Theatre to Cinema: Stage Pictorialism and the Early Feature Film

By Ben Brewster; Lea Jacobs | Go to book overview

Chapter 3
The Stage Tableau in Uncle Tom's Cabin

IN nineteenth-century French theatre, the word 'tableau' had a number of meanings, two of which are important for our purposes, both being transferred to early film. Arthur Pougin Dictionnaire historique et pittoresque du théâtre of 1885 clarifies the contemporary usage. Explaining that the term referred to the board on which coming attractions were announced, Pougin continues:

The term 'tableau' is also applied to certain material divisions in works which are complicated in their staging. Any change in the setting during an act produces a new tableau. If, for example, a five-act play contains twenty parts with the action performed in twenty different settings, it is said to be in five acts and twenty tableaux. All féeries are like this, as are certain dramas. With very few exceptions, the curtain is only lowered at the end of each act; the other changes in setting take place in full view of the audience.

Lastly, the word 'tableau' is applied to the plastic and pictorial effect produced at the end of an act by the grouping of the principals and extras who have taken part in the action. A critic wrote in 1824: 'Tableau: the marked wordless scene, general pantomime, coup de théâtre, obligatory at the end of each act of a melodrama. Guilbert de Pixerécourt is a master of the art of the tableau--it is the least blameworthy of this writer's talents.'

Although Pougin does not say so explicitly, when actors reached the poses constituting the composition of a tableau in the second sense, they froze in position for a short but definite period. According to Jan Shepherd, the musical scores of early nineteenth- century English melodramas indicate that tableaux should be held for a number of measures of Rule Britannia, variously four or eight. 1

In English usage, tableau in the first sense, i.e. as a segment of the play demarcated by a change of setting, was usually translated as 'scene' (the term rarely being used, unlike the French scène, for a division of an act marked by the entrance or exit of a speaking character without a change of setting). In the second sense, i.e. as a static grouping of characters or a pose, technical writings such as promptbooks use 'picture'. In less technical contexts the original French word was often adopted directly. The term 'picture' was also used to designate a setting. For example, this use is found in the stage directions for the beginning of the third act of Henry C. De Mille and David Belasco 1890 play Men and Women: 'There is heard the distant sound of a bell striking twelve o'clock. . . . At the eighth stroke the curtain is raised, being timed so as

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Theatre to Cinema: Stage Pictorialism and the Early Feature Film
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Molly's Book v
  • Preface vi
  • Contents ix
  • Technical Note xi
  • 1: Introductory 1
  • Chapter 1: Pictures 3
  • Chapter 2: Situations 18
  • 2: The Tableau 33
  • Chapter 3 the Stage Tableau in Uncle Tom's Cabin 37
  • Chapter 4: The Fate of the Tableau in the Cinema 48
  • 3: Acting 79
  • Chapter 5: Pictorial Acting in the Theatre 85
  • Chapter 6: Pictorial Styles and Film Acting 99
  • Chapter 7 the Pictorial Style in European Cinema 111
  • 4: Staging 139
  • Chapter 8: Pictorial Staging in the Theatre 145
  • Chapter 9: The Cinematic Stage 164
  • Chapter 10: Staging and Editing 188
  • Conclusion 212
  • Appendix: Plot Summary of Uncle Tom's Cabin 217
  • Bibliography 219
  • Filmography 229
  • Index 233
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