TO BEHOLD THE SWELLING SCENE
The Emergence of ‘Scenography’ in Twentieth Century Theatre
The first version of this paper was given as the opening lecture in the Ferens Fine Art
Lecture series at the University of Hull in 1999. An amplified version, though without
footnotes, is published in issue 3 of the e-journal Scenography International [add URL].
References to other chapters 'in the present volume' are to that issue, with links provided.
What follows here is a further edited version, complete with footnotes and, where relevant, links
to other pages and other sites.
”The Spectacle has, indeed an emotional attraction of its own, but, of all the parts [of drama] it
is the least artistic, and connected least with the art of poetry" (Aristotle, The Poetics)
In 350 BC Aristotle expresses what has been a recurrent source of tension in the field of dramatic
presentation, both among practitioners of the drama, and members of its audiences.
Although from the very beginning – and certainly in the Greek theatre - the elements of costuming,
furnishing, and stage setting – the spectacle – have featured prominently in theatrical presentation,
and have constituted at times the very basis of its popularity, these aspects of production have
generally been adjudged by the critically aware, or, at least, the critically self-aware, as being to a
greater or lesser extent peripheral. Stage Design has received scant attention from the scholars
who have analysed and theorised the languages of the stage. As both Christine White [add link]
and Ellie Parker [add link]argue in their respective contributions to the present volume, there is a
serious doubt – at least among designers and design theorists - whether currently available analytic
tools, including Semiotics, are even adequate to the task
One reason for this -of central importance to the argument of this paper –is that theatrical
performance is at once a real action, and a complex sign for an imaginary action. Semiotics
necessarily concentrates upon the ‘fictional’ nature of the theatrical event, rather than upon the
actual event of performance. In the vast majority of works addressing theatre semiotics, the
direction in which the thinking moves is from signifier to signified. The dimension given massively
less attention is the identity of the signifier as itself - or rather, not as itself, but in itself, - and the
potential of an artistic approach which incorporates the essence, as well as the significance of the
whole action, and of its component parts.
Underlying the many works dissecting the process of signification in theatre, there is invariably the
assumption that the ‘meaning’ of any element of theatre is something other than itself; by definition,
almost , the ‘act of theatre’ means something other than itself.
So, for example, Eli Rozik takes as fundamental to theatre the “ basic distinction between
description and world”, and applies this to both fictional and real worlds:
“As we assume the existence of a real world independent of description in any possible code,
we may also conceive the existence of fictional worlds also independent of the descriptions
that evoke them”.
‘Acting’ , therefore, for Rozik, is
“redefine[d] as an intentional performance of iconic sentences which refer to fictional
entities, ie of iconic he-sentences which reflect the basic duality of actor-character”. .
In speaking of the non-human practical details of theatrical presentation, Rozik places these within
the category ‘Symbol and Metaphor’.
The progressive understanding of the function of space as metaphor has been throughout this
century the spine ( considered as nerve centre as well as backbone) of the development of
scenographic theory, and I have no wish to set my face against the tide upon which I have myself
ridden. Nevertheless, we may derive some insights from the way Rozik discusses, say, light, to
which he gives some attention :
“Light is a usual metaphor of human understanding. In Macbeth the lack of light, which is
one of the central motifs of the play, is loaded with additional lugubrious connotations that
revolve around the invocation of night by Lady Macbeth. Night becomes the cradle of
crime, and light an obstacle to the powers of evil. When the first murderer puts out the light,
an act that makes possible Fleance’s escape, the literal act is loaded with an associative
periphery of foolishness. In the same vein, the taper carried by Lady Macbeth in her last
scene (V i) represents the dwindling light of her soul in its vain attempt to recover sanity.
Lady Macbeth is doomed to the very same darkness she had so fervently invoked. In other
words, the light is a metaphor which is used in this context symbolically”.
This is incontrovertible, and in non-theatrical dramatic production, eg a radio production, this
‘conceptual’ scenography does indeed function solely as metaphor .In the theatre, it is common that
further layers of meaning (using Christopher Baugh’s phrase –see below) may be added by
manipulation of light not specifically arising from textual prescriptions..
What is distinctive about the theatre, however, is that the quality of light is experienced by the
audience, as well as interpreted. The absence of light, darkness, is a fundamental experience,
charged with a multiplicity of ‘meanings’, but also evoking atavistic emotional responses. A
spotlight shone directly at the audience may well ‘represent’ the enlightenment of Paul on the road
to Damascus, say, but it is also actually blinding. The spectator experiences this directly. It is,
therefore, simultaneously , descriptive and actual. In Rozik’s terms, it is both ‘world’ and
Erika Fischer-Lichte writes of stage space and furniture:
“ The signs of decoration thus form a closely knit complex with the proxemic signs that can
potentially materialize. They are what allows the audience to identify the actor’s walking
through the middle of the stage as the way to the door of a house, walking from backstage to
frontstage left as the way to get from the door of the beloved’s room to the dungeon, and
moving in a circle as walking round an altar.”
Once again, this is of course all correct, but it is also true that the actor’s walk is through the
middle of the stage, from back to frontstage, or in a circle. Whatever it may represent, that is what
it is. The action itself may have a directly expressive function, as well as an imitative one, and, as
we shall see, this expressive function is intimately connected with the spatial disposition of actor
As late as 1928, Sheldon Cheney offers his opinion that
" Stage decoration is, in simplest terms, the craft of creating an adequate and appropriate
background for theatric action" .
Although Cheney was singled out by Lee Simonson as one of the ‘prophets’ of the ‘New Theatre’
(see below), the terms used here clearly suggest a perception of stage design, the background, as
distinct from, rather than part of, the ‘action’. We may also note the use of the term ‘decoration’,
which has the same connotations, and which , although later in the work he expressed doubts about
it, Cheney used as the title for his book. So also did Fuerst and Hume, also in 1928. Erika
Fischer-Lichte’s use of the same term in 1992 (supra) is an indication of how pervasive the habit
of speech, and thought, has been.
The essence of the drama, “That within which passeth show” has been taken to reside in the
‘poetry’ of the dramatic text as written by the author, and, latterly at least, as delivered on stage by
In 1932 Lee Simonson, himself a major designer, in one of the seminal works on Stage Design,
“Stagecraft at best is nothing more than the tail to the poet’s kite”.
Simonson’s project in writing this book was largely to counteract what he called the “apocalyptic
fervours” of advocates of a so-called ‘New Theatre’, among whom he included Craig, the Italian
Futurists, and Reinhardt, who had, he felt, and not without some justification, as we shall see,
carried too far their enthusiasm for a theatre in which both director and designer would usurp, as
he saw it, the playwright’s position as primary creator.
There has been a considerable tyranny of snobbery, in that the impact of spectacle is immediate –
‘accessible’, the word used so often to denigrate works of music, art and literature, as though
inaccessibility were some kind of virtue.
Ironically, among practitioners, even the most serious and least ‘spectacular’ of productions is
commonly referred to as a ‘show’: “I’ve got a show opening tonight”, or “What show are you
working on at the moment?” This is quite irrespective of the ‘seriousness’, or artistic ‘status ‘
ascribed to the piece; whether it be Guys and Dolls, Endgame, The Romans in Britain, or A Long
Day’s Journey Into Night, to theatre people it is a ‘show’.
In the history of collaborations between the stagers of ‘shows’, (and of course all theatre is
collaborative, which has been a persistent problem for those concerned with its status as ‘art’)
there have been some lively antagonisms; for instance, Ben Jonson’s Expostulation against Inigo
Jones, whose magnificent scenic fabrications stole his textual thunder, so he felt, in the masques of
the Tudor and Stuart Courts, is only the most famous of many prologues from the pens of his
contemporaries decrying and denying the primacy of stage effects. In the nineteenth century, J.R.R
Planche, to whom I will have occasion to refer again, made more or less the same complaint of the
gold leaf employed by William Roxby Beverly in the extravaganzas which the two created with
Madame Vestris – ‘shows’ if ever there were such.
In the twentieth century, between the wars, interest and experiment in stage design burgeoned in a
flurry of ‘new movements’ and manifestos, with a corresponding resurgent interest in the politics of
theatrical collaboration, but by the mid -20thc the movement toward ‘poor’ theatre – although I
would by no means suggest that Grotowski, instigator of that movement, was not acutely concerned
with the settings of his ‘shows’- was seized upon gratefully by cash-strapped theatre producers
and penniless practitioners who saw in so-called ‘actors’ theatre an artistic validation of their
economic need to dispense with expensive and elaborate stagings- still the chief criticism thrown at
the major opera companies in this country.
Recently, the indivisibility of the performance text from the performance con-text has come to be
re - acknowledged and dignified by serious critical and theoretical analysis.
Unlike directors, to whom verbal communication comes – has to come – easily, designers have not
generally hitherto been articulate about their work, at least in print. More recently, the former
trickle of verbal comment by designers (Appia, Craig, Simonson , for the most part concentrated in
the inter-war period,) has accelerated into a steady stream of works addressing the aesthetic,
political and theoretical significance of their practice. Too much has happened in recent years for
any list to be comprehensive, but a selection is indicative: in 1971 designers in Britain formed The
Society of British Theatre Designers, which has been active in promoting awareness of the work of
designers through publications and exhibitions ( ultimately aimed at the Prague Quadrenniale, but
with two major catalogues now published containing much comment from the exhibiting designers
themselves. In 1989 the Society supported the publication of John Goodwin’s British Theatre
Design: The Modern Age;1985 saw the publication of Arnold Aronson’s American Set Design, in
which the work of a selection of designers is discussed, again with extensive comment from the
designers themselves. In 1994 Josef Svoboda’s The Secret of Theatrical Space was published in
translation by J.F.Burian. More and more frequently, training courses for designers extend beyond
craft-based teaching – Pamela Howard, founder of the International MA in Scenography taught
from The London Institute, frequently uses the term ‘theatremaker’ instead of either ‘director’ or
‘designer’. Stage Design is becoming theorised, the latest of the theatre disciplines to be so, as
‘scenography’, (although, as was pointed out to me recently in an undergraduate dissertation, the
word remains unknown to computer spellcheck programmes.).
In 1994 the International Federation for Theatre Research instituted a Scenography Working Group
at its World Congress in Moscow.
In this paper I aim to chart some of the key stages which have led to the coinage and
establishment of ‘scenography’ , as a term, and as an important theoretical field within Theatre
I had the good fortune on graduating to spend a year as a trainee with the late Michael Elliott,
founder of the Royal Exchange Theatre Company. Acting as my mentor for a production I was
directing, he advised me that the relationship between director and designer was that the director
was the male, and the designer the female, in the creative partnership.
That was in 1969, and he would now quite rightly be arraigned on more than one count for that
remark, but I think his meaning is clear. However, thirty years later, it is equally clear that the
substance of his advice is as untenable as the terms of his analogy.
The title of this paper, taken from the prologue to Shakespeare’s Henry V, is widely read as a
principal statement of Shakespeare’s theory of stage presentation.
It has been differently interpreted.
On the one hand it is taken to indicate the priority given by Shakespeare to the exercise of the
audience’s collective imagination, over actual, or literal, representations of locality or context.
Simonson  suggests that the prologue is something of an apology for an absence of spectacle
such as was currently on offer elsewhere.
Through the nineteenth century, certainly, these chorus passages were read as a rather wistful
expression of Shakespeare’s longing for a technology sufficiently developed to give full realisation
to his grand imaginings. That, as Michael Booth has pointed out  ,the nineteenth century (like
its natural successor, the modern film industry) was happy to supply. The programmes, playbills,
and newspaper criticism of the later 19thc are suffused with a sense that Shakespeare was at last
being done ‘properly’.
This emphasis on ‘propriety’ is a key proposition in the development of Stage presentation.
From 1660, as the professional theatre returned to England after the hiatus of the commonwealth,
various old and new practices were incorporated. Women, of course, appeared as actresses. The
old playhouse shape gave way to a continental, indoor model, derived from dining halls and tennis
courts. The lavish entertainments of the Tudor and Stuart courts – the masques- to which I have
referred, although involving a level of expenditure by and large out of the reach of professional
managements, had at least developed a technology for theatrical spectacle, a sense of what was
technically possible, and a taste for wonderment.
The science of perspective painting was applied to the creation of stage settings, more and more
conceived as representations of the supposed ‘locality’ of the play’s action, and theatre
auditoriums were successively constructed to throw progressive emphasis on the visual – the
During the eighteenth century there were effectively only two theatres operating in London, and
Covent Garden, under John Rich, the virtual inventor of Pantomime, had become the house of
spectacle – of ‘ shows’. However lofty a disdain David Garrick affected for his rival, he felt the
pain where it hurt, in the box-office.
Fortuitously, he was approached by an anglo-Dutch painter, Philippe James de Loutherbourg, who
was interested in taking charge of scenic presentation at Drury Lane. He became Garrick’s
designer, though that term had not yet been coined.
(Neither, of course, had ‘director’, and I have deliberately not corrected here the fact that, in
writing of the relationship between the two, I fell into the trap of referring to de Loutherbourg as
‘Garrick’s designer’. Even for those acutely aware of and sensitive to the issues here, the
terminology is deeply ingrained and, as feminist critics well know, consolidates and perpetuates
De Loutherbourg’s contribution to the development of stage design is given full attention by
Christopher Baugh, both elsewhere and in his contribution to the present volume. My purpose
is to identify two directions –or, rather, two parallel paths of development- in which de
Loutherbourg propelled Stage Design..
In 1779 for The Wonders of Derbyshire, he went out into the peak district to prepare sketches of
localities in the peak – ‘Dovedale by Moonlight’, for instance - which were then worked up into
scenes for the show. He was, of course, a noted easel painter, whose work frequently features
specific localities, as well as the pyrotechnic ‘effects’ of the Industrial Revolution.
Although it had not been uncommon for a half-century prior to this production for ‘actual’ scenes
to be depicted on stage (See Sybil Rosenfeld, 1973, 1981), de Loutherbourg,s paintings had a
This provided, I suggest, two sources of satisfaction for audiences. Firstly, there was that
inexplicable pleasure on seeing in the fictional context of theatre something familiar from the
world outside. “Thus”, as Percy Fitzgerald put it in 1870:
“ when we take our dramatic pleasure, we have the satisfaction of not being separated from
the objects of our daily life, and within the walls of the theatre we meet again the engine and
train that set us down almost at the door; the interior of hotels, counting houses, shops,
factories, the steam-boats, waterfalls, bridges, and even fire-engines”. 
(Whatever acclaim is due Tom Robertson for his address to contemporary social issues, he is
notorious for his ‘real’ door-knobs and teacups, as is Beerbohm Tree for the ‘real ‘rabbits
introduced onto the set for his staging of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.)
Secondly, of great importance through the Industrial Revolution and throughout the nineteenth
century, there was the thirst for information, for knowledge, disseminated by theatre through
vicarious experience. De Loutherbourg’s accurate depictions of the Peak were succeeded by
Capon’s reconstructions of medieval London, Stanfield’s panoramas of the Battle of Trafalgar,
and the ‘antiquarian’ depictions of ancient Athens and Rome in the mid-century productions of
Charles Kean. Any stage production, from the Pantomime to Shakespeare, might be expected to
fulfil a ‘documentary’ function. Accuracy in depictions of the world outside the theatre became
necessary. ‘Authenticity’ in staging began to matter. Rosenfeld cites one critic from the London
Magazine who “ after praising Loutherbourg’s views of Buxton Wells and Poole’s Cavern as
“taken with great exactness”, expressed reservations about the view of Castleton in which the
entrance was “much too beautiful and illumined”.
The second major area of de Loutherbourg’s influence was the impetus he gave to the developing
pictorial sense of theatre.
One of the rather too few extant examples of his work shows the conception of a setting as a
picture of a location, broken up into receding flat planes.
The convention persists of course in English Pantomime scenery, where it is deliberately archaic
and parodic, and, in this century, it was precisely the approach of David Hockney in designing
The Rakes Progress.
("I'm a painter. It's what I do")
Loutherbourg experimented with coloured gauzes placed in front of oil lamps, cut-out pieces to
create lighting effects with only limited technology. He also developed a show , the Eidophusikon,
an early form of son-et lumiere in an eight foot square booth, in which such scenes as Milton’s Hell
could be staged in miniature . (This may be regarded as a direct precursor of such 20thc
developments as Prampolini’s (unrealised) Teatro Magnetico and Svoboda’s Laterna Magika, to
which I shall be returning.)
The theatre was firmly launched upon the path of development which would see the nineteenth
century for ever designated the era of the ‘picture’ stage. Actors retreated further and further from
the audience space, ending up behind a proscenium arch which more and more resembled a picture
A frame is a protective device, demarcating the boundary between art work and spectator/
audience: for Stefan Brecht : “..not only a gesture of specious valuing but a way to save the work
from the world – a cowardly act.”. (Brecht is here contrasting “the enclosed well-and wall-
defined action space of modern agoraphobic theatre” with the outwardly-radiating spatial dynamics
of Peter Schumann’s Bread and Puppet Theatre, emphatically not designed for custom – built
theatre spaces.) More specifically, Erika Fischer-Lichte analyses the significance of the
proscenium in terms of the politics of the performance:
“The box set of the nineteenth century…finalized the complete separation of the two
spheres. The stage space is on one side, where all of the light is directed, and the audience
space is on the other, which is submerged in profound darkness. Consequently, the
individual viewer in the audience cannot see any of the other viewers, nor can the actor see
the audience. As a logical consequence the actor performs as if no audience were present
and thus degrades the viewer to an indiscreet observer who invades the actor’s sphere more
or less without having the right to do so. As a result, however, the theatre loses its ability to
function as a form of the self-portrayal and self-reflection of society.”
Art critic Michael Fried, addressing the question of the painting-beholder relationship, and
considering both nineteenth century French painting and mid 20thc ‘minimal’ art, has repeatedly
argued that excellence in painting is achieved in inverse proportion to what he identifies as its
“In several essays on recent abstract painting and sculpture…I argued that much seemingly
difficult and advanced but actually ingratiating and mediocre work of those [late sixties]
years sought to establish what I called a theatrical relation to the beholder, whereas the very
best recent work[s]…were in essence anti – theatrical, which is to say that they treated the
beholder as if he were not there.”
I will return to Fried in due course. My present point is that, perhaps ironically, not only did the
painting of the nineteenth century treat the beholder as if he were not there, but, in the theatre itself,
this was precisely the effect of the developing and enveloping proscenium arch. In Fried’s terms,
ridiculous as it seems to say so , the theatre was itself becoming ‘anti – theatrical’.
This is of course to use the word in a very particular sense, and, in Allardyce Nicoll’s
terminology, the taste for authenticity, expressed as ‘antiquarianism’, went hand in hand with a
thirst for ever more ‘spectacular’ representations which, in the commonly accepted usage of the
word, were extremely ‘theatrical’.
First John Kemble and then Charles Kean employed the services of JRR Planche, that same writer
of light entertainment who fell out with his collaborator Beverley, and who happened to be a
passionate antiquarian, to ensure that the costuming and setting of Shakespeare’s plays was
achieved with maximum historical accuracy.
(His contribution to the historical accuracy of staging resulted in his election to the Royal College
A short example, taken from many collected by GCD Odell, illustrates the lengths to which this
passion was taken The production in question is Macbeth, presented by Kean in 1853. Odell
introduces the account:
“Beginning with Macbeth…Kean issued with his bill of the play the material used as an
introduction to the printed text; therein every playgoer was informed of the scholarly
reasons why the spectacle was clothed and built in exactly the manner visible on the
stage…It was as good as going to school…”
A short extract from the programme suffices to make the point:
“Party-coloured woollens and cloths appear to have been commonly worn among the Cetic
tribes from a very early period.
Diodorus Siculus and Pliny allude to this peculiarity in their account of the dress of the
Belgic Gauls; Strabo, Pliny and Xiliphin record the dress of Boadicea, Queen of the Iceni, as
being woven, chequer-wise, of many colours, comprising purple, light and dark red, violet
And so on. And on. Pages of it. As Odell remarks, this is “archaeology rampant”.
These monster productions employed a succession of master painters –the Grieve family, Telbin,
Beverley, and Clarkson Stanfield, to name only the most prominent, to provide breathtaking
backdrops, painted under their direction by dozens of assistants.
Their achievements in scene-painting have never been surpassed. The painters , and the scenes
which they painted, received star billing., alongside the play, author and leading players. The gas
lighting which predominated through the nineteenth century provided the ideal softening effect for
the better appreciation of illusionistic painting.
There are notoriously few surviving examples of the scenic art of this period; unlike easel painting,
stage painting is not executed with a view to longevity. The sheer scale of the work, the need to
work with cheap, and therefore fugitive materials, and the constant need to recycle, all militate
against preservation. Some idea of how close was the relation of the stage to easel painting may be
derived from comparison of the composition of the paintings of Vernet (illus?) with the sketch of
Boucicault’s The Shaughraun and the drawing of the staging of a tempest scene from an 1888
French book on staging, Moynet’s L’Envers du Theatre:
(ILLUS’s INSERT AS LINKS):
Evident in all of these is a keen interest in the creation of an illusion of space, with great holes
punched into the picture plane, and a preoccupation with light and atmosphere.
The climax of the period of the ‘picture’ stage, before its translation to the cinema, was the period
at the interchange of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the time of Beerbohm Tree and Henry
Irving. Tree achieved fame, if not notoriety, for the lavishness of his spectacles. I have referred to
his real rabbits. Both he and Irving engaged Alma –Tadema as designer in recreations of ancient
Rome. Christened as ‘toga’ plays by David Mayer , these productions translated easily into
Irving achieved more lasting stature as an actor than did Tree, but was also famous in London and
Paris as a great metteur en scene, whose productions were written about in fine art journals. His
own mastery of the pictorial aspects of production is fully recounted by Michael Booth:
"He knew exactly what he wanted to achieve in every line and with every scene, and would
go to infinite lengths of trouble in order to obtain it....[he] usually fitted in his own part in
the latter stages of rehearsal, and to others never seemed to spend any time rehearsing
himself. Nevertheless, his conception of his own role was as clear as his conception of
everything else, and he always knew in advance precisely how his figure and costume would
become a distinctive and vital part of stage groupings and gain particular emphasis from
Booth quotes Bram Stoker's account of expressing his doubts to Irving about the Brocken scene in
the 1885 production of Goethe’s Faust, which he felt was shaping up to appear rather drab, with
dull grey and green costumes. Irving's reply, as quoted by Stoker, was as follows:
"I know the play will do... As far as tonight goes you are quite right: but you have not seen
my dress. I do not want to wear it till I get all the rest correct. Then you will see. I have
studiously kept as yet all the colour scheme to that grey-green. When my dress of flaming
scarlet appears among it -– it will bring the whole picture together in a way you cannot
dream of. .. You shall see too how Ellen Terry's white dress, and even that red scar across
her throat, will stand out in the midst of that turmoil of lighting"
Irving’s pictorialism incorporated, rather than rejected, historical accuracy; he maintained a firm
commitment to archaeological accuracy in staging , and he had his own comments to make on
" With regard to scenery I have endeavoured to adhere to the principle which has always
guided me, namely, that to meet the requirements of the stage, without sacrificing the
purpose or the poetry of the author, should be the aim of those who produce the plays of
Shakespeare; and I trust that any change which I have ventured to introduce on this
occasion in the ordinary scenic arrangements has been made in the spirit of true reverence
for the works of our greatest dramatist. All such changes have been suggested either by the
text of the play itself or by the descriptions of the chroniclers from whom we know that
Shakespeare derived most of his incidents. As to the period chosen for the costumes, we
read that Macbeth was slain by Macduff on December 5th, 1056; I have therefore taken the
11th century as the historical period of the play" .
Authenticity was of course what the entire Naturalistic movement was about, and in this sense the
theatre was simply one strand in the developing European artistic braid. In summarising its
intentions Fischer-Lichte once again suggests much by her choice of terms:
“The theatre of Naturalism… provided a detailed, as it were authentic, reproduction of
actual interiors, which had the function of portraying as precisely as possible the milieu that
determined the actions, attitudes, values and views of the world of the characters” (my
The impatience with ‘convention’, and the quest for ‘truth’ very quickly led to a preoccupation
with illusionistic detail. The “décor exacte” famously demanded by Zola in settings, costumes
and properties was universally literally interpreted.
Importantly, unlike all of the other arts, with the possible , though at the time not yet realised,
exception of sculpture, the theatre had the potential to deploy real objects as simulacra for
themselves. (Thus, for example, the fictive pistols of General Gabler may be represented on stage
by a pair of real pistols. To this semiotic construct Keir Elam has given a name: “The theatre is
perhaps the only art form able to exploit what might be termed iconic identity: the sign-
vehicle denoting a rich silk costume may well be a rich silk costume…” ) (author’s italics)
In the ‘picture stage’, this often led to uncomfortable clashes of convention ; the introduction of
real furniture into a scene in which even persons in a crowd might be illusionistically painted, for
instance, gave rise to a deal of criticism. Strindberg’s complaints about painted kitchen
implements, first presented in French to audiences at Miss Julia in 1883, are well enough known.
In this conflict of convention, the ‘real’ triumphed over the ‘false’, as both were then identified, and
on the Naturalistic stage of the late nineteenth century we find, notoriously, real sides of beef
hanging up in an abbatoir scene, real plate glass mirrors behind the bars of French cafes, and,
where the real object simply could not be introduced, highly sophisticated techniques for
To the satisfaction of seeing the real object out of context is now added that of astonishment at
how such accurate simulations are achieved. The virtuosity of the scenic artist becomes, like the
coloratura of a star soprano, a delight for audiences dazzled by cleverness. For the practitioner,
too, this is all very beguiling. The lexicon of techniques for the simulation of anything from stone
walls to tree bark allows for quick returns, in that the success of the artifact is apparent, and
measurable, in a way that abstraction is not.
That this is an ‘as it were’ authenticity (Fischer Lichte, supra) was brought home to me by
audience reaction to a piece of my own work. A production of Osborne’s Look Back in Anger
click for pic provided an opportunity to experiment with the reproduction of damp walls, greasy
linoleum, and so on, to reproduce as convincingly as possible (though within an architecturally
improbable arrangement) a dingy mid-fifties attic flat. The results (illus) received generally
favourable comment. Nevertheless even some of the more enthusiastic audience responses were
indicative . Many people expressed admiration for the way in which the period and environment
had been represented. Some half – dozen, however, had noticed a flaw .
But not all the same one. On the contrary, each had noticed a different point of – to them –
discordant detail: “Did they have curtains like those in the fifties?” “Had plastic washbaskets come
in by then? “ “ Would they have had a yellow teddy-bear?” And so on.
The last ‘would they..?’ is the fundamental question of Naturalism, explicitly separating, in Rozik’
s terms (supra) the ‘world’ of the play from the ‘description’ –the performance. ‘Authenticity’, the
yardstick to measure quality of achievement or experience, derives from outside the performance
On such evidence it is hard not to agree with Aristotle, that the satisfactions derived from this kind
of spectacle have little to do with the “art of poetry”.
In the early part of the century, that point was not lost upon some practitioners and scholars to
whom it was already clear that a more ‘authentic’ authenticity in the application of stage design
was both possible and necessary.
They did not start altogether from scratch.
Even earlier, at about the same time as Charles Kean was staging his grandly-realised antiquarian
productions of Shakespeare at the Princess’s Theatre, Samuel Phelps managed the much less
lavishly- appointed Sadler’s Wells. Lacking the resources which enabled Kean to employ ,
according to his own account, as many as 550 people in the realisation of his spectacles, Phelps
displayed resourcefulness and imagination. Odell  recounts his commissioning of 80 wax
heads from Madame Tussauds, costumed , and carried by forty ‘extras’, each holding two of these
effigies, in order to swell a march of soldiers from 40 to 120. His production of Macbeth in 1847
employed gauzes to much-acclaimed effect in the witches’ scenes, as did, six years later, A
Midsummer Night’s Dream , which presents an interesting contrast with Kean’s production
referred to above:
“And not only…do the scenes melt dream-like one into another, but over all the fairy portion
of the play there is a haze thrown by a curtain of green gauze…placed between the actors
and the audience, and maintained there during the whole of the second, third and fourth
acts. This gauze curtain is so well spread that there are very few parts of the house from
which its presence can be detected, but its influence is everywhere felt; it subdues the flesh
and blood of the actors into something more nearly resembling dream figures…throwing the
same green fairy tinge, and the same mist, over all”.
Clearly there is here an address to what Fuerst and Hume later called (below) the “inner mood” of
the play, rather than to any external reality. The setting functions directly, and poetically, in the
totality of the experience of performance.
The same scenic impulse informed the great music dramas of Richard Wagner, in which the
settings are more even than an interpretation of the drama: they were conceived alongside the
music, and the dramatic narrative, and are integral to the whole. As Fuerst and Hume wrote in
“the stage settings were not invented (as in the case of Romantic opera before Wagner), for
the mere pleasure which they gave to the eye, for with Wagner the setting has become for
the first time an actor in the drama...
Here the stage decoration acts, it plays a part.; something which it had never done before.
Moreover we can find in it a tendency toward psychological expression, toward the creation
of a mood".
We might do well, of course, to keep in mind George Bernard Shaw’s point, that the aquatics of
the Rheinmaidens, and all the other mythical/magical passages, would have been impossible- in
fact, inconceivable- had not the technology been developed in the extravaganzas and pantomimes
on the popular stage. Nevertheless, as Richard Beacham points out, in spite of the fact that he
assumed total artistic control of the staging of his works, established the revolutionary
Festspielhaus in which to stage them, and concentrated the attention of the spectator by darkening
the auditorium, :
“by placing his performers within a relentlessly illusionistic scenic environment where little
or nothing was left to the imagination, he ensured that, visually, the settings could never
express the inner spiritual world suggested by the music”
What Wagner imagined yet remained to be realised. In Appia’s words, he “cracked [the] mould,
but by no means destroyed it.”
‘Psychological expression’ and ‘the creation of a mood’ are the most obvious characteristics of
the work of the two titanic figures who might equally lay claim to the title of demiurge of twentieth
century stage design, both in theory and practice.
Much has been written both by and about Edward Gordon Craig, and it is not my present purpose
to evaluate his contribution to the theatre. The spectrum of opinion ranges from Simonson’s
criticism of his arrogance and impracticality to the celebration of his vision by, among others,
Christopher Baugh in the present volume.
Craig is notorious for outspoken and deliberately contentious comment, in particular about the role
of the actor in the production enterprise, for which he envisaged a hierarchical model of
organisation, with, at the head, a master mind whom he called the Stage Manager, whose role and
multiple required capabilities he outlined frequently, principally throughout the first and second
dialogues on The Art of the Theatre.
The drive toward ‘authenticity’, however defined, essentially consisted in progressive
subordination of the several constituent elements of theatrical presentation to the production
envisioned as a whole. In other words, it is a move in the direction of artistic coherence, and the
notion of an ‘art of the theatre’; and the concomitant notion of an ‘artist’ of the theatre introduces a
new question of authorship. The written dramatic text comes to be regarded as a part of, sometimes
referred to as a blueprint for, the performance text, and the notion of the author, although it has not
entirely given way ( as happened in 20thc film criticism) has certainly given ground, to that of the
'‘auteur”. Although it was to be some time before that particular terminology was to be applied to
theatre, it is the unmistakeable foundation of the work of Craig. I can see no alternative
interpretation of the ‘third day’ referred to by Baugh page, notwithstanding Bablet’s cautionary
reminder that the ‘stage –director’ was always conceived as an “…interpreter (Craig never for a
moment suggested – as he has so often been accused of doing- that stage production could
be an art in itself)”.  (original orthography)
In his visions (notoriously under-realised in his lifetime , for reasons mercilessly demonstrated by
Simonson , who, as aforesaid, fiercely resisted the whole concept of ‘auteur–ship’ in the theatre
and held Craig in particular contempt ) there is no interest at all in an authenticity based upon
the detail of surface reality .
His locations are abstracted, simplified, and grand.
Above all they are designs for performance events and in them we find a preoccupation with mood,
atmosphere – in essence, with the experience of the spectator.
Craig’s contemporary Adolphe Appia, in his enterprise to stage Wagner’s music dramas more
‘authentically’ than had Wagner himself, similarly eschewed anything resembling Naturalism .
In direct contrast to the wealth of detail provided in the antiquarian classic productions, and while
Naturalism demanded, above all, the explicit, Appia embraced simplicity, ambiguity, mystery, in
which the spectator is made aware of elements of the set selectively.
His own account of the staging of Tristan und Isolde is now among the most celebrated and
influential passages in the history of theatre:
"It is essential for the spiritual conflict involved that some form of representation be found
which allows it to be successfully dramatized. Moreover the audience can be made directly
aware of the inner or spiritual action involved only by some form of scenic investiture which
is based upon the dramatic line of the play”
This seems obvious enough to us now, but it is remarkable how often, even ten years after the First
World War, practitioners and critics feel the point still to be worth making. For example:
" to express, by visual means, the psychological essence or inner mood of the play had (post-
war) become the principal concern of the stage setting."
Appia’s own writing has by now been comprehensively translated, analysed and interrogated; even
before this, however, the principles he propounded had become the foundation upon which the
work of the majority of modern scenic artists is built, even though many may even yet be unaware
of their source. In Simonson’s words: “Practitioners of stage-craft were converted by a set of
illustrations to a gospel which most of them never read”.
In further quoting from the Tristan passage, I wish to draw attention to Appia’s choice of language,
rather than to the specifics of the staging he describes:
“Picture the stage at the rise of the curtain: A great torch at stage centre. The somewhat
narrow stage space is filled with enough light so that the actors can be distinctly seen,
without dimming the brilliance of the torch and above all without dimming the shadows
which this source of light casts. The forms which demarcate the stage setting are seen only
hazily. The quality of the light veils them in an atmospheric blur. A few barely visible lines in
the stage setting indicate the forms of trees. Gradually the eye becomes accustomed to this;
above, it becomes aware of the mass of a building in front of which one perceives a terrace.
During the entire first scene Isolde and Brangaene stay on this terrace and between them
and the foreground one senses a declivity, the forms of which one cannot identify clearly.
When Isolde extinguishes the torch the entire setting is enveloped in a monotonous half-light
in which the eye loses itself without being arrested by a single definite shape. Isolde, as she
flies towards Tristan, is enveloped in a mysterious shadow which intensifies the impression
of death that the right half of the stage has already induced in us. During the first ecstasy of
their encounter both remain on the terrace. At its climax we perceive that they come toward
us imperceptibly from the upper terrace and by means of a barely noticeable ramp reach a
lower platform further in the foreground…..
Then, when their desire is sufficiently appeased, when a single idea possesses them and
when we become increasingly aware of the death of time, only then do they reach the
foreground of the stage where we perceive for the first time a bench that awaits
them………Whether as a result of our visual reactions induced by the gleam of the torch and
the shadows it casts, or whether because our eye has followed the path that Tristan and
Isolde have just traversed, however that may be, we become aware of how tenderly they are
enfolded by the world about them.”
(all italics are mine)
The phrases I have italicised are all concerned with the experience of the spectator, and the
majority are expressed as active verbs –“we see”, “we become aware” and so on. The staging here
is not authenticated by reference to historical accuracy, or in terms of an author’s, actor’s or
director’s intentions. The contrast with the passages quoted above from Charles Kean and Henry
Irving, which valorise the production rather than the performance event, is obvious. To take up
again the terminology of Michael Fried, Appia’s approach carries back into theatre the ‘theatrical’
, insisting upon the acknowledged ‘presence’ of the spectator. Moreover, his language echoes
Walter Pater’s in describing the evanescence of the artistic experience:
“…Pater defined the art object as something we know only through “impressions, unstable,
flickering, inconsistent, which burn and are extinguished with our consciousness of them".
He was never interested in anything of "solidity" ”but only in "experience itself...that
continual vanishing away, that strange perpetual weaving and unweaving of ourselves"
In practical terms, the whole experience depends upon a completely new importance given to light,
and to form as defined by light in terms of atmosphere and shadow, which is described as a
Appia had his first opportunity actually to stage a Wagner opera in 1923, when he designed the
production of Tristan und Isolde at La Scala.
As Richard Beacham has recounted, conservative Italian audiences didn't like it:
" .. ,there was little understanding, and less sympathy, for Appia's settings amongst the
opera going public, although they received a more mixed response from the critics, ranging
from one who termed them "ridiculous, shameful, pretentious and oppressing to the eye" to
another who praised them for their " poetic use of light, psychological intimacy and sense of
Spectators were perplexed by the relative drabness of colour, the absence of elaborately
painted scenery, and the austere simplicity of the decor"
Of vital importance to Appia was the recognition , not only of the presence of the spectator, but
equally of the plastic reality of the human presence on stage; what he termed the actuality of the
actor. The word is important. Appia’s use of it is echoed by Richard Schechner ‘s coinage of the
term to denote particular kinds of performance event in which the lived experience is
foregrounded, rather than a fictional , or imitated action. Beacham has noted the influence of Appia
upon Schechner, Chaikin , The Living Theatre, and others concerned with analysis of the
Appia, half a century before Schechner, was concerned with reality itself; the verbs which I
emphasised in the Tristan passage quoted above relate not to an image, or a fictional reality, but
to an actual event, the performance, and treat three dimensional form, and space, its
complementary opposite, defined by light, as more than context for the event; they are integral to it.
“Light, just like the actor, must become active...Light has an almost miraculous flexibility...
it can create shadows, make them living, and spread the harmony of their vibrations in
space just as music does. In light we possess a most powerful means of expression through
space, if this space is placed in the service of the actor".
Important also is the fact that the actor is a moving object.
As Appia's starting point had been the music-drama of Wagner, rhythm was obviously of vital
importance. In 1906 he met Emile-Jaques Dalcroze, who had developed a series of rhythmic
exercises into his system of 'eurhythmics'. The two worked together on a system of space, light and
movement which resulted in the establishment of the institute at Hellerau, for which Appia
designed a great Hall for the presentation of performances,50m x 16m, 12m high, in which,
crucially, there was no proscenium to divide audience from actors. Sharing the space of
performance, the audience to some extent ceased to be spectators, and assumed, at least to a
degree, the role of participants in the totality of the performance:
“Up until now, all we have asked of the audience has been to sit still and pay attention. In
order to encourage it in this direction, we have offered it a comfortable seat and have
plunged it into a semi-darkness that favours the state of complete passivity...If the
playwright and those who perform his work are to bring about a change of direction - a
conversion - then the spectator must, in his turn, submit to it ( the awakening of art in
oneself) too. His starting point is himself, his own body. From that body, living art must
radiate and spread out into space, upon which it will confer life.
Put simply, Appia’s contribution to the development of twentieth century scenographic practice
may be regarded as threefold:
1)The development of the concept of expressive and flexible lighting
2)The importance of space, and the plastic (sculptural) reality of the stage setting.
3)The emphasis upon the spectator as agent in shaping the experience of performance.
Although known to Craig , Appia’s writings were not widely known until after the publication in
1932 by Simonson of the translated Tristan passages. Beacham in the preface to his Adolphe Appia
, lists subsequent translations, the earliest of which, into English, appeared as late as 1960. So
it is no surprise that, in 1928, five years after the La Scala production of Tristan, Friedrich Kiesler
is still grappling with :
"the antinomy "picture stage"…..
[which] “has remained generally unnoticed. For stage is space, picture is surface. The
spatial junction of stage and picture produces a false compromise, the stage picture .
And the general uncritical acceptance of the contradiction "picture-stage" shows how
greatly we need the apparent pleonasm "space-stage" (which arises naturally in contrast to "
picture stage"); for this designation calls attention to the fact that, despite its thousands of
plays, the stage is not yet what it should be: that is, space by whose relative tensions the
action of a work is created and completed" 
Writing in the same issue of the journal in which this article appeared the Italian, Prampolini,
argued for a theatre in which scenic elements were the entire means of expression, eliminating the
human performer altogether:
"I consider the actor a useless element in theatrical action and moreover one that is
dangerous to the future of the theatre.
The actor is that element in interpretation which offers the greatest unknown quantities and
the smallest guarantees....THEREFORE I DECLARE THAT THE INTERVENTION OF
THE ACTOR IN THE THEATRE AS AN ELEMENT OF INTERPRETATION IS ONE OF
THE MOST ABSURD COMPROMISES IN THE ART OF THE THEATRE.
The theatre, in its purest expression, is a centre of revelation of mysteries,-tragic,-dramatic-
comic,-beyond human phenomena.”
Simonson’s alarm, faced with these italicised capitals, is perhaps understandable.
The Magnetic Theatre enterprise which Prampolini planned to carry out his experiments belonged
at least as much to the world of Fine Art as to the theatre, and together with the 'installations'
originating with the artists of the Bauhaus developed and continued into what we variously call
now 'performance art', 'time-based art', and so on , all based, not on the interpretation of a dramatic
text, or on the provision of a platform for acting, but on a totality of performance experience which
may or may not have a conventional, orthographic text, and may or may not have performers
recognisable as 'actors.' This carries its own body of criticism, and its relation to theatre is
continually shifting, and consistently problematic. As ‘fine’ artists have, from at least the mid-
century, become less and less concerned with the artifact qua object, and more and more with the
experience of art, the several arts may well be seen as having approached synthesis. This has
concerned critics like Fried, whose 1967 essay Art and Objecthood concluded with three
“ 1) The success, even the survival of the arts has come increasingly to depend on their
ability to defeat theatre. This is perhaps nowhere more evident than within theatre itself,
where the need to defeat what I have been calling theatre has chiefly made itself felt as the
need to establish a drastically different relation to its audience….
2) Art degenerates as it approaches the condition of theatre…
3) The concepts of quality and value – and to the extent that these are central to art, the
concept of art itself – are meaningful, or wholly meaningful, only within the individual arts.
What lies between the arts is theatre”.
In Russia, the theatre provided for the artists of the revolutionary Constructivist movement an
opportunity necessarily denied them by the real world.
“The one area of creative endeavour in which it was possible to realise experimental
syntheses of ‘new ways of life’ with corresponding total environments was the theatre”
In the theatre, the Constructivist model for social and economic organisation could be realised in
miniature, in effigy . As shamans in Malaya conjure evil demons into little paper boats and send
them out to sea, so here the theatre could offer a context for the creation of simulacra of wished-for
social models . It is not a great surprise to find Simonson expressing a sceptical view:
“Outside of Russia, where collectivism is not a dominant creed, constructivism has been
imported and accepted as an art form. Nevertheless…it has failed to become an appropriate
setting for accepted masterpieces. And the playwrights who hail it as a great liberation and
write scenes that can be interpreted only on trestles, chutes and elevator-shafts, invariably
write empty and pretentious allegories”.
Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes had continued into this century the notion of the stage as picture, with
stage settings and costumes very much related to the easel painting of the time, and created by
some of its foremost practitioners: Braque, Utrillo, Picasso, Derain, to name only a few.
The denial by the revolution of the validity of beauty detached from functionality saw the
introduction of a style of setting which was more than background to the actor, and more even than
a platform for acting., closely related as it was to a new style of acting., the ’biomechanics ‘, of
Beside providing interesting arrangements of levels and spaces, in turn providing ‘opportunities’ to
actors, the settings made their own statements. They did things.
The most famous example is of course Liubov Popova’s set for The Magnanimous Cuckold,
produced by Meyerhold in 1922, a wonderful semi-abstract working construction reminiscent of
things children used to make out of Meccano, or various other model-making systems involving
sticks and wheels and rubber bands.
Where have they gone, in our world of virtual reality and Tomb Raiders?
(The question is serious. The entire thrust of this paper depends upon the movement in art from
the virtual to the actual; much available entertainment has moved in precisely the opposite
direction. When the Rolling Stones finally succeed in reproducing themselves as holograms, will
they cease to perform in concert?)
In that working collaboration between Meyerhold and Popova we see an instance of a working
partnership in the theatre in which the physical reality of the setting is inextricably bound up in the
artistic experience, and closely related to the actor and the manner of performance. Arguably, this
had not occurred to anything like this extent since the seventeenth century achievements of the
Italian stage and the English court.
In some of the other experiments of the constructivist theatre we see another interest, though again
of necessity confined to maquettes and sketches, in the reshaping of performance spaces to make
possible different relationships between the audience and the performance.
This, like Appia’s later theories, transcends mere aesthetics, in an address, unsurprising in
revolutionary Russia, to the politics of theatrical presentation At around the same time, in 1920,
and also influenced by Appia, Copeau rebuilt the stage and auditorium of his Vieux Colombier
theatre, effectively destroying the division between the two, and situating spectators and
performers very much in the same space.
As. Sayre points out, in commenting upon Fried’s repudiation of ‘theatre’:
“…one of the distinguishing, and to him disturbing, characteristics of performance art is its
ideological thrust. If art gives priority to the audience – the masses, as it were – then art
must also divest itself of its more elitist assumptions, which tend to be defined in terms of
the academy –that is, traditional literary and art criticism – most especially of the academy’s
privileging of the art object as a formal, autonomous, and authoritative entity”.
The urge to break down the actor/audience demarcation in space was a step in the direction of a
similar ‘de-privileging’ of the theatrical performance, essentially also ideologically-driven.
So far in the course of this paper I have had cause to refer to four publications from the year 1928.
In Germany in that year Brecht’s Threepenny Opera was first produced at the Theater am
Schiffbauerdamm. Of this production, Christopher Baugh has written:
"This was the first production in which the idea of an entire staging achieved the status of a
"model" - not only from a personal sense of pride (and copyright) but in the important sense
that the setting could exist as a layer of meaning within the text; a layer which is as
contributive, and therefore perhaps as inappropriate to separate from future productions as
the dialogue and Kurt Weill's musical score"
Of the three designers principally associated with Brecht, Caspar Neher was the first and is
generally held to have been the most important.
At the time that they were collaborating it was Neher’ s practice to be present at Brecht’s
rehearsals, at which he constantly produced sketches of ‘the play’ – groupings of actors, setting
and so on. It is no exaggeration to say that , no longer merely ‘expressing the mood and spirit of
the play’, his drawings are the developing play.
Like the drawings and etchings of Craig, they are ideas for the performance event, though in this
case they are part of an actual rehearsal process, for performances which did actually take place,
and produced by a designer who was very much part of a collaborative effort.
Brecht was scathing about the production process which then obtained, and still overwhelmingly
obtains, in mainstream theatre
"Normally the sets are determined before the actors' rehearsals have begun, 'so that they can
start', and the main thing is that they evoke an atmosphere, give some kind of expression,
[and] illustrate a location; and the process by which this is brought about is observed with as
little attention as the choosing of a postcard on holiday. If at all, it is considered with regard
to creating a space with some good possibilities for performance...
[ On the other hand]
"The good scene designer [Buhnenbauer] proceeds slowly and experimentally. A working
hypothesis is based upon a precise reading of the text; and substantial conversations with
other members of the theatre, especially on the social aims of the play and the concerns of
the performance, are useful to him. However, his basic performance ideas must still be
general and flexible.
This is how a good stage designer [Buhnenbauer] works. Now ahead of the actor, now
behind him, always together with him. Step by step he builds up the performance area, just
as experimentally as the actor.
Brecht’s early plays are collectively known as the Lehrstucke , or ‘learning plays’ (not, as this
word is often translated, ‘teaching’ plays. In the context of the present paper the distinction, which I
am indebted to my colleague Tony Meech for pointing out to me, is of clear and vital importance.)
Baugh makes the observation:
"Lehrstucktheater is radically one without an audience, since the act of theatre is seen as a
dialectic: an active process in which the audience take upon themselves the role of
interpretation and in effect become actors. This contrasts with traditional views of
practitioners and theoreticians, which suggest that the theatre has, as its base procedure, a
series of strategies designed to manipulate its audience in a variety of predetermined,
'getting the message across' ways."
This is a crucial point, particularly as it is still more than common to find theatre directors
speaking of their role as ‘orchestrating’ the emotional experience of the audience.
“the job in hand is to create or build a scene as an integral component of a play's
dramaturgy and which therefore should be considered an act of performance: as 'a
combination of thinking and active intervention The scenographer will be responsible with
others for the building of theatre 'gests' involving a combination of variable performance
elements. This is a significantly different attitude from that which aims for a composed stage
picture, with its assumption that the designer is responsible for the 'setting' which stands on
the stage and which provides a sympathetic and appropriate environment in and on which
performance can occur."
Both the design and the photograph of The Threepenny Opera clearly show the inclusion of a
feature of Stage Design which has not appeared in the course of the present survey, although not,
of course, then used for the first time. I refer to the enlarged pieces of text which appear as part of
the design, and which provide comment upon the action.
This is an emphatic move away from the notion of the stage setting as a credible location for
imaginary dramatic action. It is not a depiction of ‘place’ at all, except insofar as the physical
reality of the billboards defines the ‘real’ space. Quite literally, the setting is here making a
statement, and is ‘uncoupled’ (I use the word deliberately, for reasons which will become apparent)
from the dramatic narrative, though very much part of the performance event.
This is an example in theatre of what in painting is termed ‘collage’, and functions in much the
same way. Of collage in painting Sayre remarks:
“…as William Seitz put it in the catalogue to his ground-breaking and visionary exhibition of
1961 The Art of Assemblage, the introduction of collage materials into the canvas ”violated
the separateness of the work of art, and threatened to obliterate the aesthetic distance
between it and the spectator…It must be conceded that, by the introduction of a bit of oil
cloth and a length of rope [in Picasso’s Still Life with Chair Caning], the sacrosanctness of
the oil medium suffered a blow that was as deadly as it was deft”
I have said that the establishment of ‘propriety’ was increasingly a guiding principle of stage design
from the mid- seventeenth century. The tendency was toward a feeling of security; audiences knew
what to expect, and received it with confidence. The process of recognition is essentially
affirmative. The deliberate introduction of the apparently in-appropriate, in the form of written text,
discordant object, or enlarged image, like Picasso’s ‘bit of oil-cloth’, forced a new level of
attention. The ‘passivity’ attributed to audiences by Appia (supra) is now disturbed by perplexity,
or even indignation.
For his setting for the 1967 musical Hair the Chinese-American designer Ming Cho Lee
constructed, not any structure resembling any building or place in America, but a scaffolding
structure upon which was hung a riotous assembly of images of American life, jointly and
severally delivering a statement in counterpoint to the dramatic and musical narrative. 
The German designer Wilfried Minks placed a huge pastiche of Roy Lichtenstein’s Rat a Tat Tat
behind the action of Schiller’s Die Rauber ( Bremen, 1966) and hung images of fighter planes
over the stage for the Volksbuhne production in 1967 of Hochhuth’s Soldaten . In these instances,
two taken from the dozens which are available from the Sixties onwards, the setting is both context
and counterpoint to the stage action. Its physical reality is the actual locale of the drama, while its
complex significations weave in and around the words of the author and the actions of the
performers, making, in the mind of each member of the audience, individual structures of meaning.
This process has been for more than fifty years the principle underpinning the work of the Czech
designer Josef Svoboda, now widely regarded as the greatest living stage designer.
Smetana’s The Bartered Bride, presented by the Grand Opera of the Fifth of May in Prague,
“…created a scandal. My scenography employed a blue cyclorama in front of which shone a
sun made of thin wood strips resembling those at the bottom of a potato basket…..large
blossoms of suspended sunflowers created an instantly intimate setting for Marie’s and
Jenik’s ‘faithful love’.
His design for Zimmerman’s The Soldiers, in Munich 1969, displayed giant texts, photographs of
sweethearts and prostitutes, surrounding and dwarfing the human actors. This was the first of two
occasions upon which he worked on this play. Of the second production he writes:
“The Soldiers, both in subject matter and music, is a classically dissonant work about a girl
who dreams of a beautiful life but ends as a prostitute serving army barracks…..I worked
wth purely theatrical means. Nine simultaneous scenes in three three-level constructions
made use of the huge elevator lifts in the Hamburg State Opera. The vertical movement of
these constructions, which had no walls, resulted in confrontations and compositions which
helped to create the atmosphere of normal space and time Concurrent with the story of an
unhappy girl in bygone days was an ever-relevant indictment of a world that not only has
soldiers but, more important, requires them.”
Clearly here the stage setting is deployed as a highly sophisticated instrument, both for the creation
of mood and the transmission of meaning.
Svoboda’s own book The Secret of Theatrical Space was published in English translation in 1994,
and, for the insights it provides into a great designer’s working principles, immediately took its
place alongside the writings of Craig and Appia , to whom, in many respects, Svoboda may be
regarded as natural successor.
In his work the collage principle, the juxtaposition, or fusion, of distinct and discrete elements, is
exploited to the full:
“ I proceeded to uncouple skeletal construction from pictorial image. I made of them two
antithetical elements so contrasting that one denied (in fact, excluded) the other. And if they
did create a whole, then it was a distinctly artificial whole. I made no attempt at a synthesis
or a homogeneous form. My directorial collaborators of the Theatre of the 5th May did
exactly the same. They shattered the illusionistic pseudo-coherence of theatre, de-articulated
its individual genres, with which we could then freely build, handling them contrapuntally,
or merging realities that at first glance seemed incompatible- the past with the present,
historical styles with elements of modern civilisation...It enabled us to work with the
elementary components of theatre and to parody theatre with theatre
In direct challenge to Wagner’s concept of gesamtkunstwerk, and Craig’s unified ‘art of the
theatre’, Svoboda asserts:
" The basic difference between the synthetic theatre of the 30s and our efforts at the end of
the 50s and 60s was in fact right here: E.F. Burian for example wanted to achieve synthesis
by erasing the boundaries between individual arts, to create a new homogeneous form from
analytically dispersed elements. We, on the other hand, insisted on a purity of discrete
elements, with their impressionistic union to be completed in the eye and mind of the
More than any designer since Craig and Appia, Svoboda has engaged in a ceaseless enquiry into
the part design plays in the performance event, as well as a more specific programme of
experiment with available technologies. The following two extracts from his book make clear the
importance he ascribes to both:
After the war we all felt a driving need to continue where the pre-war avant garde
prematurely left off. We wanted to develop their discovery of dramatic space...but we were
already searching for our own new alphabet, namely the laws relating to the movement and
transformation of scenography during the flow of dramatic action"
"The union of art and science is essential and vitally necessary for our time. It provides art
with a rational basis and helps us to carry our investigations further. If I need a cylinder of
light on stage with a dispersion of less than one degree at its base, I need to gather an entire
scientific and technical team to construct such a cylinder. Only with such a team were we
able to put together a hollow cylinder of light for TRISTAN UND ISOLDE in Cologne in
That the example given here is of a production of Tristan und Isolde strikes me as particularly
In the Laterna Magika, created in 1958 to provide an exhibit for Czechoslovakia at the World’s
Fair, Svoboda provided himself with a laboratory in which to conduct experiments in the
juxtaposition of expressive forms:
" We decided to put together a very special theatrical presentation.. We would articulate the
relations between actions on a screen and on the stage as neither mechanical nor illusionary,
neither illustrational film projections (a la Piscator) nor a naturalistic illusion of reality. Film
would remain film and the stage the stage; we would simply exploit the manner in which we
joined the actions on stage with those on the screen"
Svoboda has dreamed of an “atelier theatre…which, as I see it, I'll no longer succeed in
building, [which] would be an architectonically neutral space and would make possible a
different relationship between audience and stage for every production'
On the other hand, he recognises:
"Europe won't be tearing down its historic theatres, nor will it build new theatres in large
numbers, and so we have to keep seeking new variations for the functions of old theatre
Nevertheless, it has been a central concern of stage designers and, often enough –or almost enough-
architects, to work in, or create, spaces – ”ateliers”- in which the physical relationship of audience
to performance space may be altered . This has become possible on a grand scale in the
Schaubuhne in Berlin, in which almost any conceivable configuration or resizing of the space may
be achieved electronically, and it is central to the thinking behind the flexible studio theatres which
appeared throughout the world from the mid nineteen- sixties.
In them it is possible to continue the address to those questions of politics and aesthetics made
necessary by Appia’s recognition of the theatre as an interactive act of creation. On the whole,
however, at least as most of them were conceived, they offer limited possibilities for (only)
conventional forms of staging. More recently the restrictiveness, and prescriptiveness of even these
adaptable spaces have been more keenly felt.
Many have rejected conventional theatre spaces altogether – Peter Brook and Ariane Mnouchkine
are the best known of those who have occupied, either temporarily or permanently, old, unused,
sometimes derelict or delapidated former factories and the like. On occasion – notably, for
instance, in the case of Pieter Stein’s production of As You Like It, audiences are required to move
around, change seats, shift position in order to focus on particular passages of action. 
Writing of the period from 1970-75 Giorgio Strehler was able to claim:
"Our Recent history allows us great possibilities of theatrical expression, as opposed to the
prejudices which once obliged us to hold to a single style. This explosion, this infinite
multiplication of possibilities - which, at first glance, may seem a diffusion of effort but, on
the contrary, allows us to gain the open spaces - is perhaps the most extraordinary
phenomenon of our time".
This expansion of possibilities in staging convention has not taken place without the involvement
of playwrights, many of whom now deliberately challenge notions of ‘normal’ time and space.
Indeed, it is now difficult to confer the status of ‘auteur’ upon any member or members of the
production team. In the modern theatrical experience ‘auteur-ship’ is a collaborative and
interactive function, and includes, crucially, the audience as active in creating their own
experiences. For Simonson, “The reality of a theatrical performance is itself an illusion….”
This remained, and still remains, the case for as long as the ‘reality’ of the play is conceived as
something other than the performance event itself:
“ The playwright's imagination is never confined to the frame of any stage. He sees with his
mind's eye. He will, for. the sake of having his play performed, accept any compromise or
any degree of illusion, however inadequate, that a particular type of playhouse can give
him. But when he writes 'sky," it is the actual heaven he sees and not a back-drop or a
plaster cyclorama. The stars glitter; he does not waste a minute wondering whether they are
to be miniature electric bulbs, silver spangles, or to be projected by a lantern slide, whether,
in fact, they can be reproduced at all. When he writes "forest" he treads an actual wood
where love-letters can be nailed to the bark of trees and he can sit on stumps, gather flowers
and leaves, hear birds sing, or lose his way. He is never impeded or inspired by the thought
of how any of this can be achieved with paint, canvas, or papier mache' screens, or cloth
draped in folds…A play occurs first of all when it is written. It is enacted in the mind of the
playwright before it is acted in front of an audience. Before it is performed in the theatre it
has already taken place.”
In this theatrical model, the staging of a performance is indeed the ‘tail of the poet’s kite’; perhaps,
without the tail, the kite might even fly a little, though not well. Simonson’s playwright is blithely
unconscious of, or indifferent to, the practical complexities of realising his/her (for Simonson, of
course, it is ‘his’) imaginings, or, more importantly, innocent of the potential of performance.
In his analysis of the essence of the theatrical experience, Simonson reveals the misconception that
informs his hierarchical construct of theatrical processes:
“For audience, playwright and actors are engaged in a tacit conspiracy every time a play
begins, united in saying, ‘Let’s pretend; let’s make believe’. Once that resolve is taken and
the interest of an audience is sufficiently aroused, the audience does believe in the reality of
what it sees and hears. Everything on the stage, by the magic that a successful drama
communicates, becomes what it pretends to be.”
This is right, but not in the way in which it is meant. The modern audience does indeed believe in
the ‘reality of what it sees and hears’ – because that is what it sees and hears. The notion that any
element of a stage presentation ‘becomes’ something that it ‘pretends to be’ is, at best, patronising
to an audience conceived as passive and manipulated spectators and auditors.
The truth is that no part of a kite is more or less essential to its flight than any other. Many
contemporary playwrights conceive of their art in this light, seeing themselves, not as the first of a
succession of authors (interpreters) of a text, but as participants – leaders, perhaps – in the
creation of the performance experience.
The great achievement of the theatre up to the 20thc was to achieve synthesis, so that it became
conceivable for Gordon Craig to write of the art of the theatre.
The dramatic discovery of our century has been to recognise the diversity of experience within the
one performance event. There is no longer ‘an’ art of the theatre.
So, to conclude, we find that after all Aristotle is right, if we apply that meaning of the word
‘spectacle’, which implies a non-participating ‘spectator’. The modern theatre cannot afford,
however, so to conceive of its audience, since the one distinctive feature of ‘live’ theatre - the
only one which cannot better be achieved by other media, is the very presence of the audience. To
continue in any sense to pretend that the spectator is ‘not there’ is a denial of the one element
which, as we approach the millenium, gives the live theatre a reason to survive.
To return to my specific theme, the function – or functions - of design, of costume, setting, sound
and light have come to be acknowledged as central , rather than peripheral, to the art of stage
presentation. They are recognised as a new language , or, rather, they are newly recognised as a
very old language, which has, like all languages, its own poetics.
I can do no better than to give the last word to Josef Svoboda:
"The designer's participation in production has had the most varied designations. The
Germans, and we Czechs, following them, have referred to stage "outfitting"...in English-
speaking countries "stage design" is the usual term; in France,"decoration". These terms
reduce a designer's collaboration to "framing" the dramatic work, rather than sharing in its
complete creation.....To render a more precise, more complete, and more meaningful
designation of our artistic role, I prefer the term "scenography".
 Rozik, Eli The Language of the Theatre Glasgow Theatre Studies Publications,
University of Glasgow, 1992 page ref
 ibid. p.45
 ibid page ref
 Fischer-Lichte, Erika, The Semiotics of Theatre, Indiana University Press, 1992.
Originally published as Semiotik des Theaters,1983, Gunter Narr Verlag, Tubingen.
 Cheney,Sheldon Stage Decoration 1928, Chapman & Hall,London. Opening
 Fuerst ,W.R & Hume ,S.J.,XXthc Stage Decoration , 1928, London, Alfred A. Knopf
 Simonson, Lee The Stage Is Set, 1932, Harcourt, Brace & Co, reprinted 1946, p40
 Planche, J.R.R. Reflections and Recollections, vol.2, 1872, p 135
 Grotowski’s attention to the detail of his scenography is painstaking. He
famously insisted upon:
“elimination of plastic elements which have a life of their own (i.e. represent
something independent of the actor's activities) [which] led to the creation by the
actor of the most elementary and obvious objects. By his controlled use of gesture
the actor transforms the floor into a sea, a table into a confessional, a piece of iron
into an animate partner, etc." Grotowski,Jerzy, Towards a Poor Theatre.
Richard Schechner comments, additionally, "Surely the need for scene design in our
theatres is an attempt to overcome the limitations of ready-made space as well as an
outlet for mimetic impulses. A strong current of the new theatre is to allow the event
to flow freely through space and to design whole spaces entirely for specific
performances. Grotowski is a master of this, using very simple elements and
combining these with meaningful deployment of the audience and precise
movement of the performers so that the spatial dynamics of the production
metaphorize the drama". Schechner,R. Actuals:Primitive Ritual and Performance
Theory. In THEATRE QUARTERLY v1 no.2, 1971.
Simonson, Lee, op cit p37
 Booth, M. Victorian Spectacular Theatre RKP 1981 p30-31. In this work Booth
gives the best available account of the close interrelationship of pictorial art to the
stage throughout the Victorian period.
 Baugh, C., Garrick and Loutherbourg, Theatre in Focus series, Chadwick-
Healey,1990, also Philippe James de Loutherbourg and the Early Pictorial
Theatre: some aspects of its cultural context in Themes in Drama no9, The
Theatrical Space, C.U.P 1987, pp99-128
 Rosenfeld, Sybil A Short History of Scene Design in Great Britain, Blackwell 1973,
Georgian Scene Painters and Scene Painting, C.U.P., 1981
 Fitzgerald, Percy Principles of Comedy and Dramatic Effect , Tinsley,1870, p12,
quoted in Booth, op. cit. P15
 Rosenfeld, S., 1973, p 92.
 Brecht, S., Peter Schumann’s Bread and Puppet Theatre in TDR vol 14 no3 (T47)
 Fischer-Lichte,E.,op cit p.100
 Fried, M. Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of
Diderot. U. California Press 1980 Introduction, p5. See also notes 32, 33
 Odell, GCD Shakespeare from Betterton to Irving, vol 2 Dover 1966, reprinted
from Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1920 p 329-330
 Mayer, D. Playing Out the Empire: Ben Hur and Other Toga Plays and Films, O.U.P. 1994
and British Theatre in the 1890s, C.U.P. 1991
 Booth, op. cit, p 101
 ibid p 121
Irving , writing in The Times quoted by Odell, op.cit. p440
 Fischer-Lichte, Erika, op cit p106
 Mainly, and most eloquently, in Le Naturalism au Theatre, 1881
 Elam, Keir The Semiotics of Theatre and Drama , Routledge, London and New
 Fitzgerald, Percy The World Behind the Scenes,1882?, Chapter 1, passim.
 Odell, G.C.D., op. cit., vol 2, p315
 Account from Henry Morley, The Examiner, Oct 15, 1853, quoted here from Odell,
Fuerst and Hume Twentieth Century Stage Decoration, 1928 page
 Beacham, Richard, Adolphe Appia, Artist and Visionary of the Modern Theatre
1994, Harwood Academic Publishers, p11
 Appia, Adolphe Theatrical Experiences and Personal Investigations, in Beacham,
Richard, op cit p43.
 Simonson, op cit pp309-344. The title of this section ‘Day-Dreams:the Case of
Gordon Craig’ is indicative.
 Bablet, Denis, The Theatre of Edward Gordon Craig, 1962, translation Daphne
Woodward, Heinemann Educational Books, 1966, p 78
 see note 34
 Appia, Adolphe , quoted in Simonson, Lee, The Art of Scenic Design, Harper &
Bros. New York 1950,p.20. Trans. Simonson.
 Fuerst & Hume op cit ref
 Simonson, Lee, (1932) p353
 Appia, from Simonson (1950) pp22-3
Fried M., op cit, passim, as well as Art and Object hood, in Minimal Art: A Critical
Anthology, ed. Battcock, G., Dutton, N.Y., 1968
 Sayre, H.M. The Object of Performance: The American Avant-Garde since 1970,
U. Chicago Press 1989, Introduction, p 1. The references in this article to Michael
Fried were prompted by Sayre’s critique in this introduction.
Beacham, R. (1994)p146-147
Schechner, R. op cit
 Beacham, Richard, op cit (1994)p266
 Appia ,Actor ,Space, Light ,Painting quoted Beacham, op cit p 94
 Beacham, Richard, op cit pxiii
 Friedrich Kiesler, Debacle of the Modern Theatre, in The Little Review, Winter
1926, pp 65 & 70
 Prampolini The Magnetic Theatre and the Futuristic Scenic Atmosphere, in The
Little Review, Winter 1926, p 105
 Fried, M. Art and Objecthood op cit pp139-143
 Lodder, Cristina Russian Constructivism Yale U.P. Newhaven & London 1983,
p170 , chapter entitled Theatre as the Assembled Micro-Environment.
 Simonson, (1932) p93
 Sayre, H.M. op cit page ref
 Baugh, C. Brecht and Stage Design; the Buhnenbildner and the Buhnenbauer in
Thomson & Sacks (eds) The Cambridge Companion to Brecht , C.Up. 1994 ,
Brecht, Gesamwerke vol xv pp442-3 trans Baugh and Juliette Prodham, in Baugh,
Baugh, ibid, p 237
ibid p 239
 Sayre, H.M. op cit p8
 Ming Cho Lee quote from Aronson and ref.
 Svoboda, Josef The Secret of Theatrical Space,1993, trans J.F. Burian, 1994,
Applause , ny ,p.42
 ibid, p 80
 ibid, p 16
 ibid, p 21
 ibid p 15
 ibid p17
 ibid p110
 ibid p 20
 ibid p19
 Paterson, Michael, Peter Stein, in the series Directors in Perspective, C.U.P. 1981
 Strehler, Giorgio quoted in Stage Design Throughout the World 1970-75. ed.
Hainaux, Rene, English edition 1976, Harrap. P 7.
 ibid. p38
 ibid, p48
 For the notion of ‘successive authorship’ I am indebted to Amelia Morrey,
currently researching for PhD at the University of Hull, and also a playwright
whose work engages with many of the questions raised in this paper.
 Svoboda, op cit p 14.