Landscapes of American modernity: a cultural history of theatrical design, 1912-1951

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Yannacci, Christin Essin

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Until the end of the nineteenth century, theatrical design was the province of largely unknown craftsmen working behind-the-scenes. But as America entered a new century, designers emerged as artistic leaders, asserting their work as a vital contribution to the culture of American modernity. This dissertation examines select designs of prominent theatre artists as cultural texts conveying processes of modernization— industrialization, rationalization, urbanization, consumerism, and imperialism—that accelerated in the United States during the first half of the twentieth century. Designers Robert Edmond Jones (1887-1954), Norman Bel Geddes (1893-1958), and Joseph “Jo” Mielziner (1901-1976) participated in public dialogues alongside other modern artists who found new expressions for changes happening around them. Their designs significantly shaped the perspectives of twentieth century audiences, not only through their interpretations of dramatic texts but also their interpretations of the nation’s cultural landscapes. By adapting the aesthetics of stage modernism to a variety of commercial projects and venues, these designers expanded the circulation of their work beyond the theatrical stage, profoundly influencing American visual culture. The time frame extends from 1912, a year in which Jones arrived in Greenwich Village, to the early 1950s, the years in which Mielziner gained preeminence as a Broadway artist. Designs included in my analysis include David Belasco’s staging for The Governor’s Lady (1912); Jones’s designs for the Paterson Strike Pageant (1913), experiments with the Washington Square Players (1914) and the Provincetown Players (1915), and The Man Who Married a Dumb Wife (1915); Bel Geddes’s designs for The Divine Comedy (1921), The Miracle (1923), and his New York World’s Fair attraction Futurama (1939); and finally Mielziner’s designs for Death of a Salesman (1949), South Pacific (1949), and The King and I (1951). With each design, I draw strategic connections between aesthetic theories and social, political, and economic ideas circulating during the early twentieth century, recognizing modern design as an embodied practice that has developed out of particular historical moments and cultural geographies.