Playgoers in the contemporary theater are asked to do very little work. For the most part we can check our imaginations with our hats. We do not have to clothe our dramas in settings of our own imagination, as the Elizabethans did. Dramatists today rely upon the collaboration of scenic artists. They do not need to exhort us, as Shakespeare did the groundlings of Elizabeth's day, to "piece out our imperfections with your thoughts." We take it as a matter of course that when the curtain is raised we shall see a stage meticulously set to meet the needs of the particular play which is to be acted. And it is made very easy for us to pretend that the curtain is a fourth wall removed from the room inhabited by those characters whose fortunes we are asked to follow for a brief two hours.
We are thoroughly aware that the room we look into, as through a giant keyhole, is not an actual room, and that the forest in which this or that scene occurs is not an actual forest. But this does not disturb us; in fact, we accept this convention of the theater quite automatically. For as Coleridge pointed out, the fundamental premise upon which the theater depends for the illusion it creates, is a "suspension of disbelief" on the part of the audience.
Among those who today make it very easy for us to accept the illusion of the theater are the stage designers, whose job it is to realize the intentions of our dramatists in visual terms. Present-day designers belong to a comparatively recent development of theater art. They are products of a movement -known defiantly enough as "The New Movement in the Theater" -- which, due to the inspiration of such leaders as Gordon Craig and Adolphe Appia and the Russian painters who turned to the stage at the end of the last century, has changed the course and emphasis of the modern theater.
When the Hallams, a company of English actors, first came to this country in the middle of the eighteenth century, most theaters relied upon six regulation changes of scenery which were the standbys of their repertories. These changes, which were so essential to the operation of all American playhouses, were mothered by the production needs of the time. Historically they were derived from the three types of setting invented in the sixteenth century by the Italian, Sebastiano Serlio, and were similar to the changes of scenery used by the French dramatist, Molière. They consisted of a wood, a street, a parlor, a kitchen and a palace. There were three wings or side scenes at each side, and borders above. As the nineteenth century went its way settings became heavier and heavier and increasingly realistic. Of this realistic tendency Belasco was the great exponent in America. His duplication of a Childs restaurant led Arthur Hopkins to complain that the only remarkable thing about such settings was that they were not real.
Modern theater design has come a long way from the days of hack scenepainters who used to set our stages with wood-wings and backdrops painted in false perspective. It is happily different in purpose and execution from the work of those daubers who in the smaller vaudeville houses and older stock companies used to spend their lives painting thyroidal leaves on fish-net borders and drop curtains of the Grand Canal on which advertisements for chewing gum, scalp lotion and baby powders rudely challenged the temporal sway of the Doges. Theater designers today are artists who must be judged by the power of imagination and selection which they show as interpreters working in a challenging medium.
They realize the fallacy of the older two-dimensional settings which the Hallams were accustomed to employ, which such a charming dilletante as Major André used to amuse himself by painting, and which were standbys even in the nineteenth century theater. They know that these backdrops took everything into consideration except the three-dimensional bodies of the actors who played in front of them, and that these actors seemed to grow larger instead of smaller as they walked away from the audience and approached those lines which converged on the backdrops at the scene-painter's whim. They do not esteem the overdocumented and cluttered settings by means of which David Belasco sought to reproduce reality behind his footlights. They have turned their backs on mere photography.
Since the first years of the World War, contemporary American stage designers -- men such as Robert Edmond Jones, Lee Simonson, Norman-Bel Geddes -have brought a new beauty and a new technical standard into our theater. To the ranks of these designers, and to such of their contemporaries as Aline Bernstein, Livingston Platt, Raymond Sovey, Cleon Throckmorton and Woodman Thompson, has come a second generation of scenic artists, headed by Jo Mielziner and Donald Oenslager, to whom a third generation is even now about to be added, with Albert Johnston as its already established leader. The New Movement is, in other words, old and the points for which it battled are now as dead as only victorious causes in art can be. But because of these men and women, and the high gifts they have brought the theater, our contemporary stage is a far more stimulating and satisfying place than it would ever have been if they had not believed in themselves as artists, and if as artists they had not succeeded in having their say behind the footlights.
Examples of the work of these designers show how vital a part they play on our modern stage. Robert Edmond Jones' setting for Mourning Becomes Electra suggests, in terms which are glowingly theatrical, the parallel between the New England house of the Mannons and the palace of Agamemnon. In his project for the theatrical presentation of Dante Divine Comedy, Norman-Bel Geddes has, with the fervor of a poet, translated a poet's dream into visual terms. In Lee Simonson's railroad bridge in Liliom realism is seen at its selective best. In Jo Mielziner's set for Yellow Jack the production of a many-scened chronicle play about science is not only made possible but heightened by the varying levels of a "sculptural stage."
In Donald Oenslager's backgrounds for The Emperor Jones the trees increasingly take on the primitive Congo forms that take possession of the mind of O'Neill's hero. These examples do not, however, make clear special problems which the stage designer must face in the execution of his work. A scenic artist cannot simply make a sketch -- a charming sketch of a room, for instance, with flowing stairs, high windows, a great door at the back, and figures posed in vague but graceful attitudes -- and consider his job done. His job is much more extensive and more difficult than his sketches on the walls of an exhibition room may indicate.
Although, like the painter, he achieves his compositions within a frame, that is, within the proscenium arch, the stage designer cannot create an arbitrary and unchanging arrangement as the painter can. The painter builds up his composition, confident that it will remain fixed, stationary, as he paints it. His problems of arrangement do not include that of movement, the actual movement of figures against the background he designs. The stage designer, on the other hand, must think and compose in terms of movement. He must not only accommodate his backgrounds to the shifting positions of single actors, but make them equally hospitable to large crowds.
He works in terms not of one grouping but of many groupings. His setting must house not one action but many actions, and serve the full flux of the unfolding drama. His composition is also subject to changing effects of light and color. He cannot depend, as the painter can, upon one unchanging source of light or the fixed values that certain colors possess. The designer's first thought must be whether or not his scheme has theatrical as well as compositional values. Does it meet the requirements of the text? Does it have the asset of display, which can transform a mere coming on to the stage into an entrance? And will his colors, which seem so pleasant in his sketch, maintain their values when they are subjected to the changes lighting will effect?
But the designer's work is not completed with the making of the design. The stage designer's drawing is, as Lee Simonson once observed, only "a record of intention." It gives no indication of the actual work he must do. For when he has settled on his ground plan, had it approved by the director, the managerproducer, the carpenter, and often by the leading actor, made blueprints for every scene in elaborate detail, and tracked down the proper furniture and accessories, the scenic artist still has plenty of work ahead of him. He must get bids from the studios at which his scenery is to be painted; superintend the painting; see that the carpenters are not making his columns square when they should be round; make certain that everything will be done on time; make arrangements to have his scenery carted to the right theater; look after its hanging, its lighting; and be ready to make those last minute shifts and readjustments which, for one reason or another, always seem to be necessary in the theater.