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DONALD OENSLAGER FELT that theatrical scenery didn’t have to be realistic. Its representations could well be symbolic. What’s more, the symbolism need not be physical. Here in Part 1, we begin with the English language’s greatest playwright as described in Oenslager’s classic work on the subject, Scenery Then and Now. That it was published in 1936 emphasizes its timelessness. 

Shakespeare’s Scenery. Oenslager wrote, “The architects and designers of the Elizabethan playhouses were not builders or painters, but managers and playwrights…. The audience stood or sat around three sides of a large fore-stage that projected out into the pit.”

Image from “Celebrating the Globe Theatre.”

Oenslager continued, “Shakespeare saw his scenery not realistically, not stylized, not impressionistically, and not suggested. He saw it in the lines his players spoke and in the action with which they clothed their speeches. They provided their own scenery which never interfered and was never in the way, because it was heard, not seen.” 

Oenslager provides an example from As You Like It: “The Duke’s first speech in the forest suggests an Arden of leafy refuge for mind and body: ‘And this our life exempt from public haunt/ Finds tongues in trees, books in running brooks,/ Sermons in stones and good in everything./ I would not change it.’ ” 

Changes of scenery came in the mind, not in the physicality of the stage. Oenslager recognized, “A table and chair was a hall of state; a candle and a stool a prison.”

Lear’s Heath. Oenslager posed, “How can any heath, on any stage today, even suggest the storm which rages in the heart of Lear himself? All must seem small, trifling, spectacular. Lear is the storm: ‘Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!/ You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout/ Til you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!/ You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,/ Vaunt-couriers of oak-cleaving thunderbolts,/ Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,/ Strike flat the thick rotundity o’ the world!’ ”

“Here is poetry, setting, lighting, sound, and action,” Oenslager observed. “Shakespeare required no assistants in his theatre. He has always been magnificently self-sufficient.” 

Hamlet. Act V, Scene 2. Horatio: “Now cracks a noble heart.—Good-night, sweet prince,/ And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!” Scenery sketch by Donald Oenslager.

From Gaslight to Electric. “In the theatre of the nineties when incandescent lamps were installed in the footlight-borderlight trenches where gas had flickered, few dreamed that this replacement in favor of modernity was more than an economic victory for the theatre-owner over the fire underwriter. Yet now it seems inevitable that the release of this invisible energy into the theatre as controlled light … would influence profoundly the whole future of the World Theatre.”

Oenslager amplified on this theme: “And it was watts and amperes and devotion to detail that made it possible for patient Belasco to create the nebulous glory of a realistic California sunset over the Sierra Nevada in his production of “The Girl of the Golden West.”

The Miracle of Light. Oenslager noted, “This alone was a great step forward. In their hands light became far more than a naturalistic medium toward a realistic end. The audience could see far more than eye to eye with the actor, for it was discovered that light was an emotional and dramatic medium, capable in infinite expression, as subtle as a whispered phrase or as obvious as a comic strip.” 

Oenslager predicted that one day, “… cables, spotlights, X-rays and lamps in the hands of a playwright may be as articulate as fine verse, as menacing as a thunder cloud, and their use as disconcerting to his fellow playwrights as a challenge from Shakespeare.”

His 1936 Scenery Then and Now is as thought-provoking today as it was back then. ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2022 

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