October 11 -Early Modern American Scenic Design and New Stagecraft


Primary Sources

Robert Edmond Jones, Chaps. I, II, III, and VII, in The Dramatic Imagination p. 15-65, 131-48

Lee Simonson, Chap. 4 "The Role of the Scenic Designer," in The Stage is Set p.96-127 (reserve book)

Secondary Sources

Orville Larson, Scene Design in the American Theatre from 1915 to 1960 p.1-181 (reserve book)

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. p. 162-70 (reserve book)

Liam Doona, "Hope, Hopelessness/Presence, Absence," in Theatre and Performance Design: A Reader in Scenography. p. 178-87 (reserve book)

NY Times Visual Analysis of Jones's design of Schoenberg's The Hand of Fate (We will talk in class about this image as a model for doing your analysis of three play designs)


Arnold Aronson, "Architect of Dreams: The Theatrical Visions of Joseph Urban," in Looking into the Abyss, p.132-60 (reserve book)

Mary Henderson, Mielziner: Master of Modern Stage Design (reserve book)

Mary Henderson, Theater in America, p. 192-218 (reserve book)

Other Resources

Jo Mielziner Papers at NYPL

Motivator Post and Images

Motivator 1: Sara

I felt that the Simonson and Jones excerpts complemented each other really well, though I found the Jones a considerably more enjoyable read. The vignettes he offers, set at various points in an imagined theatrical history (eg. Ook, Glup, and Little Zowie), illuminate the issues of relevance that Simonson discusses. Each writer grapples with the issue of reviving recreating an emotional response that fully realizes the potential power of the drama in question and manages to bridge the temporal distance and supposed apathy of the contemporary audience. I initially understood Simonson's opinions to be an extension of the idea that there are no human universals (which we encountered at some point in previous readings, but I can't find exactly where), and so Jones' statements were a welcome perspective. Both authors concur that stage settings present more than mere pictorial contributions, assuming a communicative and integrative role in the production that seems to be neither passive nor active—though dynamic in the sense that they operate as an interpretation and evocation, they are not meant to override or subsume the acting or the text.

Jones writes of discarding settings that "act all through a play," and instead advocates introducing them to the audience and then leaving the drama to stand alone, perhaps even having the settings disappear entirely (145-7). His comparison to the mode of radio performance is useful and interesting, but I'm not sure how to resolve these notion with, for instance, his designs for Richard III or Macbeth where his sets remain unchanging (in a larger sense) throughout the entire play and almost become an actor in themselves. Where they are meant to serve as a constant symbolic reminder, as well as a "backdrop" for the action, and almost as a character in themselves, is the audience really intended to forget about them? Or does Jones feel that their constant presence will relegate them to the audience's subconscious?


I also wonder whether when Jones describes modern playwrights as "explain[ing] away" the drama of the theatre (39) he's referring to the same situation that Simonson laments, where "the details of setting a stage have become an integral part of of the technique of playwriting itself" (119). When did this development take place, and is it really so pervasive as Simonson implies? While I can understand that this could certainly be limiting, and Simonson explains this well, it seems that this incorporation also indicates a higher regard for and/or recognition of the importance of scenic design. I'm confused also by the way in which he bemoans the lack of unity in style among playwrights—why should this be a negative thing? And what exactly is this "uniform theatrical art" for which he appeals (126)? He earlier suggests that the "solution" to designing for a given production is fully dependent on the location and audience, their preconceptions and familiarity with the subject, so I'm a little uncertain about what constitutes his ultimate ideal. And he definitely doesn't seem to subscribe to the "self-effacing attitude" that Larson assigns to the group of artists to which he belongs (178).

The Larson was really helpful in providing context for the New American Stagecraft movement, particularly in explaining the realistic tendencies the reformers reacted against and the European precedents for the movement's development, as well as in delineating the changing role of the scene designer (or rather, the emergence of the scene designer out of the scenic artist-craftsman). It offered several interesting anecdotes (like when Mielziner, the producer, and the playwright traipsed around the Brooklyn waterfront to discuss the setting of Winterset), and I was intrigued by the various exhibitions of stagecraft that occurred in the first decades of the century.


Curious about the implications of this as far as changing perceptions of the designer and the opportunity to generate wider understanding of designers' goals, I found that Lee Simonson's 1932 exhibit at MoMA drew over 40,000 visitors.

While helpful, I found the book to be a little ponderous, particularly in the later chapters that read almost like a "who's who" in theatrical design; I imagine it attempted to follow a chronological organization, but the way in which Larson introduces one designer only to drop him after a paragraph and then come back to him ten pages later is a little disconcerting. Moreover, the writing in general lacks transitions to the extent that it's difficult to discern any kind of overarching narrative. The afterword pulls it all together, but still. Or maybe I just was feeling a little negative because I wanted to get out of the library.

Lastly! Doona presents Simonson, Gorelik, and Jones as the three cornerstones of the New American Stagecraft dialectic, but Feinsod suggests that New Stagecraft designers were divided between two responses—that of ornamentation, and that of simplification. Our readings focused on the simplifying aspect, almost to the extent that I felt the more "decorative" designers fell outside the realm of the movement. If that's not the case, how do the "ornamentors" fit into the conversation?



1. Robert Edmond Jones set for Bellini's The Jest, act III
2. MoMA press release for the International Exhibition of Theatre Art, 1934
3. Joseph Urban set for Caliban of the Yellow Sands, 1916
4. Robert Edmond Jones set for Caliban of the Yellow Sands, 1916(?)