Scenery: A Manual of Scene Design

By Harold Helvenston | Go to book overview

THE STRANGE CASE OF SCENERY

WHAT is modern scenery? The answering of this question forms a problem of far greater importance than the casual theatre- goer realizes, however much he may have noticed the changing of styles of scenery and the tendencies to exaggerate or disregard the use of scenic decoration. One can come at the problem only by considering these changes in style--not only the changes of the last fifty years, great as those are, but the changes that have occurred from the very beginning of stage decoration. Those modifications, for the most part have not been matters of whim or sudden invention, but changes which have taken place in an orderly sequence during the entire history of European civilization. To understand modern scenery it is not necessary to reconstruct the whole history of stage decoration but rather to sketch rapidly the development of stage settings as an essential element of dramatic production. Indeed, for centuries there was little change in scenery, and the development of stage decoration began after the medieval period.

In primitive times, when story-telling or native dances occupied the place of drama, it is probable that natural landscapes furnished the backgrounds for performers, and perhaps, when night came, the glow of a campfire became the only scenic effect. The action itself was paramount; something was to be related and the setting became incidental. However, since we must be content with only theories about the drama of this pre-historic period, our knowledge of scenery and its importance then remains vague.

We have more information upon the early theatrical performances of the Greeks. Strange to say, profound as the development of drama was in ancient Greece, the stage setting remained of the starkest simplicity. Ironically enough, our modern word "scenery" is developed from the Greek σϰηνή, the background of the theatrical performance in the Greek theatre; completely subordinated to the actors and the poetry of the piece, it amounted to no more than a legendary device for entrances and exits of the actors, a convenient place for dressing and changing costumes, and a sounding board to enlarge and project the voice of the performer.

The Roman stage was nothing more than a flat imitation of the Greek architectural stage with additional embellishment introduced to heighten realistic effect. The church formed the stage of the medieval period and was, in itself, just a convenience for the presentation of liturgical drama. The development of the stage setting was negligible except for a system of "mansions" or box-like stages which came as a development of the church setting.

Modern scenery, as such, began in the fifteenth century in Italy, where we find the introduction of specially constructed wings and drop curtains, both painted in artificial perspective to represent architectural and rustic scenes. This was the first instance of stage settings being used as a complete dramatic entity and viewed through a single, large proscenium arch. The fact that all of the settings were of an exterior nature is curious and interesting. During this period the stage setting lost its incidental significance and came to be known as stage scenery.

Stage settings of the eighteenth century indicate little development from the wing settings of the Renaissance. It is true that they were conceived and executed on a grander scale, that decorative ceilings and arches were added, and that scenery, as a whole, became massive in size and splendid in adornment.

-79-

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Scenery: A Manual of Scene Design
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page v
  • Foreword ix
  • Preface xi
  • Contents xiii
  • Illustrations xv
  • Scenery and the Designer 3
  • A Process for Scene Design 11
  • A Process for Scene Design Working Drawings 17
  • A Process for Scene Design - The Scene Model 32
  • Light in the Scene 38
  • Scene Painting 51
  • The Exterior Scene - The Natural Exterior 61
  • The Exterior Scene the Architectural Exterior 68
  • Economy in Cost of Construction and Materials 72
  • The Strange Case of Scenery 79
  • The Scene Webster 83
  • Index 91
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