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STAGE MECHANISM

From The Building News and Engineering Journal, April 22nd 1898

Read before the Society of Arts, Wednesday, April, 20, 1898, by Edwin O. Sachs, Architect, author of "Modern Opera Houses and Theatres," &c.

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A Movement known by the name of "stage reform" has of late years received some attention in this country. It originated some twenty years back in Austria, with the primary object of encouraging the greatest possible imitation of nature in the mise-en-scene of opera and drama. The rudiments of art, as understood by painters, sculptors, architects, and the cultured public of the day, were to be applied to the stage, and a true scenic art was to take the place of the nondescript, irrational, and frequently coarse mounting previously given to plays. To facilitate the efforts of the scenic artist, the fullest application of our modern sciences (notably of mechanics and hydraulics) in the interest of "stage reform" was considered essential, and the introduction of recent methods of lighting was also deemed necessary.

The numerous fatal conflagrations which had originated on the stage caused the question of protection from fire to be closely associated with the movement, while the frequency of dangerous diseases among the members of the dramatic profession preserved the claims of hygiene from neglect. The movement, as I have said, originated in Austria, soon after the terrible "Ring" Theatre fire at Vienna; and, on account of the prominence accorded to protective measures against fire, much headway was at that time made in German-speaking countries. Able exponents were found among leading artists, and stage-managers, architects, engineers, firemen and last, though not least, the Government and municipal authorities, interested themselves in the matter. Since then the movement has not only surely and gradually developed throughout Austria and Germany, but also spread beyond the frontiers of those countries.

Concurrently, some quite independent movements also originated amongst several other nations, and, though the purposes of these were not identical, they were very similar. Throughout Europe a transitional period may be said to have begun for the stage. Up to the present time, however, this period has nowhere attained its desired termination in any generally recognised reform. No definite new era has yet been opened, even in the countries where the movement first obtained a footing. Experiments have been numerous and various, and the failures have almost outnumbered the acknowledged successes.

The boldest experiments, with their valuable achievements and costly failures, have, however, now been made, so that little remains to be done except the practical and systematic application of the experience gained. I may here at once say that I see no reason why the experimental or transitional period of the movement should not now be superseded by a new and definite epoch, more especially if the matter is taken up by men who are free from fads of their own. The primary object of the originators of the movement - i.e., the closest possible imitation of nature - has in several instances already been attained; but the art world, and the cultured also, have found that this generally means crude realism.

The mystery of the mise-en-scene, so necessary to a good scenic picture, is lost, and much also of the so-called "feeling" of the spectacle is lacking. Modern science and the most recent methods have already been employed to some purpose in the interests of the mounting; but stage managers and experts have found that an extreme modernisation of the scenic artist's auxiliaries often means more complication and uncertainty than was formerly the case.

The expenditure incurred by extreme reform on the stage has also been found to be disproportionate to the advantages gained therefrom. Both in the effects to be obtained, and in the methods to be adopted, practical reform is now gradually taking the place of radical reform. There can be no doubt that the exponents of the extremist movement have given the necessary impetus towards the improvement of the scenery, and future generations will be greatly indebted to them. As is usually the case, however, with any radical reform, the originators of the movement are scarcely likely to see their proposals adopted in their entirety. Nevertheless, they may be well satisfied that a moderate and practical outcome of their efforts is assured. And this is a great deal when we consider to what an extent the stage clings to tradition and convention, and repudiates any interference from outsiders, and how sweeping the proposed reforms appeared twenty years back.

In England, the primary object of "stage reform," the imitation of nature in the mise-en-scene of both opera and drama, has certainly found a fair amount of favour. This, however, is virtually due to the manner in which the public have associated the movement with that crude realism which has of late met with so widespread an appreciation in all branches of art and letters. There has been no outcry against the indifferent mounting of a play, and the realism of a spectacle has generally been more appreciated by an audience than its merits as a work of -art.

Engraving of the first Lyceum Theatre in 1809 when its entrance was on 254 the Strand - From 'The Lyceum' by A. E. Wilson 1952."Stage reform" in this country is still associated with the sensational shipwreck, the race, or some other exciting item of the programme, and any popularity of the movement is practically due to the rendering of such realistic scenes. There have not yet been many instances where art alone has helped the movement; but for that matter, perhaps, we have not seen many examples of a mise-en-scene on truly art lines. With very few exceptions on a small scale, no extreme reform has been attempted in this country as it has in Austria and Germany. This is largely due to the fact that our actor managers have to rely on their own purses or on those of some speculative financier, instead of having a certain proportion of public funds placed at their disposal. Our managers cannot afford expensive experiments. Too much risk is involved in the sudden departure from traditions and conventional usages, and the most that can be undertaken is a gradual improvement of the scenery on the old lines.

Right - An engraving of the first Lyceum Theatre in 1809 when its entrance was on 254 the Strand - From 'The Lyceum' by A. E. Wilson 1952.

The memorial fountain to Augustus Harris - From the book 'Theatre Royal Drury Lane' by W. Macqueen Pope 1945.Such improvements, as distinct from extreme reforms, there certainly have been. Sir Henry Irving, of the Lyceum Theatre, is a notable exponent of moderate reform. The late Sir Augustus Harris, our leading impresario, also did much in the gradual beautifying of his scenes on recognised lines, though he was frequently hampered by the fact that his productions required a too realistic mounting of the ultra sensational kind.

Left - The memorial fountain to Augustus Harris, erected outside the front of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane after his death - From the book 'The Theatre Royal Drury Lane' by W. Macqueen Pope 1945.

If we wish to see a mise-en-sccne on art lines, the outcome of extremist experiments, we have only the private stage at Bushey, where Hubert Herkomer, who at one time took a leading part in the movement in England, has at his own expense achieved numerous successes as a stage-manager and scene-painter. His miniature stage has been a working model from which our actor-managers have learnt much. Those who have had the good fortune to see one of the Bushey performances will have realised the difference between nondescript mounting and really artistic scenery. The general public little knows to what an extent the efforts of Hubert Herkomer have effected stage-management. Without his private experiments it is hardly probable that even Sir Henry Irving's stage would have shown such improvements as are now accepted as a matter of course.

The curious feature, however, of the movement in England is not so much the absence of extreme changes in the scenery of our stages, as the almost entire absence of the application of modern science and modern methods in the interests of the stage management. Even the few exceptions which do exist generally concern only the substitution of electricity for gas in stage lighting, or some minor or mechanical appliances to facilitate what is termed a "quick change." We are, for once, untrue to our national reputation for practical adaptations; and this, moreover, in a case where there is unlimited scope for energetic young engineers.

In this country, again, the question of fire protection has not been associated with the movement, and the advancement of stage hygiene seems scarcely to have been considered by our exponents of "stage reform." The former omission is, of course, quite in keeping with our traditions. We insure our property, and never consider the tremendous national loss by fire, nor do we take measures for the protection of life from fire until some great catastrophe has fallen upon us. But in the matter of hygiene, such neglect is unusual in a country which prides itself on its leadership in matters connected with sanitation.

I now propose to show how far modern sciences and methods have already been brought into the service of stage-management, and how the protection of audiences and employees has been attended to, so far as the arrangement of stage is concerned. I do not intend to formulate any model code of requirements, or to describe any model stage of my own. This paper will solely indicate examples of stages erected during the last twenty-five years, in which attempts have been made to fulfill modern requirements with the means at our disposal at the end of this great century of technical progress.

Earlier examples of stage machinery are not dealt with, as these can easily be explained from what I shall term a typical example of the English stage of to-day. There is little difference between the ordinary London stage of 1897 and the stage of 1700. The electric light may have incidentally taken the place of the lime-light and gas of recent years, or the candles and lamps of an earlier period, and, as I have observed, there may be some "tricky" mechanical detail or slight improvement in the minor gear; but such unimportant contrivances, I am afraid, complete the list of changes made. Even where the mise-en-scene is improved so much as at the Lyceum Theatre, the antediluvian wood stage still remains.

London, however, is not the only city, nor England the only country, where such lack of progress is observable. Modern stages are as yet rare abroad, except in the countries where "stage reform" originated. The only difference is that, while some of the oldest and worst stages in London have been known to show excellent mounting, good scenery abroad will, as a rule, only be found on a modern stage; and I will here take the opportunity to express my admiration at the perfect scenic arrangement of some of our plays, for the production of which our managers are so greatly hampered by their pitiable stage equipment, which compels them to have recourse to innumerable makeshifts.

It would, however, be impossible for the London manager to do such excellent work if he had to change his play-bill daily, as is frequently the case on the Continent. The so-called "set-pieces," for instance, could not then be so extensively used as they are now. It is probable that plays with long runs, in which the stage-carpenter's work becomes mere routine, have partly been the cause of our tardy progress in "stage reform," while the more complicated requirements of a continually changing play-bill must have assisted the movement abroad.

Before going further, I may mention that, with a view of studying modern stage mechanism, I have personally visited most of the theatres on the Continent possessing modern stages. Every facility was granted me by the authorities in every case, so that it is not without a full knowledge of the most recent developments that I have ventured to address you to-night. I must, however, as an architect, claim your indulgence for any errors of expression in dealing with a subject which rightly belongs to the allied profession of the engineer. But, curiously to say, no English engineer seems to have as yet given the stage and its possibilities any special thought. And, what is more, no English stage mechanist nor carpenter has ever given us any publication dealing with the wood stage of old that might serve as a basis for my remarks. I am, therefore, practically broaching an entirely new subject or section in that vast world commonly known as "Technical Science."

It would certainly be premature to attempt any rigid form of classification in so new a subject. The exact definition of the headings seems to me practically impossible. It would, however, be well to note that stages may readily be grouped according to the materials of which they are constructed. I will therefore use the main divisions: Wood Stages, Wood-and- Iron Stages, Iron Stages; and will make further subdivisions according to the power chiefly employed in working the appliances. These subsections are: Manual Labour, Hydraulics, Electricity. Owing to the almost entire absence of steam for motive power in connection with stage machinery, a separate division for appliances where steam is employed is not required. I first take the Wood Stage, then the Wood-and-Iron Stage, and, lastly, the Iron Stage. Manual labour is employed in all three, but electricity and hydraulics are only to be found in connection with the latter. Hence, the division of the subject is practically as follows:- Wood Stage: Manual Labour. Wood-and-Iron Stage: Manual Labour. Iron Stage: Manual Labour, Hydraulic Power, Electrical Power.

Before, however, speaking of the stage, I must particularly call attention to the purposes of the various classes of playhouses for which scenic paraphernalia have to be provided. This may at first sight appear out of place; but I hold that if the purposes of the different institutions are borne in mind, it will greatly facilitate the appreciation of the circumstances which govern the construction and working of stages, and the structural as well as the economic difficulties which have to be overcome. I must also remind you of the necessity for studying the planning of a modern playhouse, more especially in regard to the stage and auditorium, for it should be clearly remembered that stage mechanism is not everything, but that the sighting and acoustic properties have to be considered.

The outlines and dimensions naturally depend in the first place on the respective requirements of the stage-management or owner; but in the same way as the lines of the auditorium are essentially governed by the proscenium opening, the setting out of the stage is regulated by the height and width of this all important feature. Many stages have so-called rear or back-stages, the dimensions of which are, however, dictated mainly by the facilities to be afforded for obtaining certain effects. Altogether I would emphasise that the engineer who wishes to give attention to the subject of stage-construction must fully comprehend the requirements and possibilities, and it is absolutely essential that he should not only know the wishes of an individual client, but also the varied policies or makeshifts necessary under different circumstances, and above all in different countries.

In my work "Modern Opera Houses and Theatres," and in various papers read before the Royal Institute of British Architects, the Architectural Association, and elsewhere, I have already spoken of the very different manner in which theatre construction is treated by the architects of the Continent as compared with the way in which it is dealt with in this country. I have laid some stress on what I might almost term the difference of feeling which pervaded theatre architecture, and it would not be out of place to repeat that there exists a considerable distinction between the artist and leader of his profession who is responsible for the Continental buildings and his more practical confrere of our own Metropolis. In the same way as there is a decided contrast in the character of those responsible for the erection of theatres in this country as compared with those on the Continent, so there is a wonderful difference in the personnel responsible for the construction and working of the stage.

With few exceptions, the construction of our stages is in the hands of a stage-carpenter, who has had no exceptional advantages in the way of technical training, and whose position in the theatre is hardly better than that of any foreman of artisans. Abroad, even for the construction of wood stages, the commissions are given to fully qualified engineers who hold influential positions in their profession. More particularly in German speaking countries, there is a distinct calling of stage engineering, and though some few of the present leaders may have risen from the ordinary stage-carpenter, this profession is practically now only composed of men whose preliminary training alone often approaches that of our Royal Engineers.

The body of stage-engineers includes men with exceptional powers of initiative, as may be judged from the examples of hydraulic and electric stages which I propose to show, and the way in which the work is usually executed also displays, I am glad to say, such full consideration for the requirements of the scenic artist as is seldom found where the interests of art and science clash. In several instances, even, the stage-engineer takes also the position of "director of scenery" (Artistischer Leiter), and he is held responsible for all stage effects, including the design of the scenery, which is prepared under his supervision.

The Drury Lane Lifts in action in 1898 - From 'Modern Opera Houses and Theatres' by Edwin O Sachs, Published 1896-1898, and held at the Library of the Technical University (TU) in Delft - Kindly sent in by John Otto.

Above - The Drury Lane Lifts in action in 1898 - From 'Modern Opera Houses and Theatres' by Edwin O Sachs, Published 1896-1898, and held at the Library of the Technical University (TU) in Delft - Kindly sent in by John Otto.

This last-named combination of offices in one man I certainly do not hold with, and I would add that the arrangement is but rarely successful. I prefer to see the mounting of a play in the hands of a scenic artist of recognised standing, to whom the engineer and the principal of the painting-room should be able lieutenants, and not collaborators on an equal footing. One mind alone should govern the mounting of a play. All the larger theatres of the Continent, it is noticeable, employ permanent engineers, whose appointment is mostly in the gift of the owner, and is held continuously, irrespective of any change in management, lesseeship, or varying appointment of scenic artist.

It is not my intention to indicate how much the scope of the engineer depends on the individual in charge of the stage - in other words the stage-manager, lessee, or actor manager, as the case may be - nor do I wish to speak of the various circumstances on which depends the amount of attention the mounting of a play receives, what effects are attempted, and what methods are employed. All this would lead too far, though, to repeat, it is essential for the theatre engineer to be versed in the varied requirements that he may be called upon to consider.

I cannot, however, when speaking of the modern stage, omit some mention of expert opinion on scenic art and its auxiliaries, for nothing has so materially influenced the recent development of stage mechanism as the candid criticism of recognised authorities. In the first place, let us look at the question purely from the artist's point of view. The distinguished artist Hubert Herkomer, holds "that the real secret of perfect scenic art lies in illusion" - i.e., in visual deception - or in not allowing the eye of the spectator to discern the means whereby the semblance of reality is obtained. Mere actuality will not accomplish this any more than good painting per se. It is in the attempt to get absolutely every requisite effect by painting that so much mystery is lost on the stage, for the scenic artist's art should be as much concealed as that of the actor. It should not be too manifest whether a background is painted or modelled, any more than that an actor is "made up" or appears in his natural form. Let us remember that an actor whose wig, for instance, is so badly fitted that his own hair is visible would not be tolerated for a moment; and yet the public will accept a street scene painted on a canvas that is moved by every draught, a rose-bush cut out of thin boards, or a moon rising very quickly straight up the sky and then remaining stationary.

Do not forget that it is quite safe to let down a wobbly sheet of canvas close to the footlights, with a scene painted thereon representing breakers dashing over the rocks, and perhaps a sinking ship in the distance to which the actor may have to refer in his speech. It is safe to have layers of canvas hanging from the "sky" like so much washing hung on a line, and certainly but few have ever questioned the prerogative of the ''firmament " to come together at right angles in the corner. Why, it would take almost a volume to describe the many anomalies of scenery constantly observed on the London stage.

Again, from the stage-engineer's point of view, authorities abroad have published opinions which are not so very unlike Herkomer's. They assume that the desire for realism which pervades the 19th century has completely changed the ends and aims of modern scenic art. The decorative artist, like the actor, must know how to be in earnest. Actor and scene-painter alike must, above all, so labour that the audience shall forget that they are within the four walls of a theatre. But our old stage methods prevent the realising of such an aim, and the impression of an audience that they are only witnessing a play is often far too palpable. Why have the horizon cut horizontally to a crease, showing where the cloth has to be cranked? Why let our beautifully painted panoramic scenes jerk along according to the jerky manner in which the scene-shifter handles his drums? The panoramic scenes may cost £1,000, and yet the simplest mechanical contrivance to insure their smooth working is grudged, and the effect entirely spoilt.

Surely, gentlemen, this is not as it should be. Does it not seem curious that in these enlightened times the theatre should still have to develop behind the hack of society, and that the memory of the former condition of things still clings to matters theatrical? Truly the actor of to-day is treated well enough by society: he is no longer a vagabond and a stroller. Nevertheless, the stage still occupies an exceptional position; it is still to a large extent ignored by the State and by Science.

Let us look at the matter even from the most prosiac point of view - its commercial aspect. Science has turned industrial. She tins meat and condenses milk. But she has not troubled herself about the stage. We employ the same wasteful methods as if modern science were non-existent. Surely it is time to wake up to the necessities of modern entertainment!

The Above text, which was Read before the Society of Arts, Wednesday, April, 20, 1898, by Edwin O. Sachs, Architect, author of "Modern Opera Houses and Theatres," &c., was first published in The Building News and Engineering Journal, April 22nd 1898.

A Memorial Plaque dedicated to Edwin O. Sachs at Golders Green Crematorium - Courtesy B.F. A large number of drawings, photographs, and sketches of stages were here shown as limelight views, and these were explained and criticised by Mr. Sachs. Reference was also made to a collection of drawings exhibited in the lecture-room.

Among the stages of which illustrations were shown were the following:—

A Typical Wood Stage, Drury Lane, Covent Garden, Her Majesty's, Court Theatre, Dresden ; Court Opera House, Vienna; National Opera House, Paris; Municipal Theatre, Rotterdam; Palace Theatre, London; Court Theatre, Schwerin; Municipal Theatre, Amsterdam; National Theatre, Christiania; the "Asphaleia" system; Municipal Theatre, Halle; National Opera House, Buda Pest; Hofburg Theatre, Vienna; Court Theatre, Berlin; Court Opera House, Munich; special appliances at Drury Lane.

The Above text was first published in The Building News and Engineering Journal, April 22nd 1898.

Right - A Memorial Plaque dedicated to Edwin O. Sachs at Golders Green Crematorium - Courtesy B.F.

 

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