“On bloody actions the rude scene may end"[1]: Three Stage Designs for Richard III

The first half of the twentieth century remains the most formative period in theatre design, and this is very apparent in productions of classics like Shakespeare. The vast production history of a play such as Richard III could never be condensed into the pages of this essay; however, what can be discussed is this play’s role at another critical juncture: theatre production. The shift after World War I away from the literal and toward a more symbolic theatre had begun its metamorphosis at the turn of the century, and by examining three productions of Richard III in interwar and postwar theatre design, we will see how the symbolic use of color, light, and shadow in the first part of the century addressed key themes in this classic text—land and Richard’s kingdom, blood, and death.

Director Leopold Jessner’s notable German Expressionistic production of Richard III in 1920 in Berlin embodied the visceral and hyperbolic symbolism that permeated modern theatre design.[2] Adolphe Appia’s “rhythmic spaces”, epitomized in the 1912 Hellerau production of Orpheus, undoubtedly influenced Emil Pirchan, whose ahistorical design for Jessner’s Richard III featured a single flight of stairs with two landings set against a green-gray wall. As the sole scenic element, the steps became a visual indication of the rise and fall of Richard. In this way, the staircase played its own role in the production, inasmuch as it represented Richard’s ascent to power and fall literally through Richard mounting and descent on the stairs.[3] Pirchan’s central staircase was enhanced by Jessner’s bold choice of colored lighting. Throughout the play, the stage was bathed in a red light that intensified as Richard ascended higher on the steps and to the throne and his kingdom. The red lighting was an obvious allusion to Richard’s “bloody actions”, but Jessner eliminated the color during the final scene of the play to call more attention to Richard; the light faded to a bright white at that point, when Richard was at his weakest and fell back to ground level.

Color in costume also reinforced the symbolism of the dramatic lighting and the sparse and striking scenic element. Characters’ individual traits were given an external voice via their wardrobe and outward appearance.[4] Richard, played by the actor Fritz Kortner, appeared at the beginning of the play in a stiff black robe against a black curtain. At the end of the play, Richmond wore white against a white curtain enhanced by pale white light. Viewers envisioned not only the end but also the terror of the afterlife through this overwhelming brilliance.

The peculiar color and lighting techniques of German Expressionism would feed into later American theatre design, and a drawing survives by Robert Edmond Jones of the performance made during a 1920 visit to Berlin. Prior to this trip, Jones had visited Berlin to observe Max Reinhardt’s Deutsches Theatre in 1913; he must have been influenced by the inchoate form of German Expressionistic he would have witnessed, which is visible in his own production of Richard III with John Barrymore as the lead at the Plymouth Theatre in 1920.[5] Oddly, Jones criticized Jessner’s interpretation of Richard III, calling it “symbolism in baby-talk, presentational production in kindergarten terms.”[6] Nonetheless, he must have found the interpretation compelling, as links have been drawn between Jessner’s Richard III and Jones’s Hamlet undertaken later.[7]

Like Pirchan, Jones designed a permanent setting for director Arthur Hopkins’s Richard III. It was the first time the permanent stage setting was used in American theatre.[8] Jones created a pared-down portcullis directly inspired by a visit to the Tower of London. Its visibility throughout the performance meant the massive Tower loomed over every scene. “This moldering gray threat,” wrote Jones’s business partner Kenneth MacGowan, “remained throughout the play. It stood like the empty skull of Richard with the hideous drama within it.”[9] Only out of necessity did Jonse hide the Tower, as when creating a chiaroscuro effect during the battle at Bosworth Field. In Jones’s drawing of this, a bright white light filling the stage—representing the ghosts of those murdered—entirely dwarfs Richard, realizing his inner turmoil and that he has lost his kingdom. This scene most closely recalls the dramatic lighting effects of Expressionism Jones encountered overseas.[10] Jones also took advantage of color in lighting and costume, using a saturated red light in the final scene as a symbol of blood and death over gallows that visually linked Richard’s death with those of his victims. Jones’s costume for Richard, coincidentally similar to Jessner’s, consisted of a long, heavy robe of dark velvet, a surviving still of which does much to suggest his ominous presence on stage even in early acts.

Jumping nearly thirty years forward, we look at another Richard III design for a New York stage, this one never realized. A model today survives of the permanent setting created by the German-born production designer Leo Kerz at the New York City Center Theatre starring Jose Ferrer. The entire play was meant to be enacted on this neutral, sand-colored structure which rotated,[11] and providing a contrast with the blue-green permanent cyclorama in the Theatre.[12] It consisted of circular stairs surrounding a central arch reminiscent of a portcullis as with Jones, with spears of varying heights. Kerz constructed a barded proscenium also alluding to a portcullis, which seemed to invite the viewer into the castle via this entrance. The steps and spires, looming larger than Richard himself, would have enacted his ascent much like Pircham’s design, as well as increasing the impact of his defeat and death. The set’s natural and unassuming color would have become an emblem of the land which Richard conquered and which eventually killed him.

Although elements of the play remain unknown—costumes, color of lighting, etc.—images of the lit model suggest how the set would have operated. Facing forward, the structure looks sober and suggests the height of Richard’s power both in the kingdom and in his mind. Turned one hundred and eighty degrees, the audience glimpses an interior view of the castle and the inward machinations of Richard. Flooded in darkness and rotated another ninety degrees, the structure is an ill omen, perhaps to be used in the final act. Kerz’s design, a single structure alterable by light and shadow as needed by scene change and actors, must have been indirectly influenced by the German and American Expressionistic tendencies of the previous decades in the works of those like Pirchan and Jessner, and Jones and Hopkins.

What is most symbolic of the modern era of theatre in these three performances is the use of the single setting. Without scene changes, the scenic designer's job must fulfill the needs of every act, every scene. These performances illustrate the shift towards an ahistorical form of authenticity. The concern was no longer a visual historical accuracy as in pre-war naturalism but a complete exposure of fundamental values and characters’ inner workings—consider Richard’s emotional struggle and its ties to the lands he conquered, blood, and death. These were highlighted not by elaborate period stages but by the expressivity of light and color against sparse set designs which allowed for greater visual play and which needed only hint at the temporal location of a Shakespeare play.

1. William Shakespeare, King Richard III: A Tragedy in Five Acts (London: T. Hughes, 1823), act V, scene VI.
2. It should also be stressed that parallels were meant to be drawn by the audience between Richard and Kaiser Wilhelm II in the aftermath of World War I, highlighting the evil in such puissance. The undercurrents stemming from a succession of political instability that would become increasingly important in later German theatre and film can also not be ignored. See Joslin McKinney and Philip Butterworth, The Cambridge Introduction to Scenography (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 93.
3. Jessner’s production utilized steps so often, in fact, that the conceit came to be known in Germany as Jessnerstreppen.
4. Such emblematic representation is not surprising, given the artistic milieu of Weimar Germany, as with the Neue Sachlichkeit.
5. Just two weeks into the performance, Barrymore suffered a nervous breakdown and left the production. “John Barrymore Has Nervous Breakdown,” The New York Times, April 3, 1920.
6. McKinney and Butterworth, 93.
7. Arthur B. Feinsod, “Stage Designs of a Single Gesture: The early work of Robert Edmond Jones,” in Theatre and Performance Design: A Reader in Scenography, eds. J. Collins and A. Nisbet (London and New York: Routledge, 2010), 169.
8. Orville Kurth Larson, Scene Design in the American Theatre from 1915 to 1960 (Fayetteville and London: University of Arkansas Press, 1989), 209.
9. Kenneth MacGowan, Theatre of Tomorrow (London and New York: Boni and Liveright, 1921), 132.
10. Two years after Richard III, Jones noted the import of lighting in his own designs when, together with film producer Kenneth MacGowan, he wrote, “To-morrow it may be part of the drama itself.” Kenneth MacGowan and Robert Edmond Jones, Continental Stagecraft (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, Inc., 1922), 68; cited in Christopher Baugh, Theatre, Performance and Technology: The Development of Scenography in the Twentieth Century (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005), 111.
11. This may have been an evocation of the earliest iterations of such apparatuses by Max Reinhardt and his designer Ernst Stern from the turn of the century.
12. Larson, 143.


Baugh, Christopher. Theatre, Performance and Technology: The Development of Scenography in the Twentieth Century. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005.

Feinsod, Arthur B. “Stage Designs of a Single Gesture: The early work of Robert Edmond Jones,.” In Theatre and Performance Design: A Reader in Scenography, eds. J. Collins and A. Nisbet (London and New York: Routledge, 2010), 162-170.

“John Barrymore Has Nervous Breakdown.” The New York Times. April 3, 1920.

Larson, Orville Kurth. Scene Design in the American Theatre from 1915 to 1960. Fayetteville and London: University of Arkansas Press, 1989.

MacGowan, Kenneth. Theatre of Tomorrow. London and New York: Boni and Liveright, 1921.

MacGowan, Kenneth and Robert Edmond Jones, Continental Stagecraft. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, Inc., 1922.

McKinney, Joslin and Philip Butterworth, The Cambridge Introduction to Scenography. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Shakespeare, William. King Richard III: A Tragedy in Five Acts. London: T. Hughes, 1823.