THEATER IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY
BACKGROUND: THE NINETEENTH CENTURY
Major social changes-the industrial revolution, technological advances, and the rise of nationalism-took place between 1800 and 1875. We should note, however, that the period from 1800 to 1875, like most historical demarcations, is somewhat arbitrary. For example, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was discussed in Chapter 10 as an eighteenth-century playwright and director, but he was still active in the early 1800s. Thus some of the figures we will discuss in the present chapter had careers that began before 1800, and some had careers after 1875; and we will make occasional references to events after 1875 that were closely related to preceding events. This should be considered the changes of this period.
Possibly the important transformation of the early nineteenth century were the industrial revolution: the replacement of hand tools and human power by machinery, and the development of factories and the factory system. Many inventions were made -- including an improved steam engine that transformed textile manufacturing, the leading industry of the time. The foremost textile manufacturing nation, and therefore the leader of the industrial revolution, was Great Britain.
The factory system, which required centralized labor forces, spurred urbanization anti eroded traditional European agrarianism. The populations of European and American cities grew, but the way of life created by industrialization was far from pleasant for the working classes. Cities were polluted by coal, and housing was poorly constructed, cramped, and in short supply. Since the factory system required large numbers of unskilled laborers, whole families, including women and children (at first children as young as 6 years old), were employed at minimal wages; a workday was. 14 hours long.
The industrial revolution, however, was a boon to the middle class, which was further strengthened financially. In acknowledgment of its new power, legislatures throughout the nineteenth century passed reforms beneficial to the middle class. Among other things, these reforms liberalized the qualifications for voting and for holding elected office. By 1884, three-quarters of all men in Britain could, vote, as opposed to only one-eighth in 1832.
Eventually, the plight of the growing working class also began to improve. For example, in 1847 the British parliament passed the Ten Hours Act, which limited the working day for women and children to 10 hours. In the last half of the century, unionization began to develop, and the working class emerged as a social and political force to be reckoned with -- as is evident from the numerous workers' uprisings in Europe between 1830 and 1871.
Technological innovations transformed not only industry but transportation and communication. The improved steam engine led to the locomotive, and beginning in the 1840s extensive railroad construction was undertaken in Great Britain and the United States. By 1869, a transcontinental railroad linking the east and west coasts was completed in the United States. Nineteenth-century inventions, including Robert Morse's telegraph (1837), Alexander Graham Bell's telephone (1876), and Thomas Edison's incandescent lamp (1879), revolutionized daily life.
Nationalism, the desire of peoples to establish unified political states and their belief in the superiority. of their own , nations, was also a nineteenth century phenomenon. Many historians suggest that nationalistic fervor was a reaction against Napoleon's attempt to conquer and consolidate most of Europe between 1800 and 1815. Nineteenth-century nationalism resulted in wars of independence in Latin America and Greece, and in the unification of Germany and Italy; but it also resulted in rampant colonialism, with developed countries exploiting the natural resources of underdeveloped areas such as Asia and Africa.
Possibly the two most influential intellectuals who questioned traditional beliefs were Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Charles Darwin (1809-1882). Marx, a German newspaperman who spent most of his productive years in England, outlined a socialist philosophy in The Communist Manifesto (1848), which he wrote with Friedrich Engels, and Das Kapital (1867). Marxism was a reaction against evils he perceived in the industrial revolution. According to Mark, the working class (the proletariat) is exploited by the owners of private capital (the bourgeoisie); he believed that the workers would unite to overthrow their oppressors and create an egalitarian, classless society in which wealth would be shared. The state and religion-which he saw as bourgeois devices for exploiting workers would disappear in this utopian socialist society. Thus "Marxism questioned dominant nineteenth-century economic, political, social, and religious beliefs.
Darwin's On the Origin of Species (1859) outlined his theory of evolution: that animal species evolve through natural selection. Species are constantly changing-, these changes are transmitted by heredity; and the fittest individuals and species -- those best adapted to the environment -- survive and reproduce. Darwin's theory was revolutionary and controversial because it seemed to question traditional religious beliefs about creation, particularly the creation of humanity. Social Darwinism, a distortion of Darwin's theory which he himself never advanced, suggested that some races, nations, and religious groups arc fitter than others, an idea that was insidiously exploited in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.
Darwin and Marx presented a disturbing challenge to long-held beliefs in the supremacy of God and in a social hierarchy established by God. Their ideas and others, notably those of Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, were to have a profound effect on the western world. .
Theater in the nineteenth century built on the innovations of the eighteenth century and paved the way for modern theater, which began in the years immediately following 1875. As we noted in Chapter 3, there is sometimes a delay before written drama reflects social changes; and the ideas of Marx and Darwin did not surface in drama until the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. However, the theater of the first 75 years of the nineteenth century directly reflected contemporary social and industrial developments. Urbanization and technology, for instance, brought about marked changes in theater architecture and scene design. The concentration of people in cities made larger audiences available for longer runs of popular shows. The changing tastes of a changing audience were mirrored in popular drama; and the increasing diversity of urban populations -- particularly in the United States -- led to splintered audiences who wanted theater which spoke to their own needs. For example, many foreign-language theaters for immigrant audiences developed in New York City in the middle and late 1800s. Because of its new complexity, theater began to need an artistic overseer; a director.
THEATER IN NINETEENTH-CENTURY LIFE
Before examining specific transformations in nineteenth-century drama and theater production, we should consider the unique place theater held during this era. The dramatic arts exploded during these 75 years: the masses who filled the fast-growing cities demanded theater; for these new audiences it was a fad, a passion, and also a seeming necessity. Nineteenth-century theater, therefore, was a true popular entertainment. It attracted huge numbers of people, and its escapist dramas – though written quickly and often not particularly well – helped them forget the cares and drudgery of their lives.
The increase in numbers of spectators and types of entertainments resulted in the construction of more playhouses throughout the western world. With better rail transportation, dramatic arts were also brought to new areas and audiences; the transcontinental railroad, for example. made it possible for touring theater to reach people living in places like California.
The passion that audiences felt for theater accounts for the immense popularity of the era's star performers, and this intense interest in theater is also reflected in the desire of some of the century's most renowned literary figures to write dramas. Novelists, such as Charles Dickens and Henry James, saw how well drama could reach and affect mass audiences and attempted to write plays. Poets such as Byron, Keats, and Shelley also wrote dramas, though these - because of their unusual style -- were rarely produced.
The popularity of theater between 1800 and 1875 has not been equaled in modem times: today, theater no longer holds the same kind of central position. In some ways, movies and television are modem counterparts; they present similar kinds of entertainment, attract mass audiences, and have popular stars. But the intense passion of nineteenth-century audiences has rarely been found in other entertainments; perhaps the closest parallel today is the emotional intensity of audiences at rock concerts.
The nineteenth-century, passion for theater is clearly seen in -- and helps to explain -- several infamous riots. One of these episodes, the "Old Price Riots," took place when London's Covent Garden Theater was remodeled in 1809 and prices for admission were raised by the actor-manager John Philip Kemble (1757-1823). When the lower-class audiences learned about the higher prices and also discovered that the third-tier gallery had been turned into expensive private boxes rented for the season, they disrupted performances for 67 nights, chanting, sounding noisemakers, and throwing things. Eventually, the management gave in; the old prices for the pit were restored, and the number of boxes was reduced.
Another theater riot took place in Paris in 1834, when Hernani by Victor Hugo (1802-1885) premiered at the Comedie Francaise, the home of French neoclassical drama. As we shall see, Hugo was a romantic and therefore opposed to neoclassicism, and Hernani broke all the neoclassical rules. For 55 nights, shouting, rioting, and fights broke out in the theater between supporters of neoclassicism and advocates of romanticism. (At this time, French playwrights often paid some audience members to applaud their works; a paid group like this was called a claque, and some of the uproar over Hernani may have been set off by rival claques.)
The most violent of the nineteenth-century riots occurred outside New York's Astor Place Theater. This riot grew out of rivalry between an English star; William Charles Macready and an American star, Edwin Forrest. Forrest, who was noted for his portrayal of melodramatic heroes, had made an unsuccessful English tour, and he blamed its failure on Macready, whose style was more subtle and realistic. When Macready appeared at the Astor Place Theater on May 8, 1849, he was prevented from performing by Forrest's working-class fans. Macready's aristocratic admirers persuaded him to perform again on May 10, and a mob of 15,000 attacked the building. The infantry was called out to disperse the rioters, and when the violence finally ended, twenty-two people had been killed and many more wounded.
These events and other audience uprisings illustrate not only the passionate involvement of nineteenth-century audiences but also the social changes of the era. The "Old Price" and Astor Place riots reflected a struggle between the working and upper classes, and the militancy of lower-class audiences foreshadowed later social revolutions. The Astor Place Riot also reflected a growing nationalistic fervor; the violence between Forrest's and Macready's fans was partially a result of anti-British sentiment in the United States.
NINETEENTH-CENTURY THEATER PRODUCTION
We turn now to theater production in the period from 1800 to 1875: to performers, managers, and directors; and to theater architecture and the visual elements of productions-scenery, lighting, and. costumes. ,
The Acting Profession
THE RISE OF THE STAR
The nineteenth-century was an era of star actors and actresses, performers who were idolized by the audiences that flocked to see them. Many of these actors were not simply national stars but became international figures; for instance, the Italian stars Adelaide Ristori (1822-1906) and Tommaso Salvini (18291915) toured Europe, the United States, and South America. Some of these performers amassed -- and frequently lost -- fortunes. Major changes in the art and business of acting were caused in part by the rise of the star.
Two of the most famous stars of the nineteenth century were Sarah Bernhardt (1845-1923)
and Eleanora Duse(1859-1924). These two stars, Sarah Bernhardt and Eleanora Duse, dominated the international stage for part of the nineteenth century. They played many of the same roles, though they had different acting styles.
Bemhardt – "Madame Sarah" – was the more flamboyant of the two, and her eccentricities and temperament are legendary (among other things, she demanded her salary in gold and supposedly slept in a coffin). Bernhardt was the daughter of a French father and a Dutch Jewish mother. She originally wanted to become a nun; but her family opposed that choice, and instead she attended the Conservatoire to train as .a classical' actress. In 1862, she made her debut at the Comedie Francaise, and she continued an intermittent, stormy relationship with that company until 1880. Slim, with large dark eyes, Bernhardt was a master of stage technique, but her chief asset was her voice, which was often compared to a golden bell. Twice she managed theaters in Paris, and she was also a sculptor and a writer of poetry and plays. She toured the United States many times.
Bernhardt was noted for her performances in Phaedra, Hernani, and The Lady of the Camellias. She also starred in works by Sardou and Edmond Rostand (1868-1918); and she performed the title role -- a male part-in a version of Shakespeare's Hamlet. Her own personality always shaped her characterizations; she was strong-willed and continued to perform even after one of her legs was amputated.
While Bernhardt looked backward to the "grand style" of the nineteenth century, Eleanora Duse foreshadowed the sincere realism of the twentieth century. Duse was as quiet and reclusive as Bemhardt was flamboyant. Her parents were both actors, and she made her own stage debut at age 4; at. 14, she was playing Juliet. After her parents died, she had to struggle for several years, until she appeared in Naples in 1879 as the title character in Emile Zola's Therese Raquin and astonished the critics with the anguish she conveyed. After touring as leading lady to the popular actor Ernesto Rossi (1827-1896), she formed her own company.
Duse's repertoire included the poetic dramas of her lover Gabriele D'Annunzio (1863-1938),-the melodramas of Dumas fils and Sardou, and the more modern plays of Ibsen. Her style was greatly admired by critics, such as George Bernard Shaw, who advocated realism. Slender and attractive, she wore no makeup but used her expressive face, eyes, and gestures to convey the thoughts of a character. She was apparently the epitome of a natural, totally believable actress who projected sincerity and inner fire rather than outward flamboyance. She retired in 1909 because of ill health, but financial reverses forced her to return to the stage after World War I. She died while on tour, in Pittsburgh.
THE LONG RUN AND THE DECLINE OF REPERTORY COMPANIES
At about the same time that touring stars and combination companies were becoming prevalent, the long run became more common: a popular play might run for 100 consecutive performances (as the American Edwin Booth's Hamlet did in New York in 1864) or even more. This too was occurring because of expanding audiences in major cities, and also because of the proliferation of smaller theaters which began to cater to specific segments of the public. .
During the nineteenth century, the traditional repertory company – a troupe performing together for a set period. of time in a number of plays – gradually disappeared, because the long run made hiring a repertory company impractical. By the close of the century -- as in today's commercial Broadway theater – a cast would be hired to perform a single play for the length of its run.
This movement away from repertory companies was a significant change for actors: Today, performers in commercial theater are usually free-lancers; they are hired for individual shows. If a production is unsuccessful, they must audition for something else. Many critics suggest that the demise of the repertory company made the lives of actors and actresses more unstable because they were no longer hired for a set time. Furthermore, in a repertory company young performers could be trained by actually performing, since beginners were hired to play minor roles. Today's performers have more difficulty finding opportunities to learn through actual stage experience.
The shortening of the typical evening's bill also diminished the need for repertory companies. The bill had previously included a full-length play, a curtain-raiser or an afterpiece, and entr'acte entertainments. (A curtain-raiser preceded the main play; an afterpiece was a short play following the main play; entr'acte entertainments were variety acts-such as songs, dances, and acrobatics-presented during breaks in the main play.) By 1900, however, the bill consisted only of the full-length drama.
The number of repertory companies was, therefore,
diminishing by 1875. Not all repertory troupes disbanded; and in many countries
such troupes still play a significant role; but in “commercial theater” they
became the exception rather than the rule.
Most historians agree that classical, romantic, and melodramatic performance styles dominated the nineteenth-century stage.
In the early nineteenth century, the most renowned classical actors were the English stars John Philip Kemble and his sister Sarah Siddons (1755-1831), who were both noted for their dignified, carefully planned, and detailed performances.
The romantic stars, by contrast, were noted for emotional outbursts; they punctuated dramatic moments with strong physical gestures, made "vocal points" (that is, they emphasized specific speeches and lines), and they relied on inspiration. Among the great British romantic actors was Edmund Kean (1787-1833), of whom the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote, "To see Kean was to read Shakespeare by flashes of lightning." The first native-born American star, Edwin Forrest (1806-1872); whose performances stressed his physical prowess, is often characterized as a romantic actor, as are the major French stars of the century, Frangois Joseph Talma (1763-1826), Sarah Bernhardt, and Constant-Benoit Coquelin (1841-1909).
Actors who specialized in specific types of roles throughout their careers were very popular in England and the United States. Some of these stars could never transcend their popular image and continued to play the same role over and over again. Two examples are the American actors Francis Chanfrau (1824-1884), who popularized "Mose the Bowery Fireboy"; and Frank Mayo (1839-1896), who made his debut in Shakespeare but became known for his portrayal of Davy Crockett--they spent most of their careers acting in plays written especially for them„and their characters.
American actor, William Gillette, toured for years as "Sherlock Holmes." He had a fortune playing that role -- this was in the days before income taxes -- and put the largest portion of his riches into the building of a palatial home. This home, Will Gillette's Castle, sits on a mountain in Connecticut, high above the Connecticut River. It's now a state park. You can visit this incredible place if you're in the area. Eugene O'Neill's father, another famous actor of his day, toured for virtually his entire career as the Count of Monte Cristo.
Some actors, however, prepared the way for a style of performing which has become more the norm in modern theater. They used stage movements, vocal patterns, and characterizations that were based on everyday life. Performers who worked in this new style included the English actors William Charles Macready, Marie Wilton Bancroft (1839-1921), and her husband, Squire Bancroft (1841-1926); the American Edwin Booth; the Italian Eleanora Duse; and the Russian Mikhail Shchepkin (1788-1863), a serf who began acting in a theater established by his master and was released from his indenture through the efforts of Russia's leading literary figures. Macready's career has been closely examined by scholars because of his innovations in many areas of production.
William Charles Macready
Williams Charles Macready was an important figure in nineteenthcentury English theater as both an actor and a director. Many of his innovations were built on the foundation laid by David Garrick a century earlier.
As the son of an actor and provincial manages, Macready grew up with the theater, but he entered Rugby School to prepare for a career in law. In 1810, after his father's death, he went onstage - temporarily, as he thought -- to support the family. After 6 years in the provinces, he made his London debut at Covent Garden as Orestes in The Disturbed Mother. He then played villains in several melodramas, winning acceptance as an actor but developing a growing loathing for the profession. He was finally allowed to play Richard III in 1819 and began to excel in tragic roles.
Macready was a dignified, studious actor who thoroughly researched and rehearsed each role. He was a pioneer in stage realism and introduced the "Macready pause" he would stop momentarily during the delivery of his lines to give the impression that he was thinking.
Hoping to apply his principles to the acting of others, Macready directed the companies at Covent Garden and Drury Lane from 1837 to 1843. He was one of the first actor-managers to impose blocking -- planned stage movement -- on his actors; he also made them act during rehearsals rather than go through the motions lifelessly. The scenic elements of his productions were united by an image or theme from the play and were carefully researched and elaborately executed.
Besides his improvements in staging, Macready sought to improve the repertoire. He convinced some leading literary figures to write for the stage and produced plays by Browning and Byron; Charles. Dickens -- his friend and a supporter of his efforts -- tried several times to write a stage-worthy comedy. Macready was also one of the first to begin restoring Shakespearean texts to something closer to the original version.
Macready's management at Covent Garden and Drury Lane was not a financial success, partly because of his policy of presenting no drama more than four times a week. After he left management, he toured England and played twice in the United States. His rivalry with the American actor Edwin Forrest -- sharpened by a quick temper on each side, and by anti-British sentiment -- led to the Astor Place riot describe earlier in the chapter.
In 1851, Macready retired from the stage, devoting the rest of his life to his family and his literary friends. His work had paved the way for the realistic acting and staging of the late nineteenth century.
ACTOR-MANAGERS AND PLAYWRIGHT-MANAGERS.
The goal of innovative nineteenth-century actor-managers and playwright-managers was to create a unified stage, picture, particularly through increased rehearsal time and more careful attention to production details. Many of them experimented with historical accuracy in scenery and costuming, and some expected a more realistic acting style.
Nineteenth-century actor-managers were responsible for choosing scripts, casting, overseeing rehearsals, working with scene painters, selecting costumes, and dealing with finances in addition, an actor or actress-manager was usually the company's star performer. Numerous actor-managers took greater interest and care in creating stage productions; almost all these innovators oversaw the visual elements, required careful rehearsals, and experimented with blocking patterns, and they are often credited with moving theater toward greater realism. Iii England, they included Macready, who managed Covent Garden from 1837 to 1838 and Drury Lane from 1841 to 1843; and Madame Vestris, who managed the Olympic Theater from 1831 to 1838. In the United States, they included Edwin Booth, who managed several theaters in New York.
Some innovators in directorial practices were not primarily actors; these included some playwrights. In. France, novelist and playwright Victor Hugo staged his own dramas. The American playwright-manager Augustin Daly (1836-1899) – whose melodrama Under the Gaslight (1867) is often cited as the first play in which a character was tied to a railroad track – oversaw all elements of staging and wanted completely unified productions. Daly's acting company had many young stars whom he had discovered.
A number of the innovative theatrical managers were women – despite the fact that theater management, like many other occupations in the nineteenth century, was unusual for a woman.. In England, as we noted above, there was Madame Vestris. In the United States, the major actress-managers were Anne Brunton Merry (1769-1808), Charlotte Cushman (1816-1876), Catherine Sinclair (1817-1891), Vlatilda Vinev Wood (1821-1915), Louise Lane Drew (1820-1897), and Laura Keene.
The first steps toward the art of directing had been taken in the eighteenth century by David Garrick and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. In the nineteenth century, further steps were taken by some actor-managers and playwright-managers, and there were two people who functioned as early directors Richard Wagner and the duke of Saxe Meiningen
Laura Keene (ca. 1826-1873)
The actress Laura Keene was one of the most successful women to enter the competitive business of theater management during the nineteenth century in the United States.
Keene had been born in England, and, interestingly, she acted briefly in the company of Madame Vestris, the prominent London actress-manager. Little else is known of Keene's early life, however: even the year of her birth and her real name are uncertain. She was married at a young age to a man who was apparently exiled to Australia as a convict. When she arrived in America, her two small daughters from this marriage were introduced as her nieces.
James Wallack (ca. 1795-1864) hired Keene as the leading lady at his new theater, which opened in New York City in 1852. She was then relatively inexperienced, but, coached by Wallack, she added many new roles to her repertory and quickly became a favorite with New York audiences
Early in the 1853-1854 season, Keene surprised the theatrical world by suddenly leaving Wallack's company to accept an offer from several businessmen in Baltimore to manage her own theater there. Keene's management of the Charles Street Theater in Baltimore lasted only a few months. From there she traveled to California, where she acted and also had brief stints as a manager. These experiences helped prepare her to launch her management of a theater in New York City.
When she opened Laura Keene's Varieties in December 1855, she became the first woman to run a large, first-class New York theater. In the competitive world of commercial theater, she was not welcomed by established male managers. In fact, Keene faced strong opposition during her first season, including libelous newspaper reports, the destruction of her scenery by a vandal on opening night, and the loss of her lease to a rival manager.
Still, she prevailed. She had a new theater built which she manage profitably until 1863. Laura Keene's theater gained a reputation for its scenic splendor, and she herself became known as a strict and resourceful manager who popularized such innovations as regular matinee performances and long runs of successful plays. One of the biggest hits of the nineteenth century, Tom Taylor's Our American Cousin (1858), was first produced by Keene.
In 1863, Keene decided to give up her theater and tour as
the head of a company. This gave her the variety of several roles in succession,
in contrast to the monotony of a long run. She toured for the next several years
and also briefly managed the Chestnut Street Theater in
Unfortunately, Keene is probably most often remembered as a footnote to a national tragedy. She was onstage performing in Our American Cousin at Ford's Theater in Washington the night Abraham Lincoln was assassinated there.
Eventually forced into retirement by ill health, Keene died in 1873. By then, her prominence as a manager had already encouraged several other women to enter the field.
George II, Duke of Saxe-Meiningen (1826-1914)
The other crucial nineteenth-century innovator in stage direction was Georg II of Saxe-Meiningen, a small German duchy. If he had been able to choose his own profession, he would have pursued a military career in Berlin, where he was a lieutenant in the Royal Guards. When the Revolution of 1848 broke out in Germany, however, his father, Duke Bernhard II, ordered him to return to Saxe-Meiningen; once home, he became involved in theater.
As the only son of Duke Bernhard, he was given an education which prepared him to rule the duchy. But two of his childhood tutors – one a theologian and the other an artist – instilled in him a love of nature and of art, and art remained a part of his education during his years at the University of Bonn and while he was in the Royal Guards. Though he painted in oils, his talent was mainly for drawing and sketching.
When he was called home in 1848, Georg became active at court, where he found a competent, but uninspired theater company. In 1850 he married Princess Charlotte of Prussia, with whom he had three children. When she died 5 years later, he turned for consolation to art and music, traveling to Italy for a year of study. In 1858, he married a German princess, who died in 1872.
In the 1850s and 1860s, Prussia was becoming the dominant force in Germany. Duke Bernhard opposed the Prussian influence; but Georg was in favor of Prussian-German unification, and in 1866 a Prussian army occupied Saxe-Meiningen and forced Bernhard to abdicate in favor of his son. As duke, Georg was an enlightened monarch, liberalizing land ownership, promoting trade agreements and tariff reforms, and providing health and welfare benefits for his subjects. He also served in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870.
In the evenings, he supervised the court theater, planning and directing productions and providing sketches for scenery and costumes. Ludwig Chronegk, an actor in the company and its regisseur (basically, a producer), was responsible for its daily operations. The third person involved in the company's artistic management was the duke's third wife, Ellen Franz, baroness von Heldburg, with whom he had eloped after the death of his second wife. She was responsible for the selection of plays and for the actors' stage diction.
The productions of the Meiningen players were quite stunning visually. To create appropriate scenic illusions, Georg insisted on historical accuracy and spent lavish sums on rich fabrics and authentic decor. He even extended his attention to the traditionally bare stage floor, decorating it with carpets, steps, shrubbery and the like. The stage picture was further enhanced by carefully worked-out crowd scenes.
The Meiningen company astounded the world with its acting ensemble and it’s unified, historically accurate productions. Georg, Chronegk, and Ellen Franz continued to direct it until it was disbanded in 1890. The years before Georg's death in 1914 were tranquil; and his third marriage was happy.
Edwin Booth 1833-1893
Edwin Booth's reputation as America's finest actor has
survived for over 100 years, and his name will always be linked with Hamlet, his
greatest role. His innovations in. staging are not as well known, but he
anticipated modem scenic developments.
Though Booth's father, Junius Brutus Booth (1796-1852) was
a famous actor, Edwin was not encouraged in his stage career; his family felt
that it was his younger brother, John Wilkes Booth (1839-1865),
who had inherited their father's fiery acting ability.
However, Edwin began accompanying his father on tours at
the age of 13, having proved adept at calming his father's mad moods and
restraining his drinking. Edwin made his own dramatic debut in 1849 in a bit
role, to relieve an overworked prompter, and then
continued to play small parts in his father's company. When the two
toured the west, Edwin decided to remain there and played several seasons in
Edwin Booth's New York debut in 1857 established him as the
most promising young actor in the United States. He was short and slight, with
piercing eyes and a rich, melodious voice. His acting, particularly his
portrayal of Hamlet, was remarkable for its depth of character, grace, and
freedom from mannerisms. (As noted earlier, in 1864 he played Hamlet for 100
consecutive nights in New York, a record that was not surpassed until 1923).
Booth believed that art, including theater, should inspire
and ennoble. To carry out his ideas, in 1869 he built his own theater, where for
5 years he presented a series of magnificent Shakespearean productions.
Abandoning the wing-and-groove method of scene shifting, he used heavy set
pieces and freestanding scenery to create historically accurate settings. He
also used uncorrupted texts of Shakespeare's plays many years before English
theater had returned to them.
Poor financial management forced Booth's theater into
bankruptcy in 1874, and for the rest of his life he was a touring star. His
touring took him to England – where he alternated the roles of Iago and Othello
with Henry Irving – and to Germany. He was one of the first American actors to
achieve international fame.
In private life, Booth was quiet, almost melancholy. He
experienced three major personal tragedies: his beloved first wife died after 2
years of marriage; his second wife went mad after the loss of their infant son;
and his brother assassinated Abraham Lincoln.
Edwin Booth had the respect and friendship of the leading
literary and cultural figures of his day. He felt that acting was an honorable
profession, and he endowed the Player's Club, in New York in 1888 as a place
where actors and other gentlemen could meet. Booth presented the club with his
house on Gramercy Park in New York City, where he lived until his death in 1893.
Scenery, Costumes, and Lighting
Eighteenth-century experiments with realistic devices and
conventions in scenery and costuming were carried further in the nineteenth
Historical accuracy in sets and costumes became more common
with the increasing availability of works of historical research, such as The
History of British Costume (1834) by J. R.Planche (1795-1880). This new
knowledge of the past, combined with the nineteenth-century fascination with
antiquity, convinced a number of theater artists to mount historically accurate
productions; they included the English actor-managers Charles Kemble
(1775-1854), William Charles- Macready, and Charles Kean (1811-1868); the
American actor-manager Edwin Booth; and the duke of Saxe-Meiningen. In the
Saxe-Meiningen productions, as we have seen, costumes were carefully researched
and authentic materials were used regardless of the cost or difficulty of
obtaining them; and performers were not allowed to alter their costumes. The
same careful attention was given to the settings the duke designed.
THE BOX SET
In scene design, the gradual replacement of painted wing-and-shutter settings shifted by a pole-and-chariot or groove system was even more important than the trend toward historical accuracy. The wing-and-shutter arrangement did not suddenly disappear, and it continued to be used for some time. Nonetheless, alternatives were introduced throughout the first 75 years of the nineteenth century.
We have already mentioned experiments in Germany by Tieck
and Immermann, who staged Shakespeare in a way they believed came closer to the
Elizabethan playhouse. In the United States, as noted above, Edwin Booth broke
with the traditional wing-and-shutter set by placing scenic pieces wherever he
wished on the stage floor (in his theater, the stage was not raked) and
supporting them with braces. Also, many English and American theater artists of
the late 1800s began to stage all the action behind the proscenium; this
reinforced the illusion of a "fourth wall."
Another significant alternative was the box set. A box set consists of flats hinged together to represent a room; it often has practicable elements, such as doors and windows, which can be used during the course of a presentation. Between 1800 and 1875, many theater artists began to use box sets; Edwin Booth is credited with popularizing them in the United States.
Madame Vestris, an English actress-manager, was often said to have introduced the box set, during her management of London's Olympic Theater in the 1830s. We now know that Vestris was not the first to use the box set. Some historians believe that it may have begun in the eighteenth century, or even as early as the Italian Renaissance. However, she was undoubtedly a key innovator, who popularized the box set and filled her settings with many realistic accouterments.
During the nineteenth century, the technology of the
industrial, revolution was applied to theater. Many historians believe that the
popularity of melodrama, with its emphasis on stage spectacle and special
effects, accelerated these technological innovations: For example, Dion
Boucicault was responsible for the introduction of fireproofing in the theater
when one of his melodramatic plays called for an onstage fire.
The moving panorama-painted settings on a long cloth, which
could be unrolled across the stage by turning spools, created an illusion of
movement and changing locales. A popular American play, William Dunlap's A
Trip to Niagara (1828), used this device to show a voyage from New York
City to Niagara Falls. The emphasis on recreating natural environments onstage
was probably influenced by romanticism, which called for a "return to nature."
(Today, in film, rear projection, and computers are used to create an illusion
New means of scene shifting were needed for the new types
of settings. The French architect Trelat proposed hydraulic lifts for scene
shifting in a book published in 1860. We have already noted that elevators and
equipment for flying scenery were used at the Edwin Booth Theater. By the close
of the century, the elevator stage and the revolving stage were perfected. An
elevator stage allows sections of a stage floor, or even the entire floor, to be
raised or lowered. A revolving stage is a large turntable on which scenery is
placed; as it moves, one set is brought into view as another turns out of sight.
One innovative theater technologist was Steele Mackaye (1842-1894). (Mackaye was a noted playwright whose melodramas focused on more realistic circumstances. He was also interested in the teaching of acting, and particularly in Delsarte's methods; and he founded the American Academy of Dramatic Art, which is still functioning today.) In 1880, at the Madison Square Theater in New York, Mackaye used two stages; one above the other, which could be raised and lowered; while one stage was in view of the audience, the scenery on the other, which was either in the basement or in the fly area, could, be changed.|
Nineteenth-century technology revolutionized stage lighting, which until then had been primitive. The introduction of gas fighting was the fast step. In 1816, Philadelphia's Chestnut Street Theater was the earliest gas-lit playhouse in the world. By the middle of the century, the gas table – the equivalent of a modern dimmer board – allowed a single stagehand to alter the intensity of lighting throughout a theater. This new control of lighting allowed for significant changes in architecture and staging. In the 1860s, two Parisian theaters were built without obtrusive chandeliers hanging over the audience; gas lighting also allowed Richard Wagner to extinguish the lights in the auditorium of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus.
Thomas Edison's electric incandescent lamp, invented in
1879, was the nest step. By 1881, the Savoy Theater in London was using
incandescent lighting, though some other playhouse may actually have been the
first to introduce it. Electricity, of course, is the most flexible, most
controllable, and safest form of lighting, in the twentieth century, it would
make stage lighting design a true art.