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IN HIS CLASSIC WORK Scenery Then and Now, Donald Oenslager wrote, “Once a project is designed and brought to life on the stage the designer’s work is finished. The opening night of the play is his farewell to the production…. When the production of a play ultimately closes, it belongs overnight, unfortunately, to the tarnished ages; for it is either forgotten in a dusty warehouse or it is reduced to sacred ashes on a pyre on the Jersey flats.”

This scenery Götterdämmerung on the Hudson is only one of Oenslager’s insightful comments. He wrote, “I have not attempted to present a consecutive survey or review of theatrical art. I am not interested in revealing backstage secrets, in describing how scenery is shifted in six seconds, how unit sets are planned, what tricks can be done with painting or how a scene is lighted.”

Scenery Then and Now, by Donald Oenslager, W.W. Norton & Company, 1936.

Oenslager’s book cites rich theatrical traditions, among them of Greece and Rome, the Church and Stage, Bach’s Christmas Oratorio on Broadway, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prokofiev’s The Love of the Three Oranges, America’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, and what he terms The Miracle of Light. Here in Parts 1 and 2 today and tomorrow are tidbits on several of these.   

Donald Oenslager, 1902–1975, American scenic designer, author, and educator, having taught scenic design at the Yale School of Drama.

As described in Wikipedia, Oenslager designed sets and often lighting for more than 140 Broadway productions between 1925 and 1975, bringing “new emphasis on symbolism over realism to American theater design.”

An Outdoor Tradition. Oenslager observed, “The Theatre of Dionysus on the south slope of the Acropolis of Athens was the national theatre of Greece…. Here, in early Spring and Autumn, were held dramatic festivals. They were renowned throughout all of the Eastern Mediterranean for the brilliant spectacle of their dramatic and choral contests. Practically all of the comedies and tragedies of the Greek dramatists were given their first performances in this theatre.” 

The Theatre of Dionysus. This and the following image from Scenery Then and Now

The venue, Oenslager observed, “was not designed by an architect. But it was completely right for its purpose—a pure example of what has been called ‘the creative logic of the Greeks,’ applied to the solution of the problem of the actor’s relationship to his audience.”

Prometheus Bound, attributed to Aeschylus. The Chorus Enters: “I look upon you and a mist of tears,/ Of grief and terror, rises as I see/ Your body withering upon the rocks,/ In shame and bonds of steel.” Scenery sketch by Donald Oenslager. 

“Why,” Oenslager asked, “is it almost impossible for us to understand how that festive, democratic scene in the auditorium was conducive to the spectator’s genuine dramatic participation in all the solemnity that tragedy unfolded before him on the stage?”

Oenslager continued, “Chiefly because our theatre rarely, if ever, commands this curious participation of the audience in the play. In the Theatre of World Events we experience it occasionally, as in the death of a popular leader, some great discovery, or a national crisis.”

Oenslager’s Lindbergh Thesis. “Lindbergh evoked that sense of participation in his triumphal return from Europe…. It was not the mere sight of a youth, riding alone atop a motor car up Fifth Avenue, that brought tears and thumping hearts to all of those hundreds of thousands that lined his way.”

“What the crowd saw,” Oenslager suggested, “was not the drama itself, but the figure of a young hero whose adventure, unseen by all, had embodied and dramatized all their individual aspirations.”

Oenslager’s Scenery Then and Now was published in 1936; Lindbergh’s epic flight, only nine years before. 

Tomorrow in Part 2, we’ll continue with others of Oenslager’s theatrical insights. ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2022  

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