Scenography (set design).

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Scenography (Set Design) is concerned with the environment of the play (the performance space) as it is realized on the stage.

“The reality of a theatrical performance has no inherent connection with its realism, the degree of fidelity with which it reproduces or reflects the fact, as we say, of actual life. A play becomes real to the degree that any audience succeeds in identifying itself with the lives and deeds portrayed.” (Lee Simonson)

The first rule of awareness is that everything is real. Everything we comprehend is part of reality, it is realistic. Theatre has a reality of its own; a logical construct and it is within this construct that set designers work. The designer is concerned with that aspect of the art form that Aristotle described as the manner of presentation; its spectacle. The designer is concerned with how the subject matter of the piece and (to some extent) the medium are visually offered to the audience.


Today theatre is considered a collaborative art form but prior to the sixteenth century the particular environment in which a play was set was the responsibility of the playwright for theatre was an aural entertainment. (See Conventions of Theatre) People went to the theatre to hear a play and they expected the playwright to conjure up the scene in language so that they could see it with their ‘minds eye’. Hamlet engages the players to entertain at Elsinore with the words “We’ll hear a play tomorrow.” and Shakespeare has his chorus in Henry V implore the audience to “Piece out the imperfections with your thoughts”. Shakespeare wrote for groundlings who could neither read nor write. New English was still a blossoming experience for his audience. His language use was varied, rich and at times subtle and often nuanced, providing a bountiful stimulus for the imagination and his audience delighted in the visual impact of it.

Set design as an integral ingredient of the director’s production concept is a relatively new phenomenon in the history of the theatre. In ancient Greek theatre Sophocles is reputed to have used painted panels (pinakes) or tapestries attached to the pillars of the façade of the front edge of the stage (proskenion) but there is little evidence to suggest that it was more than theatre decoration. The stage area was a long narrow porch attached to a wooden hut called a Skene from which our word scene is derived. Greek Theatre.JPG The Skene had three doors opening onto the stage area providing entrances and exits for the actors. In front of the stage at ground level was the orchestra circle used by the chorus. Eventually stone replaced wood and the theatres of Greece became massive amphitheatres. Following the tradition established by Greece, Roman theatres retained the basic design but became more massive and more ornate. Production design elements were limited to masks and costumes and a prop or two. The size of the late Greek and Roman theatres (think of a sports stadium) while ideal for grand spectacles such as the six hundred mules in the Clytaemnestra of Accius or of three thousand bowls in the Trojan Horse of Livius Andronicus were not conducive to housing scenery that sets the subtle tone and mood of a performance.

Traditionally Roman theatre performances were held in honor of one or more gods but the practice was anathema to the emerging Christian church. Romans were comfortable with a bevy of gods and were quite willing to accommodate gods of other religions as long as they could maintain belief in their favorites. The intractability of the Christians brought them much grief until the Emperor Constantine (324 – 337) made Christianity lawful. Christian opposition, the internal political and social rot in the Roman Empire and the invasion of barbarian tribes eventually spelled the demise of the nine hundred year tradition of western theatre.

Ironically, it was the Christian church that resurrected theatre in the form of Liturgical Drama (in Latin) in the early part of the Tenth Century. Soon ecclesiastic dramas gave way to plays written by priest, depicting biblical stories and performed by church clerics on religious holidays. By the late Middle Ages (1300 – 1500) the steady secularization of religious plays required the performances to take place outside the churches. Guilds of craftsmen; bakers, brewers, goldsmiths, tailors and the like vied for the opportunity to stage a simple biblical story in the vernacular during religious festivals. The plays were divided into episodes assigned to particular guilds who built elaborate settings called mansions on which to stage their assigned piece. Mansions were high scaffolds with a platform, on which, each scene was played. They were brightly decorated with curtains and tapestries. It has been reported that in a play with three episodes called the Last Judgment a giant ‘hell mouth’ opened and spat real smoke and flames. The episodes proved so popular and the crowds so great that the church decreed them to be occasions of sin and withdrew its patronage but the performances did not cease. The public had acquired a taste for theatre.

Early in the fifteenth century Italian architects began experimenting with perspective drawing but it wasn’t until the early sixteenth century that perspective drawing became a major influence on theatre scenography. Roving groups of players gained patronage from members of the ruling class and theatre moved indoors. In 1545 Sebastiano Serlio (1475 – 1554) published Architettura with an entire section devoted to the theatre. For all its lack of artistic profundity, perspective painting gained favor as a seemingly magical innovation in set design.

Serilo's Design for the Comic Scene (1545).JPGArchitects and landscape artists were employed to create backdrops behind the actors which would enthrall audiences and mask the machinery of the theatre. Very little collaboration took place for the designer was merely an artistic accomplice to theatre; a condescending patron with a desire to demonstrate his skills to an admiring audience who were little concerned if the rendering of the artist had anything to do with the mood of the play. Indeed, it was not unusual to discover the same backdrop being used to decorate a different production. In some instances permanent sets were built depicting street scenes. Described as a ‘forced perspective’ on a raked stage, cut-out designs of buildings became progressively smaller leading to a vanishing point. The actors played down front on a shallow stage similar to the proskenion of early Greek theatre.

By the end of the seventeenth century theatres in Europe and England became pretty much standardized. Theatres were rectangular buildings with the stage positioned at one end and framed by a proscenium arch. Backdrops began being positioned upstage providing a greater playing area for the actors. Set pieces continuing the motif of the backdrop appeared. Still, the acting style was declamatory.

Toward the end of the nineteenth century a new theatre was emerging. Gas lighting appeared and an interest in the mood of the play became significant. Directors such as Andre Antoine, Konstantin Stanislavski and Valadimir Nemerovich-Danchenko, experimented with works by Zola, Ibsen, Strindberg and Chekhov promoting ideas of realism and naturalism on the stage. Directors insisted on settings that would create the environment of the play rather than merely being a backdrop. . A major influence on late nineteenth century theatre was Georg II, Duke of Saxe-Meiningen (1826 – 1914) who financed and directed a touring theatre troupe betweem 1874 and 1890. While the Saxe-Meiningen troupe played a standard repertory of works by Schiller and Shakespeare, the Duke insisted on complete control over every aspect of production. He excelled as a painter and draftsman, designed set and costumes for each production and required his actors to follow his staging notes. He was, perhaps, the first to emphasize the director’s role in creating a production concept that integrated staging, music, set design, costume design and lighting design into a scenoraphic whole.

Soon the Box set appeared and many writers on the history of theatre hailed it as the point that illusionism entered into the theatre, but, of course, illusion is not a trick of sight but question of belief and Plato condemned the Greek theatre saying it engender belief.

Caretaker Set.JPGCaretaker Set photo.JPG





Arnott, Peter D. Greek Scenic Conventions in the Fifth Century B.C. Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1962.

Aronson, Arnold American Set Design, Theatre Communications Group, New York 1985.

Nagler, A.M., A Source Book In Theatrical History, Dover Publications, Inc., New York, 1952.

Nicoll, Allardyce., The Development of the Theatre, Harcourt, Brace, New York, 1927.

Pectal, Lynn, Designing and Painting for the Theatre, Hold, Rinehart and Winston, New York, 1975.

Payne, Darwin Reid, Materials and Crafts of the Scenic Model, Southern Illinois University Press Carbondale, 1976.

Payne, Darwin Reid, The Scenographic Imagination, Southern Illinois University Press Carbondale, 1975.

Rosenfeld, Sybil. A Short History of Scene Design in Great Britain, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1973.

Simonson, Lee, The Stage is Set, Theatre Arts Books, New York, 1970.

Southern,Richard, Changeable Scenery: Its Origins and Development, Faber and Faber, London 1952.