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Theater Production Essay

The evolution of modern theatrical production

Underlying the theatrical developments of the 19th century, and in many cases inspiring them, were the social upheavals that followed the French Revolution. Throughout Europe the middle class took over the theatres and effected changes in repertoire, style, and decorum. In those countries that experienced revolutionary change or failure, national theatres were founded to give expression to the views and values of the middle class, whose aspirations in these cases coincided with a more general movement of national liberation. In western Europe a different pattern of development emerged, varying considerably in each country but having the unified features of a demand for “realism” on the stage, which meant a faithful reflection of the life-style and domestic surroundings of the rising class in both its tragic and its comic aspects; an adjunct to this development was the demand for increased decorum and cleanliness in the auditorium.

In England, where the Industrial Revolution was more advanced than in the other European countries, the middle class had to struggle for its own theatres against the entrenched power of the two patent houses (licensed by the Crown), Drury Lane and Covent Garden, which had enjoyed an almost total monopoly of dramatic theatre since 1660. As early as 1789, attempts were made to evade the legal restrictions on building new theatres. The Reform Bill of 1832, which enfranchised the propertied middle class and established its political power, led to the Theatres Act of 1843, which gave London a “free theatre.” The expected flood of new theatre buildings did not occur, and no major building took place for 16 years. This is probably because there were already sufficient illegal theatres in operation when the act was passed. The boulevard theatres of Paris experienced less trouble in establishing themselves. The rise of the middle-class theatres caused the decline of both the patent houses in London and the Comédie-Française—the national theatre of France. After much political struggle, centring particularly around censorship, the Comédie-Française, unable to compete with the boulevard theatres, capitulated and presented the plays of the new school for the new audiences.

As the new class came into the theatres, the theatres were cleaned up. Samuel Phelps at The Sadler’s Wells Theatre instituted audience controls that drove out the old audience and paved the way for respectability. The Bancrofts, as representative as any of the new movement, took over the run-down Prince of Wales’ Theatre, cleaned up the auditorium, and placed antimacassars on the seats. They also dropped the melodrama and attracted a wide audience with the social comedies of Tom Robertson, making a considerable fortune in the process.

Throughout the 19th century, cities throughout Europe and North America exploded in size, and industrial centres attracted labour to their factories and mills. The working-class suburbs of cities and the industrial towns created their own demand for entertainment, which led to the construction of large theatres.

Accelerating this change was the growth of the railways. The pattern of theatre was disrupted in England as productions were mounted in London and sent on tour. The old provincial stock companies folded and theatres became touring venues rather than producing houses. A breed of managers arose who made money from the possession of the bricks and mortar property rather than by presenting their own productions. In the United States the Theatrical Syndicate established great fortunes from the New York theatres and the almost unlimited touring circuit that the railways opened up. The change in status from enterprise to industry gave rise to the commercial theatre systems of the West End in London and Broadway in New York City. Improvement in travel in general made it possible to increase the links between the two systems early in the 20th century, and the exchange of productions further extended the possibilities of profitable exploitation.

Modern theatre began around 1885 with the revolt of the younger generation against the material injustices of society. Those in revolt founded so-called independent theatres to present a more critical or scientific view of the workings of society or so-called art theatres to rise above vulgar materialism with the establishment of aesthetic standards. The independent theatres took the Meiningen Players as their starting point. The art theatres looked to Wagner for inspiration.

The new Naturalism

The first of the independent theatres was the Théâtre-Libre (“Free Theatre”) founded in 1887 by André Antoine, who made his living as a clerk for the Paris Gas Company. The Théâtre-Libre was an amateur theatre with no home of its own. It hired rooms or theatres where they were available and sold tickets for its performances to a closed membership. In this way it avoided censorship. Antoine’s original intention was to present plays that had been rejected by the Comédie-Française, and thus the repertoire was eclectic. The major impact the group made was with a number of naturalistic plays. The theatre was at this time lagging behind literature, and, although Émile Zola had written an essay entitled “Naturalism in the Theatre” in 1881 and had produced what is seen as the first Naturalist play, Thérèse Raquin, in 1873, no theatre devoted itself to a Naturalist policy until Antoine founded the Théâtre-Libre.

Following on the scientific developments and the philosophical skepticism of the 19th century, the social reformers of the last two decades of the century probed into the causes of human behaviour and postulated that the meaning of human character was to be found in its interaction with the physical, social, and economic environment. The new theatre demanded “truthfulness” not only in the writing but also in the acting and stage setting. The actors were expected to ignore the audience and to behave and speak as though they were at home. Antoine is normally credited with being the first to require an actor to turn his back on the audience; from this style of acting arose the concept of the “fourth wall” separating the stage from the audience. Behind this “wall”—invisible to the audience, opaque to the actors—the environment portrayed was to be as authentic as possible. Antoine himself designed rooms and then decided which wall would be “removed.” In The Butchers, he hung animal carcasses on the stage.

It is possible, however, to overestimate Antoine’s commitment to Naturalism, since a great deal of his repertoire was not naturalistic and the descriptions of several of the Théâtre-Libre presentations show an imaginative experimentation with lighting effects that goes well beyond creating realistic temporal and atmospheric conditions. The first production of the Théâtre-Libre had no scenery at all but only a few pieces of furniture borrowed from Antoine’s mother, yet it was this production that set the Naturalist style. Zola, the philosopher of the movement, had deplored the fact that the Naturalist theatre began by creating an external representation of the world instead of concentrating on the inner state of the characters. Strindberg showed that a few carefully selected properties could suggest an entire room. With the ideas of Antoine and Strindberg, the days of flapping canvas doors and kitchen shelves painted on the walls of the set came to be numbered. The more natural and detailed the acting became, the more it clashed with a painted background.

Antoine’s innovations did much to establish the principle that each play requires its own distinct setting. In 1906, as director of the state-subsidized Théâtre de l’Odéon, he produced classical plays in which he strove for realism not by means of period decor and costume but by re-creating theatrical conventions of the 1600s.

The new pattern of theatre set in France was imitated in Germany during the same period. Otto Brahm modeled his theatrical society, the Freie Bühne, founded in Berlin in 1889, after Antoine’s Théâtre-Libre. Its first production was Ibsen’s Ghosts. On the basis of this and other examples, it could be said that Ibsen pioneered the repertoire, Saxe-Meiningen the staging methods, and Antoine the organizational form for a range of small, independent theatres springing up throughout Europe.

With both ideological aims and theatrical tastes in mind, members of the German middle-class theatre audience formed an organization called the Freie Volksbühne in 1890 for the purpose of buying blocks of tickets and commissioning performances and even productions for its membership, which included a large working-class element. Early in its history the organization split between the Freie Volksbühne, who were attempting to make theatre available to a wider audience, and the Neue Freie Volksbühne, who had specific Socialist attachments and policies. Eventually the two arms recombined and were able not only to subsidize performances but also to build their own theatre and mount their own productions.

During the 1890s in France, a similar program of democratization was attempted. One of the prime movers in this was Romain Rolland, whose book The People’s Theatre (Le Théâtre du peuple, 1903), inspired similar movements in other countries.

In England the works of Ibsen aroused great interest and attracted the attention of the censors. The first English independent theatre was organized by Jack Thomas Grein, and its first production in 1891 was Ibsen’s Ghosts. Grein’s intention of finding British writers of the new drama was frustrated until the arrival of George Bernard Shaw, the most famous Ibsenite of them all, in 1892, with his first play, Widowers’ Houses. Shaw remained the mainstay of the independent theatre movement in Britain. His preeminence in the independent theatre in England coupled with the success of Arthur Wing Pinero in the commercial realist theatre led to a major innovation in staging in England. Both playwrights participated in the casting of their plays, which in Pinero’s case led to a break away from the old stock company casting and the institution of casting to type. Shaw was able to impose his own interpretation and stage direction on the production of his plays.

Russia also followed the pattern of the independent theatre movement that developed in France, Germany, and England (see below Developments in Russia and the Soviet Union).

Reactions to Naturalism

The Théâtre-Libre had scarcely been established when the reaction against Naturalism got under way. Symbolism developed out of a total opposition to the philosophy that lay behind Naturalism. It sought an intuitive and spiritual form of knowledge, regarded by its proponents as higher than that which science could provide. If Naturalism attacked the materialist values of society from a critical and reformist standpoint, Symbolism rejected them altogether. In their manifesto of 1886 the Symbolists suggested that subjectivity, spirituality, and mysterious internal forces represented a higher form of truth than the objective observation of appearances. The Belgian Maurice Maeterlinck, the most successful Symbolist playwright, gave as his opinion that an old man sitting at his table, surrounded by silence, was more dramatic and true-to-life than the lover who strangles his mistress in a tirade of jealousy. The Symbolists drew for example and inspiration on Wagner and on the later plays of Ibsen. They were influenced by the poets Mallarmé and Baudelaire, and the latter’s poem Correspondences, which finds comparative values in colours and musical notes, is often seen as the first manifesto of the movement. The expressive paintings of Gauguin were also influential.

The first of the Symbolist theatres was the Théâtre d’Art started by the French poet Paul Fort in 1890. Fort was principally concerned with the power of the poetic text but nevertheless made some ingenious contributions to staging. In his production of the Frenchman Pierre Quillard’s play The Girl with the Cut-off Hands (1891), the actors intoned their lines behind a gauze curtain, backed by a gold cloth framed with red hangings. In front of the gauze, a girl in a long blue tunic repeated the actors’ lines and commented on their feelings. This is the first instance in which the setting of a play derives entirely from the ideas of the director and the designer rather than from tradition or from direct evidence in the text of the play itself. The setting for The Girl with the Cut-off Hands is a visual image, suggested by the play but not dictated by it. It is a poetic vision and does not place the play in a specific context.

In 1893, Aurélien Lugné-Poë founded the Théâtre de l’Oeuvre. Guided by the belief that the spoken word creates the scenery, Lugné-Poë attempted unity of style instead of illusion of place and employed such painters as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Maurice Denis, Odilon Redon, Édouard Vuillard, and Pierre Bonnard. Lugné-Poë’s production of Maeterlinck’s play Pelléas and Mélisande typified his technique—no furniture or props were used; the stage was lit from overhead, most of the time to a level of semidarkness;a gauze curtain created the illusion of mist; and backdrops painted in gray tones conveyed a general air of mystery. The one production of the Théâtre de l’Oeuvre that has had the greatest historical significance was not seen as anything more than a scandalous, schoolboy joke in its own time. Alfred Jarry’sUbu roi (“King Ubu”) was produced in 1896, with nonrealistic settings and costumes. All the scene settings were displayed simultaneously on a backdrop, and the costumes and makeup were deliberately grotesque, as was the acting style, an amalgam of buffoonery, the horror of Grand Guignol, and extravagant mock-tragedy.

Far from posing an alternative to the materialist values of the bourgeois audience, the first line of Ubu roi attacked the audience’s values head on. When Firmin Gémier, in the title role, advanced to face the audience, looked directly into their eyes, and uttered the first scandalous word of the text, “merdre” (“excrement”), a pattern was set that has been followed by many avant-garde theatre companies throughout the 20th century. The dialectics of conflict had shifted from being contained within the stage area to being opened between the stage and the auditorium. If an attack on the audience were to be mounted effectively, however, the separation of stage and auditorium had to be diminished. Various attempts were subsequently made either to contain stage and auditorium in a single unified spatial area or to adapt existing spaces in order to break through the barrier imposed by the proscenium arch.

The influence of Appia and Craig

The two most important theoreticians and designers of the non-illusionist movement were the Swiss Adolphe Appia and the Englishman Edward Gordon Craig. Appia began with the assumption posited by Wagner that the fundamental goal of a theatrical production was artistic unity. Appia felt, however, that the incongruity of placing three-dimensional actors in front of two-dimensional settings, which many of the stage reformers rejected, was intensified by the mythic, symbolic nature of the Wagner operas. He concluded that there were three conflicting elements in production—the moving three-dimensional actor, the stationary vertical scenery, and the horizontal floor. He categorized stage lighting under three headings: a general or acting light, which gave diffused illumination; formative light, which cast shadows; and imitated lighting effects painted on the scenery. He saw the illusionist theatre as employing only the first and last of these types. Appia proposed replacing illusory scene painting with three-dimensional structures that could be altered in appearance by varying the colour, intensity, and direction of lighting. The solid structures, according to Appia, would serve to create a bond between the horizontal floor and the vertical scenery and enhance the actor’s movements, which were rhythmically controlled by the music of the score. The lights, too, would change in response to the musical score, thus reflecting or eliciting changes in emotion, mood, and action. In creating a scene, Appia conceived of light as visual music with an equal range of expression and intensity.

Appia elaborated his theory through a series of proposed designs and mise-en-scènes (complete production plans) for Wagner’s operas. He was brutally rebuffed by Wagner’s widow, who considered his projects the work of a madman. Intensely shy, he created only a few designs and realized even fewer productions. His influence spread largely through his three books on staging and lighting design published from 1899 onward, one exemplary performance in a private theatre in Paris in 1905, and his collaboration with Émile Jaques-Dalcroze. Jaques-Dalcroze was a fellow Swiss who developed, and published in 1906, a system of physical exercises that he called eurythmics, intended to inculcate in the student a sense of rhythm and control over it. The exercises made liberal use of space and grew into an expressive dance movement. For Appia, eurythmics became a part of his integrated system of production. In 1912, at Hellerau on the outskirts of Dresden, as part of one of the first garden city developments in Europe, a large hall was built to the design of Appia and Jaques-Dalcroze. Stage and auditorium were united as a single rectangular hall without proscenium or separate lighting. The walls and ceiling were hung with translucent silk through which beams of light filtered. The lighting equipment comprised 10,000 lamps, all controlled by a gigantic console capable of fine gradations of intensity. Appia designed an abstract scenic architecture of platforms and steps that could be arranged in a variety of combinations. Every trace of illusionistic scenery was dispensed with, and the setting served only as a structural foundation for the rhythmic, gymnastic movements of the players. The few performances, which were interrupted by the outbreak of World War I, were attended by many of the leading innovative directors in Europe at that time.

The use of diffuse light solved one of the most vexatious problems of electric lighting—how to blend the individual beams. This problem was equally trying in the illusionist theatre, where the consciousness of separate lightbeams coming from distinct mechanical sources ruined the naturalistic effect. The backdrop remained as a large, finite, painted expanse that any reasonable amount of light revealed to be of a different order than the three-dimensional pieces in front of it. It also necessitated, because of the critical rising sight lines from the stall seats, a series of hanging borders to mask the top limits of the cloth. As lanterns began to be hung on bars above the stage, the number of borders increased. The Austrian producer Max Reinhardt is credited with the frustrated cry, “Will no one rid me of this dirty washing?”

To address this problem the lighting designer Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo constructed a dome that backed the stage area with a gentle curve and overhung the stage. At first he covered the dome with white translucent cloth, an extension of an earlier experiment in which he hung strips of cloth from the ceiling of the stage and diffused light through them. Later the dome had a plaster surface and the lights were diffused by reflection, playing on its inside surface. Instead of a flat, restricted backdrop there was now a spacious vault that created an impression of indeterminate distance. The dome was expensive and very cumbersome to maneuver and was soon replaced by a cyclorama (horizon or sky-cloth), which is still used today. This consists of a cloth stretched over a semicircular framework to mask the rear wall and corners of the stage. Some modern theatres have been built with a permanent plaster cyclorama.

The Fortuny dome and the cyclorama became essential tools of the scenic illusionists, but their invention served the anti-illusionists equally well, as they gave a sense of space beyond the finite limits of the stage, gave solidity to the stylized decor, and silhouetted the rhythmic action of the players against a background of diffused light. Edward Gordon Craig, the son of the designer Edward Godwin and the actress Ellen Terry, began his career as an actor in Irving’s company and became a designer at the turn of the century, just before the publication of the first of his many books on the theatre. Craig and Appia met in 1914 and shared a deep admiration for each other’s work and a great deal of agreement on conceptual matters. There were, however, certain crucial differences. The most fundamental of these arose out of their differing backgrounds. Appia began his work with Wagner, and for him the music dominated and controlled the work. Craig was an actor before becoming a designer and director, and for him all the elements of production were of equal value. Appia had no apparent interest in theatre history, whereas Craig had an abiding interest in it. Appia was a retiring, contemplative thinker; Craig was a polemicist.

Whereas Appia’s work followed a continuous developing line, Craig’s was characterized by a restless experimentation. His early productions of Purcell and Handel operas at the start of the century explored the use of the “frieze” or “relief” stage—a wide, shallow stage surrounded by drapes, structures in geometric shapes, and a lighting system that dispensed entirely with footlights and side lighting and used only overhead sources. In order to facilitate this and make colour changes possible, Craig devised an overhead bridge accessible from both sides. Although Craig’s designs stressed vertical planes as against Appia’s horizontal ones, in the operas he utilized a series of levels for the action. His designs for Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas used no wings or borders. The back drape ascended to the flies (space over the stage from which scenery and lights can be hung), and the proscenium was very low in contrast to the great width of the stage. The sides of the setting were enclosed by curtains hung at right angles to the proscenium arch. What impressed many of those who were present was the use of colour symbolism in the costumes, settings, and lighting and the extraordinary consistency with which Craig manipulated all of the elements of the mise-en-scène.

One of Craig’s most interesting scenic innovations was a flexible structure made of hinged screens, which permitted a fluid readjustment of space during performance. He experimented with movable proscenium arches for adjusting the stage opening to suit the play or scene. His experiments with all sorts of materials and the effects of coloured light upon them greatly increased the resources of the stage. He proposed placing the lighting control booth at the rear of the auditorium, which is the current practice, to allow the lighting engineer to coordinate the lighting to the actors’ movements.

Perhaps Craig’s main contributions to the development of staging were his advocacy of the need for one artist to control the production and his insistence upon the study of theatre history. The controlling artist for Craig, unlike Wagner and Appia, was to be the director. If the theatre was ever to become a mature art form in its own right, rather than a haphazard conglomeration of bits and pieces of other art forms, it needed a controlling genius to discipline and coordinate the interaction. Craig’s own productions bear out his ability to realize this scheme, and he encouraged the work of a group of gifted directors who followed him.

In the process of working out his thesis, Craig addressed himself to the question of the actor. The actors of Craig’s day (like the theatres and their machinery) were ill-equipped for carrying out his production schemes. For the Purcell productions, he used a high percentage of amateurs who could be taught to carry out his instructions. The professional actors of the conventional late-19th-century theatres were not very sophisticated in their technique. Craig was not alone in complaining of the inadequacy of the established actors in light of the new theatre. The French Symbolists debated whether the actor would have to be banished from the stage before any serious theatre could be created. Even Eleonora Duse, the great Italian actress, declared that for the theatre to be saved all actors would have to die of the plague. Craig’s writings were virulent in his scorn for the actor whose idiosyncrasies constantly imposed themselves between the work and the audience, whose wayward, fickle emotions and feelings constantly sentimentalized and diminished the theatrical effect. He was not opposed in principle to all actors; his admiration of Irving, his mother Ellen Terry, and Duse was profound, and he considered Isadora Duncan a supreme artist, but he did promote the concept that he called the Übermarionette (“Superpuppet”). Craig’s intention is not fully clear—whether he envisioned mechanical figures that would defy the physical restrictions of the human body or, as seems more likely, puppets that would be controlled from inside by human beings, children, or dwarfs. Nevertheless, he joined a growing chorus of people calling for the elimination of individual actors’ idiosyncrasies and the “dematerializing” of the stage and propelled these demands into public debate.

Although the Übermarionetten were never realized, the principle was accepted. Later directors such as Meyerhold, Reinhardt, and Copeau recognized the necessity of a studio-school attached to their theatres and of regular training for the actors in advanced techniques, if they were to be able to realize their concepts on stage and eliminate the interference of actors’ own egos and emotions. From this flows the present acceptance in the West of a long and intense period of training as necessary for all actors entering the profession. The Eastern theatre, which Craig and those following him have continually returned to study, has always understood this necessity.

Craig’s understanding of theatre history was linked to a revival throughout Europe of the study of theatre history. Craig’s opinion was that it would be impossible to create a new theatre without making a serious study of previous theatres. He ascribed the short life of some innovative theatres to the fact that they had not adequately studied their predecessors. The study of theatre history spread widely enough to embrace the long-established Oriental theatre forms. Craig’s own productions drew on Japanese theatre, the Greeks, and the Baroque and Romantic periods. The most important effect of this research and use of theatre history was to liberate stage production from the narrow confines of contemporary style and fashion. If the past could be incorporated into the present, an almost limitless range of production possibilities was opened up. This liberation, in turn, increased the demands made upon the actors.

Other developments in the study of movement

The Frenchman François Delsarte laid stress on a connection between mental attitude and physical posture and discovered that one’s emotional state is communicated through one’s physical appearance. Eventually Delsarte codified his observations in a chart of gestures, which was used as a guide for expression and characterization by many amateur theatre companies in the middle years of the 20th century. The further elaborated discipline of reflexology, which seeks to analyze mind–body interaction, was developed by a variety of philosophers and psychologists and was very influential in the early years of the Soviet Union (see below Developments in Russia and the Soviet Union).

Another theorist of movement, the American-born dancer Isadora Duncan, was the daughter of a disciple of Delsarte, and reflexology was at the heart of Duncan’s dancing. It is not surprising that, in addition to Dalcroze’s eurythmics, Duncan should have inspired the development of educational dance. Reflexology is also the root from which spring the contemporary areas of drama therapy and the use of games and improvisation in actor training.

Duncan rejected the narrow and inhibiting classicism of the Russian ballet and returned to the Greeks for inspiration. Her dances were realizations of “soul-states,” which she regarded as emanating from the solar plexus. By using her feelings and physical responses to the music as the impulse for movement, she removed dance from the domain of the highly trained ballet dancer and demonstrated its wider potential.

Duncan’s work was important to those searching for answers to the problems posed for the actor by non-Naturalist theatre, since it showed a way to gain direct access to deep feelings without resorting to psychological analysis. Unfortunately, though, Duncan offered no systematic prescription for accomplishing this. Duncan herself was a sufficiently disciplined artist to impress Edward Gordon Craig as a solo performer. What her approach lacked, however, was a disciplined framework by which other performers could be trained and an extension of the movement vocabulary that might widen the range of theatrical purposes to which it could be put.

Development of stage equipment

From a technical point of view, the harnessing of electric power exerted a greater influence on stage design and production techniques than any other single invention. Stage lighting, as opposed to mere stage illumination, became raised to the status of an art form and revolutionized stage decoration, stage design, and stage form in that order. For the first time since the theatre moved indoors during the Renaissance, adequate and safe illumination became possible. But beyond mere function and safety there was inherent in the medium a flexibility and subtlety that has allowed it to become an integral part of scenic effect and to heighten visual expression for artistic purposes.

Beyond the development of stage lighting and the theories and techniques pioneered by Appia and Craig, electricity provided the solution to many of the problems that were arising with respect to scene changing. The demand for rapid changes of cumbersome naturalistic sets coincided with demands for a dematerialized stage that could flow smoothly from one symbolic vision to another. In addition, those seeking to “retheatricalize the theatre” wanted an open stage on which scene changes could be accomplished simply and rapidly. New inventions and instrumentation made practical many of the theoretician’s ideas, and these were adapted by designers, directors, and stage engineers on both sides of the Atlantic, with the greatest centre of innovation being Germany.

In 1896 Karl Lautenschläger introduced a revolving stage at the Residenz Theater in Munich. Elevator stages permitted new settings to be assembled below stage and then lifted to the height of the stage as the existing setting was withdrawn to the rear and dropped to below-stage level. Slip stages allowed large trucks to be stored in the wings or rear stage and then slid into view. New systems for flying were developed. Hydraulic stages made it possible to raise sections of the stage, tilt them or even rock them to simulate, for example, the motion of a ship. All of these mechanisms required larger backstage facilities, higher flying towers, greater depth and width of stages, and increased understage space.

German theatres began as early as 1890 to incorporate mechanized orchestra pit apron lifts, which provided a means for altering the point of contact between stage and auditorium (actor and spectator). Confrontations between actor and audience were the prime concern of Georg Fuchs, who founded the Künstler Theatre in Munich in 1907. He held that, in order to be relevant, the theatre must reject the picture-frame stage and the Italianate auditorium. He proposed an indoor amphitheatre in which, on a projecting stage, the action could be thrown forward into the audience space. According to Fuchs, the stage designer should not try to produce an illusion of depth since depth is part of the theatre architecture and cannot be added by scenery. Fuchs’s view was the culmination of the search for three-dimensionality that had passed through five essential stages since the 18th century. At first, an illusion of depth was achieved by painting perspective scenery on canvas; then the ground plan of the set was rearranged to envelop the actor with the set. The third phase was the introduction of objects for the actor to touch. With Appia and Craig there came the realization that an actor’s movement manifests itself in contrast to inanimate objects, such as platforms and other masses. Fuchs introduced the final phase joining the playing space to the area in which the audience is situated. In Fuchs’s theatre, designed by Max Littman, the acting area could be extended forward by covering the orchestra pit, and the size of the stage opening could be changed by adjusting the inner proscenium, which had a door at stage level and a balcony above. The floor of the stage was divided into sections, each of which was mounted on an elevator so that it could easily become a platform. Four cycloramas, surrounding the stage, could be changed electrically.

The influence of Reinhardt

The director who was best placed to utilize the freedom afforded by the study of theatre history and the new mechanization was Max Reinhardt. Reinhardt began as an actor at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin, as part of the Naturalist Freie Bühne company, in 1893. In 1900 he joined a small cabaret theatre and began introducing plays into the entertainment. Later, he returned to control the Deutsches Theater, to which he added the smaller Kammerspiele next door. In these theatres and elsewhere he initiated a series of productions that made Berlin one of the outstanding theatrical centres of Europe. Not only did Reinhardt feel at home in two theatres—one small and intimate, the other a medium-size house—he actually preferred the alternation of size and styles. In 1910 he staged Oedipus Rex in the Zirkus Schumann, an amphitheatre, in an attempt to recapture the union of actors and audience that had existed in classical Greek theatre. From 1915 to 1918 Reinhardt directed the Volksbühne, and in 1919 he opened his own theatre, the Grosses Schauspielhaus, which had an open stage and the full complement of stage machinery. This theatre was obviously derived from the Dionysian theatre at Athens, and he hoped that it would embody modern life as the arena had embodied the Greek community.

Reinhardt was not a traditionalist, however (he showed a completely different approach when he converted a ballroom in Vienna into a formally designed intimate theatre); rather, he was a true eclectic whose more than 500 productions represented virtually every style. He believed that theatre, which had become shackled to literature, must be offered instead for its own sake. He reexamined the physical layout of the theatre building and the spatial relationship between the actors and the audience. Believing that the director must control every facet of a production, Reinhardt worked closely with his designers, Ernest Stern, Alfred Roller, Oscar Strnad, Emil Orlik, and the Norwegian Expressionist painter Edvard Munch. His productions usually featured a particular motif or the staging conventions of a historical period. After beginning with a three-dimensional, drab naturalism, he adapted the abstract solids that Appia had inspired and later applied surface decoration derived from contemporary art movements such as Art Nouveau, the Vienna Sezession, and Munch’s Expressionism. He used unit settings with detachable parts (“plugs”) and revolving stages that revealed different facets of the same construction; he adapted the conventions of Oriental theatre; and he mounted open-air productions of the medievalEveryman in the square outside the cathedral in Salzburg. Reinhardt exerted a strong influence on the designers of the German Expressionist cinema as well as on stage artists. In fact, the first productions of Expressionist plays were mounted under his management. His eclecticism helped to reconcile the differences between conflicting movements by romanticizing the realistic and fleshing out the idealistic with solid structures.

Reinhardt made one further great contribution to the development of stage production. Although he exerted considerable power and was the controlling genius behind several theatres, his way of working was significantly different from that envisaged by either Craig or Appia. Craig saw the director as the despot exercising rigid control over all aspects of the production, whereas for Appia (and Wagner before him) the poet was the initiator of the production and the figure whose word was law. Reinhardt diplomatically combined the talents of a team of collaborators. He was careful to gather around him gifted colleagues, designers, dramaturges, and engineers. Bertolt Brecht served early in his career as a member of the Reinhardt collective. This process of cooperation rather than direction produced one significant feature that is still the strength of the German theatre on both sides of the border. In order to control the complexity of his productions, to incorporate his research into the rehearsals and later performance, and to coordinate the work of all collaborators into the production plan, Reinhardt’s productions required a Regie-buch that went much further than all previous promptbooks. The Regie-buch became a plan for the production, incorporating interpretive ideas as well as staging concepts. This concept was later utilized by Brecht and developed into the Modellbuch (“model book”), a full record of the production that could be used as a pattern for succeeding productions.

British innovations

While most English productions during this period were in the realistic tradition, several steps were being taken toward nonillusionistic staging. One director, Sir Frank Benson, began by mounting plays in the realistic style of Sir Henry Irving but by 1900 had started to simplify his staging. He produced Shakespeare’s plays with only a few stock sets, focusing primary attention on the actors. William Poel, also producing Shakespeare, attempted to re-create an Elizabethan theatre. Throughout Europe at this time there was a considerable revival of interest in seeing Shakespeare’s plays performed with something approaching the original effect. The various social and theatrical pressures that had resulted in the truncating, rearranging, and rewriting of the plays throughout the 18th and 19th centuries had dissipated. Unfortunately the plays were also in danger of disappearing under the weight of the settings of both the historical Romantic style and the new theatre machinery.

Between 1912 and 1914 the actor-manager Harley Granville-Barker staged Shakespeare in such a way that the action could be continuous, an approach influenced by his having worked with Poel. He remodeled the Savoy Theatre by adding an apron, or extension of the stage, and doors in front of the proscenium. He divided the stage into three parts—the apron, a main acting area, and a raised inner stage with curtains. This permitted a continuous flow of action and eliminated the rearrangement of scripts that had previously been necessary for nonillusionistic staging. Norman Wilkinson and Albert Rutherston, artists with reputations outside the theatre, were his principal designers, and their settings typically consisted of brightly painted, draped curtains. Granville-Barker’s style and particularly the use of drapes in the settings reflect clearly the influence of Craig’s early work for the Purcell Operatic Society.

Influence of the fine arts

The development of the modern theatre and its staging techniques took place during a period when even more radical changes were taking place within the fine arts. In fact, it would be true to say that many of the developments in staging arose primarily out of innovations in painting. Much of Craig’s work is influenced heavily by the work of William Blake and the Pre-Raphaelites. The Symbolist theatres in Paris enlisted many of the innovative painters of the time, such as Denis, Vuillard, Bonnard, Sérusier, and Toulouse-Lautrec.

Concurrently with developments in the arts, and often underlying them, innovations in technology were radically altering human perception of the world. The advent of photography, and subsequently motion pictures, created new ways of seeing and new perceptions of movement and time. These perceptions were also being altered by the development of motorized transport, through the coming of the railways, the automobile, and the airplane. In a related context, the growth of colonial empires and improvements in transportation brought Europe into contact with many disparatecultures and their aesthetic traditions. Developments in psychology led in the first decades of the 20th century to increased understanding of the communicative power of design and thus to the principles of modern advertising.

For the theatre, these developments had several profound effects. The first was the new scenography of the Symbolists, of Appia, Craig, and others. Scenic art ceased to depict natural settings or specific locales and became more suggestive, seeking to arouse the imagination and the emotions. Along with the experiments in painting that emphasized the sensory, affective properties of the art over its imitative functions, it followed that artists in the theatre would investigate its affective potential.

The Russian-born artist Wassily Kandinsky, who is credited with producing the first purely abstract painting, created several theatre pieces on his way to full abstraction. These productions employed sound (even an offstage choir), light, moving structures, and human action, but this latter was purely functional and had no narrative or interactive significance. Kandinsky revised the Wagnerian concept of the integrated work of art, pointing out that it was based on the assumption that all the various elements of theatre brought together simultaneously in concert would produce an effect that was greater than the sum of the parts. Kandinsky’s thesis was that this was a superficial conglomeration in which, no matter what the theoretical position might be, the elements alternated in supremacy. Appia had criticized Wagner for keeping conventional representational sets, and Craig had criticized Appia for being under the thrall first of the music and then of the dance. Kandinsky went further than even Craig and proposed that the theatre of the future would comprise three elements: musical movement, colour movement, and dance movement—i.e., sound, colour, and mobile forms. All of these elements wereof equal value. In his longer essay “Concerning the Spiritual in Art” (1914), Kandinsky set out in complex intellectual terms how this new theatre, based on spirituality rather than materiality, could be constructed.

Certain aspects of Kandinsky’s theories were capable of rigorous testing. The Bauhaus, a German school of design founded in Weimar by Walter Gropius in 1919, where Kandinsky was a teacher and Oskar Schlemmer was head of the theatre section, conducted a series of experiments on actors’ movements in space. Schlemmer and his colleagues devised elaborate costumes that transformed the actor-dancers into “moving architecture.” By treating the stage as a black box, the researchers created a laboratory in which to examine the perception of a wide range of movements. Craig’s concept of the Übermarionette became the subject of a series of experiments regarding the geometry of the human figure, the possible limits of the articulation of limbs, the extensions of movements into three-dimensional space, the restrictions placed on human movement by the force of gravity, and the ways in which dancers’ movements work against gravity and cooperate with it. A range of dances were conceived and performed under the title of The Triadic Ballet. This work was a fantasy in which the dancers’ costumes transformed them into “metaphysical anatomy.” The ballet achieved the dematerialization of the stage as contrasting shapes in contrasting colours appeared to propel themselves along a variety of paths in three-dimensional space. Experiments were also made in rhythmic movement, mechanical theatre, light theatre, and projection. The Bauhaus group laid down no prescriptive plans as to what direction theatre should take but opened up a variety of possibilities, which were then offered for other artists to follow.

When the Bauhaus was closed at the start of the Nazi period, several members of the staff moved to the United States. Out of seminars and teaching laboratories, a line of work developed, largely instigated by John Cage and Merce Cunningham, that explored the use of chance in creating works of theatre and broke free from the concept of an integral composition. Cunningham created a range of dance works that favoured the occurrence of chance (or aleatory) correspondences between the elements of the dance over the orchestration of effects by the choreographer. The U.S. choreographer and designer Alwin Nikolais also carried on work derived from the principles of the Bauhaus with his dance company.

During all this work, in its movement away from the depiction of nature, the position of the artist changed. In the anti-illusionist theatre, the artist became not only the means of putting across a message but to some extent the originator of it. At the heart of the Symbolist theatre was the old romantic concept of the artist as a creative genius with heightened perception and powers. Once this was linked to the idea of the work of art as a vehicle through which the artist could proselytize his views, the result was Expressionism.

Production aspects of Expressionist theatre

Expressionism in the theatre arose out of the same impulse to rebel against the materialist values of the older middle-class generation that gave rise to both the reformist Naturalist theatre and the aestheticist Symbolist theatre. This opposition was clearly expressed through the themes and often the titles of such plays as Vatermord (“Patricide”). The forerunners of Expressionism are generally accepted to be the German actor and playwright Frank Wedekind, who criticized the reformist Ibsenite movement for failing to attack the morality of bourgeois society, and Strindberg. Wedekind sought in his plays to expose what lay beneath the surface of gentility and decorum; in the process, he often introduced roles that served more as emblems than as realistic characters.

Strindberg’s early plays are usually included in the Naturalist repertoire. After a period of personal crisis between 1894 and 1897, the form of Strindberg’s plays disintegrated into dream visions or confessional monodramas in which everything is seen through the eyes of the single protagonist. The single focus of these plays was taken over by the Expressionists, as was the use of stereotyped characters—the Son, the Stranger, etc.

In addition to Wedekind and Strindberg, the Austrian painter and writer Oskar Kokoschka must be mentioned; in fact, some authorities would date Kokoschka’s plays as the first truly Expressionist drama. His early plays, Murder Hope of Women (1909), Sphinx and Strawman (1911), and The Burning Bush (1913), seem to take Strindberg’s painful depictions of the destructive relationships between the sexes and liberate them from any dependence on articulate speech. The plays are episodic and have no clear narrative. They are constructed out of violent visual images. Kokoschka is not remotely concerned with giving any sign or resemblance of surface reality whatsoever. In his view, the theatre, like painting, should communicate through “a language of images, visible or tangible signs, graspable reflections of experience and knowing . . . .” In this, Kokoschka was the first to break completely with the literary tradition and to assert that the theatre communicates ultimately through a visual language.

The Expressionist period spanned the period of World War I, which changed the nature of the movement. Before the war Expressionism was largely concerned with screaming protests against rampant materialism and the loss of spirituality. In this period the coming war was seen as a necessary agent of purification for society. Many of the Expressionist dramatists died in the slaughter on the Western Front. Those who survived were transformed, and Expressionism took on a more overtly political complexion. The change from private protest to political argument was what made it possible to develop the techniques of the Expressionist theatre, and to extend them for wider use.

The major Expressionist theatre was Der Tribune, in Berlin. The Expressionist stage neither simulated reality nor suggested unreality. It existed in its own right as the platform from which direct statements could be made. Settings therefore tended to be abstract or, when specific, highly subjective. Techniques of distortion and incongruousjuxtaposition expressed either the ideological position of the director or dramatist or the state of mind of the protagonist, or both. In Expressionist plays the walls of houses might lean at sharp angles, threatening to crush the protagonist; windows might light up like eyes spying on the secret and intimate; trees might take on the shape of the skeleton signifying Death. In this way, instead of simply forming the milieu for the action, the setting became a dramatic force. This aspect of Expressionism has been appropriated to great effect by the cinema, in which camera angles and special lenses can render the ordinary expressive. Leopold Jessner in his stage production of Richard III (1920) placed Richard at the height of his power at the top of a flight of steps. The steps below Richard were crowded with soldiers in red cloaks with white helmets. The effect when they knelt was of Richard sitting on top of a mound of skulls with a river of blood flowing through them.

The action of many Expressionist plays was fragmented into a series of small scenes or episodes. This style of theatre was called Stationendrama (“station drama”) and was clearly derived from the principles of the medieval mystery plays. This led to a consideration of the scene in the theatre as being self-contained. Significance and meaning derived from the juxtaposition or accumulation of scenes rather than from a continuous narrative progression from scene to scene, and from this it followed that there need be no consistency of setting. In Ernst Toller’sMan and the Masses (1920) the scenes alternated between reality and dream throughout the play.

The characters in Expressionist drama were often impersonal or nameless. Very often they served to illustrate some aspect of the protagonist’s thought or feelings or expressed aspects of the world and society. In Toller’s Transfiguration (1918) the soldiers on the battlefield had skeletons painted on their costumes. Characters were frequently presented as fragments of a unified consciousness. Crowds were often not differentiated but were used in mass to express or underline the power of the protagonist’s position. Expressionist roles often required actors to express aspects of character through the use of isolated parts of the body. The character of Dr. Strangelove in Stanley Kubrick’s film of that name, whose right arm must be restrained from giving the Nazi salute of its own volition, makes comic use of an Expressionist technique.

Two further developments can be attributed to the Expressionist movement. The director Leopold Jessner capitalized on the earlier innovations in stage design. His use of steps and multiple levels earned his stage the name Treppenbühne (“stepped stage”). He utilized screens in the manner advocated by Craig, and his productions illustrated a plastic concept of stage setting, which allowed the action to flow freely with minimum hindrance. Some of Jessner’s productions relied heavily on steps and levels for this plasticity, but in others he used solid three-dimensional setting features standing in three-dimensional space. Jessner reclaimed and utilized the full space of the stage. In his 1921 production of Othello, a central rostrum served a variety of spatial functions. Upon his arrival in Cyprus, Othello and the accompanying crowd flooded out of a trapdoor at the rear of the rostrum and poured over the top of it onto the front stage; Othello, moving no further than the top of the rostrum, appeared to rise from a sea of people, towering above them. In a later scene, this same rostrum supported Desdemona’s bed, with drapes towering into the flies, surrounded by space. The isolated solid unit within the total stage space has become a distinctive feature of contemporary set design and staging.

The second contribution of the Expressionist movement was to bring the mask back into common usage. Initially, the mask signified typical or depersonalized characters; later, it became a device for distancing the audience from the characters altogether, as it was used by Brecht in The Caucasian Chalk Circle (1948) and other plays.

Expressionism was relatively short-lived, although there was a brief revival of the theatrical mode in the 1960s when casts of actors dressed in black jeans and sweaters sat on boxes on black-curtained stages and intoned their lines as the ego, id, and libido of someone’s psychological crisis. Nevertheless, Expressionism contributed to the modern stage a range of techniques that have become the stock in trade of most directors and designers; though in most contemporary cases the influence of Expressionism has been mediated through Brecht (see below The influence of Brecht).

The influence of Piscator

The great German theatrical director Erwin Piscator trained as an actor and began his professional career during World War I, running an entertainment theatre for fellow soldiers in Belgium. After the war Piscator set out to create a theatre that had a clear place and function in a world that also contained machine guns and artillery shells. His first such efforts brought him into association with the Dadaists.

Dada began as an oppositional movement in Zürich in 1916 at the Cabaret Voltaire. In neutral Switzerland a group of artists that included Hugo Ball, Emmy Hennings, Tristan Tzara, and Jean Arp took on the mantle of Alfred Jarry. Whereas Jarry had assaulted the audience through an unusual play, the Dadaists began the disintegration of form entirely. Songs were written with only sounds for lyrics. Ball wrote verses without words. Tzara shredded manuscripts and recited from pieces reassembled randomly. Nonsensical sketches were performed in outlandish cardboard costumes. The painter Marcel Janko constructed masks that, according to Ball, inspired “passionate gesture, bordering on madness.” For some, Dada was anti-art; for others, it was a new direction in art. Dada was an extension of the Expressionist movement although what was expressed was not passion or the search for spirituality but derision and withering contempt.

Dada’s contribution to staging lay in destroying all accepted notions of what the stage should be and should express and in attacking the cultural values of the audience in particular and society in general. This precedent later gave a powerful lead to many antiestablishment groups and artists after 1968 whose objectives have been described as “offending the audience” or “disrupting the spectacle.” Dada left Zürich and spread through Germany in the postwar period of the 1920s. One art form engendered by Dada was that of photomontage, in which graphics and edited photographic images were combined to convey propagandist images. The principal artist in this field was John Heartfield, who had changed his German name of Helmut Herzfelde during World War I as a gesture of protest, and who contributed many designs for Piscator. In one of his montages, the vapour trails of five airplanes soaring over the ruins of the Spanish town of Guernica were altered to resemble the fingers of a skeletal hand. The principle of montage became important in Piscator’s work.

Piscator later commented that Dada had shown the way forward but was not enough. A more overtly political and direct form of theatre was needed, and this theatre, unlike any of the concepts of the Volksbühne movement, should be allied to the political struggle of the proletariat.

The proletarian theatre, consisting of both amateurs and professionals, played in workers’ halls and established the principle of free admission for the unemployed, which freed the theatre from its bourgeois status as an economic commodity. Piscator further eroded traditional relationships with a number of innovations in staging. In Russlands Tag (“Russia’s Day”; 1920) the setting was a map, which established the political, geographical, and economic context for the play. In Konjunctur (“Conjunction”; 1928) this principle was extended to a larger stage. The play dealt with oil speculation, and the setting was a series of oil derricks. As the play progressed, the number and size of the derricks grew. The setting became part of the action and an environment for it, and the growth of the setting became a comment on the action of the play. In the Rote Rummel Revue (“Red Riot Review”; 1924), produced for the German Communist Party, Piscator began the action with a fight in the auditorium. The protagonists came out of the audience to argue their points of view and commented on the action of the various scenes. In Tai Yang Erwacht (“Tai Yang Awakes”; 1931) the setting, designed by John Heartfield, extended from the stage along the walls of the auditorium. A conspicuous feature of Piscator’s propagandist productions was the climactic singing of “L’Internationale,” the Socialist and Communist anthem, by both actors and audience.

Piscator established the political relevance of his work in a number of ways. In a revolutionary production of Schiller’s Die Räuber (The Robbers) performed at Jessner’s Staatstheater in Berlin, Piscator costumed and made up the minor character Spielberg, a noble character driven by society to crime, to resemble Trotsky. The German theatre in particular has since that time tended to interpret classic plays in a contemporary light. In Piscator’s production of Sturm über Gottland (“Storm over Gothland”; 1927), which is set in the 14th century, a filmed prologue showed the major actors moving toward the camera, metamorphosing in the process from historically costumed characters to representations of modern historical figures; the protagonist, for example, turned into Lenin. In Paragraph 218 (1929), which was about abortion reform, a tour was organized that used the performances to initiate discussion. Such associated discussions have since been a strong part of women’s theatre and other political forms.

In several productions, Piscator dramatized or inserted verbatim political documents, news reports, or direct quotations from public figures. In one instance, an injunction was taken out by supporters of the former kaiser to prevent such a use of a direct quote in a 1927 production of Aleksey Tolstoy’s Rasputin. Piscator offered the former kaiser a contract to appear in person. When this was rejected, the performance was stopped at the point in the show at which the quote would have been delivered and an actor explained the censorship ban. Direct comment of this kind was used frequently by Joan Littlewood and the Theatre Workshop company in Britain in the 1950s and ’60s to comment on political actions and to establish common cause with the audience.

The most important and advanced scenic device used by Piscator was projected film. In Trotz Alledem (“In Spite of Everything”; 1924) the second of his revues for the Communist Party, Piscator acquired through a contact a large quantity of war newsreel footage, which had never been shown because the censor considered that it would adversely affect war morale among the civilian population. The screening of the film as part of the whole stage montage lent an added authenticity to the documentary material presented in front of it and created a sensation. In this instance it established a principle, which has been built on by other political and documentary playwrights and directors, that one function of the political stage should be to make manifest what is concealed in politics.

Piscator established three distinct uses of film in his productions. What he called didactive film presented objective information and up-to-the-minute facts as well as historical ones; it gave the spectator facts about the subject of the production. Dramatic film contributed to the development of the action and served as a “substitute” for the live scene; where live scenes wasted time with explanations, dialogues, and action, film could illuminate a situation in the play with a few quick shots. Film commentary accompanied the action in the manner of a chorus. It addressed the audience, drew attention to important developments in the action, leveled criticism, made accusations, and provided important facts. Piscator should also be credited with the innovation of the jotter screen, a small, auxiliary screen onto which facts, figures, titles, dates, and other bits of information can be projected.

Piscator’s work veered from the austere proletarian theatre productions to a lavish use of modern machinery in other productions. In Toller’s Hoppla, wir leben! (Hurrah! We’re Alive; 1927), a multiroomed house structure allowed projection onto a variety of screens in juxtaposition with live action. In The Good Soldier Schweik (1928) the actors performed among cutout caricatures drawn by George Grosz. In this production, Schweik on his travels marched against the direction of a moving treadmill at the front of the stage. Brecht later employed this idea with considerable success in Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder (1941) as Courage and her children pulled her wagon against the direction of the revolving stage.

There are two other innovations that Piscator added to the repertoire of staging devices. He conceived that the postwar world was too complex in its political and economic operations for any one playwright to comprehend it totally. He took the concept of the dramaturgic collective from Reinhardt and extended it to make it the basis of his production method. Writers, dramaturges, economists, politicos, and statisticians worked together to produce a script. Existing play scripts were subjected to analysis and restructuring by the collective. The second invention was the “stage of destiny.” A great deal of Piscator’s life was spent trying to realize a project for staging Tolstoy’s novel War and Peace. When he finally accomplished this ambition, the judgments of history were incorporated into the narrative.

The style of theatre that Piscator propounded, using montage and juxtaposition of short independent scenes to create dialectical and often contradictory effects, he called epic theatre. Brecht, who had served in Reinhardt’s dramaturgic collective and played an even greater part in Piscator’s, appropriated this term for his own theatre. He also adapted and advanced many of the ideas and methods of Piscator’s work.

Futurism in Italy

Although it produced one major dramatist, Luigi Pirandello, in the period between the two world wars, the Italian theatre contributed very little to staging or theatre production. What was important was the work of the Futurists led by Marinetti. This movement predated the Dadaists, but its politics were oppositional only with respect to the liberal democrats. Far from attacking war, the Italian Futurists welcomed it. They embraced and glorified the machine culture of the 20th century. Their theatre presentations were scandalous. On one occasion they smeared the seats with glue so that the audience would stick to them; they sold the same ticket to more than one person and provoked fights in the audience. The content and shape of their presentations were similarly designed to shock, provoke, and antagonize the bourgeois audience. With the accession to power of Mussolini’s Fascists, whom they supported, their aggression diminished and they became absorbed into the establishment.

The Futurists built their performances upon an examination of the techniques and forms of music hall and variety shows. The variety stage clearly held an audience’s attention without the use of such stable theatrical elements as plot, characterization, and even dialogue. The Futurists went further, using variety forms and techniques without motivating reason or logical content, and created abstract theatre. Later the Dadaists took over many of their ideas in a different cause. What unified Futurist performances, however, was the concept of attractions. An attraction was whatever element in a particular act held the audience’s attention. Variety bills were constructed to produce an effective and contrasting variation of types of acts—acrobats opened the show, a solo juggler concentrated the attention, a singer or whistler capitalized on this concentration, a musical act expanded it further, a chorus line of girls kicked in unison, and a climactic situation raised anticipation for the entry of the solo star comedian. The Italian Futurists never really exploited the full possibilities of this concept, which was taken much further in Russia.

Developments in Russia and the Soviet Union

The great directors

Until 1883 there were only five state theatres in Russia. When the embargo on non-state theatres was lifted, private initiatives followed. The most important of these was the Moscow Art Theatre (after 1939 the Moscow Academic Art Theatre), formed in 1898 by Konstantin Stanislavsky and Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko. The repertoire of the Moscow Art Theatre was less contentious than those of the other independent theatres, and it was the first of these theatres to emphasize theatrical production rather than censored or neglected plays. Stanislavsky had been deeply impressed by the work of the Meiningen Company and particularly by the discipline imposed on rehearsals by the Duke’s stage manager, Ludwig Chronegk. In order to produce theatre in which all the elements were fully integrated, Stanislavsky decided that an autocratic, if not despotic, director was necessary.

His first production, Aleksey Tolstoy’s Fyodor Ivanovich, which Stanislavsky had rehearsed on a country estate and designed on the basis of detailed research into costumes and historical settings, caused a sensation. Later Stanislavsky came to the opinion that the Meiningen approach was successful in creating an external unity of effect but deficient in transforming the internal techniques of the actors. The actors merely imitated the outward behaviour of the characters. With plays increasingly calling for a deeper understanding of psychological motivation, Stanislavsky saw the necessity for a more complex and subtle technique for transforming the thought processes and emotions of the actor into those of the character. The role of the director was thus transformed from that of despot to a combination of coach, teacher, and psychologist. Stanislavsky devoted the rest of his career to perfecting his famous “method,” by which actors assumed the “identity” of their characters; it must be stressed that his was a method and not a style—each production was created in its own specific style. His early stage settings were overwhelmingly naturalistic, impressively detailed and accompanied by a vast array of sound effects. Fortunately, at the outset of the Moscow Art Theatre work, the plays of

How to review a play

Preparing to Write a Play Review

Below are some tips to help you prepare to write a play review:

The Nature of the Assignment

Because the performance of any play is such an ephemeral experience, writing a play review can be an exciting, though difficult, task. You have to be both spectator taking in and enjoying the performance and critical analyst of the production itself. You have to be able to provide a very brief summary of the play, a close objective analysis of the performance you attend, and an interpretation and evaluation of the entire ensemble of staging, acting, directing, and so on.

The review assignment asks you to analyze in an objective manner the relative success or failure of a given production. Note that you are not asked simply to summarize the plot or give an opinion regarding the text of the play being mounted; your review must be grounded in the production itself. Your job is to describe the production accurately, and then to render a value judgment of it based upon what you have seen and what you expected. The assignment will test your skill as a reader of the play and as an observer and critic of the production.

In addition to grounding your review on the production you witness, you must be careful to limit your review to a few essential observations in support of your thesis (which will be discussed below). You must concentrate on a few important ideas and aspects of the production and focus your attention on only what you consider the most significant parts of the production itself. Unlike a newspaper review, which can be loosely structured and superficial, your assignment is quite definite. You are not asked to cover a wide variety of production elements (i.e. performance of every actor, every costume change, every set change, every directorial decision, and so on); instead, the assignment demands that you develop a few key ideas in thoughtful detail.

Remember, too, that your stance is to be objective and critical, not impressionistic and merely nasty. A critic is not someone who simply "criticizes," but a person who studies, analyzes, and then renders a rational judgment of what he/she has seen. Your tone will be very important in making your review reliable and intelligent.


Before You Attend the Production

Read the play before going to the production. (It is important to be prepared for the production you plan to attend; otherwise, you run the risk of having to see it several times.)

  • In your mind, have a good sense of how a "standard" production might look, complete with a sense of what the characters might look like, the type of costuming that might be used, a suitable set design, and an appropriate rendering of the theme and tone of the work.

  • Pick out, as you read, several critical or problematic points within the play that may be of particular interest to watch for in the production you are about to attend. If your instructor has asked you to pay particular attention to certain elements, make sure that you are prepared to recognize them in performance.


Attending the Production

Attend the play with an open mind, a willingness to accept the play as the director has presented it in production.

  • Note any deviations from your concept of a "standard" production and try to find a good explanation for that deviation. (Is the director trying to "say" something new or different? Was your sense of the play somehow inaccurate, or were you shown new insights by the director's production?)
  • You may want to consider some of the following:
    • Why the choice of costumes, and why the set design?
    • How did the actors deliver their lines (seriously, comically, realistically, formally)? Were there any significant actions or gestures that contributed to the play's meaning?
    • Were any "special effects" utilized (consider lighting, sound, audience participation, machinery)?
    • Were any significant cuts made in the script?

After the performance, jot down the details you recall and talk about the performance with friends. You'll need these details for your paper in order to substantiate your argument.

Evaluate the performance.

  • Did the director miss any important opportunities to convey something you were able to see in your reading of the play?
  • Would you have liked to have seen more attention paid to what you perceived as critical passages, passages the director seemed less interested in?
  • Why would you have preferred this attention, and why do you think the director avoided giving the passage such attention?

Consider the following practical aspects:

  • What kind of stage does the director have at his disposal? What kinds of restrictions does the stage impose on the director concerning movement and set design?
  • Are the actors professionals, amateurs, or students? What restrictions does this impose on the director? Are the actors capable of dealing with the script's requirements? (Be fair to the actors in your assessment of their talents and the level of their "craftsmanship.")


Writing the Review

Below are some tips for writing play reviews:

Writing the Introduction

The introduction should include the following:

  • The title of the play, the name of the playwright, and any pertinent historical information regarding them (other similar works from this period? by this writer?).
  • The name of the director, the place and date of the production you attended, and the name of the production company (again, do you know of any previous work by this company? this director?).
  • The thesis of your review, which should include (possibly in more than a single statement) the following:
    • A general impression of the relative success or failure of the production, based on what you actually saw and on your initial impression of how the play should have been performed.

      (Note that even if the production did not exactly coincide with your own conception of the play, you should not feel obliged to condemn the performance outright. Be open-minded and willing to weigh pros and cons.)


      Papp's production of Lear captured all the horror of a world where love can't be counted on and where life is nasty, brutish, and appallingly short.

      (Note that this thesis asserts that Papp captured the essence of what is in the text itself -- the expectations set up by the thesis are that the reviewer will then analyze the methods by which the director achieved this effect.)

      Smith's You Can't Take It With You made me sympathize with the notion that freedom must permit eccentricity and even, to a point, endorse it. Without that sympathy, the play would have been reduced to pure chaos and would have failed to portray an American ideal of freedom.

      (This thesis suggests that "sympathy" was the director's intention. Note also that the reviewer gives a strong indication of what he/she expected to find in the production.)

    • Since you will not be expected to discuss all aspects of the production, focus your thesis on one or two major concerns that the performance has or has not addressed. Read your assignment carefully to find out which aspects of the performance are to be emphasized in your review.


      In You Can't Take It With You, the acting by the family members on the open, exposed stage displayed an innocent and vigorous freedom, as well as a proud independence in their confrontation with accepted norms of behavior.


Writing the Statement and Summary

Include a brief thematic summary (but not a plot summary) of the play, and support that summary with concrete evidence from the text.

You can include this summary in the introduction; or, if you wish to expand the summary, include it in a separate paragraph following the introduction.

Writing the Body of the Paper: The Review

Remember that in the body of the paper you are obliged to deal specifically with each element of the production that you mentioned in the introduction and thesis.

In order to give your review a tight internal logic and cohesiveness, you should also discuss these elements in the order that you outlined in the introduction. Such points of discussion might include the non-technical (acting, directing) and/or the technical (lighting, scenery, costumes) aspects of the production.

For each element that you discuss:

  • Describe: In as brief and precise a manner as possible, describe in detail the physical aspects of what you saw performed. Keep in mind at all times that whatever you include must in some way contribute to the assertion you made in your introduction and thesis. Focus on particular scenes or performances that will provide the evidence for your final evaluation of the play.


    The tempest scene in Lear utilized a particularly hostile set in order to universalize the suffering depicted throughout the play. The lights were dimmed and the backdrop was flat black. Against this backdrop were propped, in no particular order, seven skulls that looked out over the events to come.

    (Note the vivid description of what was seen, and the use of detail to convey that vividness. The passage will work nicely as evidence for an overall, positive evaluation of the production.)

  • Interpret, Analyze, Evaluate: This part of the paper requires the most thought and organization and consequently receives the most attention from your reader. After you have finished describing important elements of the production, proceed to evaluate them.

    For example, you would need to answer the following questions regarding the last description of Lear:
    • Why were the lights dimmed at the beginning of the scene? (shock effect? slow unfolding of horror?)
    • Why was the backdrop painted black? (contrast? mood?)
    • Why was there no order to the skulls? Why seven? (emblem of disorder or chaos? significance in number?)

    In other words, assume that everything used in production has significance, but don't panic if you cannot find "answers" for all the questions raised by what you see in the production.

    In the evaluation, you are given the opportunity to attack as well as commend the performance; if the production fails to answer questions that you feel need answers, then say so. If the question or problems are relatively minor, ignore them. Don't quibble at the expense of missing the more important concerns.


Writing the Summary and Conclusion

Your conclusion should not merely recapitulate your thesis in a mechanical way.

Rather, you should try to show why your response to the play is valid and significant, based on what you have described in the body of the paper.

Do not add any significant new material, but don't be afraid to leave your reader with something to think about.


For further information you may wish take the Writing Center workshop entitled Literary Analysis?: No Problem!.