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Rolph Scarlett’s Theatre Designs

“Man knew how to make circles, how to make squares, how to make a triangle.  He put these things together … These are the basic configurations of how to interpret space … Kandinsky worked that way ... After …being completely lyrical, he was eventually able to get rid of the trees, the houses, the barns and everything else … Kandinsky was challenging all the conceptions of art that existed from the Egyptians on.  He was challenging the whole damn thing and I was fortunate to see it at a very early age” (Rolph Scarlett qtd. from Nasby, Judy.  Rolph Scarlett: Painter, Designer, Jeweller. Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2004: 2).

Rolph Scarlett was a prolific artist whose work as a theatre designer will be of interest to the CASP audience.  In a retrospective of his work at the Macdonald Stewart Art Centre beginning in September of 2004, curator Judith Nasby highlighted his designs for a production of King Lear.  In these designs, Scarlett’s modernist style is evident in the cathedral-inspired scale of the set.  As well as King Lear, the Macdonald Steward Art Centre collection holds a set design for Hamlet done by Scarlett.  It is interesting to note that production records for these designs do not exist, and in fact these designs may never have been realized on stage because Scarlett completed many of his theatre designs on a freelance basis.  Following is an excerpt from Nasby’s book, Rolph Scarlett:  Painter, Designer, Jeweller:

“Canadian artist Rolph Scarlett had a remarkable seventy-five-year career in the United States as a painter, designer, and jeweller.  A dedicated modernist, he successfully fused multiple artistic practices into a single vision.  As a painter, inspired by his association with European avant-garde artists at the Museum of Non-objective Painting in New York, he explored geometric abstraction.  The museum, later renamed the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, purchased sixty of his paintings and works on paper during the 1930s and 1940s.  This remains one of the largest acquisitions of a Canadian artist's work by an international art museum.

“In the 1930s Scarlett produced beautifully executed industrial design drawings that reveal his mastery of the streamline aesthetic.  He was also an innovative stage designer, working in the constructivist style in California and New York.  Throughout his career, he created unique jewellery in the American modernist tradition.  He translated his non-objective approach to painting into highly sculptural jewellery, making imaginative use of stones and settings.  Rolph Scarlett's multi-faceted career began in his formative years in Guelph, Ontario, where he was born in 1889” (qtd. from Nasby, Judith. Rolph Scarlett: Painter, Designer, Jeweller. Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2004: 3).

“EXPLORING ABSTRACTION IN STAGE DESIGN
While living in Toledo, Scarlett joined the Stage Club, an amateur theatrical group that was part of an artists' society known as the Art Klan Club.  In 1928 he designed the sets for three plays, Tristan, The Lady of the Weeping Willow, and Christopher Morley's East of Eden.  The Toledo Sunday Times reviewer described the sets as "remarkably sculpturesque, remarkably beautiful."  Scarlett used the word "constructivism" in describing his set designs, "which means the suggestion of form by flat surfaces diametrically opposed, dependent on light for the quality of depth.  It is all symbolic."  The lighting and the geometry of the stage were intended to heighten emotions and focus attention on the proper character at the appropriate time. 

“Toledo's Stage Club was part of a new modernism in American theatre design that emerged in the 1920s and 1930s both in New York and in progressive regional theatres.  Many theatrical productions of the 1920s glowed with pictorial overtones of Freud, machine worship, and futuristic art.  Ideas developed in European theatre were introduced to the United States by visiting troupes – like Max Reinhardt's – that also brought their own sets.  Scarlett first became aware of these new concepts during his 1923 trip to Geneva, a city that was at the forefront of the modernist theatre movement.  Adolphe Appia, a leading Swiss designer, called for "the auditorium of the theater to be as a cathedral of the future, a vast, free, and transformable space which could dramatize the diverse manifestations of our social and artistic life and which would be the place par excellence for dramatic art to flourish.”

King Lear Design
Stage Design for King Lear, 1928
Gouache on Paper
Collection of Sandra and Samuel Esses

“Scarlett drew designs for current and classical productions to build a portfolio of drawings that he intended to submit to theatrical producers as a freelance designer.  His 1928 designs for King Lear show the influence of Adolphe Appia's approach.  In one set design … an intense beam of light illuminates tiny figures positioned around a dias within a vast cathedral space.  In another … a dramatic shaft of light bisects the stage, revealing a phalanx of soldiers marching under a giant gallows. [above]

King Lear Design
Stage Design for King Lear, 1928
Gouache on Paper
Collection of Sandra and Samuel Esses
King Lear Design
Stage Design for King Lear, 1928
Gouache on Paper
Collection of Sandra and Samuel Esses

“The King Lear designs also reveal Scarlett's familiarity with the theories of Edward Gordon Craig, one of the greatest innovators of the stage in the twentieth century.  Craig promoted the concept of the architectural stage, a stage stripped of decorative elements so that it could express the idea of the play and serve the acting and the movement.  He favoured huge curtains painted with light to suggest time and place and massive architectural shapes that were meant to almost annihilate the human figures.  For Craig, the essence of the art was symbolic movement” (qtd. from Nasby, Judith. Rolph Scarlett: Painter, Designer, Jeweller. Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2004: 17, 18).

King Lear Design
Stage Design for King Lear, 1928
Gouache on Paper
Collection of Sandra and Samuel Esses
Hamlet Design
Stage Design for Hamlet
Gouache on Paper
Collection of Sandra and Samuel Esses

Rolph Scarlett:  Art, Design and Jewellery.  Program for the retrospective of Scarlett’s work by curator Judith Nasby at the Macdonald Stewart Art Centre.

Link to Shakespeare in Canadian Art

CASP would like to thank Judith Nasby, Curator and Dawn Owen, Exhibition Coordinator of the Macdonald Stewart Art Centre for their contributions to this research.


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