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Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. III, No. 3
January, 1980



[Mr. Vyzga kindly consented to describe the concept underlying his set designs for Dartmouth's production of The Hairy Ape. In his essay he makes detailed reference to the portfolio of drawings that accompanies it. It must be notedówith yet another apology to the artistóthat financial restrictions prevented the Newsletter from capturing much of the vivid brilliance of his sketches. (The subtle gray wash of the sky, for instance, is not captured in the print of the Scene 2 sketch, nor is the more pervasive blue in Scene 8. The fiery background in Scene 3 is closer to rust brown than to yellow in the original, and the aqua of Scene 7 was more gray.) We have discovered the inadequacy of color xerography, but we felt that enough remains, and is of sufficient value to others contemplating productions of the play, to justify the inclusion of what we could afford. If it becomes possible to offer more faithful prints to readers interested in purchasing them, an announcement to that effect will appear in the next issue. --Ed.]

Designing O'Neill's The Hairy Ape provides an artistic and technical challenge for any scene designer. Furthermore, designing this production to work within the 1979 Dartmouth Summer Repertory season with Shakespeare's Winter's Tale and Moliere's Tartuffe made the process even more complicated. Consequently, production meetings began almost six months prior to the opening, and involved the director, Michael Rutenberg, the costume designer, John Sullivan, and myself.

Central to the design is the director's idea of the play as a study of a man's process toward suicide. Also, images of heaven and hell, steel, cages, and man's lack of harmony with nature were discussed. The director's idea and the aforementioned images were eventually to merge into the central concept of man thrust into an industrialized/dehumanized world in which death is an inevitability. In order to provide visual unity, to aid the director in creating the play's central rhythms, and to create a manageable repertory production, I designed a flexible unit set.

Within the unit set are a series of levels which both metaphorically create man's (Yank's) place in society (see sketches for Scenes 1 and 2 and note that the picture of Scene 2 is reversed) and establish certain character relationships (see sketch for Scene 3). Through direct manipulation of these scenic levels, the juxtaposition of characters and of scene to character is clearly established. Furthermore, as Yank's perception becomes more chaotic, the levels can be manipulated artistically (see sketches for Scenes 5 to 8), thus reinforcing visually Yank's state of mind.

The use of steel in the design is an essential thematic component in O'Neill's play and echoes its mechanical rhythms. For example, the supports for the various levels are stylized steel ship girders which give both an impression of locale and contribute to a sense of claustrophobia (see sketches for Scenes 1 and 3). Under each platform is a series of "bays," each containing a "palette," a small castored platform. Necessary set piecesóe.g., the bunks, the stokeholes, and the Fifth Avenue shopsómoved in and out of the bays with a piston-like movement. The texture of steel and the movement of the set pieces pro-vide a certain mechanical quality that further aids in establishing the scenic metaphor of a dehumanizing society.

A strong monochromatic color scheme enhances the central metaphor. For example, blacks and grays are predominant and serve to emphasize flesh in contrast with steel and the cold, lifeless and mechanized world. Accent colors are introduced to clarify the heat and horror of the stokehole (see sketch for Scene 3), as well as to provide a juxtaposition between the inhuman quality of certain characters and the bright, sunny sky behind them (see sketches for Scenes 2 and 5).

The unit setówith its color scheme, its textures, and the steamship detailsóis central in creating the director's vision of O'Neill's The Hairy Ape.

--Bernard J. Vyzga



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