Adolphe Appia was born on September 1st, 1862 in Switzerland and died February 29th 1928 at the age of 65, (The Set Designs of Adolphe Appia). Appia was best known for his developed theories of staging, and his use of space and lighting. To this day his ideas have still had an influence on modern stagecraft. Appia had an early love for theater and what it had to offer, however back in those days pursuing such a thing was often discouraged. Appia however had the blessings of his father, Doctor Louis Paul Amedee Appia, to study music and be able to further his love for theater.
Appia’s father was a highly respected physician and almost nothing is known about his mother, Anna, who died when he was 24 years old. Appia’s father was a serious Calvinist who was often not the friendliest person, all of these factors combined are believed to what led to the young Appia’s shyness and introverted nature, (The Set Designs of Adolphe Appia). Appia was also known for having a stutter, that combined with the rest of his personality led to him being a very quiet kid who kept to himself.
After coming to agreements with his father, Appia began to study music and theater. He was mainly drawn to Wagner’s operas. Richard Wagner was a German composer and director who believed things were to be done his way he had a different way of staging his plays, the one thing Appia loved the most about the director, (Biography of Richard Wagner). Appia had admired operas however he was not a fan of the use of the proscenium stage (the part of a theater stage in front of the curtain). He was also not very fond of the extravagant costumes or painted sets.
Appia was a strong believer that the stage, actor, lighting and music should be one on stage, all joined together in unity. After many years of studying music and operas, Appia came to the conclusion that the lack of unity in these elements were due to visual elements, it had no beauty to the viewer. He believed that the way the walls were painted and that the floors were horizontal were all clashing with each other making viewers unable to connect and actors unable to have unity with their scene.
That was when Adolphe Appia thought of the theory that sceneries should not be simply horizontal and flat but however, they should be filled with ramps, steps and platforms where the actor can change ocations without really changing sceneries, (Innes, Shevtsova). The actor would enhance the scene by blending all the parts of the stages and making it one beautiful visual for the viewers. Appia believed that the space on stage was a dynamic area that not only made it easier for the actor to understand what was going on but also for the viewer to believe the scene and understand more in depth what it was trying to portray, (Innes, Shevtsova).
He wanted to further this by adding lighting and seeing what effects it would have when combined with the rest of the scenery and the movement of the actor. Appia wanted to understand every aspect of theater therefore he studied every scene of the opera. He worked to understand how the scenery, lighting, music, and actors came together to make every scene performed more enjoyable for those watching, (Encyclopedia Britannica). He wanted to synchronized light sound and movement. In 1906 he met and was influenced by Emile Jacques-Dalcroze.
Dalcroze was born on July 6, 1865, in Vienna Austria, and died July 1, 1950, in Switzerland. He was a Swiss music teacher and composer who originated the eurythmics system of musical instruction, (Emile Jacques-Dalcroze). The Eurythmics is a system in which his students responded rhythmically to musical scores. While working with Dalcroze, Appia developed his own theory that the rhythm built in a text is the key to every gesture and movement an actor does during their performance.
He concluded that the mastery of rhythm could bring together the music, lighting, and space on stage together in harmony in order to make for a better show, (Rogers). Appia was alone for most of his life, he prefered to do things on his own. For many years he would be by himself sketching, writing books, and essays regarding his theories. However, many people started to get curious about Appia and began to befriend him. People like Edward Gordon Craig (1872-1966), who was an important actor, designer, director, and theoretician of the early 20th century European stage (Edward Gordon Craig).
But also, Jacques Copeau (1879-1949) a theorist, director, and actor who established the Vieux Colombier, (one of the most important theaters of the 20th century), in Paris to put his theories of theater reform into practice (Jacques Copeau). These people recognized Appia’s genius and wondered more about him. During this time while Appia wrote his thoughts and eventually publish a few books, one of which is, “Music and the Art of Theater” published in 1962, (Adolphe Appia). In many of his books Appia talks about his ideas and expresses them in a way the reader can understand.
Appia was one of the few designers who did not like the standard stage setting, the 2D perspective did not give him the feeling he wanted to. Therefore, he was in favor of creating 3D stages, he believed the the relationship between light and actor was needed in order to manipulate the viewer’s knowledge of time and space. He believed that in manipulating the light intensity and color he could create a new perspective of scene and stage, (Rogers). To this day, directors and designers follow the ideas of Appia when planning out their stage and how to go about the scenery.
It was not surprising at all when Gordon Craig and Appia were in agreement and shared views on the way plays and operas should be directed and designed. Although Craig started out as an actor, both him and Appia were focused on the importance of movement and light. Appia moved towards, what was then considered, abstract theater. This consisted of singing and dancing and the lights giving the performer and the atmosphere amplified emotions. This would give the audience something they had not yet experienced before.
Appia stated that he did not want to give the illusion of a forest but however an illusion of a man in the atmosphere of a forest, (Innes, Shevtsova). He wanted to use lights and sound in order to create amplified atmosphere. This concept was being adapted and influencing internationally as the French and Russian began to use the same ideas as Appia had spoke of. Appia also spoke on space and how the spacing of items and actor were crucial in order to create interaction between performer and audience. To achieve this visual unity, ramps and stairs would be placed on stage instead of a flat surface.
Furthermore, the backdrop to represent the sky would now be shift play of lights, creating shadows and casting bright lights to demonstrate the different types of day and night, (Innes, Shevtsova). Appia’s work was tremendous for the time he was in. He was greatly influenced on the fact that electrical lighting was just now evolving, (Encyclopedia Britannica). This led to him being influenced in taking a step further with what was new and recently created. He was one of the first to experiment with lights and how they could manipulate the eye of the audience.
Furthermore, he was also driven by his love for theater. His passion for the stage led him to studying a tremendous amount and having great visions. These visions then became theories, which he then went on to bringing them to live on stage by experimenting. His main idea was that everything needed to be harmonized in order to work, therefore he advocated for three lements to be synchronized, one, dynamic and three dimensional movements by actors, two, perpendicular scenery, and three using depth and the horizontal dynamics of the performance space, (Innes, Shevtsova).
These ideas revolutionized stagecraft and was at the forefront of creating some of the same effects and techniques we use in stage design today. When planning a stage most directors and designers now often use Appia’s ideas by using ramps and stairs on stage. But also, by using their lights in a way that makes shadows and describe the type of day, time and year the character is in. Appia eft behind many of his ideas in books he published, these books today help guide many of those who want to learn more about theater, (Rogers).
One of Appia’s most influential works was ” The Staging of Wagner’s Musical Dramas” published in 1895, where he explains Wagner’s way of staging his operas and how he adored this unique was back in those days. Another one of his works is “Music and Stage Setting” published in 1899, where Appia talks about how he believes music, and the stage should be in unity in order for an amazing scene to work. And lastly, he published in 1921, “The Work of Living Art” in this book
Appia believed that he could clarify and simplify his concepts if he wrote them down step by step as he went along and described them in complete detail. He had hoped that by doing this he would express the main idea of his thought to his readers, however, as he wrote everything down he soon found out that essence inexpressible. As Appia became older people started to realize how great his work was so in the 1920s, Appia began to receive the recognition he long deserved. In 1923 he staged “Tristan and Isolde” for Arturo Toscanini.
The play was about the falling of the Roman Empire and n English orphan ho falls in love with an Irish princess, the story continues as the forbidden love fights to be together, (Myth Encyclopedia). In 1924, Appia designed the staging for two parts of the “Ring Cycle” in Basel, this was essentially four big operas all linked together into one story, (Daniel Ross). Moving along in 1925, Appia also designed the settings and costumes for a production of “Prometheus”, also held in Basel. This play was essentially the idea of Prometheus, the hero in Greek mythology, (Greek Mythology- Prometheus).
These productions were not praised b everyone. In fact, many of the conservative critics who chose to see Wagner as he had always been performed with traditional staging found Appia too “Calvinistic” for their tastes. Nevertheless, Appia’s genius was finally recognized and his theories prevailed in spite of the critics. His theories of staging, use of space, and lighting have had a lasting influence on modern stagecraft. When Appia died on February 29, 1928, his friend and follower Jacques Copeau wrote a tribute in which he tried his best to explain the “Master’s” radical reform of the stage, (Adolphe Appia).
For him, the art of stage production in its pure sense was nothing other than the embodiment of a text or a musical composition, made sensible by the living action of the human body and its reaction to spaces and masses set against it,” (Innes, Shevtsova). Appia changed the way theater was viewed and enjoyed, he managed to go against what other believed and used the new inventions coming out during his time in order to make his theories into an actual stage. Adolphe Appia, left an impact on all of those studying theater and how plays and operas are designed and directed up until today.