- Stage Designers in Early Twentieth-Century America: Artists, Activists, Cultural Critics by Christin Essin
Relatively little has been written on American stage design, and even less on the theoretical, social, cultural, and political underpinnings of designers’ practices. Published studies are generally limited to coffee-table books of renderings and photographs of the work of seminal designers (i.e., Boris Aronson, Jo Mielziner, and Orville K. Larson’s multidesigner study); a few autobiographies (e.g., Lee Simonson); mentions of designers in texts on production companies or on producers/directors; and practical “how to” design and technology texts. Drawing inspiration from Arnold Aronson, Marvin Carlson, Una Chaudhuri, and others, and focusing not on rudimentary aspects of stage design like drafting and rendering but on the designer’s interaction with economic, social, and political movements, Christin Essin’s Stage Designers in Early Twentieth-Century America begins to fill this void. She successfully sustains her strategy of examining the design artist as activist, author, cultural critic, entrepreneur—even cartographer (literally, metaphorically, and semioticly)—as she moves from chapter to chapter, situating designers within the intellectual and cultural contexts of their time.
Essin argues convincingly for her choice of case studies: (1) to recuperate lesser known designers (e.g., Aline Bernstein, Joseph Urban), (2) to contextualize from a historiographical perspective the extratheatrical work of design icons (e.g., Robert Edmond Jones’s Paterson Strike Pageant poster and Norman Bel Geddes’s pre-Disney Futurama, World War II models, and innovations in department store window dressing), and (3) to offer alternative analyses of canonical pieces (i.e., Mielziner’s designs for Death of a Salesman). A short introduction, “Design as Cultural History,” precedes a body organized into five chapters: “The Designer as Author,” “The Designer as Cultural Critic,” “The Designer as Activist,” “The Designer as Entrepreneur,” and “The Designer as Cultural Cartographer.” [End Page 270]
Chapter 1 emphasizes how designers’ works reached audiences not only in attendance at productions but through the written word, as practicing American stage designers began to articulate their theories in publications like Theatre Arts Monthly. Although she did not publish design criticism or theory, Aline Bernstein is included in this chapter because of the ways in which she claimed authorship through autobiography and fiction—including a children’s book—reaching a different and arguably large readership outside the theatre profession.
In chapter 2, Essin deftly explicates nuances of the New Stagecraft—more abstract or nonrealistic styles of production, initiated on the Continent and first popularized in the U.S. by Robert Edmund Jones, “father” of American stage design. She masterfully negotiates a style conundrum as she explicates how Belascotype realism could thrive in the face of modernism. Essin implies that designers in the 1910s and 1920s, when the field was new in the U.S., were selective in their choices of scenic elements, foreshadowing what later would be termed “selective realism,” exemplified by Jo Mielziner’s work. She gently massages longstanding principles of the production process such as serving the playwright’s intentions and supporting directorial concepts, stating that “designs convey meaning guided by but beyond them… By bringing their own impressions of a landscape to a production, designers imbue dramatic texts with meanings not necessarily present before being translated to the stage” (55). These ideas resurface later in the book, in chapter 5, when Essin examines South Pacific in light of not only how Mielziner’s initial watercolor influenced Hammerstein’s lyrics, but how the designer’s romanticized interpretation of the Pacific perpetuated exoticism of the geographic region.
Chapter 3 examines the work of designer-activists: Jones’s Paterson Strike Pageant designs, including his World War I poster, and Bernstein’s community outreach work at the Neighborhood Playhouse, emphasizing the notion of designer-as-worker with Howard Bay at the Federal Theater Project. Here, and throughout the book, thick and evocative descriptions of production designs, exhibits, and projects guide the reader through Essin’s readings of stage designs, not merely as blueprints for production or as works of art, but as...