Claude Fayette Bragdon
Claude Fayette Bragdon was an American architect, artist, writer, and publisher who was active in the Theosophical Society in America. He operated the Manas Press in Rochester, New York, and was the first publisher of P. D. Ouspensky’s work, Tertium Organum. Dr. James Cousins referred to him as “Claude Bragdon of American to whom Architecture is Theosophy in stone.”
Early life and education
Early in his career, Bragdon designed bindings for books:
- At the Sign of the Sphinx: A Book of Charades by Carolyn Wells, New York: Stone and Kimball, 1896.
- Stories from the Chap-book; Being a Miscellany of Curious and Interesting Tales, Histories, &c, a compilation by many authors. Chicago: Herbert S. Stone and Company, 1896. 
Theosophical Society work
Influence on Olcott headquarters campus
Bragdon frequently wrote articles for Theosophical magazines. The Union Index of Theosophical Periodicals lists over 90 titles by or about Bragdon. He also wrote excellent books about architecture, art, and Theosophy:
- The Arch Lectures.
- Architecture and Democracy. 1918. Available at Internet Archive.
- The Beautiful Necessity: Seven Essays on Theosophy and Architecture. 1910. Rochester, NY: Manas Press. 109 p. Available at Internet Archive, Internet Archive, Hathitrust, Google Books, and Google Books.
- Episodes from an Unwritten History. Rochester, NY: Manas Press. In 1910, an enlarged second edition was published. Available atInternet Archive.
- The Eternal Poles.
- Four Dimensional Vistas. 1916. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. Available at Internet Archive and Internet Archive.
- The Frozen Fountain.
- The Golden Person of the Heart.
- Man the Square: a Higher Space Parable. 1912. 34p.
- Merely Players.
- More Lives Than One.
- The New Image.
- Old Lamps for New, or The Ancient Wisdom in the Modern World.
- Oracle. 1921. Rochester, NY: Manas Press. 64 p. Portrait in frontispiece. Available at Internet Archive. Bragdon collected messages that had been received by his deceased wife Eugenie Julier Macaulay Bragdon via automatic writing. Some are epigrammatic personal messages, and others are prophetic.
- A Primer of Higher Space (the Fourth Dimension). 1913. Rochester, NY: Manas Press. 78 p. Illustrated. Available at Internet Archive.
- Projective Ornament. 1915. Rochester NY: Manas Press. 78 p. Illustrated.
- Self Education: An Address Given Before the Boston Architectural Club April the third 1909. 1910. Rochester, NY: Manas Press. 16 p. Available at Internet Archive.
- Six Lectures on Architecture. 1917. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Scammon Lectures. Coauthors were Ralph Adams Cram and Thomas Hastings. Available at Internet Archive.
- The Small Old Path. 1914. Rochester, NY: Manas Press. 2nd edition. available at Internet Archive, Internet Archive, Internet Archive, and Internet Archive.
- Theosophy and the Theosophical Society. 1909. Rochester, NY: Manas Press.
- Yoga for You.
Claude Fayette Bragdon – Architect / Occultist
Lately I’ve been fascinated by the American architect Claude Fayette Bragdon (1866 – 1946). Besides being an architect, he was also an author, Theosophist and occultist. His books were generally on architectural theory with an often mystical / occult flavor. Some of these include:
THE FROZEN FOUNTAIN
Bragdon was also friends with other occult philosophers and mystics of the era, such as Paul Foster Case and P. D. Ouspensky. What I find really amazing is that Bragdon used sacred geometry and sigils derived from magic squares to come up with some of his esoteric architectural designs, patterns, and layouts.
I’m currently attending a Drafting & Design school, so I find Bragdon’s work particularly inspiring.
The New York Central Railroad Station was his masterpiece. See pic below. Sadly, it has since been demolished.
Here is a blueprint for another building:
and another mandala-like pattern/design..
Below is another Claude Bragdon building, The Rochester First Universalist Church
Claude Bragdon: Senior Thesis by Karen Taylor
A man of many talents, Claude Fayette Bragdon (1866-1946) was an architect, artist, writer, philosopher, and stage designer. Bragdon’s work in these varied fields interrelated and overlapped, tied together by his theosophical belief in creating and communicating beauty. After a successful career as an architect in Rochester, NY, Bragdon entered the world of stage design in 1919, at the age of 53, by consenting to design a traveling production of Hamlet for actor-producer and personal friend Walter Hampden. Bragdon’s arrival in the world of theater came at a time when significant changes in staging techniques were on the horizon.
In the 1920s, a new movement emerged in American theater. Designers and producers began to experiment with stage lighting and also revolutionized stage set designs. The movement was away from the previous tendency for ultra-realistic, painted stage sets and toward a more simple, three-dimensional set. This New Stagecraft was the result of a desire to let the actual texts and language of the plays speak for themselves. Rather than simply providing a comfortable background, New Stagecraft attempted, by means of simple sets, symbolic colors, and innovative lighting, to provide a coherent experience for its audience. Bragdon, with his theosophical beliefs, took this concept a step further by designing productions that he hoped would not only move his audience, but enlighten them as well. His idea was to coordinate the voicing of the set with the language and ideology of the text itself, albeit in a quiet, even muted way. Although he came to the world of theater late in life, he drew on his extensive experience as an architect and on his experimentation with light and color to create an environment for each play he designed that provided a simple platform for the action of the play. Its practical effect would be substantial; its statement, subliminal.
Bragdon’s contributions to New Stagecraft came just as the possibilities of the new technologies were beginning to be recognized. Because his productions were more conservative than other designers experimenting with this genre, and due to his extensive and widely appealing publications on the topic, Bragdon’s work served as a bridge between the former conventions of Victorian stage design and emerging practitioners of New Stagecraft. The critical acclaim earned by Bragdon’s productions brought New Stagecraft into the public eye and helped ease the transition to more radical staging techniques. In addition, Bragdon truly was a pioneer in the technology of stage lighting, a new field that was just beginning to be explored. He experimented with both the technical and psychological aspects of this new medium.
In theater, Bragdon found an outlet for his creative energy and artistic talents that he had not experienced before. Particularly notable are Bragdon’s Shakespearean productions. In the Shakespearean plays that he and Walter Hampden produced, he solved the age-old problem of creating an environment that was both innovative and true to Shakespearean conventions by drawing on techniques from both Elizabethan and modern theater. Bragdon’s translation of the Shakespearean stage was not firmly rooted in time, but was not completely removed from chronology, either. He sought to create an individual experience for the audience that used the “highest ideals of beauty” to draw each audience member into the world of the play and to enable them to grasp the higher meaning behind the words of the play. In creating a chronologically ambiguous Hamlet, Bragdon somewhat removed the element of time, allowing the audience to become more absorbed in the world of the play and toexperience rather than merely view the drama as an artifact unfolding on the stage.
Born in 1866, Claude Fayette Bragdon spent most of his life in upstate New York. His first job came at the age of sixteen, when he was apprenticed to A.J. Hopkins, an architect in Oswego, New York. Bragdon worked as an architect for most of his adult life and became highly successful, eventually establishing his own firm in Rochester. His most notable commission was the New York Central Railroad Station in downtown Rochester in 1909. Bragdon was a firm follower of Louis H. Sullivan’s theory that “form follows function” in architectural design. During his time as an architect, as throughout the rest of his life, Bragdon was a prolific writer and published articles in contemporary journals as well as producing several books on the subject of architecture.
Bragdon’s life, however, was not limited to the world of architecture. He was deeply fascinated with theosophy, a school of thought centered on the pursuit of truth and beauty, and he published many works on this subject. Bragdon’s interest in theosophy began at an early age. Both his parents were forward thinking — his mother a feminist and his father well-read in transcendentalist works, as well as Eastern philosophy, a school of thought still on the fringes in nineteenth-century America. Bragdon was first exposed to the roots of theosophy in his father’s library as he read Emerson, Thoreau, and classics of Eastern religion. Theosophy combined transcendentalism, Buddhism, and Hinduism, and drew heavily on these works. For Bragdon, Emerson’s writings were especially influential. In his father’s library, which contained Emerson’s complete works, Bragdon first encountered the theory that would influence so much of his life’s work:
I date my conversion to Theosophy from that hour, for Emerson’s essays are so largely a distillation of the Ancient Wisdom through the consciousness of a New England Brahmin….My more self-consciousness and considered acceptance of the Theosophical cosmo-conception occurred years later after my Emersonian initiation.
There is no doubt that this early exposure, through his father, had a deep impact on Bragdon’s career and objectives as a designer. His theosophical belief in a higher ideal of beauty translated to his stage designs as he tried to promote an experiential environment to enlighten his audience.
Emerson’s influence is seen yet again in Bragdon’s method of creating the type of beauty that moved his audience. Bragdon believed that art could be described mathematically, in geometric terms. He believed strongly in “natural” beauty, which he believed could be found in ratios taken from nature:
That the tapestry of nature is woven on a mathematical framework is known to every sincere student. Emerson says, ‘Nature geometrizes….[m]oon, plant, gas, crystal, are concrete geometry and number.’ Art is nature selected, arranged, sublimated, triply refined, but still nature, however refracted in and by consciousness.
Bragdon used such mathematical ratios in designing the New York Central Railroad Station, in Rochester. It was one of the city’s architectural triumphs which was, alas, torn down by an urban-renewal-minded city government in the 1960s, just another step in the desolation of downtown Rochester by men who had never heard of or given a thought to Emerson and the city’s cultural history, let alone Bragdon and his architecture.
Bragdon was an active member of the Theosophical Society. In a pamphlet he wrote for the society in 1910, Bragdon describes theosophy as a movement comprised of people of any religion, or none at all, who are united in their quest to study religious truths:
Their bond of union is not the profession of a common belief, but a common search and aspiration for Truth. They hold that Truth should be sought by study, by reflection, by purity of life, by devotion to high ideas, and they regard Truth as a prize to be striven for, not as a dogma to be imposed by authority….They see every religion as an expression of Divine Wisdom, and prefer its study to its condemnation, and its practice to proselytism. Peace is their watch-word, as Truth is their aim.
This life philosophy, obviously centered more on the process of finding “truth” than on any actual result, is what lies behind Bragdon’s thinking as a stage designer: his ideal was to create a set that penetrated the subconscious of his audience, providing a substructure to measure the ratio of the plot.
His autobiography, appropriately titled More Lives Than One, divides his life into four existences, all building on each other and often overlapping – architectural life, literary life, theatrical life, and occult life. Inspired largely by the works of writers like Emerson, Bragdon’s personal philosophy and dealings with the ethereal world of theosophy led him to the pursuit of a higher ideal of beauty in all his work. As he stated, “These many and various life-activities are all referable to a single urge: the desire to discover, to create, or to communicate beauty….I [have] been driven from occupation to occupation in the …arduous service of beauty.” Bragdon’s work, culminating in his stage designs, was always driven by this ideal.
A falling out with prominent Rochester philanthropist George Eastman was probably the catalyst for Bragdon’s exit from the world of architecture. Bragdon had been commissioned to design the ceiling for a dining room in the new Rochester Chamber of Commerce building financed by Eastman. Bragdon’s design was based on one he had seen in Venice, with gold decorations on the ceiling. He completed work on the room, plastering the ceilings in preparation for the paint, believing that Eastman had already agreed to the design. When it came time for Eastman to approve a contract for the ceiling paint, he refused because of the cost. Bragdon resigned from the job and Eastman retaliated by threatening to limit his charitable donations if Bragdon was offered contracts by others in town. With few options left in the world of architecture, Bragdon decided to pursue his love of the theater.
A contemporary of such well-known designers as Robert Edmond Jones, Lee Simonson, and Norman Bel Geddes, Bragdon shared with these men a methodology that employed emerging technologies in stage lighting and a new sense of making a play into an experience for the audience. Bragdon’s extensive writings, mainly produced during or within a few years of putting his theories into action, are invaluable in understanding his philosophies and have, in many ways, defined the movements of which he was a part. Bragdon is unique in the amount of writing he produced during his stint in the theater, publishing illustrated articles and presenting talks on his techniques.
Though Bragdon’s contemporaries also wrote about their craft, most published in retrospect, well after their time as stage designers. Jones did write two books in the 1920s, but his major publications came much later — one book in the 1940s and another, after his death. Simonson likewise published mainly in the late 1930s and early 1940s. In contrast, many of Bragdon’s articles appeared in the early 1920s, one as early as 1919, the same year as his first production of Hamlet. Bragdon’s writings are important, not only because he was so prolific, but also because his works offer a glimpse inside the artist at work. His articles were invaluable to designers trying to incorporate these new ideas and helped bring New Stagecraft to the eyes of the public. Because they were published in a range of journals — literary, theatrical, and architectural, they had a wide appeal. By publishing as he worked, rather than in retrospect, as did most of his contemporaries, Bragdon provides a type of living history, illustrative of the new techniques and technologies that characterized New Stagecraft.
Though Bragdon’s work is now relatively obscure, in comparison to the work of Gordon Craig, Simonson, and Bel Geddes, his shows originally received more positive reviews. He tended to be a bit more conservative, which helped to build the foundation for more widespread acceptance of New Stagecraft by serving as a bridge between previous designers and the more radical productions of Craig, Simonson, and Bel Geddes.
Bragdon’s interest in theater dates back to his early childhood. Most of the shows seen in his younger years were staged by traveling companies which, nonetheless, starred the biggest acting names of the day. Growing up in the relatively small upstate New York cities of Watertown, Oswego, and Rochester, Bragdon recalls, was not a detriment to his attendance at the theater – “Broadway, in the theatrical sense, scarcely existed; ‘the road’ was all in all. In the cities I have mentioned I have seen Jefferson, the elder Sothern, Booth, Modjeska, Mary Anderson, Mansfield, Mrs. Fiske – all of the great stars of that day except Irving, Bernhardt, and Duse.” May Bragdon, Claude’s sister, kept a scrapbook of the plays she attended, many with Claude. The performances she saw in Rochester were staged at the Grand Opera House, The Academy of Music, and the Lyceum Theatre. The traveling shows seen early in his life at these theaters influential Bragdon’s later career as a stage designer. The companies of his childhood seldom carried their own scenery and instead made use of anything the local theater could provide. This lack of standard scenery for each play made a lasting impression on Bragdon, and he recalls with fondness the first time he saw “three-dimensional” and specially designed sets:
How wonderful seemed the first “box set,” in which the actors entered through doors which opened and shut instead of appearing from behind a painted flat, and even more wonderful was the first specially built and painted outdoor scene which burst upon my astonished gaze! This scene induced in me a mood so ecstatic that I think my timeless self may have stirred from its habitual slumber and whispered into my inner ear that one day I would myself be creating that kind of beauty.
These childhood experiences at the theater did indeed affect Bragdon’s subsequent work as a designer. He was especially known for his portable and multi-level stage sets that could be easily changed between scenes.
As a child, Bragdon was not only an avid playgoer, but also played at producing and acting. At the age of nine, he “published” his own magazine, Household Stories, which contained such articles as “How to make a stage and parlour footlights” and “A little about theatres.” In addition to his writing, the young Bragdon drew pictures of the stage. One pencil drawing, done when he was 13 years old, depicts a minstrel show for which Bragdon has carefully marked the lighting. Another, dating from 1877, when Bragdon was 11, shows a scene, “Shakespear Illustrated,” from Julius Caesar. Bragdon and his sister, May, produced several plays themselves. Beginning at the age of eight with “A ‘Programme’ of ‘Personations’ from King John,” Bragdon printed several programs for shows in which he was the star or director.
This passion for theater was translated to a professional plane when, at the age of 53, in 1919, Bragdon was hired by actor-manager Walter Hampden to design the stage sets and costumes for a traveling production of Hamlet. Hampden and Bragdon went on to collaborate on several other productions. After their first run of Hamlet, Hampden and Bragdon staged four other Shakespeare plays – Macbeth in 1921, Othello and The Merchant of Venice in 1925, and Henry V in 1928 – along with another run of Hamlet in 1925. In addition to Shakespeare, the duo’s other best known production was Cyrano de Bergerac in 1923. Hampden and Bragdon worked together on the New York City stage until 1934.
Bragdon’s designs were part of an emerging genre of stage design called the New Stagecraft. This movement was a reaction against the highly illusionistic designs prevalent in stage design during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It incorporated the latest technology in the field of stage lighting and three-dimensional stage sets to create a sense of simplicity and unity. Before New Stagecraft, there were no production designers — scenes were played in a nineteenth-century pantomime tradition against painted backdrops. The three dimensional stage became the preferred setting during this time period and the “box set” was born. A new type of play also appeared during this period. In contrast to the highly popular melodramas of the 19th century, this new play was characterized by tight construction and fewer characters. This required a new type of realism. Highly illusionistic painted backdrops were replaced with three dimensions of solid sets. With this shift, the need for scene painters diminished and the position of “designer” was created.
Bragdon’s quest to create beauty was also characteristic of the New Stagecraft movement. Designers added an entirely new dimension to the production of the play. Given the social and political conditions of the early 20th century, producers seemed to be looking for plays about heroic characters that were also realistic. Perhaps this is why so much of Shakespeare, including Hamlet, was particularly appealing to Walter Hampden. In their role in creating such productions, designers sought to bring a deeper meaning to their work. As theatre historian John Mason Brown describes:
This desire to lift the theatre beyond the confines of the usual, to charge it with a quality of uncommonness, to endow it with an expectancy and an importance of its own, was one of the most characteristic attributes of the scenic artists who emerged from the New Movement. They wanted to bring not only beauty to their work, but meaning, too. They wanted to add to the play a new element of sorcery. They wanted their settings to be builders of mood, reminders of fate, visual characters.
Bragdon was no different. He wanted his scenery to enhance the total experience of the play, creating the ideal mood and setting for each audience member to attach a personal meaning to the action on stage. In all his work, Bragdon sought to uplift the human mind by creating beauty that was both natural and magical:
Working for the most part unconsciously, harmoniously, joyfully, [the architect’s] building will obey and illustrate natural laws — these laws of beauty — and to the extent it does so, it will be a work of art, for art is the method of nature carried into those higher regions of thought and feeling which man alone inhabits.
Though he was speaking here of architecture, Bragdon employed the same principles in his work on the stage. He sought a higher level of beauty in all his creations, to enlighten and elevate the thoughts and feelings of his audience. Bragdon felt strongly that theater was a means of experiencing a higher form of consciousness through elevated beauty. After all his many vocations, Bragdon felt that theater was the best means of experiencing this phenomenon: “The Theatre is the last stronghold of Freedom, where anything can be imagined, acted, said….I have felt for some time that freed of its artificial inhibitions the theatre offers me the widest field for the expression of fresh beauty.” To this end, Bragdon readily adopted, and even helped develop, the tenants of simplicity and beauty associated with New Stagecraft.
Several designers are now linked to this movement, including Jones, Geddes, and Simonson. For Bragdon, Sir Henry Irving (1838-1905) was an early pioneer in the effects of the New Stagecraft. Speaking of Irving’s day, Bragdon said,
those were the palmy days of deceptive or dioramical scene painting, in which solid objects were so cleverly simulated on a flat surface, and the transitions between three dimensions and two so artfully made that it was sometimes impossible to tell where one ended and the other began.
The primary goal of this type of design was to create an illusion for the audience that was ultra-realistic down to every last detail. Bragdon makes it clear that his goals are no different, “for the essence of all stage-craft is illusion of one sort or another.” But his illusions, created in three dimensions, make the stage less of a scenic background and more of a complete environment in which the set becomes so complimentary to the actor’s words that it effectively disappears from the audience’s consciousness.
Hamlet and the ‘Invisible Stage’
Bragdon believed that his idea of the “invisible stage” was a concept also employed on the Elizabethan stage. In an article written in 1921, just two years after Hampden’s first production of Hamlet was staged, Frank Chouteau Brown interviewed Bragdon in his discussion of the “invisible stage.” Bragdon describes the theory behind his design for the first run of Hamlet as psychological:
The first problem was to design scenery that would in no wise interfere with the swift action of the play. This imposed the idea of the ‘permanent set’…for I have always been much intrigued with the psychological idea behind what John Corbin calls the ‘invisible stage,’ referring to the Elizabethan stage setting. The invisible stage consists in a fixed arrangement which becomes so familiar to the eye, so known in every detail, as to become at last invisible – just as you never know the real appearance of your own house, or your own office.
This “invisible stage” method has the effect of making any small changes in lighting or accessories more significant than they would otherwise be against a more busy background. This attracts instant attention to the change and can be used as a dramatic device for emphasis.
In part because the first staging of Hamlet was a traveling production, and in part to preserve the continuous action of the play, Bragdon chose to use one basic stage setthat would remain in place as the background of the entire play. Instead of changing an entire backdrop, Bragdon changed accessories – adding a curtain here, a column there – to differentiate between locations within a play. By avoiding the long delays of changing stage furniture between scenes, Hampden’s Hamlet could be performed as a continuous narrative — another Elizabethan convention that Hampden sought to emulate. According to theatre historian Andrew Gurr, Shakespeare’s plays were originally performed as continuous narratives. “Quicker speaking, quicker stage action, no intermissions, and the audience’s ability to grasp the language more quickly meant that the plays galloped along.” 
The division of Shakespeare into acts was not originally written into his scripts, as Bragdon’s contemporary, Harley Granville-Barker, explains:
The long-accepted division of the play into five acts is not, of course, authentic….In the private theaters it had commonly been the custom to divide plays into acts and to provide music for intervals. The practice of the public theaters is a matter of dispute. If they did observe act divisions — four of them — they are hardly likely to have done so more than formally unless or until they also had some entertaining means of filling the gaps. Or unless the strain upon the audience became too great. That might entail a definite pause or so for recovery; but hardly four pauses… While the plays could be acted through in two hours or a little longer, there would be no physical need for a pause. It is possible that their practice changed, and this during Shakespeare’s own lifetime. He certainly did not think out his plays in five-act form; whatever the exigencies of its performance are to be, the play itself is an indivisible whole. It was the telling of a story; its shape would be dictated by the nature of the story and the need to make this dramatically effective. And that meant, among other things, that if there were to be breaks in its progress, one generally did better to minimize than to accentuate them; for the attention of an audience, once captured, must be held.
The pauses created by changing from one elaborate scene to another only accentuated the disruptions in the continuous narrative of the story. Bragdon’s simple stage sets allowed for a more seamless production, in keeping with what he deemed the original staging conventions to be.
In Hampden’s production of Hamlet, for example, the basic set consisted of a platform raised slightly above the stage, and a staircase. Contemporary critic Frank Chouteau Brown described this particular application in detail:
Hamlet opens with the dimly lit scene upon the battlements of Elsinore, walls at right and left, and at the back a platform raised a few steps above the stage level, a staircase rising to a higher level of the castle wall at the audience’s left side of the picture, and a vague distance that might be sky or mist…When the dull-toned curtains sweep together and back again we find the palace interior…It conforms to the same plan in the arrangement of the stage as in the preceding scene, but now there are two simple columns…and in the scene’s better lighting we visualize a door under the landing of the staircase at the left…The misty background curtains are still misty, but now suggest the rude linen arras hanging of the period.
Bragdon’s stage set is remarkably bare and solid, providing a framework in which the actors can move. There is nothing in the scenery to detract from the words spoken and nothing to take the attention of the audience away from the performance itself.
Bragdon’s creation of an “invisible stage” seems to be a result of two major concerns on the part of Hampden. His first major concern was a practical one — in order for him to make a profit on his shows, he had to take them on the road. Bragdon describes this problem in terms of Othello:
…unless Mr. Hampden was free to go on tour to supplement his New York season and to recoup possible losses, his ambition to re-create the great parts in more beautiful and more powerful projections of the great plays would be impossible of realization. To carry about the country separate and complete productions of several Shakespearean plays is now impracticable on account of the high cost of transportation and labor, and the constricted storage and stage space in the modern theatres; therefore the thing to do would be to devise some scheme or system whereby a minimum amount of material, differently combined and arranged, could be made to do service…in several plays, without the makeshift being too apparent to the audiences before whom they are presented.
To solve this problem, Bragdon created an elaborate and portable stage set that could be easily rearranged for various scenes. The skeleton for this set consisted of curtains, borders, steps, platforms, and movable wagons that could be mixed with a set of interchangeable panels with doors and windows of various shapes.
Hampden’s second concern was his adamant direction that the play be performed as written, true to the text, and with rapid delivery. In Bragdon’s view, this philosophy, in combination with contemporary technology, left him with two alternative ways to design the scenery. The first alternative is to be absolutely true to Elizabethan conventions, performing the plays more or less as they were originally conceived — with an essentially bare stage. The second is to present Shakespeare in a modernized form, with separate sets for each scene. Bragdon objects to the first technique because he believes that the modern audience lacks the imagination to watch such a performance without being bored and objects to the second because it requires a rearrangement of the original text. These views seem to be highly influenced by Hampden. Bragdon recounts the direction he was given as he began work on Hampden’s production of Othello, stating that Hampden’s “deep love of Shakespeare” would never allow him to distort or rearrange the scenes in any way: “These were my instructions: ‘The play is to be given as it is written; it must go forward without a pause, almost as rapidly as a moving picture — but we must have a real production for all that.'” Hampden’s intense concern with preserving the language of the play necessitated a backdrop that would allow scenes to be changed quickly, but he also wished to engage the audience in the style of setting with which they were familiar. These two issues — portability and speedy scene changes — along with his own belief in preserving the language of the play, led Bragdon to design sets that were both functional and understated. This notion of “invisible stage” allowed the text to speak for itself against a backdrop designed to frame the action of the play, not to distract from it.
The invisible stage is not the only Elizabethan convention on which Bragdon claims to draw. In his staging of Hamlet, the platform at the back of the stage, raised above the main stage level by a few steps, and then the staircase rising on one side of the stage to another higher level, create a front stage and back stage which, as in Elizabethan times, separated degrees of conscious theatricality. As on Shakespeare’s stage, the front area was often used to set actors apart from the main action or storyline of the play. Such things as soliloquies and epilogues, highly conscious of their own theatricality, were often performed in this area with the further portion of the stage reserved for scenes more contained within the action of the play. For example, drawings show that the platform was used as a setting for the players within the play and for the “Queen’s closet” scene (II, iii). The creation of levels, according to Bragdon, serves to “enhance, vary and assist the action, giving opportunity for the up and down, as well as horizontal grouping – thus adding another dimension.”
Bragdon’s use of levels is somewhat different from the levels that existed in Shakespeare’s Globe. The Globe stage was a square platform raised about five feet from ground level. Above the entry doors in the back wall of the stage was a balcony, probably used for spectator seating. A central room in this gallery was occasionally used for staging. Chambers speculates that no platform was used in staging the opening scene of Hamlet, in which the sentinels are guarding Elsinore. The fact that Bragdon did not strictly adhere to the set used in the Globe is probably practical. At the time of the first production of Hamlet, Hampden’s company was a traveling one. A raised platform is obviously easier to transport and adapt to various stages than an actual balcony behind the stage.
Bragdon’s use of Elizabethan techniques was a conscious decision. In his own words, “Shakespeare’s plays were written to be performed in the Elizabethan theatre, the characteristic features of which were developed from the raised platform built out into an inn yard, the inn galleries and stairways being made use of by the performers.”Not only did Bragdon’s sets create a sense of Shakespearean authenticity, but their varied levels provided more freedom for movement and placement of actors. Bragdon’s idea of theater resided in his desire to transcend the physical limitations of the theater in terms of three entities — the audience, the actor, and the dramatist. The first two of these three categories were under his control as a designer and his ideas in these areas seem also to be based in Elizabethan conventions. In addition to the “invisible stage” and multiple levels, the third Elizabethan convention to which Bragdon lays claim is his minimal use of accessories, with no props but “those called for by the text.”  Bragdon explains the minimalist concerns of his stage design thus:
For the audience they seek a closer communion, one with another; a fuller participation; increased facilities for seeing, hearing and enjoying…For the actor they seek release from the limits of his proscenium picture frame, where he appears remote, flat, an image moving in a pool of light — like a fish in an aquarium.
As in Elizabethan times, Bragdon sought to make theater a communal experience, both in terms of audience and actor. He made certain that no extraneous props or stage devices would interfere.
But although Bragdon did draw on Elizabethan techniques in his productions, the simple fact is that his audience was modern. Reproducing Elizabethan conventions is limited by the audience’s frame of reference; he was well aware that complete fidelity to the Shakespearean stage might alienate modern spectators. For this reason, Bragdon incorporated several modern developments, not to recreate the physical Shakespearean environment, but to effect a mental and emotional meaning recognizable to the modern audience. Gurr points out that the actor-audience relationship in Shakespeare’s time is significantly different from modern theater, mainly because Shakespeare was originally performed in daylight, allowing the actors and audience to see one another. This simple fact had major implications for the Renaissance audience’s involvement in the story. Daylight allowed the audience to become more a part of the world of the play. Bragdon’s experiments with stage lighting sought to create a similar communal effect.
During the later half of the 19th century and the early half of the 20th century, electric lighting was brought to the stage. Bragdon’s fascination with light and its effects was something that had been growing long before he stepped into the world of theater. Starting with a summer party in his own backyard, Bragdon began experimenting with light and color patterns as backgrounds for outdoor musical performances. Bragdon designed and staged “Festivals of Song and Light” in Rochester’s Highland Park and in Central Park in New York City, along with performances in Syracuse and Buffalo, just prior to his entrance into theater.
Bragdon had no way of knowing that a party he and his wife Eugenie had decided to host, in order to make their exit from Rochester’s high-profile social scene, would have such an impact on his career in the theater. Eugenie was Bragdon’s second wife, and she was much less social than his first. She soon became unhappy with her social obligations in Rochester’s elite society, as Bragdon explains:
At first the novelty of the experience amused her, but after meeting the same people again and again, the social scene lost its attraction. She kept it up because she thought it helped me professionally; I kept it up because I thought it part of my duty to her. In a moment of frankness we both confessed to being bored, so we decided to discharge all of our social obligations at once by giving a big party to which everyone should be asked, and thereafter to seek recreation only in each other and in a small circle of good friends. 
Bragdon designed and made multicolored lanterns that were hung from trees, with small Japanese lanterns suspended around the perimeter of his property. The centerpieces of this grand design were lamps, also hung in the air, that were covered with circular screens made to look like rose windows — creating a “cathedral without windows.”
These lighting effects, in combination with a hidden chorus led by Bragdon’s friend Harry Barnhart, generated a great deal of attention. As Bragdon later mused, “That party proved to be of far-reaching importance, for it was the egg, so to speak, out of which Song and Light was hatched.” The Rochester Park Board was so impressed with their work that they asked Bragdon and Barnhart to stage a similar party for the public. A Festival of Song and Light was staged on September 30, 1915, in Rochester’s Highland Park. Bragdon again used electric lamps covered by glass shields and lanterns hung from all the trees.
The event was repeated in Rochester the following year and was expanded for New York City’s Central Park in 1917. That same year, performances were scheduled for Syracuse and Buffalo. As an artist, Bragdon felt that his quest for beauty was fulfilled in Song and Light:
In every one of these there was some one high moment, some unexpected manifestation of strange beauty. In Syracuse it was the playing of Offenbach’s Barcarolle… The Buffalo festival constituted the city’s farewell to its soldiers on the eve of their departure overseas. They marched in and occupied the place reserved for them in darkness, so that when flood-lights were directed upon them… it was a surprising and memorable spectacle. In the final New York event the element of mobility was introduced into the lighting when three hundred lantern-bearers circled the lake like a firey dragon, first on foot and afterwards in boats.
A contemporary critic described the lighting as “more magical and less tangible,” thus fulfilling Bragdon’s desire that his lighting, like his stage sets, become an “invisible” background against which the audience experiences the show.
Bragdon’s theory for lighting was in keeping with his philosophy of stage design. In his words,
My own opinion is that for true human drama – for great plays greatly acted – the lighting should be made strictly subordinate to the work of the dramatist and of the actor, enhancing both, never competing for the interest of the spectator. The lighting should be so good that it can be forgotten, just as living in the light of the sun we are able to forget the sun.
Bragdon was explicit in stating that he did not believe light should be naturalistic, but that it should be a complimentary to the action taking place. Any lighting effects should serve the purpose of enforcing the mood of the scene and play into the psychological perceptions of the audience.
According to Bragdon, in Hamlet, the lighting mood is set in the first scene with the line “‘Tis bitter cold, and I am sick at heart.” The colors corresponding to this were grays, blues, violets, and tans and, with these cool colors as a backdrop, the play’s psychology rises to a new level. Though his ideal was that the audience should have no distinct memories of the actual lighting, Bragdon realized that its effects were extremely powerful on a subconscious and emotional level. As he stated, “Anyone who has worked with light in the theatre knows how inevitably an audience reacts to light changes. Light is an agent in moving men to laughter, to terror, or to tears.” Where Elizabethan lighting had the advantage of eliciting emotion by immediately placing the audience directly in the world of the play, Bragdon’s lighting effects created an emotional response by accentuating specific scenes, characters, or speeches. Though different techniques, both had the same result – the audience was drawn into the psychological and emotional world of the play.
Bragdon had firsthand experience with the subtlety of effect this phenomenon perpetrated. He describes the gravedigging scene in Hamlet as being particularly problematic. The scene, played at first in waning daylight, was supposed to be a point of humor for the audience, but failed to connect. Bragdon found that a small adjustment to the light settings improved the situation dramatically – “We tried the experiment of beginning the scene in a bright, warm, cheerful light, and it was surprising how much better a comedian Mr. Allen Thomas and his companions suddenly became. The light was not acting against the visibilities of the audience, but with and for them.” A similar incident occurred while staging Banquo’s murder in Macbeth. During the first few performances, some portion of the audience laughed during this scene, causing the actors to be confused and distracted. The scene was at first staged such that everything could be seen clearly. Bragdon changed the lighting to simulate moonlight in the forest by using a single blue projector with one ray, nearly horizontal. The effect was that the audience saw only shadows of the struggle. Bragdon describes the result: “…from a mood of expectancy, curiosity and apprehension, the audience was led to a revealing moment of shocked surprise entirely alien to the spirit of laughter.” As with his conception of the stage set, Bragdon used light to play to the audience’s own psychological perception of the play, manipulating lighting elements to push the audience into a personal experience rather than a passive observation.
As with his architectural works, Bragdon thought of lighting designs in terms of the ratios in music. He believed that just as music had elevated the human sense of hearing to a new level, understanding light would elevate the sense of sight:
…though all people react emotionally to light, whether they know it or not, very few are able to see light — to see it analytically, that is, as a musician hears music — distinguishing the sound of separate instruments, and hearing in the harmonies their component sounds. It is music which has educated the sense of hearing to this pitch of perfection. The sense of sight today, not as a serviceable faculty, but as a source of aesthetic enjoyment, is only just emerged from that rudimentary state in which hearing was before the rise of the musical art — rudimentary, I mean as a source of pleasure. If one can ‘see’ light, and can imagine the effect desired before producing it, the simplest equipment can sometimes be made to produce the desired result.
Bragdon’s theosophical beliefs are the tie between the separate arts he practiced. His goal, in any medium, was to create an experience that would elevate his audience to a new level and to make his art a “source of pleasure.” By creating a lighting environment that was emotionally and aesthetically appealing, Bragdon was able to create what he thought of as a coherent symphony on stage.
Bragdon’s earlier experiments with electric lighting equipped him to become one of the forerunners in the use of electric lights on stage. In addition to creating an overall mood for each play, Bragdon used lighting as a means of special effects. One of his favorite illusions was created unintentionally during the production of Macbeth. Bragdon describes this occurrence as a “happy accident”:
The happy accident which perhaps pleased me most occurred on the first night of Walter Hampden’s New York engagement in Macbeth. It is a play of many scenes and at the dress rehearsal I got so tired of seeing the curtain come down seemingly on the actors’ heads that I arranged for the electrician to black out all his lights at the end of every scene that the curtain might descend in darkness. Roy Operti, a great acrobat and dancer, took the part of the first witch, and it so happened that at the end of one of the witch scenes the lights went off just at the moment when he took a great leap upward into the air from a low rock. The effect was startling. Because no one saw him come down it was as though he had never descended, giving great point to the line in the scene, “The air hath bubbles as the water hath.” The newspapers commented favorably on this vanishing act the next morning, and thereafter the electrician, by timing his lights exactly to Operti’s leap, was able to perpetuate this happy accident.
In this case, Bragdon was able to capitalize on what seemed to be a mistake in order to further the actual language of the play itself. Special effects such as this one became part of the total experience of the play.
Costume and color
Costume design was also part of Bragdon’s repertoire and, again, his choice of colors corresponded to the audience’s psychological connection with each character. As an artist and architect, Bragdon was well-versed in the effects of color. As with other mediums, he transformed color into almost mathematical terms and applied it according to this theory:
In general, people receive the most pleasure from bright, pure colors, red and blue being the favorites. These two may be thought of as polar opposites, each representative of one of the divisions into which the spectrum can be arbitrarily divided, red epitomizing the warm or thermal division and blue the cold, or electrical. Green — which includes yellow — takes its place as the intermediate one of these three primaries. From the combinations of these three colors light of every color can be produced.
He understood that certain colors produced specific emotional connections and employed them accordingly.
Bragdon relied on textual hints in his conception of costume colors. According to Bragdon, he did not decide on the colors; the characters decided for him:
Hamlet, of course, is garbed in his “customary suits of solemn black,” a color reserved for him alone – fate’s executioner, a stalking nemesis. For Ophelia, the beginning of the description of her drowning, spoken by the Queen… gave me the hint I wanted: yellow-green, suggestive of spring and cerulean blue, the color of water and of the Virgin’s robe. Ophelia‘s two costumes were of these colors. The Queen I clothed in scarlet, green, and gold; and the King in orange and carmine. These are royal colours, passionate colours, belonging to the heat end of the spectrum. Polonius I conceived of in a brown brocaded cloak, trimmed with grey fur, with a staff of office and a silver chain; for brown and grey are negative, non-committal colours, and Polonius was a trimmer and a yes-man. For Horatio, the faithful friend, dark, rich green seemed the proper colour, because green corresponds to sympathy…Laertes, after the deaths of Polonius and Ophelia, is costumed in violet – the mourning colour of that day and place – trimmed with black. Osric, “that water-fly” to know whom was a vice, I made to look as much like a grasshopper as possible, in a yellow costume with trimmings of silver and blue.
In Hamlet, each character took on a signature color significant to their caricature. Several of Bragdon’s color choices are taken directly from the text, and are therefore intended by Shakespeare. In Bragdon’s production, Hamlet’s black robes stood in sharp contrast to the sea of colors behind him in any given scene. Bragdon considered every costume in terms of the value of its color in the psyche of the audience.
The use of color in this manner was another characteristic of New Stagecraft. Rather than striving for literal representations in costume, stage designers in this era moved toward a more interpretive use of color. Bold, symbolic colors enhanced the audience’s imagination and, according to Bragdon, became part of the total experience of the theater:
A scientific knowledge of color is of the utmost value to the artist working in the theatre. He must know not only the visual effect of the various color combinations, but also the effect of colored lights on colored surfaces.
With this knowledge, Bragdon was able to appeal to the emotions of his audience in creating a production that was not only beautiful, but evoked the intended reactions from its viewers.
According to Bragdon, the color spectrum was dictated by the mood of the play, which was found within the first few lines of the text: “every play contains the perfect key to its manner of production, tells both its ‘color’ and ‘tone’ down to the last detail — not in an absolute and arbitrary way, but by subtle indications which will give the producer the key, the clue.” Bragdon’s writing on his Shakespearean productions speaks in strong terms about the “tone” of each play, and Bragdon’s sets, along with the costumes and color schemes for each of these productions, were unique and distinctive.
The color scheme in Hamlet, according to Bragdon, “clearly belongs to the electric rather than the thermal division of the spectrum.” For this production, he designed the scenery in grays, blues, violets, and tans. The lighting worked to reinforce these shades. Bragdon’s color scheme for Macbeth was as follows: “Black, for the powers of evil; red, the color of blood, for murder; gold, for ambition, kingly power; orange for the flame-like love which existed between Macbeth and his wife; blue-green — “glint of steel” — for cruelty, and indifference to human suffering; and brown for that quality of murkiness which permeates the play.” Clearly, Bragdon saw in each of these plays a specific mood and designed the sets and costumes to capitalize on the psychological effects of the dominant colors on the minds of his audience.
Modern Shakespeare: Creating ‘authenticity’
Bragdon’s use of techniques that he describes as “Elizabethan,” in combination with his use of modern lighting and color schemes, raises an interesting question that prevails in any critical history of theater: What constitutes authenticity? In any Shakespearean production, the director has a choice between at least four major categories of settings. Shakespeare can be performed true to Elizabethan standards and conventions — drawing on historical records of performance conditions at the time the plays were originally staged. This method gives the audience at least some degree of “authenticity,” because it seems to be true to original conditions, but a modern audience is obviously removed from Elizabethan staging techniques and this type of production would require a suspension of the audience’s sense of “normal” (modern) staging conventions. The second option is to take the play and transform it into a modern setting, thus allowing the audience to have an immediate connection. This has the potential for creating authenticity in experience, but not in appearance. Setting the play in a specific time period that is neither modern nor Elizabethan is the third option. This type of production would seem to have the least potential for authenticity because it is both removed from the time period in which it was written and from the time period in which it is being performed. Finally, taking the play “out of time,” giving it no association with any period is the fourth. In this case, any type of authenticity would have to be created in the mind of the audience because it would not exist in any physical attributes of the stage.
Bragdon was clearly concerned with these questions. He lays out a similar scheme for classifying the choices of presentation, as they apply to the stage set. Bragdon first describes the staging of Shakespeare within a modern framework:
It is clear that when Shakespeare’s plays are presented in the modern way, in the modern theatre — that is, under conditions alien to their origin — whatever they may gain in verisimilitude, their sweep and continuity must be broken up by frequent waits made necessary by scene and costume changes, during which the interest necessarily flags and the illusion fades — there is an inevitable slowing down of pace and lowering of temperature….One way out of the difficulty as regards the production of Shakespeare is to combine and re-arrange the scenes according to some such formula, but whenever this is attempted something of the clarity, the stir of life, the cosmic quality of Shakespeare leaks away.
Translating Shakespeare to the modern stage and setting, in Bragdon’s view, was a problem because the frequent change in scenes disrupted the action on stage. The audience is able to relate to the staging conventions, but the loss in the spirit and pace of the play outweighs this benefit.
In order to preserve the quality of Shakespeare’s presentation, a second method of staging, as Bragdon describes, is often employed:
This [leaking of the cosmic quality of Shakespeare] is so fully recognized that the other alternative is sometimes chosen — that of reproducing, in one form or another, the essential elements of the Elizabethan stage and therein giving the plays in their integrity, more or less after the manner in which they were originally produced. The objection to this is that the imagination of the average theatre-goer, fed so long from the optic nerve, cannot comfortably dispense with the aids afforded by modern stage-craft, so he is apt to succumb to a disillusioned boredom.
As previously discussed, Shakespearean narratives were originally performed for an audience prepared to hear the play rather than seeing it. Modern audiences, Bragdon argued, were accustomed to seeing an entirely new set for every scene. A truly Elizabethan stage presents a problem for the modern audience because there were few changes in scenery.
Bragdon’s theory of authenticity lies somewhere between the extremes of a fixed Elizabethan stage and the flexibility of a modern stage:
If the English language lent itself with any grace to the German polysyllabic form of expression, this third alternative might be described as the modern one-set-slightly-changed-for-each-scene school, for it is the mould into which most of the more recent Shakespearean revivals have been cast. The success of this kind of solution depends of course upon the adroitness of the stage designer in the turning of his kaleidoscope, in which the same elements are made to form a variety of different patterns, each one suggestive of a given place and adapted to the performance of a given action. The outstanding advantages of this scheme or method are unity, economy, speed and directness.
This theory appealed to Bragdon, and to Hampden, because it allowed for the unity intended in Shakespeare’s plays without compromising the audience’s connection through modern conventions. Bragdon’s sets were designed to create authenticity by invoking some Elizabethan practices, but also incorporating modern lighting and scene changes. By using a relatively static scenic frame and changing small elements such as lighting and accessories, Bragdon was able to use elements from both schools of thought.
Bragdon describes this theory further, in regard to the time placement, with specific reference to his production of Hamlet:
Between the two alternatives of a contemporaneous and an archaeological presentation of the play, there is a third, which might be called abstract or (relatively) timeless. Its justification dwells in the fact that Hamlet is a known human type, and his story the dramatization of a perpetually recurring predicament: that of the introvert forced into action…For this great play, despite its sharply limned characters, set in a definite geographical and historical background, is a drama of the soul, of the evolution of consciousness, and to this limits of time and space cannot be assigned.
This “Everyman” approach is a common one for Hamlet, but Bragdon does not believe that timelessness should be utilized to the exclusion of Hamlet’s essential character. Rather than remove the character of Hamlet from any trace of chronology, Bragdon argues for an abstract presentation that is grounded in some concrete and circumstantial elements.
Bragdon describes the producer’s problem in presenting Hamlet as one of balance between several elements. There is an obvious tension between the way Shakespeare intended the production to be staged and the artistic license of the stage designer, but there is also the issue of balance between a presentation true to Hamlet as an individual (historical authenticity) and the audience’s ability to experience the play on a personal level (experiential authenticity):
For the sake of poignancy of appeal and verisimilitude Hamlet should be shown as a man among men, in his habit as he might have lived, in an appropriate environment – that indicated by the dialogue. But, to bring out the play’s mystical and symbolical aspect, there should be as little as possible to tie the imagination down to a particular place or a particular period. The archaeological sense, while being neither denied nor affronted, should be given nothing into which it might be able, so to speak, to set its teeth. In brief, there should be an effort toward abstraction, but never the abstraction of the play’s essential human quality, thus relegating it to the limbo of the symbolist.
Hamlet is clearly a play written about a prince in 11th century Denmark, but the accurate portrayal of such a scenario would be an affront to a modern audience’s expectations of a “realistic” Shakespearean production. The interesting thing about this is that the audience’s expectations for the “authenticity” of Hamlet are centered in its notions of the Elizabethan stage. Audiences would probably not expect an “authentic” presentation to take place in a stone castle with wood fires and blond actors dressed in skins, but to take place on an Elizabethan stage with actors dressed in tights.
Given Bragdon’s affinity for lighting, it seems appropriate to frame this debate in terms of the effect of stage lighting in creating authenticity. In his discussion of Shakespearean lighting, R.B. Graves discusses this very idea by highlighting the contrast between Shakespearean and modern lighting technologies. He cites evidence that not only were natural lighting and candles the only light sources during Shakespeare’s time, but varying weather conditions and performance times often made lighting effects unpredictable. Modern lighting conventions, according to Graves, have made the world of theater an entirely different experience for modern audiences. As an example, Graves compares relative brightness on the stage — “150 footcandles on the modern stage will appear brighter than 150 footcandles on the Globe stage, because of the greater contrast between the bright stage and the darkened auditorium in our typical proscenium and arena theaters.” Modern audiences wait in semidarkness for a play to begin, where public playhouses in Elizabethan times had no contrast in lighting between the audience and the actors.
As Graves explains, the difference between open-air lighting and modern stage lighting leads to an emphasis on different dramatic tools:
The overall, evenly distributed light meant that the audience’s attention could not be directed to specific actors or stage properties by means of conveniently placed pools of light or by color contrast. Theatrical emphasis was accomplished by what we take to be the more conventionalized techniques of Elizabethan dramaturgy — soliloquies, ceremonial entrances, poetic set speeches, and the like….Although the “heightened realism” of the modern lighting designer can more subtly emphasize and deemphasize actors, that realism, once established, will not allow for the moment the poet wants the audience to concentrate wholly on his words.
Graves highlights the main problem that exists in any discussion of authenticity today: modern staging, especially lighting, techniques have so changed the very nature of physical production that the language of the play is also necessarily altered because of a shift in dramatic tools available.
As previously discussed, Bragdon was primarily concerned with the actors and the language they were trying to convey. Though he did subscribe to certain effects afforded by modern technology, they never came at the expense of the language of the play. Rather than wowing an audience with flashy lighting, Bragdon chose to use light as a compliment to the action and speech as it unfolded on the stage. In this way, Bragdon sought to remain true to the text and intentions of Shakespeare’s plays.
For a modern audience, therefore, a production that holds strictly to Elizabethan conventions would be so outside its range of familiarity that it would have little meaning beyond its historical context. Graves terms this phenomenon a “dislocation of normal sensibilities.” Light shining on a modern audience, as it did on Shakespeare’s, would immediately disrupt its expectations of theatrical experience. Again, Graves explains:
We are accustomed to paying close attention to any deviation from realistic lighting because nowadays such deviations usually underscore particular esthetic or symbolic points. But in Shakespeare’s theater, the uncontrollable light enjoyed a more casual relationship with the drama.
Though it is probably most apparent in lighting techniques, the same idea can be applied to any other convention of the theater — costuming, stage sets, mode of speech — that becomes an intrinsic part of the modern audience’s expectations.
Part of the universal appeal of Shakespeare’s Hamlet is the ease with which its production is translated into terms to which modern audiences can relate, while still remaining true to the language of the play. Bragdon’s incorporation of what he perceived to be authentic Elizabethan techniques and his employment of the new technology associated with modern theater was designed to create his own brand of authenticity.79 For Bragdon, an “authentic” experience was one in which the audience was drawn into the world of the play and took its meaning to a higher level by feeling the play individually.
Though Claude Fayette Bragdon’s work on the stage is now relatively obscure, he was part of an important movement in American theater history called New Stagecraft. His broad life experiences and his own personal philosophy greatly influenced his staging techniques. His early exposure to theosophy, and particularly Emerson, led him to a lifelong admiration of beauty found in nature’s ratios. From his career in architecture, to his work as an artist, to his writing, his philosophy, and his work as a stage designer, the underlying thread was Bragdon’s quest to create and communicate this suprarational type of beauty.
Bragdon’s work in the theater, for actor-producer Walter Hampden, was particularly concentrated on heroic dramas such as Shakespeare’s Hamlet. On the stage, his quest for beauty was translated into simple, three-dimensional sets accented by bold colors and understated lighting that brought the psychological issues and intricacies of the text to the fore. Bragdon was keenly aware of the problems surrounding the translation of Shakespeare’s masterpieces to the modern stage. He sought to create a performance that was recognizable, both as a Shakespearean classic and as a modern production. His deeply-rooted theosophical ideals led him to believe that a performance on stage could be effectively internalized by his audience as an individual experience that was both enlightening and aesthetically enjoyable.
A true pioneer in modern lighting, Bragdon experimented with the psychological effects of different light schemes and then incorporated these into a unique environment for each play he designed. Bragdon’s ultimate goal was for his sets and lighting to disappear as the audience became wrapped up in the world of the play. He sought to create an “invisible” atmosphere in which the affects of the language and the actors were maximized against a unified framework.
Though he received rave reviews for the beauty of his productions, Bragdon never let his quest for beauty get in the way of practical details. He was a forerunner in developing a solid stage set made of several panels that could be easily changed between scenes, and, to accommodate Hampden’s company, was portable. By designing one basic set that was changed by adjusting different accessories, Bragdon was able to preserve the continuity of the performance while still providing the variety expected by a modern audience.
Part of this emerging genre, Bragdon’s contributions to New Stagecraft were instrumental in introducing it to a wider audience. He served as a bridge between the conservative painted backdrops of the Victorian stage and the radical productions that appeared at the peak of New Stagecraft. Because he wrote constantly throughout his life and during his working years, Bragdon remains an important monitor for the study of theater in the United States during the 1920s and 30s. Not only were his writings influential among contemporary practitioners, but their publication in popular theater periodicals brought New Stagecraft to the public. Technical theater is given a voice and a plot that, to the theater aficionado, becomes an ongoing production in its own right.
Atkinson, J. Brooks. “The Play: Walter Hampden Reviving ‘Hamlet,'” New York Times. (January 5, 1928), 33.
Berry, Ralph. On Directing Shakespeare. New York: Viking Penguin Inc., 1989.
Bragdon Family Papers. University of Rochester, Rare Books and Special Collections.
Bragdon, Claude. “The Artist-in-the-Theatre.” The American Magazine of Art. 20, no. 10 (October 1929): 547-549.
—. The Beautiful Necessity. Rochester, New York: The Manas Press, 1910.
—. “Color and Costume,” The Forward, 17 (February 1930): 3-5.
—. “Decorative and Theatrical Lighting,” Transactions of the Illuminating Engineering Society (October 4, 1924): 1-14.
—. Episodes from an Unwritten History. Rochester, New York: The Manas Press, 1910.
—. “Forget the Lights and See the Play,” Light (January 1925). Found in Bragdon Family Papers, Box 38: Periodical Publications.
—. Letter to Francis Bacon, February 24, 1923. Bragdon Family Papers, Box 1: General Correspondence, 1894-1929.
—. Merely Players. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1929.
—. More Lives Than One: Autobiography of Claude Bragdon. Claude Bragdon: New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1938.
—. Old Lamps for New: The Ancient Wisdom in the Modern World. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1925.
—. “Producing Shakespeare: As Illustrated by Walter Hampden’s Production of Othello” The Architectural Record, 57, no. 2 (March 1925): 266-275.
—. Projective Ornament. Rochester, New York: The Manas Press, 1915.
—. “The Scenery for Walter Hampden’s Hamlet.” Theatre Arts Magazine (July 1919): p. 193.
—. “The Technique of Theatrical Production.” The Architectural Record 66 (August 1929): 109-122.
—. “They were Happy Accidents.” Theatre Magazine 52 (November 1930): 20, 56, 58.
—. “Towards a New Theatre.” The Architectural Record. 52 (September 1922): 170-182.
Brown, Frank Chouteau. “Shakespeare, Hampden and Bragdon,” The Drama 11 (March 1921): 197-199.
Brown, John Mason. Upstage: The American Theatre in Performance. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1930.
Chambers, E.K. The Elizabethan Stage. Vol. iii. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1951.
Costa, Erville. “Claude F. Bragdon, Architect, Stage Designer, and Mystic.” Rochester History 29 (October 1967): 1-20.
Fuchs, Theodore. Stage Lighting. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1929; reprint ed., New York: Benjamin Blom, Inc., 1957.
Granville-Barker, Harley. Prefaces to Shakespeare. Vol. I. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1947.
Gurr, Andrew. “The Shakespearean Stage.” The Norton Shakespeare. Stephen Greenblatt, general editor. New York. 1997.
Graves, R.B. “Shakespeare’s Outdoor Stage Lighting,” Shakespeare Studies 13 (1980), 235-250.
Henderson, Mary. Theater in America. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1986.
Hewitt, Barnard. History of the Theatre from 1800 to the Present. New York: Random House, Inc., 1970.
Massey, Jonathan. Architecture and Involution: Claude Bragdon’s Projective Ornament. Dissertation presented to Princeton University in candidacy for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. School of Architecture, June 2001.
Meyers, Carole. Wake Up and Dream!: Claude Bragdon’s Idea of Theatre. Undergraduate dissertation, University of Rochester class of 1988. Department of English, University of Rochester, Rochester, NY, 1987.
Siegfried, David Allen. Claude Bragdon, Artist-in-the-Theatre. PhD thesis submitted at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Urbana, Illinois, 1979.
- Bragdon, “The Scenery for Walter Hampden’s Hamlet,” Theatre Arts Magazine (July 1919), p. 192.
- David Allen Siegfried, Claude Bragdon, Artist-in-the-Theatre, p. 24. PhD thesis submitted at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Urbana, Illinois (1979).
- Erville Costa. “Claude F. Bragdon, Architect, Stage Designer, and Mystic,” Rochester History 29, no. 4 (October 1967), p. 3.
- Bragdon displayed a large lithograph portrait of Emerson in his office. The portrait, which once hung in his father’s library, was bequeathed by Bragdon’s wife to William Gilman whose scholarly project of editing the complete works of Emerson was underway at the University of Rochester. That picture now hangs in the Robbins Library.
- Bragdon, More Lives Than One: Autobiography of Claude Bragdon (1938), pp. 51-52.
- Bragdon, Projective Ornament (1915), p. 6.
- Bragdon describes the dimensions of the station’s façade and waiting room as using “what might be called the ‘musical parallel,’ by reason of the employment of those numerical ratios subsisting between the consonant intervals within the octave — namely: 1:2, the octave; 2:3, the fifth; 3:4, the fourth; 4:5, the major third; and 4:7, the subminor seventh.” Just before the station’s opening, Mrs. Marie Russack, a former opera singer, took a tour of the building. When standing in a certain spot and singing a specific note, Bragdon said, “the entire room seemed to become a resonance chamber, reinforcing the tone with a volume of sound so great as to be almost overpowering.” Bragdon later wondered whether this phenomenon had anything to do with the musical ratios he used in designing the building. (More Lives Than One, p. 164-165).
- The Theosophical Society was founded in 1875 by Madame H.P. Blavatsky and Colonel H.S. Olcott (Bragdon, Episodes From an Unwritten History (1910) p. 4).
- Bragdon, Episodes from an Unwritten History, p. 3.
- Bragdon, More Lives Than One, p. 130.
- Ibid., pp. 77-79.
- Siegfried, Claude Bragdon, Artist-in-the-Theatre, p. 27.
- A contemporary of Bragdon’s, Robert Edmond Jones was one of the most influential figures in the development of modern theater. Jones was also part of the “New Stagecraft” movement that moved away from ultra-realistic scenes and toward simplicity. Jones designed several sets for playwright Eugene O’Neill. He was an innovator in color, lighting, and costuming (New York Times obituaries, November 27, 1954). Bragdon and Jones drew on each other’s ideas and met on many occasions. Jones is mentioned in several of Bragdon’s personal letters (see September 7, 1921, Claude Bragdon to Harry Blackburn, Fritz Trautman; December 28, 1921, Claude Bragdon to Fritz Trautman, Bragdon Family Papers, Box 1: General Correspondence, 1894-1929, University of Rochester Library, Department of Special Collections).
- Lee Simonson (1888-1967) graduated from Harvard magna cum laude and joined the expatriates in Paris where he was befriended by Gertrude Stein and painter Stanton MacDonald-Wright. He returned to New York City in 1912 to launch his career as a painter and set designer. His self portrait (1912) is in the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian.
- Norman Bel Geddes was another contemporary stage designer and producer. Geddes designed several Broadway plays in the 1920s and 30s, but was probably best known for his Futurama — a design for superhighways — at the World’s Fair in 1939-40 (New York Times obituaries, May 9, 1958). Bragdon was obviously aware of Geddes’ work and interacted with him personally, as mentioned in his personal correspondence (December 28, 1921, letter from Claude Bragdon to Fritz Trautman, BFP, Box 1, University of Rochester). Bel Geddes daughter, Barbara Bel Geddes, born Oct. 31, 1922 in New York City, had a long Broadway career, 1950-1976, winning many awards for distinguished acting. She created the role of Maggie in Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955) and the title role in Jean Kerr’s Mary, Mary (1961). She had success in Hollywood as an actress, her finest role being that of Maude>Lenore>Lee Ames in Max Ophuls’ film noire classic Caught (1949), and, in the lesser role of Midge Wood in Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958).
- Continental Stagecraft (1922), co-written by Kenneth Macgowan, and Drawings for the Theatre, by Robert Edmond Jones (1925).
- Dramatic Imagination; Reflections and Speculations on the Art of the Theatre (1941) and Towards a New Theatre: The Lectures of Robert Edmond Jones (1992).
- Simonson’s publications include: The Stage is Set (1932); Settings and Costumes of the Modern Stage (1933), co-written by Theodore Komisarjevsky; “Theatre planning,” Architecture for the New Theatre (1935); Part of a Lifetime (1943); The Art of Scenic Design (1950); and Theatre Art (1970).
- Characterizing Bragdon as a prolific writer is not to say that Simonson and Jones did not publish writings on their work. The distinction comes in the fact that Bragdon, in general, published much more frequently and much sooner after his productions were staged. List of Claude Bragdon’s writings, via the UR Libraries catalog
- Bragdon, “The Scenery for Walter Hampden’s Hamlet.” pp. 192-195.
- Bragdon, More Lives Than One, p. 186.
- Bragdon Family Papers, Box 79: Theatre Program Scrapbooks 1881-1889. May Bragdon’s scrapbook indicates that she and Claude saw, among others: Monte Cristo (Grand Opera House, September 1885), After Dark (Academy of Music, 1885), Felix McKusick (GOH, December 1885), Girofle-Girofla (Corinthian Academy, May 1886), 3 Black Cloaks (AoM, September, 1886), Cheek (GOH, October 1886), Princess Ida (GOH, February 1887), Ruddygore, or the Witch’s Curse (GOH, May 1887), The Wife (Lyceum, October 1887).
- Bragdon, More Lives Than One, 188. The “specially built and painted outdoor scene” of which Bragdon is speaking appeared in J.K. Emmet’s Fritz in Ireland, which Bragdon saw on May 31, 1882 in a production directed by Brooks & Dickson (Bragdon Family Papers).
- Bragdon Family Papers, Box 31: Claude F. Bragdon Juvenilia.
- Realistic stage production evolved during the 19th century, in reaction to the romantic movement immediately preceding. Playwright Emile Zola (1840-1902) linked realistic theater with contemporary advances in experimental science and intellectualism. Where Bragdon designed stages that would disappear against the language of the play, realists like Zola saw the scenery as taking an active role in the drama. “Setting in Zola’s view is active; it is environment in the scientific sense – that is, one of the two great forces that mold human beings and determine their actions. Setting, therefore, actively contributes to the catastrophe of the drama” (Hewitt, History of the Theatre from 1800 to the Present, pp. 55-56).
- Carole Meyers, Wake Up and Dream!: Claude Bragdon’s Idea of Theatre. Undergraduate dissertation, University of Rochester class of 1988, p. 18.
- Henderson, Theater in America, p. 201.
- John Mason Brown, Upstage: The American Theatre in Performance (1930), p. 147.
- Bragdon, The Beautiful Necessity (1910), p. 49.
- Bragdon, Letter to Walter Hampden, August 1919, Walter Hampden Papers: Box 3, as quoted by Massey, p. 386.
- Bragdon, “The Artist-in-the-Theatre,” American Magazine of Art (October 1929), p. 547.
- Claude Bragdon as quoted from an interview by Frank Chouteau Brown, “Shakespeare, Hampden and Bragdon,” The Drama (March 1921), p. 198.
- Andrew Gurr, “The Shakespearean Stage,” The Norton Shakespeare, p. 3294.
- Harley Granville-Barker, Prefaces to Shakespeare (1947), pp. 32-33.
- Brown, “Shakespeare, Hampden and Bragdon,” p. 198.
- Bragdon, “Producing Shakespeare, As Illustrated by Walter Hampden’s Production of Othello,” The Architectural Record 57 (March 1925), pp. 267, 272.
- Ibid., p. 272.
- Ibid., p. 267.
- Bragdon Family Papers, Box 43.
- Bragdon, “The Scenery for Walter Hampden’s Hamlet,” p. 192.
- Gurr, “The Shakespearean Stage,” p. 3287.
- E.K. Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage, vol. iii (1951), p. 116.
- Costa, “Claude F. Bragdon, Architect, Stage Designer, and Mystic,” p. 18.
- Bragdon, “Producing Shakespeare: As Illustrated by Walter Hampden’s Production of Othello,” p. 266.
- Bragdon, “The Scenery for Walter Hampden’s Hamlet,” p. 193.
- Bragdon, “Towards a New Theatre,” The Architectural Record 52 (September, 1922), p. 171.
- Gurr, “The Shakespearean Stage,” p. 3293.
- Bragdon, More Lives Than One, p. 69.
- Ibid., p. 72.
- Ibid., p. 69.
- Ibid., p. 74
- New York World, as quoted by Bragdon, More Lives Than One, p. 74.
- Bragdon, as quoted by Theodore Fuchs. Stage Lighting. Boston (Little, Brown and Company, 1929) reprint ed. (New York: Benjamin Blom, Inc., 1957), p. 470.
- Bragdon, “Decorative and Theatrical Lighting,” Transactions (October 1924), p. 3.
- Ibid., p. 2.
- Bragdon, “Forget the Lights and See the Play,” Light (January 1925), p. 12.
- Bragdon, “They Were Happy Accidents,” Theatre Magazine 52 (September 1922), p. 56.
- Bragdon, Old Lamps for New: Ancient Wisdom in the Modern World (1925), pp. 105-106.
- Bragdon, More Lives than One, pp. 233-234.
- See references to Hamlet’s black clothing (I, ii, 68) and the Queen’s reference to Ophelia (V, i, 166).
- Bragdon, “The Technique of Theatrical Production,” The Architectural Record 66 (August 1929), p. 111.
- Bragdon, “Color and Costume,” The Forward 17 (February 1930), p. 4.
- Bragdon, “Forget the Lights and See the Play,” p.42.
- This idea exists in many sources, including Bragdon’s own writing, and is widely discussed among theater critics. In his introduction to On Directing Shakespeare, Ralph Berry discusses the implications of these four categories on the director of a modern Shakespearean production.
- Bragdon, “Producing Shakespeare,” p. 266.
- Bragdon, More Lives than One, p. 225
- Ibid., p. 226.
- Ibid., p. 225.
- R.B. Graves, “Shakespeare’s Outdoor Stage Lighting,” p. 242.
- Ibid., p. 243.
- Ibid., p. 244.
- Bragdon, “The Scenery for Walter Hampden’s Hamlet,” p. 192.
- Karen Taylor’s annotations for Claude Bragdon Correspondence, 1918-1925
- Karen Taylor’s annotated bibliography of Claude Bragdon writings
- The Register of the Bragdon Family Papers
- The Register of the Bragdon Family Papers – Addition
- The Bragdon Family Papers – Bibliography