Speech and Drama
XIV. Stage décor: Its Stylisation in Colour and Light
18 September 1924, Dornach
At the close of yesterday's lecture I began to show you how you can obtain guidance for the configuration of a drama by studying the sound-feelings that belong to it. For the form of the drama is contained within the cycle of the sound-feelings; and when we inscribe these on to a circle, we discover within their sequence the configuration, on the one hand, of tragedy, and on the other hand, of comedy.
Now it is a fact that this sensitiveness to sound was present in man in the very early days when drama was first coming into being as an offspring of the plays in the Mysteries ; and that can help to assure us that we have here come upon a law, a law in the realm of art. Even Aristotle when he speaks of drama gives evidence of a knowledge that came from the ancient Mystery wisdom. You will not, it is true, find in his writings explicit reference to the connection with sound; the heart of the matter is nevertheless there.
Not all Aristotle's writings have, as we know, come down to us. We can, however, gather from what is known as his Poetics how he regarded tragedy.
In the description he gives of tragedy, Aristotle plainly refers us to the ancient Mysteries, for he speaks there of ‘catharsis’. Catharsis, the purification of the human soul, where the transition is made from the kind of feeling that is experienced in the physical to a feeling that belongs in the realm of soul and spirit, was a goal that was set before the Mystery pupils in the olden days. And now look how Aristotle, in characterising tragedy, sees in its gradual unfoldment a reflection of this process that took place in the Mysteries for the ensouling of man. Note that I say, a reflection; we must not of course confuse the two. Aristotle asks : What should tragedy do; what is its function? Tragedy, he declares, should awaken fear and compassion. In the ancient Mysteries they would have put it differently. They would have said: Tragedy has to pass from the u mood into the i mood—in order then to find its solution in the a or o mood. That is how you would have heard it expressed in very ancient times Aristotle then goes on to say that this fear and compassion are to be aroused in the spectator in order that he may thereby undergo purification. Catharsis, he tells us, will follow from the experience of these emotions.
In Greek times, when schooling and education were not yet oppressed with that stuffy atmosphere of pedantry which deters one nowadays from making any reference to education, it was possible to speak in this way of the meaning and intention of drama without being guilty of tedious moralising. It was possible to explain how the spectator, by repeatedly witnessing the drama, was meant to experience something like a faint reflection of the catharsis of the Mysteries. As he beheld the tragedy acted out before him, fear and compassion were to be artificially awakened in him, with the result that he would gradually be healed from giving himself up uncontrollably to these emotions in real life, healed from all that would undermine his self-possession—in a word, he would experience what was known as catharsis.
If we have to stage a drama and want to form it in right relation to the soul elements that go to the building of it, then we must find again the possibility to receive truths of this kind into the very life-stream of our blood. We must be able to sense the imponderable influences that play between stage and audience.
I reminded you just now that the writings of Aristotle have come down to us only imperfectly. If we had them entire, we should find in them also the other definition which would run somewhat as follows : Comedy is the representation on the stage of a complete and finished plot that is calculated to awaken in the spectator inquisitive interest and apprehensiveness, with the result that his interest in life grows and widens.
Not much is left today of what people were once able to receive through witnessing the performance of comedy. The interest of many people—I am not of course speaking now of people who have cultivated the finer aesthetic sensibilities—but the main interest of people at large is apt to be limited to the ‘him’ and the ‘her’. They are apprehensive as to whether ‘he’ and ‘she’ are going to get one another, and relieved and content when they do pair off after all. Even so, however, the comedy of today does still bear the semblance of what constitutes the essence of genuine comedy.
Now it is a matter of no little importance that we should be able to take what we have thus seen to be the essential elements of tragedy and comedy, and unite them with our experience of sound in the way that I explained yesterday, that we may then bring them into our speech and gesture. For the art of acting is a real experience, born out of the human soul that has been embodied in speech and gesture.
I have spoken of this in an article which will appear in the Mitteilungsblatt tomorrow, in continuation of what I wrote there the previous week about the present course of lectures. 1See Anthroposophical Movement for 14th and 21st (also 28th) September,1924. The two articles taken together could indeed be regarded as a kind of ideal programme for those who are attending the course, particularly for those of you who, whether actors or no, take a real interest in dramatic art. As I have said there, the art of acting is an experience that arises from the soul's having embodied itself in speech and gesture. And it must again become that. But before it can do so, our eyes will have to be opened to perceive certain basic elements without the recognition of which we cannot hope to stage our plays aright. For on the stage there must be harmony throughout; nothing there but must be in tune.
Suppose a producer is considering how to build up a scene, giving it the décor that will make the right impression upon the eyes of the audience. If he is conscious at all of the need for style, that is to say, for art, and does not want mere naturalism—which is the reverse of art—he will have to do his utmost to bring style into his décor. But do we really understand what style in décor means?
Let us think first what it is we have to work with when we set out to make our décor, even if we are wanting to do it in a manner that inclines strongly in the direction of naturalism. We have to work almost entirely with the products of human civilisation—that is to say, with the sub-mineral world. (The crystal forms of the mineral world are more cosmic; they have far more affinity with the cosmos than have any of our aesthetically built houses!) We have to concern ourselves also with the mineral kingdom, and to some extent too with the plant kingdom. Pictures of lions and bears will very seldom be asked for, nor would they easily fit in with the action on the stage. If you were to paint in somewhere a dog sitting under a tree, that too would hardly appeal to one as a choice specimen of décor!
But now, is it possible to represent with style, with art, something that is of mineral nature? Can houses—can plants even—be shown with style? People try to do it; but their attempts only go to prove that it cannot be done. Imagine a stylised tree! The inner conditions that determine art make such a thing impossible. For we cannot, you know, do everything! We can do the things that are laid down in the inner laws of the universe—and only these.
It is different with the animal kingdom. There you can begin to sculpt and mould. A lion or a tiger you can mould artistically—a dog, a cow, or an ox. And going on then to man, you can develop your plastic art to the point of portraiture. But imagine you set out to sculpt a lily. The very idea is inartistic. You simply cannot mould plastically the forms of plants. Neither can the forms of the mineral kingdom be moulded and sculpted. Not until you reach the animal kingdom can you begin to represent in plastic art. Why is this so? How is it we cannot make a plastic representation of a flower, for example? The plastic arts are essentially the arts that idealise, that give style—using the word in its noblest sense. So much so that in the domains where style is possible, our works of art receive style in the degree to which we are able to mould them plastically.
We must not therefore imagine that if, for example, we have to paint a forest for the stage, we shall have to give it style. We must not think we have to paint there a haphazard collection of trees in some deliberate ‘style’. Our picture would only look odd. Stage décor is not landscape, it is not a ‘painting’ in the sense of a work of art. When we stand before a genuine painting, we are looking at something that is finished and complete. It must therefore show style; it must appeal to us as a finished work of art. But stage décor is not finished. It is only finished when it is illuminated by the stage-lighting. And not even then; it receives its final touch when we are looking at it together with what happens on the stage. Not until the play is being enacted is the stage décor complete. This means that it will have to depend for its style, not on form and line, but on colour and lighting. If you want to plan your scene so that the whole décor adds just what the actor needs, giving him the exactly right surrounding for his art, then you will have to centre your attention on the play of light and colour.
For what is it lives in colour? In colour, my dear friends, lives the whole human soul. When we have the power to behold with the eye of the spirit, we discover that the soul of man within lives in colours. Imagine you meet someone whose soul is at that moment bathed in joy, overflowing with mirth and happiness. It is not enough for him to laugh outwardly, he would like to laugh inside; he would like to laugh into the tips of his fingers, and is only sorry he has no tail and cannot show his delight by wagging it, as dogs do. (Oh yes, there are people who feel just like that!) What would you find if you could look right into that person's soul? You would see that that soul was living in red, in a red that positively shouts at you.
When we look at the colour red, we experience it from without. But if we were able to glide right into the jubilant red that we see in that painting there on the wall, and feel how the painter himself must have felt whilst he was painting it, then we would see, shining there in the red, the radiantly happy soul that I described just now. A soul that is imbued more with a feeling of contentment with what has taken place, will live in a more tranquil red. A soul that is deep sunk in thought lives in green, experiences green within. A soul that is rapt in prayer lives in violet, and a soul that is brimming over with love experiences a pure and quiet red. A soul that is eaten up with egotism experiences streaks and splashes of yellow-green. And so on, and so on. Every possible experience without has its corresponding experience within.
But now I want you to understand that when I say something like I said just now and that made you laugh so much, about the dog wagging its tail, I do not mean it as a joke. It only sounded like one. Look at a dog that is running up to its master and wagging its tail furiously! That dog is shooting out behind it all the time the most wonderful sheaves of colour—bright red sheaves, blazing red. That is how a dog laughs! A dog's laugh cannot come to expression in its physiognomy; if it ever does so, the effect is not exactly beautiful. But you can see the laughter in the aura that envelops the dog's tail like a cloud. I was, you see, giving you a perfectly accurate description of a fact; I was not speaking in fun.
When we know how the human soul lives in colour, we shall in time begin to be able, by catching them at a particular moment in the play, to perceive the individual persons on the stage in colour. Thus I could, for instance, say: When I look at Danton in the drama of which we were speaking yesterday, then Danton appears to me in a colour where orange plays into a reddish tint. And I would also dress him accordingly.
Or again, if I look at Hebert, I would have to present him in a greenish colour splashed with red, some kind of blending of green and red. Turning now to Chaumette, I would dress him in a colour that, but for a tinge of grey in it, would resemble the deep scarlet worn by Cardinals. As for Robespierre, when I look at him in the play, I see that I must let him appear in a kind of light green, supplementing it, however, with as much red as possible—giving him a red cravat and so forth. That then is how we shall deal with costume—an item in stage décor that should not be obtrusive.
An important point to have in mind in this connection is that in order to have this lively perception of the colours that radiate from the souls of the different characters, the characters must be right there in front of you on the stage. If a cloud comes between you and the sun, the sun cannot shine directly upon you. No more can the persons on the stage shine upon you so long as the curtain is down. When the curtain rises, then the moment has come for them to send forth their rays and communicate to you their colours and tones. You should then be seeing there before you on the stage the inner soul experiences of the various characters. Then too will the décor receive at last its style. For that must be our aim in all stage décor: a style that owes its being, not to form and line, but to colour. We shall do well to refrain from any attempt to give it style by way of form and line, and devote our whole attention to finding for it the fundamental colour-tone—one, namely, that will harmonise with the different light effects required in the course of the scene. If we succeed in this, we shall find that our play will awaken the desired response; it will get across to the audience.
We can approach the matter also from another side. Say we have there before us the stage, and we set out to plan the décor, suggesting as best we may, without any attempt at style, the surroundings the scene demands, by the use of certain fundamental colour-tones. In these last we shall not take into consideration the characters at all; our endeavours will be concentrated on finding the fundamental colour-tones that will harmonise with the general situation of the play as a whole. If a scene takes place in the evening, naturally we cannot have a décor that suggests early dawn; nor could we expect to call up the impression of midday on a background that was attuned to moonlight.
After having taken pains to discover in this way the décor that is right for your piece as regards its external situation, you will now have to turn your attention to all that has to come from the inner soul life of the characters, to what these have to contribute in the way of mood. And this is where the lighting comes in. For it is the stage-lighting, in its different shades of colour, that has to render the moods of your characters. Outer and inner will thus be working together on the stage. Your lighting will be planned to accord with the moods of the characters, and you will arrange all your outer décor to accord with the general situation.
All that we have been saying has reference of course to the modern stage in its usual form, and would not apply to anything in the way of an open-air theatre, for instance. As a matter of fact, there can be no inner truthfulness in attempts to return to more primitive times when theatres were out of doors. For, before we could stage our play, the older civilisations themselves would have to be resurrected to provide the necessary milieu, and we can't very well do that!
You must really consider what it involves if you set out to act without the appurtenances of the modern stage, and especially without the effects produced by stage-lighting. On an open-air stage you will certainly not want human countenances; you will be constrained to go back to the mask. The mask, and the mask alone, will unite happily with Nature's background. For the mask does not show man as he is, but makes him look rather like an elemental being; and elemental beings are at home in Nature. In order therefore to act in the open, we would have to return to times when man had as yet no desire to take his place on the stage as man.
While we are on the subject of stage décor, it is a real delight to carry one's mind back to Shakespeare's time. No refinements of stage-setting were possible then ! They would place a chair on the stage and write on it: Here is an alehouse !—and leave the rest to the imagination of the audience. But this imagination is simply not there in our modern audiences.
Something else too has been lost. In a time when people's imagination was equal to a staging of this simple kind, the speaking was entirely different from what it is today. It had a style that cannot be given to our speaking today; the languages no longer allow of it. Particularly striking in the English language is the rapidity with which it changed after Shakespeare's time, so that today it is quite impossible to act and speak in true Shakespearian style. Impossible, I mean, for a present-day actor. Could Shakespeare himself be recalled to life, then we would soon see how little his speaking conformed to our modern décor!
I assume, then, that we are dealing with the modern stage, and that we want to take it as it is and endow it with form. We might one day explore the question of how some kind of open-air theatre could be planned for, under the conditions and with the material that our times can provide; but no speculating in that direction can have for us at present any practical value.
When making plans for the stage, we must be quite clear in our minds about this working together of inner and outer. The inner mood of the characters manifests in the lighting; outer décor has to be formed in accordance with what is given by Nature, by the environment. And then we have to bring the two into harmony. And that we can achieve by choosing the right colour-tone for the décor.
Suppose I have an evening scene to prepare. I shall not without further deliberation simply plan to use a colour that belongs specifically to the dusk of evening In all other respects—the representation of trees, and so forth—naturalism may be allowed to hold the field. For the naturalistic painting on the sets is for the stage designer very much what apples and carrots are for the painter of still life—merely the materials from which he composes his picture; and we know very well that apples and carrots do not lend themselves to idealisation. And it is the same for the stage designer; he has no call to stylise the properties that he collects for his scene; indeed he must not try to do so, for he could only make the picture of the scene look artificial if he tried to give it style in form and line. The general fundamental colouring—that is what is important.
To return then to our evening scene. It may be within doors, in a room, or it may be öutside, perhaps in a garden. Whichever it is, the fundamental colouring will have to be chosen to blend with the various lighting effects that are needed to express the moods of the characters. We must find the shade that will blend with these to produce a harmonious whole.
It may be, I shall have many changing moods emanating from the souls of the characters; then each of these moods will need its particular lighting effect. But supposing I were to let a red light shine from the left-hand front corner of the stage (as seen from the auditorium) and this red were to fall on a light violet ground, I know very well that the result would be distinctly inharmonious. I shall have to take pains to avoid any such disharmony. For that is the key to the whole matter; in order to achieve style, we must endeavour to find for our décor the shade of colour which will harmonise with all the various colours that are called for by the moods of the persons on the stage.
Considerations of this kind are not at all easy to put before people of the present day. For there is no doubt about it, we are living in a time when art has completely vanished from the stage. This has been forcibly brought home to us in some actual instances that have come our way.
When we first set about staging our Mystery Plays, we were of course obliged to be guests in some theatre; thus we had occasion to inspect a whole variety of stages. As regards the more ordinary kind of stage the main point would naturally be whether it were large enough and not too large, for our purpose. The décor we would presumably have to undertake ourselves. But now, in the course of our enquiries, we came upon some most strange—and at that time entirely novel—stages, which could really read one a lesson on the hopeless poverty of dramatic art. We were shown, for example, a stage that made me think: In heaven's name, where are the actors going to be? The stage opened wide to right and left, but had no depth, scarcely any depth at all, front to back. Afterwards, I witnessed a performance on this stage. I had to ask myself: Has it really come to this, that people are confusing painting with drama? For it all looked exactly as if it were a painted picture where, however, the figures were somehow made to move about. It was called a ‘relief’ stage.
When a blending of the two arts turns more in the direction of painting, I like it very well. When I was young we had books where what you saw at first was a collection of figures painted on the page; but little dramas were mysteriously stowed away there, waiting for the tabs below to be pulled, when the figures above would begin to move. I had one of these books of my own, in which there was a picture of a very pretty spot in the environs of Vienna. The picture was of course a little stiff and formal. But if one has a child's imagination and is moreover constantly pulling the tabs and setting the picture in motion, why, then the result is really delightful. But when we see something similar on the stage (for we would certainly have taken that relief stage for a painted scene, only that we were puzzled to understand why the figures were moving), then all I can say is that such a spectacle rings the death-knell of dramatic art.
One item we saw on this stage was particularly wanting in good taste. Special attention had obviously been given on this occasion to the matter of perspective and the way the audience can be deceived with it and then taken by surprise. I found myself looking straight at a certain point in the backdrop. There was at that point something that completely baffles description. Impossible to imagine what it could be, there in the middle of the wall, with some sort of continuation downwards! It looked more like a coconut than anything else, but as though a coconut with its fibrous bark were somehow running wild. That was really the impression one had. Then the play began. After a while, this object at the back of the stage gave one a frightful shock. All at once, it began to turn—slowly; and behold, on the other side of it was a human face. Suddenly, from out of the coconut, an actress made her appearance. Yes, that is how it is today! All feeling for ‘form’ on the stage has disappeared, and we have instead these grotesque barbarisms.
Our only hope is to go right back to the foundations of the art of drama. And one of the things you will need to understand, if you want to be a really able actor, is the close relation of colour to human feeling. We have veritably to see in colour human feeling caught, and made visible. In the later lectures, I shall be suggesting certain themes for you to work with in inward meditation, but I would like now at this point to give you one that is more in the way of a picture—and a picture that you can easily find for yourselves.
I can really tell you of nothing that will help you so well to develop a sensitive feeling for stage décor as will the rainbow. Give yourselves up in reverent devotion to the rainbow, and it will develop in you a remarkably true eye for stage-setting, and moreover the inner ability to compose it.
The rainbow! ... I feel within me a mood of prayer: that is how the rainbow begins, in the intensest violet, that goes shimmering out and out into immeasurable distances. The violet goes over into blue—the restful, quiet mood of the soul. That again goes over into green. When we look up to the green arc of the rainbow, it is as though our soul were poured out over all the sprouting and blossoming of Nature's world. It is as though, in passing from violet and blue into green, we had come away from the Gods to whom we were praying, and now in the green were finding ourselves in a world that opens the door to wonder, opens the door to a sensitive sympathy and antipathy with all that is around us. If you have really drunk in the green of the rainbow, you are already on the way to understanding all the beings and things of the world. Then you pass on to yellow, and in yellow you feel firmly established in yourself, you feel you have the power to be man in the midst of Nature—that is, to be something more than the rest of Nature around you. And when you go over to orange, then you feel your own warmth, the warmth that you carry within you; and at the same time you are made sensible of many a shortcoming in your character, and of good points too. Going on then to red, where the other edge of the rainbow passes once again into the vast distances of Nature, your soul will overflow with joy and exultation, with ardent devotion, and with love to all mankind.
How true it is that men see but the body of the rainbow! The way they look at it is as though you might have an artificial figure of a man in front of you, made of papier-mâché, and were quite content with this completely soulless human form. Even so do men look up at the rainbow, with no eyes or feeling for anything more than that.
When pupils of a dramatic school go for excursions, they should take every opportunity that offers for entering into this living experience of the rainbow. (Naturally, one cannot arrange for such things, but the opportunity comes more often than people imagine.) For it is like this. One who is training for the stage has to come to grips with the earth. In running, leaping, wrestling, in discus-throwing and in spear-throwing—in the practice of these he enters right into the life of the earth. He must, however, also find his way, through the heavenly miracle of the rainbow, into a deep inner soul experience of colour. Then he will have found the world on two sides, making contact with these two revelations of it. And a revelation of the world—that is what drama has to be!
When the student is running, leaping, wrestling, he isn't just executing a movement that he can see; he is within the running and the leaping with his will. And now, when with the eye of the soul he beholds the colours of the rainbow, he is not looking at Nature merely in her outer aspect, he is face to face with the soul-and-spirit that is in Nature— which is what we must also succeed in bringing on to the stage, for without it our décor will never be truly artistic. Beholding thus the soul-and-spirit that works and weaves in Nature, the student will verily be on the way to becoming a contemplator of the universe, he will be learning frankly and naïvely to contemplate, in soul and spirit, the great wide universe. And that will mean, he will find his way back again to the little children's verse that one used to hear so often in earlier days:
‘Kind, es kommt der liebe Gott gezogen
Auf einem schönem Regenbogen.’ 2‘The dear God comes to us, my child, Upon a lovely rainbow.’
This mood of sublime devotion—we need it in dramatic art! The very best result that can follow from a renewal of the art will reveal itself in the fundamental attitude of soul of all those who take part in the work of the stage.
With the decline of the art of acting has come also a decline in the art of writing for the stage. When one sees the whole mood and manner in which authors like Schönthal, Kadelburg and the rest, to say nothing of Oskar, set- about writing their plays, often two or three composing a play between them, showing thus only too clearly that for them the art of the stage has no connection at all with men's souls, how is it ever to be expected that dramatic art should flourish ! No wonder it degenerated into something very like routine. And then, after stage-routine had through the seventies pursued its ill-starred way, idealists began to come forward. They were, however, idealists who stood on their heads— instead of walking on their feet ! They said: What we show on the stage must be true! And so, into stage-routine and stage-mechanism they brought naturalism. Art they had not, style they had not, so they introduced naturalism; that was the best they could do.
It is important, however, that we should have a clear picture in our minds of how these developments came about; for then we can understand that the idealists, despite the fact that they stood on their heads, did really accomplish something with their naturalism. It was at the time a genuine reform. Better a Brahm than a Blumenthal (his name was really Oskar) or a Lindau. In comparison with what the stage had become in the seventies and in the beginning of the eighties, naturalism was, when all is said, a change for the better. But it was not to last; for it is not art.
Art is what the stage must now rediscover. The art of the stage has become no art—though continuing to be so sought after; for, in spite of all, does not everyone love still to see a play? What we must learn to do is to bring art into our thinking, so that when we give our attention to any aspect whatever of the work of the stage we do so from the standpoint of art.