From Bauhaus experiments there emerged a new aesthetic of stage design and presentation, a new concept of "total theater." Its principles and practices, revolutionary in their time and far in advance of all but the most experimental stagecraft today, were largely the work of Oskar Schlemmer, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, and their students. Profusely illustrated and startling in its typography (the work of Moholy-Nagy), the 1924 volume quickly became a collector's item and is now virtually unobtainable. Those interested in the stage, the modern visual arts, or in the bold steps of the men of genius who broadened the horizons of aesthetic experience will appreciate that this translation is available again.
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WALTER GROPIUS INTRODUCTION
During the all too few years of its existence, the Bauhaus embraced the whole range of visual arts: architecture, planning, painting, sculpture, industrial design, and stage work. The aim of the Bauhaus was to find a new and powerful working correlation of all the processes of artistic creation to culminate finally in a new cultural equilibrium of our visual environment. This could not be achieved by individual withdrawal into an ivory tower. Teachers and students as a working community had to become vital participants of the modern world, seeking a new synthesis of art and modern technology. Based on the study of the biological facts of human perception, the phenomena of form and space were investigated in a spirit of unbiased curiosity, to arrive at objective means with which to relate individual creative effort to a common background. One of the fundamental maxims of the Bauhaus was the demand that the teacher's own approach was never to be imposed on the student; that, on the contrary, any attempt at imitation by the student was to be ruthlessly suppressed. The stimulation received from the teacher was only to help him find his own bearings.
This book gives evidence of the Bauhaus approach in the specific field of stage work. Here Oskar Schlemmer played a unique role within the community of the Bauhaus. When he joined the staff in 1921, he first headed the sculpture workshop. But step by step, out of his own initiative, he broadened the scope of this workshop and developed it into the Bauhaus stage shop, which became a splendid place of learning. I gave this stage shop wider and wider range within the Bauhaus curriculum since it attracted students from all departments and workshops. They became fascinated by the creative attitude of their Master Magician.
The most characteristic artistic quality in Oskar Schlemmer's work is his interpretation of space. From his paintings, as well as from his stage work for ballet and theater, it is apparent that he experienced space not only through mere vision but with the whole body, with the sense of touch of the dancer and the actor.
He transformed into abstract terms of geometry or mechanics his observation of the human figure moving in space. His figures and forms are pure creations of imagination, symbolizing eternal types of human character and their different moods, serene or tragic, funny or serious.
Possessed with the idea of finding new symbols, he considered it a "mark of Cain in our culture that we have no symbols any more and — worse — that we are unable to create them." Endowed with the power of genius to penetrate beyond rational thought, he found images which expressed metaphysical ideas, e.g. the star form of the spread-out fingers of the hand, the sign of infinity 8 of "the folded arms." The mask of disguise, forgotten on the stage of realism since the theater of the Greeks and used today only in the No theater of Japan which — as we believe — Schlemmer did not know, became a stage tool of great importance in Schlemmer's hands. I want to quote a vivid and characteristic report of a Bauhaus pupil of Schlemmer's, T. Lux Feininger, who saw "with breathless excitement, admiration, and wonder an evening's performance of the stage class in the Bauhaus theater." He writes:
"At an early age I had occupied myself intensely with the making of masks in various materials, I hardly could say why, yet sensing dimly that in this form of creation a meaning lay hidden for me. On the Bauhaus stage, these intuitions seemed to acquire body and life. I had beheld the 'Dance of Gestures' and the 'Dance of Forms,' executed by dancers in metallic masks and costumed in padded, sculptural suits. The stage, with jet-black backdrop and wings, contained magically spotlighted, geometrical furniture: a cube, a white sphere, steps; the actors paced, strode, slunk, trotted, dashed, stopped short, turned slowly and majestically; arms with colored gloves were extended in a beckoning gesture; the copper and gold and silver heads ... were laid together, flew apart; the silence was broken by a whirring sound, ending in a small thump; a crescendo of buzzing noises culminated in a crash followed by portentous and dismayed silence. Another phase of the dance had all the formal and contained violence of a chorus of cats, down to the meeowling and bass growls, which were marvellously accentuated by the resonant mask-heads. Pace and gesture, figure and prop, color and sound, all had the quality of elementary form, demonstrating anew the problem of the theatre of Schlemmer's concept: man in space. What we had seen had the significance of expounding the stage elements (Die Bühnenelemente). ... The stage elements were assembled, re-grouped, amplified, and gradually grew into something like a 'play,' we never found out whether comedy or tragedy. ... The interesting feature about it was that, with a set of formal elements agreed upon and, on this common basis, added to fairly freely by members of the class, 'play' with meaningful form was expected eventually to yield meaning, sense or message; that gestures and sounds would become speech and plot. Who knows? This was, essentially, a dancers' theatre and as such, sufficient unto itself as Oskar Schlemmer's genius had created it; but it was also a 'class,' a locale of learning, and this rather magnificent undertaking was Schlemmer's tool of instruction....
"Indeed it was a treat to watch the precision, aplomb, the power and the delicacy of action. His language, too, although unable to assume command, was an expressive tool. His was the most personal vocabulary I have ever known. His invention of metaphors was inexhaustible; he loved unaccustomed juxtapositions, paradoxical alliterations, baroque hyperbole. The satirical wit of his writings is quite untranslatable."
Schlemmer's unorthodox approach to the phenomenon of creation, which expected form to yield meaning, has recently found an eloquent advocate in Sir Herbert Read, the English poet and art critic. He has devoted his book Icon and Idea to the question whether "image" or "thought" initiates a new phase of development in human history. He comes to the conclusion that it may well be that the formative artist receives the first message from beyond the threshold of knowledge, which is then interpreted by the thinker, the philosopher.
My own great impression of Schlemmer's stage work was to see and experience his magic of transforming dancers and actors into moving architecture. His deep interest and intuitive understanding of the phenomena of architectural space developed also his rare gift as a muralist. With empathy he would sense the directions and dynamics of a given space and make them integral parts of his mural compositions — as, for instance, in the Bauhaus buildings in Weimar. His are the only murals of our time I know which offer a complete fusion and unity with architecture.
Oskar Schlemmer's literary bequest, particularly his chapter on "Mensch und Kunstfigur," the principal article of this book, is classic in form and content. In it he offers basic values for stage art cast in a beautiful and concise language, reinforced by illustrations and diagrams in his unique handwriting. Such clarity and control of thought, reaching universal and timeless validity, mark a man of vision.
From quite a different angle came the contribution of Laszlo Moholy-Nagy to the Bauhaus stage. Originally an abstract painter, his inner urge caused him to penetrate into many fields of artistic design: typography, advertising art, photography, film, theater. He was a man of fiery spirit, full of vitality, love, and contagious enthusiasm. The aim of his creations was to observe "vision in motion" in order to find a new space conception. Entirely unprejudiced by conventional methods, he ventured into ever new experiments with the curiosity of a scientist. In order to enrich visual representation, he applied new materials and new mechanical means to his work. His article in this book, "Theater, Circus, Variety," gives evidence of his exuberant imagination. With it is included his "Score Sketch for Mechanized Eccentric" for the stage, which offers a synthesis of form, motion, sound, light, color, and scent.
Out of his theoretical laboratory experiments in the Bauhaus, Moholy later developed original stage settings for the Kroll Opera House in Berlin for the Tales of Hoffmann and for other operatic and theatrical performances which brought him fame as a stage designer between the two world wars.
Those years in the Bauhaus were a period of mutual stimulation. I myself felt that the modern stage and theater which would do justice to these new interpretations of theatrical space was still to be created. The opportunity arrived with the performances of Erwin Piscator in Berlin in 1926, for whom I designed the "Total Theater," the building of which had to be abandoned after the German "Black Friday" shortly before Hitler and the Nazis took over the government of Germany.
At the "Volta Congress" in Rome on the "Teatro Dramatico" in 1935, I presented this project to an international gathering of writers and theater producers with these explanations:
"The contemporary theater architect should set himself the aim to create a great keyboard for light and space, so objective and adaptable in character that it would respond to any imaginable vision of a stage director; a flexible building, capable of transforming and refreshing the mind by its spatial impact alone.
"There are only three basic stage forms in existence. The primary one is the central arena on which the play unfolds itself three-dimensionally while the spectators crowd around concentrically. Today we know this form only as a circus, a bull ring, or a sports arena.
"The second classic stage form is the Greek proscenium theater with its protruding platform around which the audience is seated in concentric half-circles. Here the play is set up against a fixed background like a relief.
"Eventually this open proscenium receded more and more from the spectator, to be finally pulled back altogether behind a curtain to form today's deep stage which dominates our present theater.
"Much as the spatial separation of the two different worlds, the auditorium and the stage, has helped to bring about technical progress, it fails to draw the spectator physically into the orbit of the play; being on the other side of the curtain or the orchestra pit, he remains beside the drama, not in it. The theater is thereby robbed of one of its strongest means to make the spectator participate in the drama.
"Some people believe that film and television have eclipsed the theater altogether, but is it not its present limited form only which is becoming obsolete, not the theater as such?
"In my Total Theater ... I have tried to create an instrument so flexible that a director can employ any one of the three stage forms by the use of simple, ingenious mechanisms. The expenditure for such an interchangeable stage mechanism would be fully compensated for by the diversity of purposes to which such a building would lend itself: for presentation of drama, opera, film, and dance; for choral or instrumental music; for sports events or assemblies. Conventional plays could be just as easily accommodated as the most fantastic experimental creations of a stage director of the future.
"An audience will shake off its inertia when it experiences the surprise effect of space transformed. By shifting the scene of action during the performance from one stage position to another and by using a system of spotlights and film projectors, transforming walls and ceiling into moving picture scenes, the whole house would be animated by three-dimensional means instead of by the 'flat' picture effect of the customary stage. This would also greatly reduce the cumbersome paraphernalia of properties and painted backdrops.
PLANS AND MODEL OF THE SYNTHETIC "TOTAL THEATER," 1926
This theater provides a stage in arena form, a proscenium and a back stage, the latter divided in three parts. The 2,000 seats are disposed in the form of an amphitheater. There are no boxes. By turning the big stage platform which is solidary with part of the orchestra, the small proscenium stage is placed in the center of the theater, and the usual set can be replaced by projecting scenery on twelve screens placed between the twelve main columns supporting the structure.
"Thus the playhouse itself, made to dissolve into the shifting, illusionary space of the imagination, would become the scene of action itself. Such a theater would stimulate the conception and fantasy of playwright and stage director alike; for if it is true that the mind can transform the body, it is equally true that structure can transform the mind."
Cambridge, Mass., June 1961CHAPTER 2
OSKAR SCHLEMMER MAN AND ART FIGURE
The history of the theater is the history of the transfiguration of the human form. It is the history of man as the actor of physical and spiritual events, ranging from naïveté to reflection, from naturalness to artifice.
The materials involved in this transfiguration are form and color, the materials of the painter and sculptor. The arena for this transfiguration is found in the constructive fusion of space and building, the realm of the architect. Through the manipulation of these materials the role of the artist, the synthesizer of these elements, is determined.
* * *
One of the emblems of our time is abstraction. It functions, on the one hand, to disconnect components from an existing and persisting whole, either to lead them individually ad absurdum or to elevate them to their greatest potential. On the other hand, abstraction can result in generalization and summation, in the construction in bold outline of a new totality.
A further emblem of our time is mechanization, the inexorable process which now lays claim to every sphere of life and art. Everything which can be mechanized is mechanized. The result: our recognition of that which can not be mechanized.
And last, but not the least, among the emblems of our time are the new potentials of technology and invention which we can use to create altogether new hypotheses and which can thus engender, or at least give promise of, the boldest fantasies.
The theater, which should be the image of our time and perhaps the one art form most peculiarly conditioned by it, must not ignore these signs.
* * *
Stage (Bühne), taken in its general sense, is what we may call the entire realm lying between religious cult and naïve popular entertainment. Neither of these things, however, is really the same thing as stage. Stage is representation abstracted from the natural and directing its effect at the human being.
This confrontation of passive spectator and animate actor preconditions also the form of the stage, at its most monumental as the antique arena and at its most primitive as the scaffold in the market place. The need for concentration resulted in the peep show or "picture frame," today the "universal" form of the stage. The term theater designates the most basic nature of the stage: make-believe, mummery, metamorphosis. Between cult and theater lies "the stage seen as a moral institution"; between theater and popular entertainment lie variety (vaudeville) and circus: the stage as an institution for the artiste. (See accompanying diagram.)
The question as to the origin of life and the cosmos, that is, whether in the beginning there was Word, Deed, or Form — Spirit, Act, or Shape — Mind, Happening, or Manifestation — pertains also to the world of the stage, and leads us to a differentiation of:
the oral or sound stage (Sprech-oder Tonbühne) of a literary or musical event;
the play stage (Spielbühne) of a physical-mimetic event;
the visual stage (Schaubühne) of an optical event.
SCHEME FOR STAGE, CULT, AND POPULAR ENTERTAINMENT ACCORDING TO:
Each of these stage forms has its corresponding representative, thus:
the author (as writer or composer) who is the creator of the word or musical sound;
the actor whose body and its movements make him the player;
the designer who is the builder of form and color.
Each of these stage forms can exist for itself and be complete within itself.
The combination of two or all three stage forms — with one of them always predominating — is a question of weight distribution, and is something that can be perfected with mathematical precision. The executor of this process is the universal regisseur or director. E.g.:
From the standpoint of material the actor has the advantages of immediacy and independence. He constitutes his own material with his body, his voice, his gestures, and his movements. Today, however, the once noble type who was both the poet and the projector of his own word has become an ideal. At one time Shakespeare, who was an actor before he was a poet, filled this role — so, too, did the improvising actors of the commedia dell' arte. Today's actor bases his existence as player on the writer's word. Yet when the word is silent, when the body alone is articulate and its play is on exhibition — as a dancer's is — then it is free and is its own lawgiver.
The material of the author is word or sound.
Except for the unusual circumstance in which he is his own actor, singer, or musician, he creates the representational material for transmission and reproduction on the stage, whether it is meant for the organic human voice or for artificial, abstract instruments. The higher the state of perfection of the latter, the broader their formative potential, while the human voice is and remains a limited, if unique, phenomenon. Mechanical reproduction by means of various kinds of technological equipment is now capable of replacing the sound of the musical instrument and the human voice or of detaching it from its source, and can enlarge it beyond its dimensional and temporal limitations.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Theater of the Bauhaus"
Copyright © 1961 Wesleyan University.
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Table of ContentsIntroduction, Walter Gropius
Man and Art Figure, Oskar Schlemmer
Theater, Circus, Variety, Lazlo Moholy-Nagy
U-Theater, Farkas Molnar
Theater (Bühne), Oskar Schlemmer
Translator's Note, Arthur S. Wensinger