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Theatre Of Today - Mechanical Forces: Improvements In Stage Equipment

( Originally Published 1914 )

THE last ten years have brought to the service of the theatre a new figure. His coming we can regard as symbolic. It stands to us as a sign that the theatre of the future can choose what it needs, instead of taking what it can get. The new figure is the worker in applied science. Adolph Linnebach, regisseur at the Court Theater in Dresden, entered the service of the Royal Opera House in Vienna as an expert mechanic. He had been educated as a marine engineer, but like all Germans he had mellowed his scientific life with an amateur interest in art; he made pictures and went often to the theatre. And while working professionally under the masterful Roller he saw his science and his art merging and becoming one thing.

It is this merging of science and art that we feel as we look inside many of the continental theatres. The stage equipment of twenty years ago was the handiwork of an amateur. Now it is beginning to represent the best skill of the scientist. And just as the clean, accurate brain of Mr. Linnebach is creating beauty in the theatre at Dresden, so the elaborate mechanical devices of many of the best German theatres are serving to create stage pictures more imaginative and lovely than we have ever seen before.

This coming of the scientist to the theatre is not a mere conjunction; it is a real absorption by the theatre of what it needs. The playhouse is making the scientist its servant. The mechanical inventions which have been placed at the service of the theatre came because the theatre could not get along without them. We were tired of the clumsy pictures we had been seeing on the stage, tired of the flimsy and unreal settings; tired especially of the disillusioning waits, the gossip and the lights, that we must endure before we could live in the stage story once more. As the realistic plays, with their usual simple settings, began to be insufficient for our taste, the romantic type of play, with its many and elaborate scenes, began to make demands on the theatre which it could not fulfil. It was necessary to find some mechanical means of building elaborate scenes and changing them quickly and easily.

This demand is being met in the modern theatre by three stage devices the revolving stage, the wagon stage, and the sliding stage. Along with these inventions have come a multitude of minor improvements, and, for the stage mechanic, a new sense of dignity.

The revolving stage or "Drehbühne" was invented some fifteen years ago by Lautenschlager, director of the Royal Theater in Munich. It has been gradually introduced into a large number of the German theatres and has been installed in the Century, the Little, and the Booth theatres in New York City, though in this country it has never been set to real work. It seems sure to grow in popularity and to become a necessary part of the modern playhouse, at least in a certain class of theatres.

The revolving stage is exactly what its name implies, and quite as ,simple in principle as the man in the street imagines. It is merely a circular portion of the whole stage, some forty feet or more in diameter, showing about a quarter of its circumference before the proscenium. It rests and revolves upon a heavy iron shaft, which must be sunk with great security into a concrete foundation, extending in some cases fifty feet below the stage level. Turning upon oiled ball-bearings it can be almost or absolutely noiseless, though this is far from being the case (or even an essential) in most of the theatres that now use it. It is usually operated by electric power, revolving leisurely but efficiently under the control of a central lever. It can also be revolved (and very frequently is) by hand.

The most famous of the revolving stages that of Professor Max Reinhardt's Deutsches Theater in Berlin may be taken as an example of all. This is capable of setting five (or even more) complete scenes at one time, so that half or all of a play can be performed with no more stage work than an occasional pressure on an electric throttle. The accompanying diagram shows the arrangement of the revolving stage for a Reinhardt performance of the first part of "Henry IV." Great flexibility is possible in the stage arrangements. The individual scenes need not be of any certain size. They can be quite tiny sometimes as narrow as twelve or fourteen feet if the proscenium arch be contracted by means of curtains. Or they can occupy the whole width of the proscenium and the depth of the whole stage. The battle scene in the present diagram, for instance, shows a hill which is built up over some of the other scenes (interiors) and is later extended to cover practically the whole circle of the stage. A street scene can show the street extending back between rows of houses, through the whole circumference, the houses being in reality the backs of other interior scenes of slighter depth.

On the whole the revolving stage involves no limitations on the form or size of the scene. But it does involve many limitations in the planning of the whole, and in this, perhaps, lies its greatest disadvantage. For the scenery must, in general, be planned so as to occupy the circle, and no more. If one scene is large, some other scene must be small. Two successive large scenes are impossible without a complete reconstruction of the stage-setting. The five sets must be planned nicely to occupy the circle and no more; the use of the revolving stage thus becomes something of a Chinese puzzle, which demands almost as much mechanical ingenuity as artistic sense. And this is not the worst. For the scenery, being planned for certain physical conditions in relation to other scenes and to the revolving stage, can in general be used only for the production for which it was originally designed. It is evident that the ordinary repertory theatre, which often gives as many as a hundred different plays and operas in a single season, cannot build special scenery for each. And if the producer uses the revolving stage he is liable to become the slave of his invention, which spends its master's money without conscience. In general the revolving stage, with all its convenience and artistic possibilities, is at its best only in the private repertory theatre in a large city (of which the Deutsches is the ideal example), which mounts but few plays a season and carries them profitably through long runs. Many of the best theatrical men in Germany are strenuously opposed to the revolving stage, refusing to introduce it into their theatres, and exposing its disadvantages at every opportunity.

At the same time their arguments are not as final as they sometimes seem. The fact is that with a certain sort of treatment the revolving stage can become a docile servant, assisting when assistance is needed and keeping meekly out of the way when the producer wishes to do without it. The device need not always be used, merely because it has been installed. Its existence does not prevent scenes being set in the ordinary way, since it is simply a circular part of the flat stage, without obstacles or obstructions. It can be used, say, for one performance out of four, and be no bother in the other three. Further, the scenes do not have to be set absolutely within the circle. They can have hinged extensions which, when the scene is in place, can be flapped out toward the sides, to be flapped back within the circle when the scene is again to be changed. Or the stage can be used to set only the central part of the scene, the rest being built up in the ordinary way after the central part is in place. Thus the greater part of the labour of setting is saved, and the supplementary work can be kept very simple. In the third place, the revolving stage can be used in connection with the ordinary small rolling platform, or wagon stage, to be described later, the revolving stage carrying the heavier part of the scenery for the whole play, but supplemented by the other devices. In fact, it can be used as the sliding stage is the later scenes being built on the rear part while an earlier scene is before the footlights. On the whole the revolving stage can hardly be a drawback for any American theatre, and with wise use can greatly increase its efficiency.

It only remains to state that the device can be installed on practically any stage, old or new, at a cost of some $10,000 or $15,000, and is absolutely without danger or uncertainty in its operation.

The simplest, most important, and most useful of all the modern German stage devices, is the Wagenbühne or wagon stage. The marvels that can be produced with this invention are out of all proportion to its cost. It can be introduced and used anywhere, has none of the disadvantages of the revolving stage, and is within the purse of the most modest producer.

The wagon stage, as used in Germany, is a platform two metres (a little more than two yards) in width by four in length, placed on noiseless rubber wheels. It costs some $50. Ten or twelve of these platforms will mount the most elaborate play with the simplicity and almost with the speed of the revolving stage.

In the German repertory theatres the scenery for the evening performance is set up on the wagon stages in the course of the afternoon, and is rolled before the proscenium and fitted together when the time comes. The scenery can be set so as to hide the side of the wagon. In the simple scene there is nothing to do but to roll the wagon in place, and to add the few stage "properties" which German taste permits. Even an elaborate scene can be set up (though not entirely without noise) in less than a minute.

The practical use of the wagon stage involves many tricks of the trade. For instance one wagon can be used for two or more scenes, by making use of both of its sides. By this means a recent production of "Julius Caesar" in Frankfurt-am-Main was realised with but three wagons (plus some curtains for the tent scene and a few simple properties for the battle). Wagons can be used singly, or clamped together to form a larger wagon. Lack of stage space sometimes prohibits the use of many large wagons waiting for their turn, and in general economy demands the use of single wagons that can be reset in the course of the performance. To some extent, to be sure, scenery for a wagon stage must be made to fit the standard size, and so might be under the disadvantages of the revolving stage. But the wagon stage makes no demands of its own, being simply a movable floor, and by the combination of several wagons a larger movable stage can be created which will receive the stock scenery as it is. Further, of course, the wagon stage does not comprise the whole of the stage set. It is used to set only the principal and heavier parts of the scene, the side walls and minor parts then being set in place by hand. On the whole the flexibility and general usefulness of the wagon stage make it invaluable if it is used with resourcefulness and wisdom according to the peculiarities and demands of each problem.

A more elaborate and limited type of stage is that called the Schiebebühne, or sliding stage, invented by Brahm, head mechanical inspector at the Royal Theatre in Berlin. It might be called a large double wagon stage, sufficient to occupy the whole "stage space," and capable of being slid either to left or to right, so that one-half of it can be used for setting a scene while the other half is used for the performance. The expense of installation is rather heavy, and the nature of the invention demands a prodigality of space behind the scenes which many theatres have not at their disposal. For besides requiring, at each side of the stage proper, a free space equal to that of the stage itself, the de-vice involves the use of a large supplementary space in the rear for the storing of scenery, the side spaces being naturally useless for the purpose. But if these conditions can be met the invention is one of the best. It makes possible the rapid succession of large and elaborate scenes such as cannot be thought of with the revolving stage. It has practically no physical limitations and can receive any sort or shape of scenery. It is generally used, of course, in connection with movable wagons, which are stored at the back and rolled on to the stage as needed. Perhaps, so used, it offers no especial advantages over the simple wagon stage, but there may always come an unusually elaborate scene which wagons alone would be unable to compass in a short space of time.

On the whole, however, the sliding stage is a mere luxury, and no theatre can excuse itself for ugly or old-fashioned settings merely because it lacks the money for this device.

A desire to enjoy the advantages of the sliding stage where only a limited stage space was available led to the construction of one of the most elaborate and ex-pensive stages in Germany (or in the world, for that matter) in the new Royal Theatre at Dresden. This is a sliding stage that does its sliding, so to speak, in the basement. The main stage, after the end of the scene, is sunk to a distance of ten metres, then the scene, in one or two sections, is slid off to one side, while the new scene, which has been prepared in the meantime at the other side, is slid on in its place. The whole is then raised to its former position and the play proceeds.

The accompanying diagrams should make clear the complicated structure of this stage. The amount of ground space available for the stage itself was but little larger than the stage proper (which is eighteen metres square), because of the street which circles in closely behind it. But the space under the street was entirely available. Here, then, Mr. Linnebach made his side receptories for the sliding scene, together with in-numerable store-rooms and working spaces. Further, the air above the stage was at his disposal. So he raised the stage section of the building to a height of more than a hundred feet, and built here, at the sides of the stage space, over the corridors, and in nooks and crannies, the many dressing-rooms, rehearsal-rooms, work-rooms, and even a restaurant, which go to make this theatre one of the most complete in Europe.

It is interesting to reflect how much like a complete city the large modern theatre is. Besides the board and lodging, so to speak, which is abundantly supplied, the Dresden theatre has within its walls all its own power. Many such an institution depends on the city water for its power. But city water supplies are notoriously unreliable, and Mr. Linnebach did not propose that his theatre should delay a performance just because the ordinary kitchen sinks of Dresden were dry. So the stage is operated (in its vertical motion) by its own water power. Four connected tanks in the basement receive the water that is pumped into them, by power from an electric dynamo, from a small reservoir of twelve cubic metres' capacity, the dynamo, in turn, being operated by a small steam engine. Each of the three main sections of the stage proper rests upon two huge steel shafts which are sunk in iron tubes resting in concrete which is based to a depth of sixteen metres. Into the iron tubes, under the control of a central lever, rushes the water, under a pressure of some thirty-two "atmospheres," displacing the steel shafts and forcing the stage up to the desired level. The tanks serve as an air "cushion," somewhat as in an ordinary steam fire-engine. It is claimed that in all this there is not the slightest danger of accident or failure, as every part of the apparatus is tested to many times its required strain, and the maximum and minimum pressures are automatically and securely controlled.

The horizontal motion, unlike the vertical motion, is operated by electricity. Each of the two front sections of the stage has a pair of rolling stages, practically the size of the sections on which they rest, which function much like an ordinary wagon stage. But they are propelled by means of motors placed within them and controlled from a central station through a trailing wire. To simplify the mechanism the actual guiding of these rolling stages is managed by hand. The third and rear section of the stage proper is not supplied with the supplementary wagons nor with the side spaces, since it is used only in very deep scenes, such as occur but rarely in a play, and the work of scene-setting upon this section can be done behind the scenes in the course of the evening. The various sections can be operated together or separately, and can be raised at will to any height, up to two metres, above the ordinary stage level.

This whole system, again, is used in connection with the ordinary wagon stage, which in the old Dresden Royal Theatre has produced such marvels under Mr. Linnebach's technical and artistic direction. The whole play is set up on wagons in the course of the afternoon, and the various sets are rolled on to the sliding stages during the scene just preceding that in which they are needed. Since the underground extensions give the di-rector plenty of space for storing wagons already set, the actual work of setting in the evening is much simpler than it would be in a constricted theatre in which many scenes must be set up and taken down in the course of the performance. On this account a full third of the ordinary force of stage hands can be permanently dispensed with. The whole system, in fact, instead of being costly as might be supposed, is comparatively inexpensive in operation. The water-power is a slight factor, since it involves nothing but the operation of an ordinary electric dynamo. The motors for the sliding stages merely use up some of the by-product of the regular electric power which must be furnished to the house for ordinary lighting purposes. The original cost of installation, of course, is large (the whole theatre cost $1,500,000), but such a theatre is built to last a great many years, its financial future is assured as it would never be to a commercial American theatre, and the prestige of a first class playhouse is a commercially valuable article which the kingdom and citizens of Saxony are abundantly willing to pay for. It may be added that the price of seats ranges from about a dollar down, and that the elaborate equipment of the playhouse is not a mere snobbish fad.

In such a theatre, where the genius of the expert mechanician seems to become most elaborate and complex, it might be thought that the horse would ride the man. But its complexity is simply the high development of simple principles. All details are under central control. Everything in regard to the mechanical movements of the stage and the complex lighting system is directed from a single central station. This station, presided over by a mechanical expert who is at the same time an artist, is the executive office of the directing artist, who is Mr. Linnebach himself trained artist and expert mechanic in one. And all the complex machinery of execution, down to its smallest details, is accurately managed through the personal responsibility of intelligent workmen. If in the past we have been afraid to increase the mechanical complexity of our stages it is because we had no confidence in our ability to train responsible workmen to operate them. Yet mere complexity does not imply rough or imperfect operation; our most highly organised factories and business concerns are the smoothest and most accurate in their operation. And there is no reason why the theatre, when it comes in need of the genius of the scientific expert and organiser, should not be developed to any needed point of mechanical complexity.

The "sky-drops" or strips of white canvas that used so pitifully to represent the throne of God, have been replaced in the modern theatre by an invention that makes a natural landscape possible. This is the "Horizont," which we may name for the purpose a cyclorama.

For convenience we may group all forms of the cyclorama under two names the Rundhorizont and the Euppelhorizont. The Rundhorizont is a white or tinted backing for the stage, built in the form of a segment of a vertical cylinder. It may be constructed of canvas or of solid plaster. In the older theatres the canvas Rundhorizont, built on a rigid frame, used to be let down from above. Now, if made of canvas, it is more usually kept, when not in use, on a vertical roller, at one side of the stage, near the front, and carried around behind the stage, unrolling from its cylinder the while, until it connects with a similar cylinder at the opposite side of the stage. It hangs from a circular iron rail, and almost completely encloses the stage, rising to the required distance, usually some twelve metres. It can be rolled up on its original cylinder when it is not needed, leaving the stage once more approachable from all sides. The Rundhorizont can also be built permanently of plaster over an iron frame. This does away with any flapping or unevenness in the "sky," and usually proves more satisfactory for taking coloured lights. Contrary to one's supposition, this permanent enclosure of the stage does not greatly interfere with the entrances and exits, and no producer hesitates a moment to install it when he has the money.

The chief uses of the cyclorama are evident. It presents a continuous dead white or tinted background, which, when played upon by the proper lights, gives a striking illusion of depth and luminous atmosphere. Under the old method the strips of canvas were pain-fully evident as such; their surface flapped and their edges outlined themselves against other drops. It was at best a conventional symbol to designate sky ; it made any other attempts at realism in the settings absolutely fruitless. It was usually painted a flat "sky colour" and would not "take" the lights which were played upon it from time to time. The flapping of the old canvas drops is sometimes evident in the canvas cyclorama, which is, in the modern theatre, usually regarded as a makeshift. The solid plaster cyclorama presents none of the drawbacks of canvas, and under a sensitive use of lights belies its solid construction altogether.

The ordinary plaster cyclorama, however, has the one drawback that its top can usually be seen by the spectators from the front of the ground floor. This fact has led to an extension of the device the "Kuppelhorizont," or dome cyclorama. This is simply the solid cyclorama domed out four or five metres over the stage. It has the advantage, besides that of its edges being invisible to the audience, of serving as a great hollow reflector and diffuser of light, whose utility will be made plain farther on.

The cyclorama is a neutral background on which many subtle and highly varied effects can be produced. Exact shades of colour, when thrown on it by the modern lighting devices, show their true values because of the dead whiteness of the surface. Moving clouds can be shown on it by means of a sort of moving picture machine. Its presence, too, often greatly simplifies the problem of stage-setting. With it there is no longer any need for masking the wings and top with special canvas in order to cut off the scene from the stage-wings beyond. Such a set as that of the desert scene of "Caesar and Cleopatra," or that of the mountain top in Goethe's "Faust," can show the one physical object called for, and the infinite open sky around. Nor are such poetic effects confined only to special scenes. In general the cyclorama permits a simplicity in the setting of the sides of the stage which is coming more and more to be demanded by modern taste.

But perhaps the chief value of the cyclorama, from the standpoint of the stage artist, has not yet been mentioned. For the new device changes altogether the problem of lighting. Ordinary sunlight is, as we know, not a direct light, but an infinitely reflected light, bandied about by the particles of air and by the ordinary physical objects on which it strikes. The mellowness and internal luminosity of ordinary sunlight is wholly due to this infinite reflection. It was the lack of this that made the old stage lighting, with its blazing direct artificial glare, so unreal. The cyclorama, and especially the dome cyclorama, permits the stage to be lighted largely or wholly by crisscrossing reflection. The mellow and subtle lighting which it makes possible was altogether unknown under the old methods.

Perhaps the most important single factor in the modern stage is the lighting. Some producers say that lighting is nine-tenths of the problem. Certainly every artistic stage in Europe has made a new study of lighting and has completely changed its technical equipment and, correspondingly, its artistic ideals. Fortuny lighting, now in vogue in some form or other in most of the good European theatres, has revolutionised both the kind of light used and the methods of using it. It substitutes for the ordinary incandescent, or Tungsten, lamps of our foot and proscenium lights a set of arc-lamps sometimes capable of being moved freely. The incandescent lamp, which throws a distinctly yellow light, has the quality of overemphasizing the red and yellow in the colours which it illuminates, and thus materially altering the colour values. The Tungsten lamp is much better, but is still not a pure white. The arc-light, being of a slightly bluish tinge but much more nearly white, is comparatively just to all colours.

In operation the Fortuny systems have a range and flexibility which makes lighting the chief technical revolution in the contemporary theatre. Briefly, this operation is that of reflected light instead of direct light. Instead of lighting the stage with incandescent bulbs of one or another crude colour the Fortuny method throws its brilliant illumination away from the stage against bands of coloured silk which reflect the light in any colour or tint desired, either on the whole stage or upon a desired part. Sometimes the light is thrown mainly against the cyclorama, which reflects it a second time, and (especially in the case of the Kuppelhorizont) crisscrosses it into a soft diffusion. This alone is sufficient to change stage lighting from disillusion into illusion. The whole apparatus is under the control of one man, who, like most of the mechanics of the modern art theatre, must himself be an artist. The modern theatre must be able to throw any sort of light from any direction on to any part of the stage. But though this demand, and the mechanism by which it is met, seem complicated, the whole system is in reality economical, since one man can operate one lamp, and a few lamps will accomplish what formerly required hundreds of bulbs and a complex system of wiring. In fact, the system is rather the contrary of complex in the mechanical sense. It requires, on the other hand, more intelligence and artistry. It has simply become more human.

The actual work of scene-building has also become more of an expert's job than formerly. But this is rather the affair of the artist than that of the scientist. It can be said, however, that stage carpentry is a dignified specialised profession in itself, and involves much mechanical ability in the accurate execution of the designer's demands. The problem of building an elaborate scene which will not fall down is not so far removed from that of building an elaborate house that will not fall down. Modern scenery, which must be light, simple, and accurately made, and yet secure and tough, is not to be manufactured by a mere handy man.

Much of the scientist's knowledge, too, is demanded for the understanding of colours and lights, paints and perspective, in their optical operation under given stage conditions. Certain modern producers have brought something approaching a science of colour to their work. And there are few functions in the modern theatre which do not require something of the scientist's attitude the study of the external facts of nature as such, an intellectual understanding of cause and effect in all parts of their work, and a willingness to approach each difficulty as a peculiar and unique problem.

While the equipment of the modern stage has been growing more mechanical and complex, the operation of it, as has been suggested, has been growing more human and personal. The "light man," for instance, in a mod-ern German theatre, is not provided with the old-fashioned "light-plot," which showed accurately each light and each combination to be used in the course of the whole play, with his "cues" written out and his very levers numbered. The "light-plot" reduced the whole artistic problem of lighting to an unintelligent mechanical formula and the result showed it. The light man today lives through the rehearsals as one of the artistic personnel, receiving his orders or suggestions from the regisseur just as an actor would, and, like the actor, remembering them and executing them in the actual performance without mechanical aids. He has been drawn into the ensemble as a person, depending on his artistic sense, his memory, and his responsibility toward the whole. And he has become not less reliable, but more.

And so it is, in general, with all the mechanical functions of the modern stage. They are invented by men for an artistic purpose, and used by men. They have not, like the legendary iron man, enslaved the person who made them. For the relation of the mechanical personnel to the artistic result is a personal artistic relation. The mechanical development of the stage has meant not the mechanicalising of the stage, but the humanising of it.

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