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Theatre Of Today - The Artistic Forces: Modern Scene Designing In America

( Originally Published 1914 )



THE application of modern principles of scene designing in American work is a thing of very recent years. It can hardly be said to have arisen from the demand of audiences for more beautiful settings, for American audiences have demanded little beyond realism and sumptuousness in theatrical scenery. The careful and skilful realism of Mr. Belasco has been the American ideal. This is decidedly not without artistic merit, but an artist would probably find Belasco settings cluttered with unpurposed detail. Beyond their desire for illusion in the theatre American audiences have shown a taste for elegance of a some-what obvious kind, and theatrical managers have competed with one another in expensive settings ever since Clyde Fitch paid $2,500 for a solid wood set for "The Climbers." These American tastes, of course, are not necessarily reprehensible. The point is that they would not be those of a trained artist.

The desire for more simple and artistic stage settings in America has grown up chiefly from the work of a few artists who were enthusiastic over European work. Reinhardt's pantomime, "Sumurun," which fascinated and shocked American audiences several seasons ago, first opened the eyes of the general public to the possibilities of artistic stage setting, and the various companies of Russian dancers, chiefly that of Madame Pavlova, have contributed to arousing interest. Gordon Craig's books, too, have had some little circulation in America, and have stimulated interest if not a clear understanding of the author's intentions. The definite demand for settings in the "new manner" was felt only among the audiences of a few experimental theatres scattered here and there throughout the land. As for the "general public," it has been made mildly receptive by what it has seen, but in no wise discontented with the usual American scene.

Among the individual artists the chief influences have been Gordon Craig and Max Reinhardt. The artists who are very serious about it are nearly all young men, men who have been interested in art first and the theatre afterward, who have travelled or lived in Europe and felt the enthusiasm which comes over any sensitive soul in Continental playhouses. Their openings in the commercial theatre have hitherto been few. They had little independent prestige, and managers have not been anxious to allow unknown men to spend time and money on what seemed likely to be only "queer." Miss Anglin is, in America, undoubtedly the pioneer among managers. Having discovered Mr. Platt and his work in Boston, she gave him free hand to design her Shakespearian settings, and received no small amount of recognition for her courage.

Mr. Livingston Platt, who gained his reputation through her recognition, lived for some years in Bruges, Belgium, working and studying at art. There he organised a little English company of actors which toured through the neighbouring cities giving the best modern English plays. Inevitably he came to designing and painting scenery for these plays, and his originality was recognised by the Intendant of the municipal theatre, who invited him to design settings for "Romeo and Juliet." His success in this, with his radical methods of simplification and suggestion, led to a closer connection with the Bruges theatre. After his return to America Mr. Platt worked with Mrs. Lyman Gale in the experimental Toy Theatre of Boston, achieving wonders in colour and lighting on its tiny stage. About the same time he was engaged to do several Shakespearian settings for Mr. John Craig, of the Boston Castle Square Theatre, a manager of remarkable ability and foresight. Mr. Craig accepted Mr. Platt's work for its commercial value, and made his experiment pay in the publicity it brought, though the theatre draws only the audience that is attracted by a moderate-priced stock company. The new settings were seen by Miss Anglin on one of her visits to Boston, and after a trial commission or two Mr. Platt was engaged to do all her designing. Some of his very best work, however, has been done for amateur societies of Boston and the vicinity.

Mr. Platt's style is flexible and highly poetic. It is based on the straight line and the flat colour mass, omitting detail except where detail is specifically demanded. His power to make evident the beauty of a harmonious design is marked. His colours incline to the flat and "discreet," but he is not afraid to use brilliant contrast where it will be effective. His stage picture is held firmly within definite outlines. He is not fond of the "atmospheric" effect. Perhaps his chief originality lies in his use of lighting, which he manipulates with expert understanding. He keeps his footlights as low as American theatres and actors will permit, and uses numerous concealed "spots" for local emphasis with brilliant effect. Moreover he has an equipment in which young designers are apt to be deficient a wide acquaintance with historical styles and "motives." All in all, he may be considered the most able of the young American designers.

Mr. Josef Urban, who for several seasons has been stage director and designer at the Boston Opera House, came from Vienna, where he had worked at the Royal Opera House. Like most of the radical stage designers, he was not trained for theatrical work. He was an architect of wide reputation before he was attracted to the theatre. His architectural training shows in all his work, which is solid and massive, with vigorous outlines and firm execution. He has given the Boston Opera House several seasons more brilliant by far, in all that concerned the stage, than any other American theatre could boast of. The Metropolitan in New York, for instance, has been quite innocent of the "new manner," except for occasional imported settings or designs such as those of Golovine for "Boris Godounoff," or of Roller for "Der Rosencavalier." Within a few months Mr. Urban's stage settings have been seen for the first time in New York, Chicago, and Paris, and have every-where made a deep impression. His sense of style is that of the mature artist. Each of his operas has an aura which is distinctive and is duplicated by no other. His settings are not simple, but they make free use of conventionalisation, as in "The Love of the Three Kings," in which one solid and obvious skeleton of design extends through each of the three scenes. He is one of the first in America to make use of the conventional forestage and raised rear-stage. His peculiarity, sometimes an extreme mannerism, is his use of spotted colouring in the manner of the "pointillistes." He rarely uses a flat surface; the colour is laid on in obvious daubs or "points," which are to some extent bound together into a single tone by the lights. It is a trick frankly borrowed from the easel artist, and, pregnant as it is in atmospheric suggestion, it often accords ill with the very solid and matter-of-fact character of the architectural scene. But Mr. Urban's settings are invariably of fine and dignified beauty, and there is more to be learned from them than from all other American settings put together.

Mr. J. Monroe Hewlett, now associated with Mr. Stevens in the dramatic department of the Carnegie School of Applied Design, made one of the most successful impressionistic settings that has been seen in America. It was the setting for Maude Adams' production of "Chanticler." In it he made extensive use of the much abused gauze drop, but because it was lighted from behind, and especially because it was used by an artist, it became a thing of beauty. Of these forest scenes Mr. Samuel Howe has written:1 "Extreme judgment is shown in the selection of the points to be accented that dramatic strength be given to the scene. The silhouette outline is the thing of great moment. Balance, centre, proportion, scale, qualities dear to the heart of every architect, pay homage to the scheme, entering into it. The stern rule of rhythm and balance is here, appearing, however, in so new a guise as to escape notice. There is about it great depth and richness, great transparency of shadows and shades, great repose, strange absence of irrelevant and disturbing detail; there is also the remarkable characteristic known in the vocabulary of the artist as quality. It states facts in a subtle manner. It does not force itself upon the theatrical world with the startling note and wild abandon which has so often momentarily electrified the audience„ It pleases because of the far reaching influence the infinite tenderness of its illusion, the irresistible winsomness of its portrayal. This gauze, this weaving of a madcap midget, the caprice of a wildly fascinating charmer, is a challenge alike to the imagination, at times revealing all phases of the landscape and again concealing them. It is a mysterious backing to a living theme in which the actor plays the salient part." Mr. Hewlett, be it noted, is one more stage artist who came to the theatre from the outside. He is an architect and artist, and was called upon for help when Miss Adams found herself before a problem beyond the power of professional American scene makers.

The only theatrical man of the older generation who has shown sympathy with the "new manner" and under standing of it, is Mr. J. C. Huffmann. Mr. Huffmann was trained in the ways of the American stage of the nineties, and is a stage director of high standing. But his scenery for Percy MacKaye's "A Thousand Years Ago" gave him a place among the distinguished stage artists of America. The play was written to fit the scenery for Reinhardt's "Turandot," which was expected to be a second "Sumurun" in America. Presently the drama ran away from the scenery and a whole new setting had to be devised. Mr. Huffmann's sympathetic scenes were based on the Reinhardt manner, but were decidedly original in many qualities. They made excellent use of the darkened stage, and showed endless variety in colour contrast. They were the work of a man who was thoroughly familiar with his stage and was able to obtain a surprising number of effects from the old-fashioned equipment.

Perhaps the most imaginative of the young American designers is Robert E. Jones. The sensitiveness of his artistic feeling shows in every line. But he is not a studio scene-designer, for his feeling for the total effect is vivid and is the basis for all his work. It is often extremely daring, though never vulgar. For instance, he directs, in connection with a design for an interpolated scene for "The Merchant of Venice" : "Immediately after the close of the trial scene the curtain rises on this picture: the silhouette of a great bridge along which Shylock passes from right to left, black against a dull red sky, till he is lost to sight in the tangle of masts and ropes. I want this scene to hit your eye, bang! like an enormous poster, and to last but a moment." The scene is done wholly in intense red and deep black! Mr. Jones's work in connection with the Deutsches Theater of Berlin has developed in him a keen sense of the dramatic, which is never absent from his designs, but his originality is shown in what he adds to this a certain element of other-worldly fancy, a stubborn refusal to let the theatre crowd out the independent artist. For his design for Act I, Scene 2 of "The Merchant of Venice," here re-produced, he directs: "Here you see the sky and little else. A shallow flight of steps, leading up to a great round window. Curtains at each side, some red and black cushions. Renaissance chairs. Portia and Nerissa in rose and silver, the servant in black. The chairs in this design are ivory." He will render to the theatre the things that are the theatre's. For the rest he is the artist in his own right. No other American scene designer has in this degree the mingling of theatrical adaptability and independent artistic imagination.

Mr. Samuel Hume, of Cambridge, Mass., for some time associated with Gordon Craig, has designed and made for many amateur productions scenery of remark-able beauty. He is masterly at getting the most nicely adjusted effect with the simplest means. His theories are vigorous and his artistic personality marked, but he rarely repeats himself. He works distinctly from the play outward, and whether for a Japanese, a Restoration or an Elizabethan piece, he always succeeds in giving the production a perfume of its own. His use of colour is free and somewhat that of the easel painter, but the effect it nearly always vigorous and stage-worthy.

Mr. Hume's studio in Cambridge is a type of the artistic impulse which is springing up throughout America. It makes little difference that this impulse is chiefly amateur and has as yet made little impression on the commercial stage. The genuineness of it is proved precisely by the fact that it is amateur. It is only a question of time until the demand for artistic and imaginative settings will make itself felt generally in the professional theatre, and will bring these younger artists to the front rank among American designers.

The vigorous amateur impulse toward the theatre is well illustrated in Professor Baker's activity at Harvard. His course in playwriting is now well known to the general public. The haste of his pupils to reach the professional stage has perhaps hindered the value of this course as an experimental centre, but it is chiefly due to Professor Baker's influence that Cambridge is such a hospitable place for experimental work like Mr. Hume's. Two Harvard undergraduates recently built a plaster Kuppelhorizont in one of their college rooms, equipping it with a complete lighting system, and building and lighting complete scenes. The effects they obtained were nothing short of marvellous. Professor Baker's influence has been only secondarily directed to-ward scene designing, for he has had little or no co-operation from the Harvard Fine Arts department, but his sympathy with all the tendencies of the modern theatre has made the air of Cambridge hum with all sorts of experimental ardour. A complete school of dramatic art in all its branches has recently been organised in the Carnegie School of Applied Design in Pittsburgh, under the direction of Professor Thomas Wood Stevens, who is an artist, dramatist, and scholar of great ability. The vigorous co-operation and financial support offered by the School of Applied Design to the new department has given it a breadth and completeness of equipment which Harvard has denied to Professor Baker's work.

The centres of effort toward artistic scene designing in America are too numerous to mention here. But wherever there has been an experimental theatre there has been experimentation in artistic stage-setting. Mrs. Gale's Toy Theatre, of Boston, for instance, put Livingston Platt on the theatrical map. Mr. Browne's Little Theatre in Chicago has obtained fine results by rigid simplification, and the Lake Forest Theatre, under the direction of Mr. and Mrs. Aldis has had imaginative settings of much beauty. Professor Baker's "47 Workshop" in Cambridge has achieved results of real significance, and the unusually lively Dartmouth College Dramatic Society, making and usually designing its own scenery, has shown the influence of recent theatrical art on the young idea.

It must not be supposed from this enumeration that commercial theatre managers are brutal Philistines, outside the pale of beauty. Unheralded settings for professional productions have often shown a high degree of expressive beauty. The managers have frequently been willing to give generous rewards and great freedom to the artists they employed, but they are business men and cannot afford to risk money on a "freak," at least until the public has shown some demand for it.

It is in gradually arousing this public demand that the experimental centres have been doing their most valuable work. They have been as commercial institutions of art can never be free to make mistakes and consider the loss a gain. The theatre managers will presently be only too glad to employ the services of artists rather than those of handy-men in their productions. And the experiments of the amateur theatres, often crude and usually incomplete, will have had a goodly share in making this result possible.



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