Advertisement

Introduction: Design as Cultural History

Chapter
  • 66 Downloads
Part of the Palgrave Studies in Theatre and Performance History book series (PSTPH)

Abstract

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.

Keywords

Design Profession Material Practice Modern Artist American Theatre American Artist 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

Preview

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Notes

  1. 1.
    Michel Foucault, “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” in Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984), 79.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    For more current histories, see Ronn Smith’s “American Theatre Design since 1945,” in The Cambridge History of American Theatre, Vol. 3: Post World War II to the 1990s, eds. Don B. Wilmeth and Christopher Bigsby (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 514.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Mary Hendersons “Scenography, Stagecraft, and Architecture,” in The Cambridge History of American Theatre, Vol. 2: 1870–1945, eds. Don B. Wilmeth and Christopher Bigsby (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 504–5.Google Scholar
  4. Orville K. Larson’s Scene Design in the American Theatre from 1915–1960 (Fayetteville, AR: University of Arkansas Press, 1989).Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Critic Sheldon Cheney repeatedly uses the term “design” to distinguish the New Stagecraft approach in The New Movement in the Theatre (New York: Mitchell Kennerley, 1914). He writes that New Stagecraft artists create stage settings “by suggestion rather than by naturalistic delineation, by simple design rather than multiplicity and intricacy of detail” (124, my emphasis).Google Scholar
  6. For contemporary definitions of scenography, see Pamela Howard’s What is Scenography? (London: Routledge, 2002; 2009).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Joslin McKinney and Philip Butterworth’s Cambridge Introduction to Scenography (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. 6.
    Arnold Aronson, Looking into the Abyss: Essays on Scenography (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2005), 7.Google Scholar
  9. 7.
    Jo Mielziner, Designing for the Theatre: A Memoir and a Portfolio (New York: Atheneum, 1965), 9.Google Scholar
  10. 9.
    Matthew Baigell, “American Art and National Identity: The 1920s,” Arts Magazine 61 (February 1987): 48.Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    See Marlis Schweitzer’s When Broadway was the Runway: Theater, Fashion, and American Culture (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009) for a detailed history of costuming in the American theatre before the advent of modern design.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. 13.
    Cultural historian Raymond Williams traced the etymology of the term “modern” from its early usage in the sixteenth century, but marks the nineteenth century as the era when it took on its characteristic “progressive ring” in The Politics of Modernism: Against the New Conformists, ed. Tony Pinkney (London: Verso, 1989), 31–32.Google Scholar
  13. 14.
    Steven J. Diner, A Very Different Age: Americans of the Progressive Era (New York: Hill and Wang, 1998), 3.Google Scholar
  14. 15.
    Wanda Corn, The Great American Thing: Modern Art and National Identity, 1915–1935 (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999), xvi.Google Scholar
  15. 17.
    Mary Callahan Boone, “Architecture in the Air: Light Producing Meaning Within the Mise En Scéne,” PhD diss., Bowling Green State University, 1996, 6.Google Scholar
  16. 18.
    Kathy A. Perkins has recovered the work of some African American designers and backstage workers. See “The Genius of Meta Warrick Fuller,” Black American Literature Forum 24, no. 1 (1990): 65–72.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Christin Essin 2012

Authors and Affiliations

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations