. It means that the theatre is developing the power to create all its own materials according to its own needs. This is the sign of a mature, as contrasted with a parasitic, art. A playhouse a number of playhouses built "so" because the art demanded them "so," and not because their grandfather was "so'' or because their banker had whimmed them "so is not this another sign that the drama of tomorrow will have grown to man's height?

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