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Perspecta 26: Theater, Theatricality, and Architecture

A review of a new collection of essays about theatre architecture.

Hans Baldauf, Baker Goodwin and Amy Reichert, eds., The Yale Architecture Journal (Rizzoli International, New York), 1990. 288 pp, $30 paper.

This beautifully designed and lavishly illustrated collection is as eclectic as any survey of theatre architecture must be. The subjects of its 19 articles range from roofed theatres in ancient Rome to the layout of the 1992 Chicago World’s Fair, from Richard Wagner to Richard Schechner, from theatre architecture to theatre as a metaphor for architecture. Interviews, selections from letters and sketchbooks, and essays by the architects themselves round out the volume, making this essential reading for all those interested in design, theatre and the drama of urban life.

One of the most fascinating essays, “The Munich Festival Theatre Letters” by Sophie Gobran, describes the 1864 attempt by Ludwig II, the newly crowned King of Bavaria and lifelong admirer of Wagner, to build a greater stone theatre where “the performance of the Ring of the Nibelungen may be perfected.” Previously, Wagner had advocated the creation of a more intimate setting for his work, “a provisional theatre as simple as possible, perhaps made merely of wood, and calculated solely for the artistic purpose of what transpires inside.” Keen to maintain Ludwig’s patronage, however, Wagner recommended Gottfried Semper as the architect for the monumental theatre proposed by the king.

The letters quoted here reveal an interesting dialogue between Semper and Wagner about the interrelationship of audience, performers and architecture. In one letter, Semper describes his reasons for containing lighting instruments and the orchestra within the proscenium—“it provides a separation so necessary in mediating between the real world and the world of the stage.”

Other articles survey the evolution of the Baroque opera house, Nietzsche’s contribution to the philosophy of theatre architecture, and the work of Japanese architect Tadao Ando. There’s also an elegant photo album of Robert Wilson’s chair design.

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