Theatre Of Today - The Artistic Forces: Color

( Originally Published 1914 )

IN this chapter, as in the last, we are dealing with a "pure" subject abstracted from the various influences with which it must commonly work in practice. It is the more necessary to treat it in this way be-cause colour has only recently come into the theatre as an independent art with laws of its own. It is at present only in process of application.

Ten years ago the problem of colour was exactly like the problem of stage design merely a representative one. Use such colours as will represent the colours of the thing represented that was the end of it. But just as modern stage art is demanding that the design of a stage picture be satisfactory in itself, so also is it demanding that the colours used be satisfactory as colours. A room was coloured like a room that was all. But suppose we look at this room until all is obliterated except the colours of it ; is this part of the picture beautiful or not? Modern stage art demands that it be beautiful. If beautiful colouring interferes with the dramatic fitness of the setting, then no, do not make the setting dramatically unfitting, that is not necessary ; find another setting which will combine dramatic fitness with satisfactory colouring. This is always possible, except in the rare case where the play calls for ugly colouring, when many producers would say the play should not be produced at all. On the whole it has been abundantly proved that colour as an art can enter with full dignity into the service of the theatre.

In looking at the work of the great stage colourists the layman can deduce a few general principles concerning colour manipulation in the theatre. Such deductions at least sharpen the observation.

Colours, on stage as on easel, do not remain quite themselves when used in combination with other colours. Some "kill" each other; some emphasise each other. Those which most emphasise each other are the pairs known as complements, which, when mixed, make white (or, with pigments, grey). Red and bluish-green, for instance, are complements: Violet and pure yellow, blue and orange, and so on. White light is a mixture in certain proportions of all the spectral colours. White light can also be produced by mixing any pair of complements yellow and violet light, or red and bluish-green light. The common explanation (far from scientific) is that complements, when juxtaposed, emphasise each other because they are the only colours which do not contain some element of each other.

But there is another element in the effectiveness of a colour. The hues at the blue end of the spectrum are less violent than those at the red end. The latter have a longer wave length than the former (a ratio of something like seven to four) and, so to speak, hit harder. For this reason they are called "warm" colours and the others "cold." An artist, being sensitive to this distinction, always demands some sort of balance between the "warms" and the "colds." A spot of red seems to burn on a blue canvas, but it would be comparatively mild on one of green. The contrasting of "warms" with "colds" is one of the chief sources of poetic effect in painting.

But these conditions are rarely met with in their crudity. For colours, in theoretic parlance, have two dimensions (some theorists say three). First they have colour itself, or, in technical language, hue. Second, they have luminosity, the amount of white mixed with them. There is a definite point of luminosity at which each colour gains its highest intensity when it seems "reddest" or "yellowest." So the ,brilliance of our colouring in actual use will be due not only to the hues which are juxtaposed, but also to the intensity at which they are taken.

But it is still ordinarily too crude to use merely complementary, contrasting, and luminous colours in our pictures. We usually prefer to use one or more of our colours in several shades red modulating into orange, blue modulating into green, and so on. We usually select certain easily distinguished hues as the basis of our work with colour violet, blue, green, yellow, orange, and red, the so called primary and secondary colours. Having chosen certain of these for our colour scheme we use them in various shades, or more accurately, various related hues, say of a reddish orange up to red. These various related hues, when used in proper combination, buttress the pure colour, red, which dominates the group. But if we now add hues from the other (the violet) side of the pure colour, we weaken this dominance of the red by bringing in an admixture of blue. The firm unity of the red group is lost.

These three principles indicate the means of getting the greatest bald effect out of selected colours or groups of colours. But when a designer comes to harmonise or contrast selected colours he must consider further elements. A bald contrast of complementary colours, besides being too crude, is not contrast enough. Complementary colours are highly contrasted in hue; they can also be contrasted in shade. Ordinarily only one of them will be used at its greatest intensity, or near it. The other will be "toned down," in order to give prominence to the first. This brings some harmony out of the stark conflict.

A second element in contrast is that of mere amount of colour. A painter will never divide his canvas equally between two contrasting colours. But, having toned down one in order to set off the intensity of the other he will ordinarily introduce another element of contrast, or rather will regain the lost balance, by using a much greater quantity of the weaker than of the stronger. The less luminous colour, that is, will ordinarily be used as a background. The more luminous gains something like purpose when thus concentrated.

Besides the spectral hues of which we have been speaking there are certain colours, or rather ways of using colour, which are not subject to these laws gold and silver, black, and (with certain reservations) white. These can ordinarily be used where desired, with any colour combination, and their use is rather a mat-ter of decorative taste than of colour laws.

It must not be supposed that these few paragraphs explain how an artist works. An artist, and especially a painter, moves in mysterious ways. His trained taste, his quick imagination, will do any number of things which the laws would condemn; and, providing only that people find his work beautiful, the laws can be trusted later to readjust themselves to legalise his work. The working artist, in reality, makes his own laws. But these principles, nevertheless, will be found to lie at the bottom of most artistic colour as used on the modern stage (though used very little, it must be confessed).

Generally speaking, we may say that colour (apart from its mere representative function) can be used on the stage in two ways decoratively and symbolically. What we are calling the decorative use of colour is that which produces a pleasing colour design. Making one "abstraction," so as to see, in the scene before us, only colours and colour masses, we find a group of complementary colours, related hues, various tones, "warms" and "colds," and so forth. Are these pleasing? We should be able to come to our stage picture with the artist's eye, looking only for the pure colour design, and find it satisfactory. We may find a background of blues and greenish-blues, framed, more or less conventionally, with violet, and against these cold tones (probably used at a low intensity) characters costumed in brilliant yellows and oranges the complements of the background. We may find a background of rich neutral orange and red with a spot of glittering cold blue toward the centre. Or we may see various related hues graduated up to a spot of brilliant pure colour which will form the pictorial centre of interest (where the important action will probably be played). Always, in a good stage picture, no matter how simple, there will be a balance and harmony of colour satisfactory to the artist's eye. A good producer, if he have an eye for colour, will be fecund in decorative colour effects here and there; one play, for instance, made a certain "picture" by grouping the characters (not stiffly or obviously) to form a pleasing curve in the background, the costumes being warmer in hue and more brilliant in intensity until the end of the line downstage a brilliant robe of orange-yellow. These effects, let it be repeated, should not be glaring, and should not be got by distorting the drama (they will naturally bulk larger in romantic and imaginative work) ; but of the various dramatically satisfactory ways of ordering a stage setting one will be most satisfactory in point of colour, and this should be sought for and chosen.

But decorative colour rarely exists as a thing in it-self in a stage setting. Its more important office consists in symbolising the drama. Our decorative colour scheme will be not merely a beautiful thing but also a thing with a dramatic meaning. We have only to re-call the terminology of colour to realise how rich colour is in poetic suggestiveness. One of the dances* which the Russian Imperial Ballet has been performing in all the European capitals, tells the story of a Caucasian queen who lured strangers into her palace and, having made them drunk with her orgies, put them to death. The erotic intensity of the whole scene was suggested in the fierce warmth of the oranges and reds of the setting and costumes, only slightly modified by the greens toward the centre. Only through the window was a very cold violet-blue. This offered not merely a contrast in feeling, setting off the warmth of the room, but a true complement of the principal colours, setting off the fierce yellow and orange of the costumes. At the end, after the orgy was over and the traveller had been put to death, the whole scene, even including the sky outside, was bathed in hot reds, suggesting the weariness and sweat following an intense period of passion.

A most remarkable example of the use of symbolic colour was given in the Paris production of d'Annunzio's play, "La Pisanelle." Perhaps never before in the history of the modern stage have the principles of colour been carried so far. A somewhat detailed description of the colour schemes will suggest the use of colour in imaginative works.

The stage was divided laterally in half, the front section being decorated in black and gold (harmonising with all colours) and always in view of the audience, since the main curtain was behind it. This neutral section was conceived in the Byzantine spirit which dominated the whole and made an excellent frame for viewing all the acts. The drop curtain (a real curtain hanging loosely with real folds and not with painted ones) was of gold and black.

The prologue and the three acts were conceived each with a definite tone. And for each there was a special curtain revealed some two minutes before the commencement of the act by the raising of the drop curtain.

The drama played in Cyprus during the late crusades, when all the civilisations of Europe and Asia Saracen, Byzantine, Italian, Norman, German, and Pagan Greek were mingled pell mell. In the prologue we were shown what might be called an interior view of these civilisations. The colour scheme, as may be imagined, was far from simple. Yet all the chief hues were somehow set off with their complements, and the warmth of the picture centred downstage where most of the important action took place. The general colour scheme of the setting was deep purple and luminous green (complements enriched freely with designs of gold). Just what the scene represented was not clear, nor was it meant to be, but the effect was that of a richly decorated interior, dominated by a sort of primitive ecclesiastical mood. A light blue thrown from the side completed the cold unity of the background. The costumes were of nearly all colours, but rich oranges and reds dominated, contrasting with the coldness be-hind. With a wealth of variety in the costumes it was easy for the producer to emphasise pictorially any important dramatic effect by grouping or "spotting" these costumes. At the close of the scene the chief dramatic conflict was between the prince and the queen, his mother. The queen, who had been pictorially in-conspicuous, was clad in a brilliant yellow, and the prince, whose outer garment was of a somewhat neutral shade, confronted her, managing to display the inside of his garment a most brilliant reddish violet. These two colours, the most brilliant and luminous of the whole act, were nearly enough complements to set off each other vividly; the attention was bound to be centred on these two confronted colours where the dramatic interest also was centred. This was a perfect example of the use of symbolic colour for dramatic effect.

The motive of the first act was the diverse outer life of Cyprus. The scene was the quay. The back drop, rather crudely painted, showed the harbour, a confusion of heavy black lines, with a vessel at anchor in a slip. The whole curtain (quite at variance with nature) was suffused with a warm though low toned red-orange, except for the small bit of water which was a vivid greenish-blue the complement. The movement of the first part of the act was a riot of rich and contrasting colours. Various passionate suitors pleaded for the love of the slave girl. Then came the prince. He loved her chastely, as something holy. He was mantled in white and rode upon a white horse. At the moment when she accepted him as a "bride in Christ," at the moment, that is, when her meaning in the drama changed she was covered with the Prince's white robe and was carried off the stage on the white horse.

The second act was a convent garden. Its "motive" was peace and retirement. The curtain for the act was a restful pure blue, with a repeated design in white. The background, rather conventionally painted, was a neutral blue-green, with a touch of red-orange (a complement) in the centre. The nuns were in pure blue and white. La Pisanelle was clad in a greyish white. When the convent was violated by the entrance of the Prince of Antioch with his courtesans, brilliant, profane colour broke in upon the scene.

In the third act we are back in the pomp and cruelty of the court, in which La Pisanelle is to die through the intrigues of the queen. The curtain for the act was an intense green with a stiff gold design. The colour scheme of the whole was too complex to be explained in words. But one brilliant device must be mentioned. La Pisanelle is to be smothered under a mass of flowers. Now we have noticed repeatedly throughout the act a peculiar red in various shades, usually of a low tone and verging toward purple in the costumes of the ladies in waiting, in the doorway, in the garden behind. As the denouement approaches, reds come upon the scene, each more intense and more purplish. Finally the slaves enter, and, with a mass of flowers of the most intense and hot red violet, smother the Pisan girl. This gradual crescendo of a dominant colour up to one almost too powerful to be endured was an effect which can never be forgotten.

We have been able only to suggest the richness of colour effect in this production. Naturally such barbaric brilliancy must be reserved for the plays which can stand it, and that may not happen often. But this production was of especial importance since it showed at its most intense the work of a man whose name will probably bulk large as a colourist in the history of the theatre Leon Bakst, the designer of the scenes and costumes. Bakst is a Russian Jew who began life as a painter, probably with no thought of the stage. He studied in Paris until nearly thirty, absorbed much of the new French storm and stress, and re-turned to Russia. Here, after a few years, he became connected with the St. Petersburg Imperial Opera House as designer, and designed a great part of the wonderful stage pictures which have been carried through Europe by the Russian Imperial Ballet, as well as the scenes for several special productions, such as d'Annunzio's "La Pisanelle" and "Saint Sebastian."

His colouring forms the sharpest possible contrast to all that the Western world has known. German stage colour prides itself on being "discreet," on working harmonious effects with neutral tones and few of them. Not so Bakst, Benois, Golovine, Anisfeldt. Colours for Bakst are rarely too many or too brilliant. And, working in this way, he has been forced more obviously to use the fundamental colour laws which we have described. By plunging to the foundation of colour he has opened up the sources of the subject. His bold use of intense tones and his. inexhaustible ability to manipulate colour effects in the service of the inner drama make him a man to whom all the world, sooner or later, will have to go to school.

Such results are perhaps far enough from what most painters would accept as beautiful. But we must remember that though colour on the modern stage has been brought there by the professional painters, first of all, there are several conditions peculiar to the stage which have made stage colour an art by itself.

First, there is the mere technical condition of lighting. Colours on a canvas are produced by pigments. Colours on the stage are produced by pigments and lights. These two function and mix in totally different ways. The primary colours for pigments, according to recent experiments, are yellow, magenta, and cyan blue; for lights the primaries are green, red and violet. The two have distinct and peculiar qualities. The problem is complicated. Colours that are correct in the light of day, are altogether incorrect under the yellow light of the "white" foots. If, in place of "white" we presently introduce a green or an amber, the mixture resulting is so far from nature and from the intention of the designer that it bears no relation whatever to the result intended. An expert stage colourist regards this as one of the conditions of his work. Stage colour now has two factors two dimensions, almost pigment and light.

Marvellous things can be produced by these two factors. It would astonish the layman to learn that a colour painted on a stage canvas is quite black until called forth by a light of a similar colour. Nevertheless, if you throw a green light on a red surface, your result is black. This is out of all consonance with the old easy-going "laws" of mixtures. The red, however, will not become visible (as red or any other hue) until a light is thrown on it which contains at least some element of red. Working on this principle, the Viennese regisseur, Joseph Urban, now at the Boston Opera House, has developed a complex system of colouring which, from analogy with the French impressionists, he calls "pointillage." He spots or "points" his canvas with all the colours he intends to bring out on it in the course of the scene. At a distance the spaces between the points are not visible as such, so when he throws a red light on the scene, all the red spots jump out of the canvas and blend together to make a red surface. Similarly, if he now throws a green light, the red spots retire into darkness, and the green take possession of the whole surface. The result to the observer, is nothing short of magical. The process becomes complicated through the fact that one does not always throw a pure primary light on the scene ; if the light is a mixture of green and red then both the green and the red spots become visible, according to the proportions of green and red in the light. If then white (a mixture of all three primaries) is thrown upon the surface, all col-ours painted thereon appear. This means usually either that white light must not be used or that the pigments must be used in such proportions that the desired color will appear under the white light. For instance, if the surface contains spots of all three primary colours, two portions of red, two portions of blue, and four portions of green, the two portions of red, blue and green will blend to make white, and the two remaining portions of green will stand out as green, only tinted with a strong white light. And if the white illumination be strong, even this will not be successful, since the strong white light will reveal the spotting. However, the skilful regisseur uses all these conditions to produce an endless palette of possible colours.

Another investigator, proceeding according to the same principles, has perfected the purely mechanical side of the process to an astonishing degree. This is Munroe R. Pevear, a young architect of Boston. He has devoted his efforts to determining, to the highest possible degree of accuracy, the real primary colours in lights, and their action with all sorts of pigments, simple and mixture. With simple Tungsten bulbs of the primary colours he achieves a most astonishing variation of hues and tones and shades at will. He goes to no trouble to "point" his canvas; he mixes the colours he desires in the pigment surface. The whole principle is that of Mr. Urban, only more accurately carried out. There is no doubt a certain gain in naturalness in the avoidance of "pointillage." But the artist with the impressionist's instinct will not be any the more ready to dispense with spotting, since he claims it reproduces the effect of living light as a flat mixed pigment can never do.

This technical peculiarity in stage colouring gives a new artistic reason for such colouring as that of Bakst. For a colour once drawn out by a similarly coloured light, is more brilliant than under white. And this brilliancy, so much greater than is possible to the easel painter, must become one of the elements of the stage aesthetic of colour. Mr. Bakst and the other Russians have set out to use its possibilities to the full. Hence their barbarous contrasts, their use of fundamental tones, their dazzling mixtures of hues and tints.

And the special function of the theatre gives its colour a particular aesthetic. For the stage picture is always living, dramatic. Its peculiar beauty is one of movement, of participation ; it is dynamic, whereas that of the easel picture is rather contemplative. Hence great vigour and brilliant contrasts are proper to it. What would be garish in the exhibition hall is inspiring on the stage.

And yet, perhaps even this is true for us only because we are infants in the art of the stage. The savage, having newly discovered colours, delights in fierce reds and violent yellows. And we, who have just discovered colour on the stage, with its peculiar living brilliance, may be in the savage stage. We may come to find a Bakst scene garish, and to demand refinement and subtlety. When we do it will be in the regular course of our artistic evolution and will not be a thing to reject, any more than we ought to reject barbarous colour if it pleases us now.

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