Making the Scene: A History of Stage Design and Technology in Europe and the United States
This handsome volume is both an impressive coffee table book with an almost endless progression of illustrations, and an often fascinating text book covering theater design from ancient Greece to modern day.
Its impressive coverage of the past, however, sets you up for serious disappointment once you get about 300 pages in. That is when the tone seems to shift from conspicuously comprehensive to a skimming of the most recent developments in the field in a brief 40 pages.
This massive effort (nearly six pounds for its 10 inch by one foot pages of heavy glossy paper) is the product of three authors supported by the Tobin Theatre Arts Fund of the McNay Art Museum of San Antonio, Texas. University of Texas at Austin’s Oscar G. Brockett is the author of a major history of the theater. San Antonio’s University of the Incarnate Word‘s Margaret Mitchell is a scenic and costume designer in her own right. Linda Hardberger is the director and curator of the Tobin Collection of Theatre Arts.
Their treatment of theater design in ancient times in Greece and Rome provides interesting insights that may come as a surprise to even some scholars who haven’t focused on the design issues, thinking that stage technology began and ended with the deux ex machina. There’s plenty of detail on medieval developments for both indoor performances in churches before the introduction of pews (which meant plenty of floor space for set pieces) and out of doors where scenes on carts paraded past audiences.
Beginning with the Renaissance, the authors spend all the space needed to clarify issues of the evolution of perspective painting and its impact on set design. They also go into the beginnings of special illumination that preceded the invention of the vari-lite computerized, refocusable, fan-cooled spotlight by some 400 years.
All of this is copiously illustrated with contemporary drawings, paintings, sketches, diagrams and photographs. Many color plates are gorgeous and the collection is worth poring over with care.
Each of the major chapters covering the first two millennia of stagecraft devote sufficient space to cover their period and then take a diversion in a few pages printed with a gray background. For the first five chapters, the switch from white pages to gray also signals a switch from design issues to a fascinating discussion of the audiences during the age involved. The changes in the makeup of the audiences had a major impact on how the practitioners of stage arts approached their tasks and the discussion of those audiences throughout the ages is revealing.
Beginning with chapter six, as the authors turn their attention to the “Rivalry of Opposites” in the battle between neoclassicism and romanticism, the gray pages change to a discussion of the impact of technological developments – particularly those of stage lighting. Illumination changed both what designers could do and how they did it. Thus, the discussion of the developments from candles to gas and from the famous “limelight” to electricity had a great impact on stage painting and special effects.
There are multi-page discussions of such fascinating offshoots of stagecraft as mammoth panorama and movie palaces which John Eberson, designer of the Penn Theatre’s facade that still graces Washington’s Pennsylvania Avenue, called “atmospheric theatres.”
Then, just as the narrative enters the period the reader may actually have witnessed, the book stops being comprehensive and skims over the most recent developments with a frustrating sketchiness. Computer-Assisted Design (CAD) gets a one-column sidebar. “Experiments with Virtual Reality, Holograms, and Video” gets a mere two paragraph discussion.
Notable designers of the last part of the last century such as Jo Mielziner and Ming Cho Lee do get a bit of attention, and Maria Bjornson’s sketch for The Phantom of the Opera is reproduced as are some designs by Tony Straiges, Robert Perdziola and Richard Hudson. But it is hard to feel satisfied with a history that comes up to the current day that doesn’t even mention luminaries from Boris Aronson to Tony Walton and only mentions Oliver Smith to say that Max Reinhardt worked with him or only mentions Joseph Urban in reference to the design of a movie theater.
The failure to discuss Trevor Nunn’s production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Woman in White may be due to its financial failure. However, it’s fully movable all-white set onto which colorful videos were projected to create both interiors and exteriors which shifted as the playwright or director wanted, was clearly a taste of things to come.
No such financial blinders can be blamed for the failure to even mention the work of John Napier (Equus, Life of and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, Les Miserables, Miss Saigon and, of course, Cats).
Pity one more chapter couldn’t provide the sense of completeness that the heft of the volume leads you to expect.