- Stage Designers in Early Twentieth-Century America: Artists, Activists, Cultural Critics by Christin Essin
2013 marked the one hundredth anniversary of a watershed moment in design: the controversial International Exhibition of Modern Art, better known as the Armory Show. The New York Historical Society marked this occasion with an expansive retrospective—“the Armory Show at 100”—that included works of art by American and European artists as well as a pictorial display of the residual effects of this radical exposition on American art and culture. Published just in advance of this auspicious centenary, Christin Essin’s Stage Designers in Early Twentieth-Century America: Artists, Activists, Cultural Critics captures the zeitgeist of this pivotal period and its lingering impacts vis-à-vis theatre designers in a manner far more compelling and evocative than even the Historical Society’s popular display.
Essin’s book is organized thematically, setting it apart from other historical examinations of design which have tended to explore single artists or styles. She divides her study into five chapters that each offer radical new readings of the impact of theatre design and designers beyond the footlights. Examining designers as authors, cultural critics, activists, entrepreneurs, and global cartographers, Essin highlights the influence and implication of design. Each chapter offers an innovative view of designers as cultural workers, ranging from the sway of their published texts and renderings in her chapter on authorship to the global impact of their depictions of non-Western landscapes in her chapter on cartography. Although theatre designers gained credibility as artists in the early decades of the twentieth century, as Essin notes early in her book, few historians have acknowledged their enormous power as cultural critics, political activists, or agents of capitalist industry. While historically the work of designers has been framed as ancillary to other roles within the theatre, Essin convincingly foregrounds their artistry and cultural engagement, underscoring the inherent power of visual imagery and the complex identities of designers in the early twentieth century theatre.
Throughout Stage Designers famous figures such as Robert Edmond Jones and Jo Mielziner are juxtaposed with lesser-known designers such as Aline Bernstein and Boris Aronson. This juxtaposition illustrates the historiographical complexity of Essin’s study. Her work on the more well-known figures is drawn from expansive archival collections while her work on figures such as Bernstein is recuperative, piecing together fragmented traces of her work. In spite of the vast array of materials and published scholarship on Jones and Mielziner, Essin offers invigorating readings of their careers and dismantles prevailing narratives of theatre history. Chapter two, “The Designer as Cultural Critic,” offers a reassessment of realism, uncovering the radical potential within a style that has traditionally been [End Page 101] positioned in opposition to more formally experimental approaches. Realism, Essin instead argues, can also be emblematic of modernist aesthetics.
While Essin delves deeply into theatrical designs from 1912 through 1964, one of the particular strengths of this study is the incorporation of the extra-theatrical work of designers. Most of the designers addressed in this study circulate in multiple chapters, underscoring eclectic and surprising facets of their careers and the cultural capital of theatre in the early twentieth century. For example, Essin’s exploration of the work of Norman Bel Geddes discusses his landmark design for Max Reinhardt’s production of The Miracle and also addresses his work as an industrial designer for GE and GM and as a military model maker for the US Navy. Essin persuasively highlights the theatricality inherent in all of his work—on and off stage. The effect of this approach to each artist, most of whom are represented in at least two separate chapters, is a nuanced characterization of figures often obscured from historical accounts. Essin explores the interrelationship between designers, dramatic texts, craftsmen and laborers, theatre companies, and politics. She persuasively reframes the context and labor conditions of numerous performances, troubling established accounts and offering stimulating alternatives to a wide array of topics including the Federal Theatre Project and the Neighborhood Playhouse.