Modern Stage Setting

A PROMINENT Shakespearean lecturer has playfully described Shakespeare, recalled to earth, making a tour of our best theatres. He pictures the great dramatist as charmed with all the perfect stage appliances, delighted with our wonderful improvements, and viewing us with steadily increasing respect and admiration, — and then the curtain rises, and he listens to one of our modern pieces, first with curiosity, then in astonishment, and lastly with disgust, until he shudderingly withdraws, marveling that folks apparently so clever really possess no brains at all.

Berlioz asserts that dramatic art in the time of Shakespeare was more appreciated by the masses than it is in our day by those nations which lay most claim to possessing a feeling for it. Whether this be true or not, it is a fact that our complex modern civilization has failed to produce any great dramatic masterpieces. Its very complexity doubtless accounts for this. Passions, vices, virtues, tastes, and wants are more plainly expressed among primitive races : thence the strength and classic simplicity of the ancient drama. We of to-day, who cultivate our tastes, disguise our thoughts, and carefully conceal our wants, are more intent upon analyzing our emotions than expressing them. If, however, we cannot supply the conditions necessary to produce a great drama, we can at least proclaim our dissatisfaction with a mediocre one. We can refuse to lower our ideals, and our persistent demand for something great must sooner or later be rewarded by something better than that which we now possess.

The rude, irreverent Mysteries and Miracle Plays delighted our ancestors, whose training had not made them oversensitive to the incongruous, nor yet endowed them with delicate discrimination such as we boast of ; though they were perhaps possessed of mightier imaginations by way of compensation. These crude performances were, as we know, gradually succeeded by more elaborate stage mechanism and display ; and yet, witness the contrast between a stage performance in Shakespeare’s time and our splendid representations of external nature ! We have developed an extraordinary technical skill, but the decline of the drama may in a great measure be attributed to this movement. The attention of the audience is now directed to the efforts of the painter rather than to the work of the dramatist, whose small creations are often almost lost amid the marvelous effects of light and shade on our gigantic stages.

It would be senseless to ignore the value of proper stage setting, of lighting and costume, and a genuine artistic background. Shakespeare, we may surmise, never lost sight of the importance of costume and stage effect. His methods called for an accurate mounting and costuming of every piece. He delighted in an artistic picture for the eyes to dwell upon, but he never lost sight of its relative importance. It was first to the ears of his audience that his drama was intended to appeal, and its elocutionary rendering was a weighty consideration. Indeed, the Elizabethans laid great stress upon the art of elocution. The audience of that age was trained to comprehend that which was “ written with the voice,” for they “read with the ear,” instead of with the opera-glass. Actors to-day speak with their hands and feet, rather than with their voices, while the spectators listen with their eyes. There is so much to see, that what they hear is of small consequence.

Are we not doing our best to eliminate the intellectual activity of a supposedly intelligent audience, when we produce varied pictorial effects combined with manifold mechanical devices and term the heterogeneous result a drama ?

Surely we must often question to-day whether the drama belongs to the stage mechanism or the stage mechanism to the drama. Let us take warning, lest our carefully executed detail fail of its mission. Better no detail at all than that it should obscure the vital subject by its prominence, and rival instead of help to reveal.

We are not only judged by the things we do, but also by the things we can do without; the latter are perhaps even more characteristic of us. Can we do without a great drama, and content ourselves with stage appliances ? What does our stage detail of to-day teach us of ourselves, and what will it tell to future generations ? Will it tell of a people quite devoid of imagination, more troubled about minutiæ than motive, — a people blinded by a multiplicity of lights, a band of realists who first shut out the sun, and then try patiently to reproduce it?

Truly it has been well said, “ It is not so much the day of judgment that we need fear as the day of no judgment.”