Adolphe Appia (1862-1928) developed theories of staging, use of space, and lighting which have had a lasting influence on modern stagecraft.
Adolphe Appia was born in 1862 in Geneva, Switzerland. His father, Doctor Louis Paul Amedee Appia, was a highly respected physician. Little is known about Adolphe's mother, Anna, who died when he was 24 years old. Appia's father was a stern Calvinist who was aloof and forbidding to his children, factors that contributed to the young Appia's shyness and introverted nature. The fact that the young Appia suffered from a stutter also must have made him more withdrawn. From an early age Appia had an inclination for the theater, but he grew up in an atmosphere that discouraged such interests. Appia, however, gained his father's permission to study music and in that way was able to pursue his love of the theater.
Appia was especially drawn to Wagner's operas and his theories of staging them. Although he admired the operas, Appia had no love for the use of the proscenium stage, elaborate costumes, or painted sets. Instead, he favored powerful, suggestive stagings that would create an artistic unity, a blending of actor, stage, lighting, and music. After a long study of the operas, Appia concluded that there was disunity because of certain jarring visual elements. The moving actor, the perpendicular settings, and the horizontal floor were in conflict with one another. He theorized that the scenery should be replaced with steps, ramps, platforms, and drapes that blended with the actor's movements and the horizontal floor. In this way the human presence and its beauty would be accented and enhanced. For Appia, space was a dynamic area that attracted both actor and spectator and brought about their interaction. Complementing his concept of space was his belief that lighting should be used to bring together the visual elements of the drama.
Appia, to gain his effect, studied every scene of the opera and worked out how the relationship of actor, scene, dialogue, music, and lighting combined to create a unified harmony. In 1906 he met and was influenced by Emile Jacques-Dalcroze (1865-1960). Dalcroze was the inventor of Eurythmics, a system in which his students responded rhythmically to musical scores. Working with Dalcroze, Appia evolved his own theory that the rhythm inherent in a text is the key to every gesture and movement an actor uses during a performance. He concluded that the mastery of rhythm could unify the spatial and other elements of an opera into a harmonious synthesis.
For most of his life Appia worked alone sketching and writing books and essays regarding his theories. Other innovators such as Gordan Craig (1872-1966) and Jacques Copeau (1879-1949) recognized his genius. Among Appia's important publications were The Staging of Wagner's Musical Dramas (1895), Music and Stage Setting (1899), and The Work of Living Art (1921).
Late in his life, in the 1920s, Appia began to receive the recognition he merited. In 1923 he staged Tristan and Isolde for Arturo Toscanini, then artistic director of La Scala. In 1924 he designed the staging for two parts of the Ring cycle in Basel. In 1925 he designed the settings and costumes for a production of Prometheus, also staged in Basel. The productions were not praised universally. Indeed, the conservative critics who chose to see Wagner as he had always been performed with traditional staging found Appia too "Calvinistic" for their tastes. Nevertheless, Appia's genius was finally recognized and his theories prevailed in spite of the critics. His theories of staging, use of space, and lighting have had a lasting influence on modern stagecraft.
When Appia died on February 29, 1928, his friend and follower Jacques Copeau wrote a tribute in which he accurately summed up the "Master's" radical reform of the stage: "For him, the art of stage production in its pure sense was nothing other than the embodiment of a text or a musical composition, made sensible by the living action of the human body and its reaction to spaces and masses set against it."
Further Reading on Adolphe Appia
Appia set forth his theories in The Work of Living Art: A Theory of the Theatre (1921). Oscar G. Brockett discussed Appia's ideas in History of the Theatre (1968). An excellent critical biography is Walther R. Volbach, Adolphe Appia Prophet of the Modern Theatre: A Profile (1968).
Additional Biography Sources
Beacham, Richard C., Adolphe Appia, theatre artist, Cambridge Cambridgeshire; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987.
Beacham, Richard C., Adolphe Appia: artist and visionary of the modern theatre, Chur, Switzerland; Philadelphia: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1994.