The Life and Works of Adolphe Appia

Adolphe Appia, a theorist of architecture and theatre living in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, had a profound influence on modern theatre – principally the elements of lighting, stage design and music. This research will highlight some of the Appia’s key writings – which are numerous – and the primary intentions behind his theatrical works. I wish to take a look at the matters of combining light and shade, perfectly orchestrated music and rhythmic phenomena, used in order to minimize instances of elemental disunity, and we shall see how these were utilized to evoke understanding and to help recall common memories within the audience. Moreover, I believe that one of Appia’s most stressed points was the issue of maintaining a marginal difference between the desired emotions and intended communications of the playwright and the product of the actors and scenery. Looking at the many essays and books of Adolphe Appia, I have come to conclude that not only was he a designer, choreographer and listener, he was also a thinker and philosopher. A reputable example of such intellect and attention to detail can be found in his 1962-published book, “Music and the Art of Theatre”, where he points out that:

“If the poet, painter and sculptor see the form of their work develop and always have it in their control, because the content of their work is identical with its form, and so the object of expression and the means employed to communicate it to us are in a way equivalent, this is not the case for the dramatist. Not only does he not control the final form of his art, but this form seems relatively independent of his dramatic intentions. This is so because there are two stages of making a drama. First, the dramatist must transpose his idea into a dramatic form; then the resultant text must be transposed to meet the demands of a production for an audience.”

Despite Adolphe Appia’s intentions being relatively easy to follow, his theoretical works have a great depth and give us an excellent insight into his personal agreements and disagreements with modern theatre. One such example of his opinion is his disliking to the proscenium theatre and the futile efforts of set-painting and elaborate costumes.

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Although there is a clear negative approach to traditional drama, Appia explain how the situation can be solved with the use of music, theoretical principles, and so on.

“Although he admired the operas, Appia had no love for the use of the proscenium stage, elaborate costumes, or painted sets.”

Adolphe Appia was an innovator, who cared greatly for the connection between staging, lighting and orchestra, wished to reduce the jarring effect of elements, such as the perpendicular walls and stage of the theatre, the movements of the actors and colourful lighting, and “created a new perspective of scene design and stage lighting.” I’ve noticed a common trait in his work; the problematic situation is explained, simplified and, in turn, harmonized with the other effects of the theatre.

“The inanimate elements of production (which include everything but the actors) can be reduced to three: lighting, the spatial arrangement of the scenery on the stage, and scene painting. How are these interrelated? … It would seem, therefore, that these elements are of equal importance, but they are not.”

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In this research we shall take a rather broad look at the influences of Adolphe Appia’s work upon the theatrical community and how others adapted to his proposed styles. In addition, it is important to look at Appia’s architectural works, as these play largely into his philosophy of drama. The information and the conclusions that shall be made from it will be backed up by sources, many of which were written by Adolphe Appia himself.

However, it is not enough to merely list evidence and find answers; it is critical to take our research from a perspective that is backed up by contextual background, and I therefore wish to take a close look at the life, education and achievements of Adolphe Appia, so that we can better understand wherefrom his thoughts and ideology that inspired his writing came.

Just as stated at the start of Music and the Art of Theatre,

“In every work of art, there must be a harmonious relationship between feeling and form, a perfect balance between the idea which the artist wishes to express and the means he uses to express it.”

Hence, we shall examine the life and work of Adolphe Appia.


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Born in Geneva on the 1st of September 1962, Adolphe Appia grew up in a neighbourhood in which theatrical study was particularly discouraged. However, “electrical lighting was just evolving” , thus a lot was happening in the world of drama and he was backed by other theorists during his early studies and career. At the age of twenty-six, he studied the arts of theatre at Dresden and Vienna, where he found valuable and insightful knowledge about certain techniques. In addition, he quickly became accustomed to “Wagnerian Drama”, and gathered pre-existing ideas and concepts before even writing or designing sets.

Appia was a man of “was a man of great vision who was able to conceptualize and philosophize about many of his practices and theories” , and he immediately identified several problems in the beliefs of the Wagnerian community – “a dominant force in nineteenth-century theatre” – which he quickly figured out how to solve. Notably, he hated to disrespect the importance of the stage and held a particular dislike to the “proscenium theatre” – and understandably so.

Typically, Wagnerian Drama dealt with a flat, square backdrop to the stage, painted with bright and vivid tones. Perpendicular walls and the horizontal platform was significantly boring and uninspiring. Appia believed that the stage was not just a simple viewing window. Instead, it was a strong, emotional connection between the spectators and actors.

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In regard to the elaborate and flamboyant painting of sets and costumes, Adolphe Appia thought it was futile, and did not have any significant function:

“Of the three elements of production, painting is without any question the one subject to the narrowest conventions. It is incapable of revealing any living and expressive reality by itself, and it loses its power of signification to the extent that the lighting and spatial arrangement are directly related to the actor. Therefore, lighting and the spatial arrangement of the setting are more expressive than painting, and of the two, lighting, apart from its obvious function of simple illumination, is the more expressive. This is so because it is subject to a minimum of conventions, is unobtrusive, and therefore freely communicates external life in its most expressive form.”

Colourful and wild artwork and scenery, according to Appia, was an unfruitful convention that could be significantly improved by the use of “lighting a spatial arrangement” which is “more expressive”. He was an explainer and demonstrator and shows us in the subsequent paragraph that theatrical designers and architects were failing by continuing their foolish ways:

“The obvious inferiority of painting as a means of theatrical expressiveness no doubt seems strange to more than one reader, since contemporary productions, far from keeping this fact in mind, seem instead to deny it systematically by sacrificing everything else to the effects of painted scenery.”

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Furthermore, Adolphe Appia was dismayed by the use of boring, two-dimensional scenes. To solve this problem, he incorporated features such as platforms, staircases and a range of props into his sets. This ensured that the stage was as realistic to the audience as possible.

Figure 1: A stage sketch by Adolphe Appia

Appia demanded that the actor be set free from the mockeries of flat painted sets in order to practice a purified craft within a supportive and responsive setting.”

So why was Adolphe Appia so intent on changing the proscenium theatre and removing conventional concepts? “For him, the stage was a dramatic, rhythmic space to be organized artistically” , and he wanted to get the audience involved in the acting. Perhaps Appia may not have had such a revolutionary success in the music and drama industries had he not been so passionate about explaining and making these changes.

For him, the stage window was an opening into an infinite, three-dimensional space. The audience was supposed to be fully immersed into the actions of the drama, so that certain feelings could be evoked! This also meant that audible and visual elements were more important and could be combined effectively.

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That was Swiss designer Appia’s ultimate mission – to make drama more dramatic, realistic and emotional. The setting was supposed to be an illusion and simple, perceivable simplicities should not exist like they did in Wagnerian theatre:

“Now one could offer the objection that the illusion so admirably obtained by today’s scenic artists is well worth consideration. But that illusion has no artistic value unless it fulfills purpose – which is to create a setting, a viable atmosphere on stage; for everybody knows that as soon as the actors make their entrance, the handsomest painting setting suddenly turns into an ineffectual combination of painted canvases, unless one sacrifices all or at least some of these hieroglyphs to the active role of lighting… if the dramatist sacrifices the painted hieroglyph to living light, he gives up the notion that nothing else in his drama can take the place of painted scenery, as long as the text itself does not supply it; on the other hand, if he does encumber his text with descriptions of place, he is stealing from the actors the dramatic life which calls forth the activity of light. Then it is understandable that he disavow a form of production prejudicial to the integrity of his work and that he prefer the dominant use of painted scenery.”

Appia is mildly hateful to painted art, and appears to have a deeper knowledge of its disadvantages and how it ruins the effects of a play! Although Appia desired a change in the proscenium theatre, he had other solutions to the problem. He suggested coordinating lighting in a way that would reflect the movements of the human actors and the play. Lighting, he found, should be a central aspect of theatre but should still maintain its connections with the human and audible features.

“While the direct contribution of light to performance practice has been frequently overlooked, the impact of Appia’s ideas has, over time, been widely acknowledged even though his writings, and his proposal to place light as a central force of drama, were at first misunderstood by many of his contemporaries.”

“Appia was one of the first designers to understand the potential of stage lighting to do more than merely illuminate actors and painted scenery. His ideas about the staging of “word-tone drama”, together with his own stagings of Tristan und Isolde (Milan 1923) and parts of the Ring (Basle 1924-25) have influenced later stagings, especially those of the second half of the twentieth century.”

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This meant that lighting was to be used as a key element for bringing life to the set, and had to be connected rhythmically with the other movements on the stage. But in order for the lighting to be synchronized with the drama on stage, the music composition would also need to reflect the actors’ movements.

“Musically Wagner’s operas were radically different to what had gone before, but his staging remained literal and pictorial.”

“Adolphe Appia dared to criticize Wagner – while recognizing his genius as musician and poet, Appia thought Wagner both to have been limited in his concepts of staging and (as he makes clear in the extract below) to have been naïve in his expectation that nature could be represented on stage with realistic effect. Appia advocated an expressive rather than a naturalistic staging of Wagner’s dramas. He proposed a hierarchy of scenic

elements, with the actor at the top of his hierarchy.”

Figure 2: Image from Page 194 of “Richard Wagner: his life and works” (1892)

After visiting an opera performance by Wagner in 1891, he was captivated by modern theatre.

Since he had never been associated with the typical, Wagnerian style of theatre before then, Appia was effectively pure and cleansed of the common and bland modern concepts. Essentially, this gave him a unique perspective of drama and he could immediately identify the problems with it that had not been noticed – or had been overlooked – by its creators and advocates.

Another theory of his was that actors should move according to the beat or rhythm of the music. What the audience saw on the stage would correspond with what they heard. Therefore, there would be an excellent connection between each part of the theatre. This eliminated the disunity that was so common in Wagnerian drama.

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Appia crystalised this technique, but most of the thinking behind it derived from Emile Jacques-Dalcroze’s “System of Eurhythmics”. Also from Switzerland, Jacques-Dalcroze became a professor of harmony at the Geneva Conservatory following his work studying composition and musical technique. He proposed reforming the teaching of music and orchestra and designed a system in which human bodies representing the sounds of the beat of the music. It made complete sense that Adolphe Appia would take a liking to Jacques-Dalcroze’s theories.

“One of the most remarkable traits of Dalcroze’s educational genius is that the Master is unable to regard his pupils en masse. They are to him a group of quite separate individuals, and instinctively he treats them as such.”

For Appia, the choreography used alongside Wagner’s music was too linear and boring. He wanted a combination of different phenomena that complimented the movements of the human body. It would have to seem as natural as possible to the audience. Rather than designing sets with different conflicting effects, Appia sought to connect all these elements and align their rhythms and timing. In particular, he focused on implementing “creative technicality” instead of conventional and bland drama techniques. This is where light, shade and colour – all “creative aspects” were combined to complement each other.

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In 1895 he published “The Staging of the Wagnerian Drama”, a 100-page-long manuscript – one of a long line of books and essays he wrote up until 1921 – and “The Living Work of Art”.

Traveling across Europe, Adolphe Appia designed sets in Germany, Italy and Switzerland. He was capable of influencing large establishments by publishing his essays and books and distributing them to the leading figures of theatrical companies; they were astonished by his philosophical and vivid descriptions of specific concepts.

This is why the profound influence of Adolphe Appia’s thinking and works upon newly-emerging theatre is often misunderstood. Many would say that his achievements were astonishing, given the discouraging community he grew up in. However, this allowed him to gain an outside view on Wagnerian drama as he wasn’t locked into traditional conventions and dogmas.

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Adolphe Appia was almost completely opposite to the Wagnerian community. But, like they say, opposites attract and Appia found an excellent demographic for his work in a world when designers and choreographers did not know what they were doing wrong. Adolphe Appia’s work has left us with a huge improvement in drama and theatrical concepts that are still used and studied today.

Figure 3: Photograph of Adolphe Appia, circa 1900

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