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Hope, hopelessness / presence, absence: scenographic innovation and the poetic spaces of Jo Mielziner, Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller: Liam Doona
HOPE, HOPELESSNESS / PRESENCE, ABSENCE
Figure 24.1 The Glass Menagerie: exterior of the Wingﬁeld apartment, rendering by Jo Mielziner.
preconceptions held about the visual texts; preconceptions which exist not least because
of the plays inaugural scenographies.
Close examination prompts a refocused assessment – one which explores the importance
of Jo Mielziner and contemporaneous scenographic criticism in developing and establishing
“poetic realism,” the impact of which was to be fully revealed in the 1949 production of
Death of a Salesman.
Considering the context in which The Glass Menagerie emerged it is important to note that
in 1945 – when Williams and Mielziner ﬁrst worked together – American scenography had
already established itself as a site of critical theory as well as innovative practice. Four years
later Mielziner’s design for Death of a Salesman was to provide the iconic stage embodiment
of “The American Dream” and complete the development of a scenographic aesthetic which
had become the deﬁning visual commentary of American culture on the stage. The work of
Mielziner in designing these two productions demonstrates a series of critical and aesthetic
issues which continue to reverberate in contemporary practice and which were extensively
rehearsed in contemporaneous critical discussions.
In 1940 Mordekai Gorelik had published New Theatres for Old. In 1941 Robert Edmond
Jones published The Dramatic Imagination, challenging the nature and status of praxis and
articulating a highly evolved theory of scenography. These publications evidence a clear
professional and public concern to examine the role of theatre generally and design speciﬁcally. This critical thinking was forming a distinct debate around scenographic methodology:
a ﬁeld of aesthetic criticism, critical understanding and informed practice through which
new playwrighting was to be mediated.
In this sense the importance and longevity of the plays needs to be seen as a phenomenon
which was made possible, in signiﬁcant part, through the partially complicit, partially
provocative development of an integrated critical and practical grammar of scenography.
The critical landscape and the reformation of the
role of designer
Our playwrights need to learn that plays are wrought not written2
– R. E. Jones
In terms of establishing a landscape of scenographic criticism within which the aesthetic
was to operate, it is possible to see its landmarks preﬁgured in a three-way dialectic of
New American Stagecraft which was in publication by 1941. The Stage is Set by Lee
Simonson (1932), New Theatres for Old by Mordekai Gorelik (1940) and The Dramatic
Imagination by R. E. Jones (1941) capture the broad critical discourse shortly before the ﬁrst
This dialectic is important not least because its contributors were themselves New
Stagecraft Designers and, in the fairly small community of Broadway, all personally known
to Mielziner. In addition the themes explored, particularly by Jones, are taken up explicitly
in Williams’ Production Notes prefacing The Glass Menagerie.
Ironically the “founder” of New Stagecraft and its “father ﬁgure,” Robert Edmond Jones,
was the last of this triumvirate to publish though, by awaiting his time carefully and rehearsing his material on the academic lecture circuit from as early as 1921, he was able to
provide perhaps the most lasting discussion and, certainly, the most inspirational evaluation
of the movement.
The Stage is Set, New Theatres for Old and The Dramatic Imagination eﬀectively triangulate a
dialectic of New American Stagecraft.
Robert Edmund Jones inaugurated the New Stagecraft movement in 1915 with his
designs for The Man who Married a Dumb Wife, and although initially functioning as Edward
Gordon Craig’s American lieutenant his published reﬂections are important in ﬁnally
providing a somewhat belated manifesto for the New American Stagecraft and providing
a crucial component of a postwar orientation to theatre design. Jones abstracts a fully
formed scenographic approach, which can be viewed as a methodological background and
provocation to the Mielziner/Williams/Miller collaborations.
Whilst Jones focuses on the aesthetics of scenographic practice Gorelik turns to the
broader political and social implications of the emerging theatre form. Unlike Jones, whose
tone transcends the practicalities of realisation, Gorelik evidences the impact of the functional relationship extant between designers and contemporary praxis and oﬀers a much
more practical insight into the relationship designers were reforming with their collaborators during mid part of the century. He does this not only through a discussion of
contemporary practice but also through discussions of historical precedent. Gorelik’s text
– largely constructed around a series of codiﬁcations of scenographic method – highlights
the intersections of design and performance and argues for a comprehensive and inclusive
approach both to the study of historical theatre form and contemporary scenographic praxis.
New Theatres for Old can also be seen as a response to Lee Simonson’s earlier publication
– The Stage is Set (1932). Simonson’s attitude to the role of the designer and the role of
design is markedly diﬀerent:
HOPE, HOPELESSNESS / PRESENCE, ABSENCE
It is far easier to design a beautiful setting than to direct a play or act a role superbly.
Paint and canvas, wood and electric light, are inanimate. Once given a particular
form or a given intensity they remain ﬁxed; nor can they answer back.3
Mielziner’s scenographies were to function as a retort to this perhaps exaggerated prosaism. Simonson’s conclusion that “as designers we cannot perform the functions of dramatic
poets”4 was to be fully and eﬀectively disputed on Broadway over the next decade and by
1949, with Mielziner’s design for Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, ﬁnally repudiated as
design and text became indissoluble.
Mielziner – inﬂuence and practice
Jo Mielziner had been “apprenticed” to Lee Simonson around 1919 and Robert Edmond
Jones during 1925. He had previously toured Europe and studied with Joseph Urban.
In working closely with the two leading ﬁgures of the ﬁrst generation of New American
Stagecraft he was able to see contrasting approaches to scenographic method and develop an
appreciation for the impact of process on outcome.
Simonson’s method was developed from a planometric approach. Establishing the architectural conﬁguration of the space through agreed blocking plans with his director, these plans
were then elevated and ﬁnal decisions regarding surface, colour etc agreed. Jones’ approach
was quite diﬀerent, developing colour studies and renderings which simultaneously explored
atmosphere and blocking and which were then translated into scenery and lighting plots.
It seems likely that Mielziner’s method was inﬂuenced, at least initially, in equal measure
by Jones’ poeticism and Simonson’s pragmatism.
By 1936 Mielziner was an established Broadway designer. His artwork of the period
demonstrates signiﬁcant skill particularly in the handling and expression of a somewhat
romanticised American architecture, at this time the staple diet of the well made Broadway
Figure 24.2 The Glass Menagerie: interior of the Wingﬁeld apartment, rendering by Jo Mielziner.
play. His interview with Norris Houghton for Theatre Arts Magazine however reveals the
extent to which Mielziner’s aesthetic coincided with that of Jones:
Hunt out the most telling line that conveys the atmosphere and the background.
This may give me an idea for a signiﬁcant piece of furniture, a quality of light or
shadow, a colour combination, it may not be an entire setting at all – just something
that is associated with the dramatic signiﬁcance of the moment, but which may
become the clue to, or indeed the cornerstone of, the whole setting.5
Whilst this use of selective realism was a device Mielziner had a particular interest in – he
was frequently to talk of “designing with an eraser”6 – its development does not become
overt until he begins the sequence of designs he makes with Tennessee Williams starting with
The Glass Menagerie and continuing through Summer and Smoke and A Streetcar Named Desire.
In Williams Mielziner was to ﬁnd an author whose aesthetic ambitions were in sympathy
both with his own and that of his methodological conscience, Robert Jones. Williams’ plays
sought a negotiability of interpretation – non-didactic and providing a wide emotional
space for the actors to work within a matrix of images and resonances. The coincidence of
thinking expressed in Williams’ Production Notes to The Glass Menagerie and Jones in The
Dramatic Imagination is clear:
When a play employs unconventional techniques, it is not or certainly shouldn’t be
trying to escape its responsibility of dealing with reality, or interpreting experience, but is actually or should be attempting to ﬁnd a closer approach, a more
penetrating expression of things as they are.7
The life we see on stage is not the every-day life we know. It is – how shall I put it? –
more so. The world of the theatre is a world of sharper, clearer, swifter impressions
than the world we live in.8
(R. E. Jones)
The New Stagecraft as explored initially by Williams and Jones was searching for a design
physicality which expressed a mutable, subjective experience of the world – a dream of
reality rather than a facsimile of it. The role of scenography to express architectural space as
fact here becomes a secondary concern to the search for a balance of poetic resonance,
experience and form – a convergence of physical and psychological circumstance.
Decoding the aesthetics: from The Glass Menagerie to
Death of a Salesman
We have learned that beneath the surface of an ordinary every-day casual conscious
existence there lies a vast dynamic world of impulse and dream, a hinterland of
energy which has an independent existence of its own and laws of its own.9
HOPE, HOPELESSNESS / PRESENCE, ABSENCE
When Jo Mielziner met Tennessee Williams at the beginning of 1945 he was ten years older
than Williams and an established Broadway designer with over one hundred and thirty
design credits. The Glass Menagerie was to be Williams’ ﬁfth play and the ﬁrst of a sequence
of major artistic and commercial successes.
The Glass Menagerie frames a design question which was to frequently re-occur in
American Drama – how to present the juxtaposition of physical and metaphysical circumstances and events in the context of social realism?
Rendering subjective the perception of physical space was to become the over-arching
condition of Mielziner’s approach. In Williams he was introduced to a collaborator who
endorsed “theatricalisation” as a means of gaining a deeper insight into circumstance. This
juxtaposing of the prosaic and the poetic becomes the device through which space demonstrates a multivalence of emotional perspectives. Reality as external and quantiﬁable matter
is brought into question as character and scenography encounter and explore mutable
The exploration of hope and hopelessness as central dramatic themes and presence and
absence as their visual co-relation becomes the key visual gesture providing the scenographic
and dramaturgical intersection of his work with Williams and Miller. This combined desire
to express social causation and psychological state as performance environment is the engine
which drives the scenographic aesthetic towards its apotheosis – Death of a Salesman. Its
origins are however clearly placed within and around the Wingﬁeld apartment in The Glass
Menagerie and its development into a distinct scenographic attitude is ﬁrst introduced here
An engagement with the actualities of social realism expressed and explored on a deeply
personal, partially autobiographical, psycho-sexual level develops through Williams’ play a
complex matrix of interlinking themes and concepts. These dramaturgical conditions
formed the ideal environment for Mielziner’s vision of the New Stagecraft to be tested.
For perhaps the ﬁrst time Mielziner is able to fully demonstrate scenography as the expression of a psychological construct which, whilst quoting extant architectural forms, renders
those forms mutable and ambiguous. Mielziner presents permanence and solidity as temporary and illusionistic, as unstable and changeable as the psychology of Williams’ characters.
Mielziner approached Williams’ script with great enthusiasm. Recognising in it an
opportunity to move away from the plays of “relentless realism for which he had to create
relentlessly realistic sets”10 and to work on the kind of script predicted by Jones in 1941:
Our playwrights, too, have begun to explore the land of dreams. They are casting
about for ways in which to express the activity of the subconscious mind, to express
thought before it becomes articulate. They are seeking to penetrate beneath the
surface of our every-day life into the stream of images which has its source in the
deep unknown springs of our being.11
Williams reﬂects on this concept:
The straight, realistic play with its genuine Frigidaire and authentic ice cubes, its
characters that speak exactly as its audience speaks, corresponds to the academic
landscape and has the same virtue of a photographic likeness. Everyone should
know nowadays the unimportance of the photographic in art: that truth, life
or reality is an organic thing which the poetic imagination can represent or suggest,
in essence only, only through transformation, through changing into other forms
than those which merely present the appearance.12
This notion of objects and spaces being transformed according to their poetic value
within the piece is further developed in the preset to act one of the same play:
The scene is memory and therefore non-realistic. Memory takes a lot of poetic
licence. It omits some details; others are exaggerated, according to the emotional
value of the article it touches, for memory is seated predominantly in the heart.13
Williams highlights the importance of transformation and the centrality of mutability and
metaphor in addition to the importance of establishing a visual hierarchy, a point which
sounds like an echo of Mielziner’s interview with Houghton ten years previously.
Mielziner was to combine graphic, architectural and symbolic devices in his design
for The Glass Menagerie. His use of gauzes to conceal the apartment and then dissolve to
the interior providing a means of articulating the notion of memory, dream and illusion,
establishing the glass-like semi-translucence of the memory space.
These devices are techniques Mielziner will re-visit in his work with Williams and Death
of a Salesman, further exploring translucence and evanescence through an increased use of
skeletonisation, framing and gauzes.
Figure 24.3 Death of a Salesman: a memory of the Loman house, rendering by Jo Mielziner.
HOPE, HOPELESSNESS / PRESENCE, ABSENCE
In addition to this development of an interlinking technical grammar of scenography,
Mielziner cements a relationship with Williams in which the traditional role and expectation
of the designer is developed into a far more interventional one.
Mielziner was, for instance, successful in dissuading Williams from the use of the more
overt symbols which he believed should be introduced through the use of projection and
ensured that the nature of the space and all its content was clearly synthesised from naturalistic reference points, heightening the visual value of all aspects shown and bridging both the
naturalistic and symbolic needs of the text. As Jones was to suggest:
All art moves towards this new synthesis of actuality and dream . . . our newly
enlarged conscience of life.14
The use of reductive symbolism and the concern to evoke rather than re-present is
foregrounded in Mielziner’s collaborations with Williams. Rather than the world translated
into symbols or reconstructed as facsimile, it is theatricalised – presented as a poetic fact
rather than a social one – a mythologising of space which captures the psychological
fragmentation of the characters’ world.
This exploration of a symbolic stage, tempered and concurring with selections from
naturalism, demonstrates the complicit nature of text, design and performance and becomes
the signature which Mielziner will bring to his subsequent work with Miller.
It was Mielziner’s decision to maintain the image of the Loman house throughout the
other scenes of Death of a Salesman which conﬁrmed the play’s central dilemma. If Loman is
to be read as a cipher for the inherent failure of the American Dream then the tangible
expression of that dream – the home – must be continually present. It exists for Loman not
only as a physical fact but as the template formed around his ambitions. Each section of the
house serves not only to indicate internal space but also, and perhaps more importantly, to
frame the external threat.
Although Mielziner was to conduct a long and fruitful collaboration with Williams it was
with Death of a Salesman he produced the outstanding, iconic design of post-war New
Stagecraft. Within it he was able to fully express that the drama of social realism, with its
concern for political and social commentary and detailed study of contemporary experience, was not restricted either to conventional naturalism or direct symbolic expressionism.
Through the development of a poeticised realism scenography could clearly express the
social and physical conditions of given time and location whilst fully evoking the poetics of
the protagonists’ circumstances.
Mary Henderson accurately conveys the importance of this design:
. . . the set became the fullest and ﬁnest manifestation of the New Stage Craft and,
as such, it has never been surpassed. The movement towards the weaving of the
scenery into the fabric of the play reached its apogee in Death of a Salesman . . . the
setting for Salesman inextricably became the play and the play became the setting.15
The dramaturgical circumstances of Death of a Salesman, hope and hopelessness, family
and home, had been rehearsed by Mielziner in his work with Williams. The peeling away of
social aspiration to reveal deeply ﬂawed, dysfunctional families symptomatic of dysfunctional
societies was familiar territory by this point. Staging memory and the present in ﬂux was
similarly ground Mielziner had opportunity to explore in The Glass Menagerie. The Salesman
design was in many ways therefore the coalescence of a process conducted in production terms with Williams and mapped critically by Jones – the co-relation of hope and
hopelessness with presence and absence returning as a key motif.
Scenography as the outcome of dynamic negotiation between writer and visual artist, word
and image, was here ﬁrmly established as a site of cultural, personal and political dialogue.
Mielziner successfully devised the means of visually articulating America on stage at a
crucial moment in its history – embodying both the physical and the metaphysical in a form
which provoked analysis and dissemination across a widening sphere of cultural discourse.
Whilst Mielziner was never simply the conduit of Jones’ reﬂections on practice neither
was he “realiser” of Williams’ and Miller’s visions. Mielziner was Jones’ disciple and there is
in the two a correspondence of aesthetics for, as Jones’ progeny, he saw collaboration as an
opportunity for intervention as well as co-operation.
It is in the interventional, proactive nature of these scenographies and their impact in
deﬁning consequent aesthetic parameters that important questions are raised as to the
concept of “authorship” within the broader dramaturgical canon. Mielziner provided a visual
lexicon which extended the dramatic range of the word. Supported by the coalescence of
critical provocation and reﬂection these collaborations continue to oﬀer models for the
diverse expression of our own scenographic practice.
Modern American Drama 1945–2000, C. W. E. Bigsby, Cambridge, 2000
New Theatres for Old, Mordekai Gorelik, S. French, London, 1947
Mielziner, Master of Modern Stage Design, M. Henderson, Back Stage, 2001
The Dramatic Imagination, R. E. Jones, Theatre Arts Books, New York, 1941
Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller, Penguin, London, 1949
The Stage is Set, Lee Simonson, Dover, New York, 1932
The Glass Menagerie, Tennessee Williams, Penguin, London, 1988
Bigsby, p. 69
Jones, p. 45
Simonson, p. 7
Ibid, p. 464
HOPE, HOPELESSNESS / PRESENCE, ABSENCE
Quoted in Henderson, p. 61
Ibid, p. 142
Williams, p. 8
Jones, p. 115
Ibid, p. 15
Henderson, p. 142
Jones, p. 16
Williams, p. 8
Ibid, p. 12
Jones, p. 19
Henderson, p. 172
Henderson, M. (2001). Mielziner: master of modern stage design. New York: Watson-Guptill.
Wilmeth, D. B. and Bigsby, C. W. E., eds (2000). The Cambridge History of American Theatre: post-World
War II to the 1990s. Cambridge University Press.
M. Griffiths, ed. (2002). Theatre Design: exploring scenography. London: The Society of British
Theatre Designers, pp. 56–64.
BRECHT AND STAGE DESIGN
The Bühnenbildner and the Bühnenbauer
Baugh considers the influences of Caspar Neher, Karl von Appen and Teo Otto on Brecht’s
staging techniques. He suggests that some of the most enduring visual effects that we associate
with Brecht’s theatrical legacy – revealing the mechanics of production, the half curtain and
the use of montage and projections, for example – were developed in conjunction with Caspar
Neher, his longest collaborator. He explains the terms Bühnenbildner, scene builder or decorator,
and Bühnenbauer, scenographer, which Brecht used to describe different approaches to the role
of the designer and places these in the context of Brecht’s political philosophy. He analyses the
working methodologies that Brecht developed with Neher, von Appen and Otto and examines
the profound effect of their ideas on subsequent generations of theatre artists.
The war separated
Me, the writer of plays, from my friend the stage designer.
The cities where he worked are no longer there.
When I walk through the cities that still are
At times I say: that blue piece of washing
My friend would have placed it better.
(Poems, p. 415)*
The contribution of Brecht to the scenography of the twentieth century goes far beyond
important changes in the appearance of the stage. In his writing and in his practice, he
deconstructs the human complexity of the “director–designer relationship” and oﬀers a
mode of creating theatre which, in an organic way, links not only the end products of
dramaturgy and scenography, but also centralises within this process the working practices
of dramatist, director and scenographer. We have to consider therefore the relationship
between Brecht’s political and philosophical view of theatre and his expectations of scenography; the way in which these expectations developed in the collaboration with Caspar
Neher; and ﬁnally the reverberant eﬀects which these ideas and practices have had, and still
have, upon contemporary theatre.
B R E C H T A N D S TA G E D E S I G N
Throughout his stage career, Brecht worked with three scenographers: Caspar Neher,1
Teo Otto and Karl von Appen. Whilst von Appen was an important and inﬂuential successor
to Neher at the Berliner Ensemble, both he and Otto may, from one point of view, be
considered as substitutes at times of Neher’s unavailability. Of Brecht’s many collaborations, that with Neher was the most durable. They had been classmates at school, although
Neher was a year older, and their friendship survived the separation enforced initially by
Neher’s horriﬁc war service. Long conversations reinforced a shared vision of the artist and
the world (a vision partly caught in Neher’s drawings of short combative men with bared
teeth), and the friendship developed into one of the most crucial associations in twentiethcentury theatre. It was a partnership based on the actively pleasurable (lustig) involvement
in devising theatre. Neher had as great a commitment to writing and devising theatre as
Brecht had to visual imagery, stage furnishings and eﬀects; neither would contemplate a
stage aesthetic which was separate from the political rationale for theatre.
As students, both were based in Munich: Brecht at the University and Neher at the
Academy where he studied illustration and later painting. During the period from 1919 to
1922, Brecht was writing Baal, Drums in the Night, Galgei (an early version of Man is Man),
working on ﬁlm scripts, and writing and singing in cabaret. Neher shared this creativity;
preparing visual propositions which extended as well as illustrated ideas and which constantly led to revision and development. In spite of their collaboration on Drums in the Night,
Neher’s drawings were rejected by the Munich Kammerspiele in September 1922, where
he was an assistant, and the work given to Otto Reigbert, the more pictorially coherent
resident designer. But by the following year Brecht had developed authority (favourable
notices and the Kleist Prize) and Neher had acquired suﬃcient theatrical credibility by
designing Kleist’s Kätchen von Heilbronn at the Staatstheater in Berlin for managements
actively to encourage their collaboration. This began in May 1923 with the production of
In the Jungle at the Munich Residenz-Theater, directed by Erich Engel, the most successful of
Brecht’s predecessors as director of his plays. Neher worked with Brecht on his adaptation
of Edward II at the Kammerspiele and moved as a contracted designer, with Brecht as junior
director, to the Deutsches Theater in Berlin where In the Jungle opened at the end of
October, and work on the adaptation of Coriolanus began.
Neher’s style at this time grows away from the typical pictorial “eﬀects” of expressionist
art: harsh, distorted, angular lines and tightly focused, steeply angled light sources and
their inevitable play with dramatic shadows. He appears to be trying to ﬁnd a theatre
equivalent of the sketch: a way of bestowing wood, canvas and stage paint with a softness of
deﬁnition similar to the undogmatic, thought-provoking eﬀects achieved by drawing with
ink upon damp watercolour washes, a favoured medium at this time. Neher’s habit of
sketching characters from a play while Brecht was working on it, as author or director,
provided material for debate between the various collaborators. These were not costume
designs but, perhaps uniquely in the European theatre, visual quests for the appropriate
This early activity culminates in the major collaboration involved in staging The Threepenny Opera at the Theater am Schiﬀbauerdamm during the summer of 1928. This was the
ﬁrst production in which the idea of an entire staging achieved the status of a “model”2 – not