Introduction: Design as Cultural History

Part of the Palgrave Studies in Theatre and Performance History book series (PSTPH)


Until the end of the nineteenth century, American theatrical design was largely the province of unknown craftsmen. While audiences understood that individuals worked behind the scenes to create stage decors, they would not have been able to identify them in the same way as they would artists who displayed in galleries and museums. The repetition of decorative scenic backdrops and bourgeois drawing rooms seen on Broadway stages gained little notice in a national theatre culture that defined artistry as the domain of actors and, occasionally, play-wrights. But as the United States entered a new century, artists promoting a “New Stagecraft” announced their presence and proclaimed their intent to reform the American theatre. Using aesthetic theories and techniques they observed in avant-garde European theatres, these designers (no longer mere “decorators”) became leaders in America’s commercial and nonprofit theatres, prompting audiences to reimagine the potential of a modern theatre freed from painterly decor and drawing room replicas. Inspired by modern painters—Cezanne, Van Gogh, Duchamp—and modern theorists of the stage like Adolph Appia (1862–1928) and Edward Gordon Craig (1872–1966), they developed a new visual language to express a subjective world of emotions below the surface; they experimented with the stage, framing actors’ bodies against abstract shapes; they focused electric light to define performers’ bodies and bathe the stage in color.


Design Profession Material Practice Modern Artist American Theatre American Artist 
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© Christin Essin 2012

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