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Theatre Of Today - The Artistic Forces: Lighting

( Originally Published 1914 )



OF all the problems of the old stage-setting that of lighting was perhaps the simplest. Its chief principle was merely this: Let there be light. Its second principle was this: In case of emotion, let there be green light. One easily recalls the stage table which shone brighter on its under side than on top. On the old stage no one ever had a shadow. Or if there was a shadow, it was cast, life size, on the distant landscape.

In the real world light comes from somewhere. So the first principle of realistic lighting on the stage is that the light shall seem to come from somewhere from the sun, in an out-of-door scene, from the lamp or chandelier in an interior, and so on. In either case people have shadows, and shadows which are cast away from the direction of the light.

The application of this first, simple principle of modern stage lighting that light should come from one direction, gave people rational shadows. But this was not all. Producers immediately discovered that shadows may be beautiful masses in the design of the scene. From that moment stage lighting became a fine art. Just as Rembrandt gave his portraits a decorative unity by lighting from one direction, so the modern producer, by means of lighting, makes the parts of his stage blend into a complete picture.

Once the producers began to experiment with these effects they rediscovered another principle. This we can describe roughly as the hypnotic power of light. Put a man in a dark room and make him fix his gaze for a certain length of time on a bright spot and you centre his attention to a focal point, deadening the merely logical factors of his brain and sensitising him many times over to sensuous impressions a state of partial hypnosis. Now these, within certain limits, are exactly the conditions of the theatre a spectator in a dark room looking at a bright spot. And a state of partial hypnosis, at least to the extent of deadening the logical faculties and heightening the sensuous ones, is precisely that desirable for the complete reception of a work of art. Not, of course, that the logical faculties have no place in art, but that the work of art, appealing primarily through the channels of the senses, can be most vividly and justly received when the particular prejudices and mental processes of the receiver are in abeyance.

One more quite peculiar quality of light was early perceived by the theorist Appia. This we may call its dynamic quality. Light seems a quivering, living thing to us. No other sensuous excitement, save possibly music, can seize and absorb our attention so completely. So, with certain sorts of drama, the newer producers have discovered how to make the light seem to represent the soul of the action itself, carrying us with it in its ebb and flow and giving us the sense of living in its inner life.

Before we can begin any work in artistic lighting we must do some destroying. One element in the old lighting must go, and go completely. That element is the foot-lights as conventionally used. We can say this with careless ease now that the Fortuny system has given us a better way. But even before this invention was made known the case against the footlights must have been obvious to any sensitive man of the theatre; that "the foots" continued as long as they did indicates the stag-nation of the old theatre in all but purely literary art.

The footlights, with their corresponding border lights from above, give a flat illumination. They make figures visible, but not living; they destroy that most precious quality of the sculptor, relief. They were designed to give the greatest amount of illumination, nothing more. They are meant for the flat surface, not for solid figures. It is the shadows, the nooks and crannies of light and shade, that show a figure to be solid and plastic. Against the flat, unreal lighting of the old theatre the actors had to distort their faces with violent cosmetics. Stage properties and solid parts of the setting were made hard and lifeless by being equally illuminated in all parts. Further, the foot-lights give a crude, direct glare, whereas the light of nature is softened by being reflected with infinite complexity from innumerable objects and from innumerable directions. Still more serious, the footlights reveal instantly the artificiality of any other light used (as, for instance, the front or side "spot"), and cross and conflict with it in a most disagreeable way. Add to these considerations the facts that footlights come from the bottom, and, with the border lights, cast no shadows (except huge ones on the black curtain), and we have a combination of unrealities that seems almost to have been maliciously purposed.

What is there to put in place of the "footlights?" Most important of all there is the revolutionary Fortuny system, already mentioned, which in some modification or other has influenced the lighting of nearly every important stage in Germany. The pure Fortuny system was designed for use with a Kuppelhorizont, but only in a few instances is it used exactly as its inventor designed it. The essential part of the scheme is the principle of reflected light. Many theatres use this principle in some way without paying royalties to the patentee of the Fortuny system. In fact, there is little of this system that can be patented, beyond certain details, such as the devices for operating the reflecting screens or lessening the flicker of the lamp. The unpatentable simplicity of the method is Mr. Fortuny's great contribution to the modern stage, and unfortunately for him it is largely a free-will gift.

An arc-lamp and several pieces of cloth of various colours these comprise the Fortuny apparatus in its simplest form. They are placed above and to the front of the stage, usually on a gallery along which the operator can move freely. The arc-lamp throws its rays away from the stage. In front of the lamp is a frame containing five slides the five pieces of silk cloth which can be lowered in front of the lamp or raised, at the will of the operator. The pieces of cloth are white, black, red, blue and yellow. By proper manipulation of these slides any colours can be obtained in any tint or shade. From the three colours which serve as primaries any colour can be obtained in its normal intensity by simple combination by the lowering of the red slide, for instance, all the way and the blue half the way, thus producing a combination of red and blue in equal proportions. A tint is produced by lowering the white slide so as to increase the proportion of white light in the combination. To obtain a shade the operator partly lowers the black slide, thus decreasing the quantity of the reflecting surface and hence the brilliancy of the colour. Three or five apparatuses, each equipped with arc-lamp and slides, are usually required to light a large stage, and there must also be a spot-light behind the scenes to cut off any shadows that might be thrown up stage by the light from the front. When the theatre is equipped with a Kuppelhorizont the greater part of the light from the silk slides is reflected a second time before it reaches the stage, thus increasing its diffusion and softness.

Mr. Linnebach, head technical inspector of the Court Theatre at Dresden, has invented a modification of the Fortuny system which carries his name. It uses arc-lamps pointed away from the stage, like the Fortuny, but the light is coloured through transparent slides as it comes from the lamps, and the reflection is from a blank white wall. When a mixture of the colours is required, the pure colours are given out from the individual lamps, and are mixed on the wall.

The expense of any such system consists chiefly in the operation of the arc-lamps. They must be powerful, and six or eight of them will in an evening burn as much as hundreds of incandescent bulbs. The wiring, of course, is simple. But the Fortuny system can never do without supplementary spot-lamps, and many producers feel that if direct light is going to enter in any way it might as well be used for the whole stage. A stage, in fact, can be lighted altogether with movable spot-lamps placed in the wings. They do not give the subtle softness of indirect light, but the convenience of lamps which can be moved about at will is very great. There is a special technique in the use of these lamps. Such a producer as Reinhardt gets most of his effects from them. By skilful manipulation, the colour and de-sign of the scene being kept in view, they can be made to yield a matchless brilliancy of effect. They can never get along entirely without footlights (except for occasional special scenes), but these can be kept low and scarcely noticeable. The footlights are indeed not so bad as certain radical theorists would have us believe; the evil of them is chiefly in their abuse, when they are kept going full tilt. They can be dispensed with if there is some sort of indirect system of illumination. But if they are used they can be used moderately and with discretion.

The Fortuny system can be used with a simple Rundhorizont or cloth cyclorama, although with some limitations. In set interiors, with a roof let down from the flies, its soft glow is especially useful. Often, in exterior scenes, there will appear a noticeable shadow thrown by part of the setting against the cyclorama. This must be obliterated by means of another care-fully modulated light thrown on the darkened surface.

Even though a manager have no Fortuny apparatus at his disposal he need not be content with the disagreeable glare which American stages use. A brilliantly lighted stage is a convention pure and simple, maintained largely because the audience can imagine no other way and because the "star" wishes to exhibit her facial charms (usually not hers, at that, but the make-up man's). A modulated spot-light played from be-hind the scenes will, with careful stage planning, give the scene a pleasing softness of tone, and vastly more reality and perspective. In any case the footlights can be kept low and used with some artistic sense of their colour and tone values, while special unnoticeable spot-lights are used for the upper part of the stage. Such a scheme of lighting, if tastefully used in connection with the colour systems of Mr. Pevear or Mr. Urban, or something equivalent, will go far toward approximating the magic of the Fortuny. Even with such mechanical means as are already in use, American stage lighting can be changed utterly. It requires only taste and care.

The Fortuny system is applicable in a great variety of ways : First of all it will fill the place of the old footlights in illuminating the stage. If nothing more is required the lighting machine will usually be hung well forward, just above the proscenium opening, and a little to one side. Special lights (diffuse or direct) can be operated from the wings, through a window or in any other way. (It is quite possible to use lights from two directions, but only one should be obvious.) A third sort of lighting which is coming more and more into use is the transparent lighting, in which the illumination comes wholly or partly through a semi-transparent back drop. In this case we gain a further diffusion, usually in colour, besides a strange sense of livingness in the background. The lighting in Ottomar Starke's settings for Gluck's "Orpheus" was achieved wholly in this way. Further, there are the occasional special sorts of light, such as that from torches, etc., which may carry all or part of the lighting under certain conditions.

The whole course of stage lighting in the last ten years has tended toward less light, even approaching a dark stage at times. A darkened stage used to be unthinkable to the old producers, except for special effects of "spooks" and night. To a certain extent their instinct was right, for the elimination of the one bright spot in the hypnotic chamber is liable to set the attention adrift. But on the whole the modified light and the masses of shade have become almost inseparable from modern production, and their artistic value is paramount. A darkened stage will make more effective any light used, and will give that softness of outline and the restfulness to the eye which were lacking under the old régime. This is especially true under the Fortuny system, which can modulate its shades with the greatest delicacy and place its light exactly where it chooses. It is only the completely darkened stage that is dangerous, and this can sometimes be used with striking effect if the dramatic interest can be powerfully sustained.

Stage light, as we have said, should in general come from but one direction at one time. Some European theatres also use the footlights, turned very low, to raise the tone value of the whole scene, but this practice, which is falling out of use, is merely for the purpose of making the stage visible and is not in the true sense lighting. For true lighting is that which makes solid figures plastic. It is this sort of light which we feel to be light, and not mere illumination, and which does the work of light in the real world.

And lighting, used in this way becomes surprisingly rich in artistic effects. It is with the producer at every turn to give his work reality, beauty, and vigour.

When one sees for the first time a well-planned and well-executed German stage-setting one is at a loss to analyse its peculiar charm. It does not consist primarily in the clean, well ordered lines and surfaces, nor in the beauty of its harmonious colouring. The peculiar charm, as of the soul of the thing, is strangely baffling. That charm consists, of course, in the lighting. It seems to an American imagination so impossible that a stage should be other than glaring white, that one does not dream of looking for the explanation in the lighting. Yet the lighting is the groundwork of all its magic.

The light of nature is never (at least in temperate climates) a mere glare. The sun itself may be blinding, but the sunlight which reaches our eyes from the scene is reflected from soft, modulated, and usually darkened objects of many kinds. It is softened with innumerable shades and tones and colours. It is in these subtle tones that we feel a sense of distance in a landscape. It is in delicate modulations of light and dark that we perceive a human body to be solid and plastic. The light which makes figures and landscapes live on the stage is the light which allows shadings and modulations. The light of the "foots" on the American stage has no deeper purpose than that of a burglar's flash-lamp to render an object visible. We want not only visibility on our stage, but also illusion. This illusion, obtained by means of soft reflected light from one direction, is what makes the German stage picture seem so strangely beautiful.

In exterior scenes soft natural lighting gives with remarkable illusion the sense of distance and perspective. In interior scenes it makes canvas very wood and stone, and human beings living creatures in their world of reality or fancy. In both cases the stage picture seems a living work of art harmonious, unified, satisfying. Instead of paining the eyes, as in the American theatre, it seems to rest them, and, as it were, feed and nourish them.

But natural artistic lighting can do more than make living things seem living. It can, in more poetical pieces, actually make lifeless things seem part of the living drama, as Appia has done in his settings of the Wagner music-dramas. Trees and stones and castles seem to partake of the mood of the play and change and grow with it now mysteriously and foreboding, now hard and relentless.

But it will be asked, "Why make the stage setting rocks and trees living?" Appia's answer to this was one of his peculiarly pregnant contributions to modern stage theory. A music-drama, he said (and the theory had been advanced by Nietzsche before him) is generated from music. The music might be called the soul or the will of the drama and the action and the setting its external phenomena the concrete things by which the inner will makes itself known. The music is a dynamic, constantly moving thing. The whole of the resultant drama should therefore grow and develop with the action, gathering the audience into its inner purpose. When we are in this wonder world where the changing soul of things is made visible to us, rocks and trees can properly take on different moods with the story they &press. Hence Appia would have no part of the drama lifeless. He would have the back-ground always in harmony with the action, and unobtrusively expressive of it, so that the action can be thrown into the foreground and the actors work with and not against their scenic environment. And here enters the dynamic, hypnotic role of lighting. If truly expressive of the mood and subjective meaning of the drama, lighting can seem, in our partial hypnosis, to be its actual motive force. There is a living principle in lighting second only to that of the actor himself. And under good lighting even the rocks and stones seem to burst into song.

In addition to these dramatic functions of lighting there are certain purely artistic functions which European producers have not been slow to use. Unity, simplicity and design in stage pictures can hardly be achieved without the co-operation of light. The whole scene, consisting of many separate canvases, sets, and properties, can be bound together with a single light from one direction, which emphasises the important and obliterates the unimportant, somewhat as in the typical Rembrandt portrait. And by means of this single light, a producer can gain the simplicity which modern taste demands ; a unified scheme of lights and shadows may serve as the central artistic fact around which all de-tails of the picture must be grouped. And lastly, these lights and shadows can be planned to group themselves into a pictorial design.

Imagine the great variety of effect possible in contrasting various masses in size or quality, in showing in light and shade the convolutions of a curtain, in casting across the stage great shadows from the columns of a temple, and so on and one can see that the pure design which commences with the planning of lines and spaces, can end only in the manipulation of lights.

The preceding paragraphs may have seemed to assume that lights may be used at the pleasure of the producer without reference to their natural justification that is, regardless of whether there is a sun or a moon or a street-lamp. This would be true, of course, only in the more or less imaginative play. The procedure must be determined by the original conception of the dramatist and producer. A few producers, who claim to reject nature altogether, use their lights in nearly every case wholly with a view to the beauty of the stage effect. But on the whole, if the stage is meant to suggest some part of the real world, lights must be used as though they were natural. Appia, for instance, as extreme as any in some things, never has the sun set and immediately rise again, merely for the sake of pictorial effect. The trend of production at this time is certainly not toward paying very much attention to nature, and we ought not object to what might be called a liberal interpretation of nature, for the sake of beauty of effect. But beautiful lighting is just as possible in strict realism, where truth to nature is rigidly observed, as in imaginative pieces. It is a matter of using a good diffuse light and arranging your scenery to receive it. In a case at the other extreme, as for instance the Hades scenes from "Orpheus," there is surely no objection to using lights only with a view to their effect, since it is understood that the lighting system in Hades is at best arbitrary. Of the innumerable variations between these extremes it may be said in general that arbitrary lighting is permissible so long as it does not conflict obviously with such natural demands as are specifically made by the play.

Lighting, which was formerly a mere necessary nuisance in dramatic production, has come to be one of the most important forces in the modern theatre. Its possibilities for making stage art supple and expressive are almost boundless. No other element of stage production will yield so much in return for a little care and artistic sense. No reason except stupidity remains for the ugly and lifeless illumination used on the American stage. Expert knowledge and trained artistic sense on the part of a few producers or their subordinates could, through lighting alone, produce a new birth of beauty in our theatre.



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