Jo Mielziner, Designer

“The theatre artist has been called a jack-of-all-trades. Perhaps a better name would be hijacker-of-all-trades, for no man’s lifetime is long enough to learn all about ‘drama’ if he also has to learn about design and the history of art, if he has to master the intricacies of color and light, if he is to understand form in sculpture and line in architecture, if he must have a working knowledge of music and dance. Any one of these is a career in itself. The designer’s danger is that he may become an amateur of all the arts and crafts and a professional in none.” – Jo Mielziner in his 1965 book, The Theatre: A Memoir and a Portfolio

The following biography of Jo Mielziner and his design style was written by Mary Henderson and can be found here.

As the twentieth century wanes, it is generally conceded that American theater came of age in the years following the first World War. With the emergence of Eugene O’Neill, the spread of the experimental theater movement, and the introduction of the “new stagecraft,” the attention of the world was focused on the remarkable achievements in the American theater during a period beginning in the early 1920’s and continuing for the next fifty years. No one better represented and reflected this era than the stage artist and designer, Jo Mielziner, whose entire career almost exactly coincided with the flowering of American theatre during those years.

Beginning as a disciple of Robert Edmond Jones, whose theories shook the established stage practices of his time, Mielziner matured into the finest scene and lighting designer of his time—and perhaps, of all time. For a while, he elevated scene design and the designer to an almost transcendent position in the creative theatrical collaboration without, however, distorting the function of either. His perception that the designer must penetrate the fabric of the play to provide its visual metaphor was his most important contribution. As proof of this, he worked in no set style, giving each play and musical its unique scenic image. In many cases, his perfectly realized visual interpretations for such plays as Death of a Salesman and A Streetcar Named Desire and such musicals as Guys and Dolls and The King and I have made it almost impossible for designers who succeeded him to avoid imitation. Directly and indirectly, Mielziner trained an entire generation of designers and the reverberations of his vision are still being felt. He created scenery and lighting (and often costumes) for almost three hundred productions, ranging from Shakespeare to the lightest farce, from O’Neill to Tennessee Williams, and for musicals, opera, and ballet.

Mielziner’s dissatisfaction with the theatrical architecture of his period led him to formulate his own conceptions of workable theatrical plants, which in turn brought him commissions to design, co-design, or serve as consultant on such theatres as the Vivian Beaumont in New York, the Denver Center Theater, and the Wake Forest University Theatre in North Carolina. He also received commissions for industrial and commercial projects and for such special events as the convention site in San Francisco for the establishment of the United Nations in 1945 and the lighting of the PIETÁ in the Vatican Pavilion of the 1964 Worlds’ Fair in New York.

All of the following pictures of scenic examples and descriptive text come from here.

Seed of the Brute
This play, called “a fair-to-middling play” by the NY Times critic, was by Knowles Entrikin. It was a rather heavy handed melodrama which had little stage life after the initial production. Mielziner’s design shown here is the only one he ever executed in grattage, a method of rendering a design by scraping away the dark wax surface covering the plate to reveal the lighter color beneath.

ANATOL [1931]
Mielziner was interested in the complete look of the productions he designed. He frequently designed not only the settings and lights but also the costumes. This is the costume design for the title character, a Viennese playboy, for the 1931 Broadway production.

The Wookey
Frederick Brennan wrote this play about a tugboat skipper, played by Edmnd Gwenn, who hates war but changes his attitude after rescuing men at Dunkirk. Mielziner’s sets, lights and special effects won universal praise. A room broke into flames, a house is bombed and the terrifying mayhem of war was created through collapsing scenery, lights, special effects and sound. This design is for the basement setting of the Wookey’s bombed house.

Death of a Salesman
The set of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman evolved in Mielziner’s mind over a period of months. He submitted his ideas, sketched on any available paper and sent them to the director, Elia Kazan, for his reactions. These sketches show some of his early ideas for this, one of his most highly praised sets.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
The musical, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn based on Betty Smith’s novel, was written by Betty Smith and the remarkable George Abbott. The music was by Arthur Schwartz and the lyrics by Dorothy Fields. Brooks Atkinson called it “a darlin’ show in a hospitable mode with a liking for its people and locale. Of Mielziner’s settings he writes that “they derive from nostalgic sentiment for a neighborhood and its people.” This design if for the laundry scene set on the roof.

Top Banana
Mielziner created this rendering of a ballet scene which was ultimately cut from the final production. The dark background emphasizing the brightly lighted dancers shows his intense interest in the effects of lighting on scenery and actors.

The Lark
THE LARK [1955]
For The Lark. Jean Anouilh’s version of the Joan of Arc legend, Mielziner designed a series of low randomly-placed platforms covered in blue plush set against a backdrop (or cyclorama) of thin muslin stretched on a frame. On it, he projected a rose window and other images including this battlefield to signal changes of scene. Lighting was the principal element in this production

Possibilities by Arthur Pittman takes place over three decades. The play was an unqualified failure but the two designs for projections which silhouette fire escapes and fences against the evening and night sky, although telling us little about the play, are both haunting and evocative.

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