Theatre Of Today - The Artistic Forces: Stylisation

( Originally Published 1914 )

THE tendency which has come in the last ten years to be called "Stylisation" is just what its name implies, the development of style in stage settings. Now style, as an artist uses the word, is hard to define. And the artist is not above making a virtue of his failing by saying that style shouldn't be defined, and can't be anyway, except by stupid people. Style, to the artist, is a quality which can be got only through the artistic sense. It has a meaning only when one has a highly developed taste. And the artists are perfectly right, style cannot be defined and can be appreciated, if at all, only directly.

This is because style is the manner of executing a work of art, as contrasted with the work itself ; and since each true manner is part and parcel in the work there are simply too many manners for one definition. But style is still more; it is manner in the eulogistic sense. One rarely hears an artist say : "He has a bad style." An artist either has a style or he hasn't. If he hasn't he has not yet made his art his own, he is a bungler. Moreover, every true style is unique. If one has found one's own manner of doing things it is no one else's manner. And one's own manner of doing things consists in a multitude of the tiniest peculiarities —it is made up of all the things which are too little to be governed by rule or tradition. Generally it is the working artist who best knows the laws and traditions of his art and therefore he who best knows which are the personal things. For this reason the artist is in a measure justified in considering the appreciation of style in works of art as his own peculiar property.

"Style" as applied to stage-settings means some-thing less subtle than this. It is used to express the individuality of the work rather than that of the worker. It says, not "Let every stage producer have his own style," but, "Let every stage production have its own style." But still, style on the stage is essentially the same thing as style in the studio, since it emphasises the way of doing a thing rather than the thing done.

"Not Realism; but Style," cries Gordon Craig. His meaning is plain : Take what liberties you like with Nature on the stage, but do your work well and thoroughly. Work as a true artist works, letting no detail slip from your attention. Plan every line, every curve, every tiny fold of a curtain, according to your firm design. In this case, be artificial, not natural. Nature has no design in this sense; she does not show the artist's hand; she has no style. Why copy Nature, already perfect in her way, if we add nothing of our own in the process? Whatever we create, let it be in every part our creation. And people will feel that it was done by a master, and will rejoice that once more an artist is come into the world.

It will be gathered from the above that Stylisation is intended to be a highly personal process. Gordon Craig, the most personal of all modern stage designers, thus describes, in his book "On the Art of the Theatre," how he sets to work on the problem of producing "Macbeth:"

"Let me tell you at the commencement," he says, "that it is the large and sweeping impression produced by means of this scene and the movement of the figures, which is undoubtedly the most valuable means at your disposal. . . . First and foremost comes the scene. It is idle to talk about the distraction of scenery, because the question here is not how to create some distracting scenery, but rather how to create a place which harmonises with the thoughts of the poet.

"Come now, we take Macbeth. How does it look, first of all to our mind's eye, secondly to our eye?

"I see two things. I see a lofty and steep rock, and I see the moist cloud which envelopes the head of this rock. That is to say, a place for fierce and warlike men to inhabit, a place for phantoms to nest in. Ultimately this moisture will destroy the rock; ultimately these spirits will destroy the men. Now then, you are quick in your question as to what actually to create for the eye. I answer as swiftly place there a rock ! Let it mount up high. Swiftly I tell you, convey the idea of a mist which hugs the head of this rock. Now, have I departed at all for one-eighth of an inch from the vision which I saw in the mind's eye?

"But you ask me what form this rock shall take and what colour? What are the lines which are the lofty lines, and which are to be seen in any lofty cliff? Go to them, glance but a moment at them ; now quickly set them down on your paper: the lines and their direction, never mind the cliff. Do not be afraid to let them go high ; they cannot go high enough ; and re-member that on a sheet of paper which is but two inches square you can make a line which seems to tower miles in the air, and you can do the same on your stage, for it is all a matter of proportion and has nothing to do with actuality.

"You ask about the colours? What are the colours that Shakespeare has indicated for us? Do not look first at Nature, but look in the play of the poet. Two : one for the rock, the man; one for the mist, the spirit. Now, quickly, take and accept this statement from me. Touch not a single other colour, but only these two colours through your whole progress of designing your scene and your costumes, yet forget not that each colour contains many variations. If you are timid for a moment and mistrust yourself or what I tell, when the scene is finished you will not see with your eye the effect you have seen with your mind's eye, when looking at the picture which Shakespeare has indicated.

". . . I know that you are yet not quite comfortable in your mind about this rock and this mist; I know that you have got in the back of your head the recollection that a little later on in the play come several 'interiors' as they are called. But bless your heart, don't bother about that ! Call to mind that the interior of a castle is made from the stuff which is taken from the quarries. Is it not precisely the same colour to begin with? and do not the blows of the axes which hew out the great stones give a texture to each stone which resembles the texture given it by natural means, as rain, lightning, frost? So you will not have to change your mind or change your impression as you proceed. You will have but to give variations of the same theme, the rock the brown ; the mist the grey ; and by these means you will, wonder of wonders, actually have preserved unity. Your success will depend upon your capacity to make variations upon these two themes ; but remember never to let go of the main theme of the play when searching for variations in the scene."

Finally, Mr. Craig has this to say: "I let my scenes grow out of not merely the play, but from broad sweeps of thought which the play has conjured up in me."

All that is essential in modern stylisation is here the endeavour to grasp the whole, to discover its inner meaning, to reveal its unity and purpose, to select the essential and repeat it constantly with fitting variations, to suggest rather than to reveal, to work, above all, with the imagination and the poetic sense.

But while all this suggests the way the stylist producer works, it by no means describes his "method." To him every problem is unique. His results are so variable in their external appearance, that it would be useless to try to group them under one description. Their kinship is shown only by two characteristics : selection instead of imitation, and suggestion instead of representation. But while these are common to all stylists at the present time, all other factors can differ as widely as the personalities of the producers. Almost any sort of "motif" may serve. A producer may "stylise" from externals, such as the architecture of the period, or the stiffness of its manners, or even the lines of its costumes. Or he may stylise from some mere dramatic peculiarity, as when the Weimar Court Theatre planned every detail of its "Hamlet" setting from the postulate that it should be performed rapidly with-out cuts. Or he may try to show in the setting the essential conflict of the play, as in Craig's "Macbeth." Or, as in a recent stylisation of Wagner's "Rienzi" at Leipzig, he might show the conflict between pagan Rome and Christian Rome, such as they were at the time. Or he may try to make the whole setting contain the dominant mood of the play, as in Gordon Craig's "Hamlet," "a lonely soul in a dark place," or in "Brand," suggesting how the rugged magnificent beauty of the fiords expresses the uncompromising moral nature of the hero. Or he may try merely to harmonise the conflicting picture of the various scenes by emphasising what is common to all or by suppressing the conflicting elements. Or he may, of course, merely simplify from pure joy in simplicity, or conventionalise from the artist's pleasure in design. Stylisation as used just now refers to all these procedures, permitting all stageworthy "motifs," what ever their source.

On the whole we may say that the guiding ideas in stylisation are two: the synthetic and the subjective. The one looks to form, seeking to attain unity; the other looks to inner content, seeking to attain expression. The two may, of course, be present together, and may (and probably should) completely coalesce. But most stylised settings of the present time are easily recognisable as either the one or the other.

Every play, even one by Ibsen, is made up of certain externally inharmonious elements different sorts of scenes, very dissimilar costumes, tragic and comic passages, short scenes gapping great intervals of time, and the like. Synthetic stylisation has made it its business to harmonise these elements and to create out of dissimilar factors a unified whole. It seeks to accomplish this by the selection and emphasising of the significant. Beside the great central fact of the struggle between witches and humans in "Macbeth" minor inharmonies sink in indifference. Beside the rugged grandeur of Brand's character, eloquent in every scene, the lapse of months or years between acts is unnoticeable. Beside the religious dignity which ever broods over the play of "Everyman" its naive mingling of life and death, of material and abstract qualities, is nothing.

By seizing our imagination with a few bold strokes stylisation overshadows the incongruities and dissipations of the drama with its central reality.

Subjective or "expressive" stylisation involves a quite new idea that the stage setting, as a work of art in itself, should express the dominant mood or emotion of the play. To the artist the mere representation of objects is not expression; the objects, the outer phenomena, are merely the means of expression. So it is not enough to show the queen's chamber in "Ham-let." We must make it express the mood of sin and retribution which overhangs the scene. Only examples of good work can explain how physical objects and lines and surfaces can suggest these inner qualities. But (to return to our stock examples) just as the vanishing lines of the Gothic cathedral may suggest, by common consent, aspiration, or as a dark, oppressive mass may suggest terror or mystery, so the conventionalised stage-settings suggest their poetical meanings. And the dramatic value of such expression is very great. With all the turnings and twistings of Hamlet's spirit it is none too easy for us to discover just what is the trouble. Such an interpretation as that in Gordon Craig's setting may illuminate the whole play for us. Beneath the visible action and the palpable motives of any dramatic character there are larger forces and meanings, which can never be logically expressed, since the dramatic work appeals rather to sympathy and experience than to reason. The whole tendency of the dramatic movement in the last thirty years has been to get deeper and deeper beneath the visible surfaces of men, and stylisation is its logical outcome.

Lighting is one of the all important means to stylised effect. If the setting is to accommodate itself to the internal progress of the drama it will have to avoid painting too much on the scenery. The only means of producing development and variation in the scene is that of lighting. With the modern inventions nearly all problems of colouring, and even of design itself, can be solved by means of lights. The white cyclorama, for instance, can take any colour. A distant view painted on a "back drop" must not have too definite colours of its own if its tone is to vary in the course of the scene, but must be prepared, in one way or another, to throw back various colours as successive lights are thrown on it. The imaginative setting can take most of its colouring from the lights. Usually no more than half the colour is painted; its supplementary part being supplied by the lights. Or else all the de-sired colours are painted on the surface, according to the pointillage or the mixed colour systems already described. By manipulating this variable factor of light the whole picture will vary gradually as though a new scene had been substituted. Lighting is naturally one of the chief aids to the imaginative producer, and it is not surprising that lighting on the modern stage has received its highest development at the hands of the stylists.

We can trace stylisation from three separate sources, a brief history of which will give an excellent notion of the inner story of the new stage movement. These three influences are not conflicting or rival factors in any well defined sense, but they still represent three more or less distinct spirits in contemporary stage practice.

Most European producers trace their artistic paternity back to Gordon Craig. This man, though he has done little actual producing, has been probably the most powerful influence in the modern theatre. And it is to be noticed that he came into stage work from out-side, as the artist and designer.

Not that Gordon Craig had no "stage sense" quite the contrary. He is a son of the actress EIlen Terry, and played minor Shakespearian parts for eight years in Henry Irving's company, also doing the "star" rôles in the provinces for a time. It was in 1898, that is, when he was twenty-six years old, that he first seriously took up drawing and wood engraving. His friends among the actors told him he was a good artist ; his friends among the artists told him he was a good actor. He himself had become disgusted with the elaborate nonsense of the English stage and was inclined to stick to designing, which had just received one of its periodical infusions of "new" spirit. But a certain group of artistic friends urged him to combine the two to bring the art of pure design to the service of the stage. Once convinced, he went into the work with the sort of energy that makes more enemies than friends. In the early 1900's he staged three operas for the Purcell Stage Society. In 1903 he produced Ibsen's "The Vikings" for his mother an "artistic success, but financial failure." In 1904 he produced a version of Otway's "Venice Preserved" in Berlin. In 1906 he produced for Elenora Duse Ibsen's "Rosmersholm" at the Pergola Theatre in Florence. This list includes most of the productions which bear his name. He was engaged for a number of others, but his principle that "the producer must be the autocrat" nearly always brought friction into the theatre, resulting in his walking out in the early stages of rehearsal. Still these abortive efforts left in some of the best theatres on the continent the memory of his stimulating plans and designs, and the producers were not slow to take ad-vantage of them (nor are they slow in Germany to give the credit where it belongs). In the meantime exhibitions of Craig's designs had been held in Berlin, Vienna, Munich, Dresden, Weimar, London, Rotterdam, and Florence, and had left in each of these centres the stimulus which a study of his work always brings. About the same time Craig published his dialogue (later expanded into a good sized book) "On the Art of the Theatre," which was translated into German, Dutch, Russian, and Japanese. Shortly afterward he founded the monthly magazine "The Mask," published in Florence, which has stood ever since for the "extreme left wing" of the artistic stage movement.

After some five years of this sort of germination came one practical clinching triumph, the fame of which has gone over the whole theatrical world. The Art Theatre of Moscow, under Stanislavsky, engaged Craig to prepare designs for a production of "Hamlet." The designs were made, submitted, and studied. At the general conference the designer discovered that he had a most remarkable theatre to deal with a theatre which understood. He was told that the time of production was uncertain, but that he would be informed of it later. Two years later he was invited to the first performance. This was how and why the only "Craig play" of recent years succeeded in reaching performance. The story is at least symbolic: thé ideas of the recent stage movement have been in great part Craig's ; the execution has been the work of others. Now, through private donation, he has established a "school for the art of the theatre" in Florence, in which selected young men are working as in a laboratory to "discover the laws" which govern beauty and expression in the theatre. His two books are being circulated widely and his influence is decidedly growing.

Craig's theories are, if possible, the most fearsome thing about him. "Do not look at Nature," he says: "Look in the play of the poet." "Not realism, but style." "No personalities," he continues in effect, "but Art." He wants not dramatic action, in our sense, but rather the spectacle of the dance. He insists that the theatre will come back to the masks of the Greeks, or preferably to a rumoured movable mask of the Japanese. To save the theatre, we must destroy it. Shakespeare, he assures us, was written to be read, not to be acted. He has produced Shakespeare, so he knows. But if we must produce "Julius Caesar," say, let us not try to represent the Roman Forum (or our idea of it) but show, for that scene, simply "a man speaking to a hundred thousand men!" He uses majestic curtains with great lines and masses, to suggest not a place, but a mood. He has invented and patented a set of mechanical screens, rectangular in shape and hinged together, applicable to almost any play, which can be set up in innumerable combinations, so as to form a pure design in right angles and surfaces, so played upon by the lights as to give great variety of effect. His variety of invention is amazing, his frank inconsistency astonishing, and his stimulation almost inexhaustible.

A satisfactory outline of Craig's theories it will be impossible to get. They exist, like the philosophy of Confucius, in aphorisms. It is Craig's designs which do him full justice, and it is they, rather than his theories, which have gained him the immense respect and influence which he now enjoys.

Max Reinhardt represents the practical theatre man. He did not leave the theatre in disgust, like Craig, but pulled it up with him. He did not so much bring art bodily to the theatre as make the theatre develop itself into an art. His line represents some-thing less definite than either of the other two, but something more synthetic, more immediately practicable.

Reinhardt was discovered by the great realistic producer, Brahm, in a little company in Salzburg, and was engaged as an actor for minor parts at Brahm's Deutsches Theater in Berlin (where he has since made his reputation). Like Brahm, like many of the best workers in the German theatre, he is a Jew. He showed, in addition to the usual routine ability, a keen head for business, besides a disconcerting aptitude for new ideas. For two years he tested out his own ability in the Kleines Theater, where he gave performances of Wilde's "Salomé" and Maxim Gorky's "Nachtasyl" which Berliners still remember. In 1905 he took over the Deutsches, after long continued quarrels with Brahm, who leased the Lessing Theater which he later made the standard Of the world for strict realistic acting. Since then Reinhardt's rise in international reputation has been rapid and steady. After Berlin had become the imperial capital of Germany it was he who made it also the theatrical capital; and it is chiefly he who represents the new German inscenierung in the eyes of other nations.

Reinhardt's work has been of many widely divergent kinds and this is perhaps his chief claim to greatness. His Shakespeare, though sometimes debatable on certain points, stands today as the model for Germany and for the whole world. Comedy, history, and tragedy under him are equally potent and equally individual.

His settings are rather conservative, being always in some degree "representative," and usually much like any other good producer's settings, only better done. Easily, yet never too obviously, he gets exquisite effects of pure design and harmonious "discreet" colour. Fanciful plays, such as the famous "Sumurun," he mounts with a nerve and a firmly controlled vigour that are irresistible. The rigidly realistic plays, such as Hebbel's "Maria Magdelene" or Tolstoy's "The Living Corpse," while never overlooking mere beauty of setting, receive such care in the minute mirroring of nature that it seems impossible to go farther. Comic opera (at the Künstlertheater in Munich) he mounts with a fantasy and an eye for the picturesque that makes the dead jests live again. And finally (if there is a finale to his activities) he has created for the modern world the epic spectacle. The famous "OEdipus Rex," first given some four years ago at Munich and Berlin, established the soundness of the "epic theatre" idea in modern cities, and now a group of capitalists is building for Reinhardt the "Theatre of the Five Thousand" which will doubtless test out the idea thoroughly and put the results at the disposal of other cities and nations.

In all this variety it is not easy to describe the style of the settings. If their nature can be suggested in one sentence it would be to say that they are the old familiar settings made more solid in structure, more beautiful in design, and more harmonious in colour. Yet while Reinhardt is not revolutionary after the fashion of Gordon Craig, he justly deserves his reputation as one of the leaders in the modern movement. His settings, though perhaps not "new" in their broadest out-line, have synthesised much of the best experimental work of others. It must be remembered, too, that the success of the Reinhardt régime is due not more to his far-famed settings than to the incomparable acting of his company. Early in his directorship Reinhardt developed an eye for the best actors, ability to get and keep them, and willingness to pay them well, and this genius of his has gone far toward making nearly every one of his productions a triumph.

There is something in the Russian genius wholly unknown to us. It seems like the fresh power of national youth springing up while we of the West are living on our past. That ability to rise out of a wallowing of imitation, to see a vision, and then, without de-lay but with infinite labour, to go straight to it, seems a sign of another age than ours it seems the typical characteristic of the very greatest ages in history, of which there are not more than half a dozen : the Hellenic, the Italian Renaissance, the Elizabethan, and which else?

It is this quality of rapidity and youthful self-dependence which has astonished us in the Russians' stage work of the last half dozen years. Whether it is better than ours is not yet to be determined ; that it is more radical, simple, wonderful, is not to be doubted. Not that Russia is a torchbearer of civilisation; far from it. But when she flashes she seems to flash more brilliantly than any other nation. In theatrical work Russia has only two centres of international importance (yet how many has France, or England, or America?) : The Stanislavsky Art Theatre in Moscow, and the Imperial Opera House and Theatre at St. Petersburg. The latter is known to the West through the Russian ballets and operas which its companies have taken on tour; the former is known through one brief trip into Germany and stray pictures of its productions of "The Blue Bird" and of Gordon Craig's "Hamlet." But these revelations have left their permanent impression.

The history of the Moscow centre is most valuable. Russian history is more homogeneous than that of any other nation; and that of the Moscow theatre reveals a very close texture of cause and effect while taking some of the strangest turns imaginable. First be it known that the Moscow Art Theatre, now thought of as the very cradle of elfin fantasy, started out, in the nineties, by trying to be more realistic than any other theatre on earth. That had been the Russian tradition for fifty years ; moreover it was then the fashion in the West, and it has ever been the Russian custom to take Western fashions more strenuously than the West itself does. The same ambition led the Berlin Lessing Theater into partial stagnation; it led the Moscow Art Theatre into the most daring decorations and the most "psychological" intimacy in the whole world of the theatre.

It should be made clear that it was not any artistic failure in realism that made the theatre change its tack. Stanislavsky, a wealthy dilettante and superb actor, had brought to his playhouse plenty of money and an abundance of sincerity and ability. As a realistic theatre the institution fulfilled its highest pretensions. It soon arrived at the point where it could rest on its reputation or do what else it pleased. It was the di-rectors and actors themselves who were dissatisfied with realism.

"We arrived at absurdity," one of the experimenters puts it, "because we tried to put into the scene 'the fourth wall.' " Realism, that is, must founder somewhere, because drama is, after all, a thing of conventions.

But the strange thing is that it was not a reaction against realism that led the Art Theatre into its hey-day of imaginative vigour. These Russians did not re-coil before the mountain that opposed them; they burrowed through it and came out on the other side.

In trying to become "more realistic," that is, deeper beneath superficials and closer to the heart of life the typical Stanislavsky plays, such as those of Tchekoff and Maxim Gorky, cast off even the convention of dramatic movement; the result being "immobile drama," or "pure dramatic design." There remained only the characters and the ceaseless interplay of souls, which was precisely what the Art Theatre had dedicated itself to in the first place.

Just as realism had been approaching man more and more closely, so these experimenters sought to sound man more and more deeply. But here they discovered (it must have been with strange feelings) that they had obtained all there was to be got out of realism, and that the innermost reality, "the essential in the character's state of soul," was still too profound to be expressed without some further means. For these deepest things they must use symbolism line and mass, poetic effect, and colour. They had come out on the other side of the mountain; they had entered, by their own way, into the modern stage movement.

In 1904 the Stanislavsky group, joined by a new recruit from the south, a certain Wsewold Meyerholdt, organised an experimental theatre, or rather a theatrical laboratory, which they called the Theatre Stoudia. Here, in miniature, they solved the problems which they were later to work out on the actual stage. They made pasteboard models of the stage and of all de-tails of the scene. "When we had these," says Meyerholdt, "we had the whole modern theatre in our hands."

The shock of the Manchurian defeat had broken up the Theatre Stoudia with its high plans for the future. But Meyerholdt, having quarrelled on artistic grounds with Stanislavsky, went up to St. Petersburg, where he found the employment he sought in conducting an art theatre belonging to a certain Madame Kommissarzewskaia, now deceased. Here he worked out finally the unspeakably brilliant methods which five years later he carried triumphantly into the Imperial Opera House, as chief regisseur.

Stanislaysky, in the meantime, had followed out his lines of advance. Having established the tender Tchekoff as an epoch point in Russian dramatic history, he applied the brilliancy of his barbaric colour method to the Russian historical plays, and then planned for international success. He was the first to produce Maeterlinck's "The Blue Bird," and his production has remained the standard for beauty, and unapproachable in daring. Then, as has been described, came the Craig "Hamlet" and a name which now works magic among the nations.

Stanislavsky, by all reports, has developed the most magnificent acting machine in the world. The basis of this excellence, it is agreed, is the living wage. Each actor receives a decent salary and assurance of permanence, and the chief actors share in the profits, as under the Comédie Française system. New members are received only after long probation and study; when they are received they are regarded as responsible artists and co-workers. Plays are studied at a "round table." Each member's opinion is of value. Rehearsals continue until perfection has been obtained. In passing let us mention one of the "huge little things" that make institutions great the theatre serves luncheon to its actors during rehearsals at the noon hour.

The Art Theatre, having practised successfully at the two poles of art, can still keep its motto : "To seize the essential in the state of soul." Here is the root of its stylisation subjective expression. More potently than any other, the Moscow Theatre can use stark suggestion. More boldly than any other, it knows how to use pure colour. Like Reinhardt, it knows no limits of variety; unlike Reinhardt, it knows not the limits of "discretion."

Stylisation is not the triumphant movement which one might suppose after a glance at the field. It has serious internal difficulties, and none know the fact bet-ter than the stylists themselves. In the first place, just as realism must wreck on the conventions of the drama, so unrestrained conventionalism must wreck on the life-content of the drama. But more serious, a thorough stylisation will usually try to change the play to suit the setting. Given nearly any good play which calls for some degree of variety in the settings, and varied it will remain in spite of the best stylising. If the producer denies this and seeks to make his work thorough, he is very sure to twist his play into something quite different and quite undesirable. His only escape is to write plays for stylisation, which is just what the more extreme producers are crying for. But we can-not help believing that drama wrenched so far from its life purpose for the benefit of the artistically initiated, will soon have but a sorry audience "must at last," to borrow the words of William Morris, "become too precious a thing for even the hands of the initiated to touch, whereupon the initiated must sit still and do nothing, to the grief of no one."

The truth is, stylisation, for the practical purpose of the stage, must be a compromise. It can bring order out of disorder, purpose out of incompetence, meaning out of stupid imitation. It can answer to our awakened sensitiveness in all parts of the art of drama. But it is by its own postulate opposed to nature, and this fault will become more serious as stylisation matures. It must not be allowed to shut out the access of the drama to life to the life of the streets or of the flesh which is the well whence art ever draws new draughts of vigour.

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