In the winter of 1903, actor-manager Herbert Beerbohm Tree staged David Belasco and John Luther Long’s Japanese-themed melodrama The Darling of the Gods. Based on an original Japanese folk tale and set in the period of the samurai downfall, it told a story of the forbidden love between outlawed samurai, Kara, and naïve young princess, Yo-San. The plot seemed to contain all the elements necessary for an opulent melodrama but, as so often with Tree’s endeavours, its success was largely down to its stunning sets and costumes rather than great narrative finesse. Belasco and Long’s 1902 debut on Broadway secured the play’s popularity in New York, and was probably a useful tool for Tree and his team when constructing their version. However, the playwright’s opening run had the significant benefit of employing a Japanese designer on staff, illustrator Genjiro Yeto. His drawings and ideas were interpreted by artist Madame. E. S Freisinger into costume designs, and were declared “rich and gorgeous in colour” by The New York Times (21 November 1902). The credit for costume designs used in Tree’s production can be less confidently attributed, and the mystery surrounding their authorship is the focus of this article. It will also explore the corresponding aesthetic trends and cultural shifts connected to the artistic movement of Japonism, and the implications and complications that influence our reading of theatre design during this era.
Ever since Japan’s trade links with Europe were opened in 1854 a surge of enthusiasm for Japanese textiles, painting, furniture and interior design flowed through Britain to America. The London Exhibition of 1862 and the Paris Exposition of 1867, followed by the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876, presented: [End Page 97]
Large displays [particularly the 1867 and ‘76 events] that tantalised visitors with exhibits from the mysterious and previously unknown archipelago. Just as they had “fallen” for Chinese art . . . in the heyday of the China trade in the eighteenth century, Europeans and Americans were enchanted by Japanese aesthetics and styles.
In Japan, traders were of course keen to capitalise on this growing demand, and “Industrial Exhibitions” were held in the cities to familiarise vendors with the types of products they should be marketing. This resulted in the exportation of both original and reproduction goods that provided the taste of an alien culture: perhaps a line of ornaments on the mantelpiece, a dressing gown with cherry blossom motif, or a heavy lacquer-work footstool. By the early 1900s middle-class consumers as well as society’s upper echelons could enjoy the novelty of another culture’s design traits, and the power of Japonism is evident in its duration: for the last twenty years of the century its influence carried on in painting, and decorative aspects of the culture were enjoyed well into the first decade of the twentieth. Referred to under the title of “transcendental aesthetics” by Paul Kuritz, Western perceptions of Japan were the result of the transcendence of “Romantic theatrical art”:
Art embodied the ideal, and it showed reality as pathetic in light of the ideal .. . The transcendental vision acquired a physical presence in art . . . emotion could not be contained. Gardens housed Japanese pagodas as shrines to the transcendental experience of art . . . The East knew how to make art work the romantic magic.
Such views were also typical of the Primitivism evident in the work of Modernist artists such as Paul Gauguin, Marcel Janco and Henri Matisse. As Mark Antliff and Patricia Leighton have emphasised, these artists’ aim was to:
Critique the social and aesthetic order – in this case of the visual arts, state-sanctioned academicism – by embracing an imagined primitiveness whose authenticity they opposed to a “decadent” West, an attitude seeped in the Enlightenment tradition. For them, [such] art offered visual models of simplification and ornament representing authentic primitive expressions of thought and feeling.(Antliff and Leighton, 228)
By the time The Darling of the Gods was revived in 1914, such attitudes were well ingrained in the public consciousness, although a large amount of fear and suspicion of what were seen as degenerate societies of Asia, Africa and Oceanic...