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Set Design In Modern Theatre Essay, Research Paper

Alex Reynolds

The Importance of Set Design in Shaping and Effecting Realism and Modern Drama

Throughout history there has been a call for entertainment. This entertainment has seen many changes from jesters to hangings to orgies to finally the combination of all of these into a stage performance known to the masses as theatre or performance art. The theatre has seen many changes itself from the tragedies and comedies of old to theatre of the current day. Two of the major movements within contemporary theatre that have revolutionized thinking and portrayed some of the better philosophies and ideals of life surrounding the audience in that era were the realism movement and the absurdist movement within modern drama. Realism was known for the masking of all theatre machinery from the audience while the absurdist movement was the anti-thesis of realism and explored the minimalization of set and language. The physical setting in realistic theatre was completely focused on trying to make the stage look as real as life. The physical setting of the majority of modern theatre is less about making the set look real but rather exploration of location without time or specificity of actual place. The two sets for the two movements made the audience focus on different points of view. Realism was inherently more limited as to what it could make the audience feel and think while modern theatre pulls the audience into a more thought provoking process.

Within realism there was the Moscow Art Theatre, under Stanislavsky?s tutelage and leadership, which made huge strides towards perfecting the way that acting was thought of. Other reknown play writes of the realistic persuasion were Chekhov, Pinter, Mamet, and Ibsen. Ibsen?s career as a playwright started with a play entitled ?Brand.? Brand is an exploration of man?s relationship to God and a commentary on the life of complete devotion. The setting is in a small village for the first part of the play and a mountain later in the play. The poverty stricken setting sets up the belief system of Brand while the mountain would make the audience think of Moses. Eventually, Brand and his rigid belief structure are wiped clean from the earth in an avalanche, part of the set design that needs to be built or implied presents to the audience the fact that even a man of God cannot withstand nature. Contrary to ?Brand? was ?Peer Gynt? in which the protagonist believes in nothing except the carnal pleasures of life; in fact, Ibsen once wrote ?Peer Gynt is the antithesis of Brand?. Peer Gynt, however, also has a strong mountain focus in that the mountain is his escape from problems and in the end the source of his redemption. ?Brand? as a set was cold and snow driven bringing tension to the audience in a very visible way while Peer Gynt lives his life mostly in a lushly vegetated mountainside bringing a sense of earthliness as opposed to the godliness of Brand.

Ibsen?s next notable work was known as ?Doll House.? This play is about two people who are married and therefore the set focuses on the home. However, this play was exalted as a piece of pro-feminist literature when it first appeared. (Valency, 150) The main action of the play, occurring within the household, automatically puts the audience in the mode of thinking that eliminates contemplation of universal questions. Realistic plays and the sets that go along with them are a misconception of reality and therefore the audience is less challenged and already put into a certain mind frame upon seeing the set without the benefit of script or action.

The unconscious manipulation of audience sympathies and feelings is obvious in Ibsen?s later work entitled ?The Wild Duck.? The first part of the play takes place in an upscale home. The set is dimly lit in the foreground and well lit where the dinner party is going on in the background. The set implies a well to do family through the use of decoration but the layout is simply an office with doors open at the back of the set which frame a well lit dining room. Later the audience learns that the two settings in the play show a high degree of the mentality and disposition of the family that lives within each respective household. For all intents and purposes the set is the same shape throughout the entirety of the play. However, the lighting and decoration reveal more about the people than some of the actual dialogue as well as delineate between the two social castes within the play. The second set is seen at first with just a room that is a living, dining, work room, all in one. The doors previously open in the first part of the play, located at the back, are closed in the beginning of the Ekdal house scene. This arouses curiosity for what is behind the doors and also foreshadows that the Ekdal family has a lot to hide. The doors hide the ?forest? that young Ekdal has fashioned for his slightly defunct father and his daughter. The ?forest? is houseplants and caged animals ?hunted? by old Ekdal. This is a shortcoming of realism, for the person who notices something like the doors will not be surprised when they are used later as an integral part of the story and the play write is forced to invent cheesy representations of false realities so that symbolism can be used without hitting the audience over the head with the message.

Although some of Ibsen?s work has questions that relate to the world-view of human interaction and the relationship of man to god or nature, the audience does not empathize with the character and therefore does not supplant the image of themselves into the play. Realism allowed the audience to view an event without asking the audience to do little more than enjoy the story and forget the play. In order to challenge and provoke thought something else was needed to keep theatre interesting. This brought out great modern authors who changed the way plays and sets were presented and written. The general trend within the modern drama movement was reduction and twisting of reality, which included language and set. This allowed for the foregrounding of the mechanics and decisions inherent in a production pulling forth the idea that theatre is not real and should not be viewed as a ?slice of reality.? In short peopleare not fooled by realism because they paid for the ticket.

Absurdism, one of the most exciting and creative movements in the modern theater, is a term applied to a particular type of realistic drama which has absorbed theater audiences and critics for the past three decades. Inching ever closer to a realistic representation of life, the evolution of absurdist drama from Samuel Beckett to Tom Stoppard brings a new focus to absurdism and expands the role of philosophy and metaphor in theatrical drama.

Before discussing the ways in which the Theatre of the Absurd has evolved, it is beneficial to understand where and how it developed. Many theater historians and critics label Alfred Jarry’s French play, Ubu Roi as the earliest example of Theatre of the Absurd. The current movement of absurdism, however, emerged in France after World War II, as a rebellion against the traditional values and beliefs of Western culture and literature. It began with writers like Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus and eventually included other writers such as Eugene Ionesco, Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, Edward Albee, and Harold Pinter, to name a few. Absurdist drama creates an environment where people are isolated, clown-like characters blundering their way through life because they don’t know what else to do. Oftentimes, characters stay together simply because they are afraid to be alone in such an incomprehensible world. Despite this negativity, however, absurdism is not completely nihilistic. Therefore, the goal of absurdist drama is not solely to depress audiences with negativity, but an attempt to bring them closer to reality and help them understand their own “meaning” in life, whatever that may be. Samuel Beckett’s understanding of this philosophy best characterizes how we should perceive our existence as he says, “Nothing is more real than Nothing.”

The dramatist who best reveals this process of evolution is Samuel Beckett. Beckett’s most popular absurdist play, Waiting For Godot, is one of the first examples critics point to when talking about the Theatre of the Absurd. Written and first performed in French in 1954, Godot had an enormous impact on theatergoers due to its strange and new conventions. Consisting of an essentially barren set, with the exception of a virtually leafless tree in the background, clown-like tramps, and highly symbolic language, Godot challenges its audience to question all of the old rules and to try to make sense of a world that is incomprehensible. At the heart of the play is the theme of “coping” and “getting through the day” so that when tomorrow comes we can have the strength to continue.

As much as Beckett sought to minimize theatre it was not downsized so much as to be incoherent. The presense of the barren trees and a bench neither denotes time nor place. Without a specific setting the audience is forced to put the play into there own context. When people have to choose meaning, calling upon memory, past experience, attitude, and social situation then theatre takes shape differently for each person and makes each performance unique to each person while realism offers little room for outside interpretation.

One of Samuel Beckett’s other main absurdist play?s, Endgame, carries on this same kind of thinking but is much more tragic and serious in its metaphor for death than Godot. Like Godot, there is no apparent action in the play. Hamm and Clov, the two main figures, are even more isolated than Vladimir and Estragon. Confined to a small, bare room, the blind and disabled Hamm postulates on the subjects of life and death, while interacting with and depending on his servant/son Clov to fill in meaning where there appears to be a void. Resembling Estragon and Vladimir are Hamm’s parents Nagg and Nell, who are confined to trash bins at the front left of the stage. They, like the two tramps, exchange memories of a once coherent world and spend their time eating pap and biscuits. However, unlike Godot, Endgame is not absolutely cyclical. Instead, it emphasizes only one cycle and works its way toward some kind of ending, or in other words, has the vague feeling of a finale. Even though death does not come at the end of Endgame, there is a strong sense that it is nearby and the waiting will not be as long, as suggested by the chess-like title.

The Bare set that contains the action of Endgame could be, once again, anywhere and nowhere. However, it is strongly suggested within the text that this set could be the inside of the human mind. The parents, confined to trash bins, invokes the image of the mind even further by making the bins symbolic of memory and challenging the audience to change there view of where people belong because most people do not hang out in trash cans. The almost bare set that is characteristic of Beckett?s work, thus allowing him to postulate a question while offering no answer or attempt at resolution, confounds and disarms the theatre going community.

Following Endgame and Waiting for Godot, Beckett continued his minimalism of set and language with plays like Krapp?s last tape, Happy Days, and That Time. That Time is a short play (about eight pages) by Samuel Beckett in which the only thing seen on stage is a face and the only things heard are three voices. The face represents the listener while the voices are not apparent on stage. The voices, A, B, and C, alternate throughout the play with only two pauses. The distinctions between voices are not always clear because some of the text is the same and some images are common among them, such as a stone or slab which the speaker sits upon or remembers sitting upon.

The voices could represent the same person at different points in his/her life. The text of the play is difficult to read and understand due to the style in which it was written and the organization, and similarly, the end does not seem to really conclude the play: the eyes open after the voices stop, and 5 seconds later, the face smiles.

The listener’s face in That Time is ?10 feet above the stage level off center . . . [with] long flaring white hair as if seen from above outspread? (Beckett 228). Only the face of this person is seen, and with the hair spread out as it is, it sounds as if the audience is looking down upon the man covered up in bed. The rest of the stage is left a dark void, which causes the audience’s attention to be drawn to the face, but the face is off center, showing that it, although the only tangible character, should not be the focus of attention.

The conventions of realism and absurdist modern theatre were very different and quite opposite. The two movements had different theories and different outlooks on life making the choices on stage drastically opposed and thusly giving the audience a whole new experience. Without the sense of catharsis, resolution, linear time, or plot, all of which are inherent mechanisms within realism, absurd theatre challenges and puts the audience into a new frame of mind. The audience is not given an illusion to observe and forget but an experience that challenges every single person differently based on background and frame of reference to life. While the set is only the physical space that the play actually occurs in, the images in realism were meant to make theatre more like real life while the minimalism of absurdity placed the audience everywhere and nowhere and allowed for less of a story and more of a question about our lives and relationship to the world.

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