- Jean Rosenthal’s Light: Making Visible the Magician 1
As Jean Rosenthal described the narrow, formulaic conventions of lighting that dominated the theatrical stage as late as the 1930s, “Comedies were bright; dramas were uncheerful. Day was yellow; night blue. Effects were naive” (55). Rosenthal’s use of light revolutionized the art of theatrical lighting, and her work (along with that of Abe Feder and Peggy Clark Kelly) established the specialized area of lighting design. In addition to specific lighting innovations, Rosenthal’s ability to create an atmosphere unique to each show put her in demand as a Broadway lighting designer. Prior to her death in 1969, she had begun to explore son et lumière (sound and light) productions as a way to further elevate the role of light. However, the cultural, professional, and artistic concerns that helped produce Rosenthal’s innovations also placed limits on them. In this essay I pay particular attention to the way gender expectations and ideas about the role of light in theatre production intersect, and how Rosenthal accommodated them. 2 By exploring Rosenthal’s specific contributions, I also hope to show how theatrical lighting can be read in relation to the stage meanings it helps to produce.
Rosenthal began her career as a lighting designer at a time when masculinist traditions in Western theatre were rarely challenged successfully. Indeed, she worked within these traditions to revolutionize theatrical lighting, shaping her notion of the function of light within certain parameters: she saw light’s functioning within the mise en scène as most successful when it did not call attention to itself. She was firm in her insistence that although lighting must be allowed to make its unique contribution to “the happy creative whole,” it must nonetheless be subservient to all other aspects of performance. While acknowledging these limits, she created lighting that was original, varied, and in its day technically sophisticated. Rosenthal’s belief in the necessity of the subordination of both herself and her art into a kind of domestic, wifely function within the theatre reveal an interesting intersection between the cultural expectations for women and the professional expectations for lighting designers during the period covered by her career. A 1955 article in the Sunday Mirror Magazine attests to this connection: [End Page 77]
Stage lighting, [Rosenthal] said, is an ideal occupation for a woman if she is not excessively aggressive. “That’s because,” she says, “in this field you must be absolutely willing to be a collaborator. Everyone else—the actors, the directors, the producers, the writers—is the star. . . . And when no one in the audience knows where the light on the stage comes from, and when no one notices anything on the stage except the actors, the sets, the costumes, and the words and the music—then you know that you have done your job as it should be done.” 3
Rosenthal’s quiet demeanor, her politeness, her highly tactful mode of collaboration with other artists, and her willingness to background her own contributions became her professional trademarks. In a 1950 article for Theatre Arts, Ellen Violett described not only Rosenthal’s qualities, but also what necessitated them:
The obstacle of a woman bossing an all-male crew had been successfully overcome. Today she is unique for her relationships with the crews: she is without temperament and the people who work with her really like her. She says she learned the hard way. “An electrician said one day that if I told him to do something just once more he’d throw a monkey wrench at me. I forget now what it was, but about half an hour later when it still wasn’t done I told him just once more—you know when you’re young, you’re eager. Well, he threw the monkey wrench. He missed. But only because he meant to miss, and he taught me a lesson.”(26)
Rosenthal’s words suggest that her accommodation to a feminized role in theatre was not merely a matter of personality. In fact, her role as lighting designer required avoiding the appearance of authority over the men working for her, something she accomplished through...