Robert Edmond Jones (1887-1954) designed scenes for the theater that were simple and conducive to a more complete and coherent collaboration between the director and the designer. His work provided the foundation for the whole present day tradition of scene design in the United States.
Robert Edmond Jones was born on December 12, 1887, in the township of Milton, New Hampshire, roughly halfway between Portland and Portsmouth, in a house built by his great grandfather Levi Jones. He was the second child born to Fred and Emma Jane Cowell Jones.
Robert began taking violin lessons at the age of nine and eventually played in the Harvard Pierian Sodality Orchestra, but even as a child he had decided that he wanted to become an artist. He graduated from Nute High School in Milton in 1905 and entered Harvard University the following fall. While at Harvard, Jones pursued a liberal arts curriculum and graduated cum laude in 1910. It was during this time that he was enrolled in the famous drama course taught by George Pierce Baker. It must have been a great disappointment to Jones that he was not chosen to be one of the select group known as the "Baker's Dozen" who were regularly invited to the professor's house in the evenings.
After graduation Jones stayed at Harvard for two more years as a graduate assistant and later as an instructor in the Department of Fine Arts. In 1912 he went to New York for a series of small jobs and a brief period as a costume designer on the staff of Comstock and Gest. Feeling a need for a larger frame of reference, he formed The Robert Edmond Jones Transportation and Development Company and, thanks to the contributions of friends such as John Reed and Kenneth Macgowan, went to Europe.
In 1913 Jones was in Florence seeking in vain to be admitted to the art school of Gordon Craig, the English scene designer. While in Italy Jones produced a design for Shelley's The Cenci that won high praise by the New York critics during a later showing. It was a "conceptual" approach that clearly foretold his future greatness. He then spent a year in informal study and observation at Max Reinhardt's Deutsches Theatre in Berlin. While he was working there on a production of the The Merchant of Venice World War I erupted, and Jones was forced to return to New York early in November of 1914. However, after working with Reinhardt and his two principal designers, Ernst Stern and Emil Orlik, Jones was bringing back to America the concept of "The New Stagecraft."
Once back in New York he wasted no time and by the ninth of November had mounted an exhibition of stage designs, including that of The Merchant of Venice. The show was held in a vacant Fifth Avenue store, and it was this exhibit that brought Jones to the attention of Arthur Hopkins. Hopkins quickly hired Jones to design his production of Anatole France's The Man Who Married a Dumb Wife, directed by Harley Granville-Barker. The show, which opened January 27, 1915, was successful and not only marked the beginning of a long collaboration between Hopkins and Jones, but proved to be a pivotal point in American stage design. The simplicity and style of Jones's design clearly broke the "realistic" tradition of scenic design and pointed the way to a more complete and coherent collaboration between the director and the designer.
It was also during this time that Jones "improvised a setting" for The Glittering Gate. This was the first production of the Washington Square Players, a group that later became the Theatre Guild. The next 19 years proved to be exceptionally productive for Jones. In his association with Hopkins he designed sets (and usually costumes as well) for 39 productions, many of which became hallmarks of American design (Hamlet and Richard III with John Barrymore, Macbeth with Lionel Barrymore). In 1916, in collaboration with Joseph Urban, Jones designed Caliban by the Yellow Sands for the New York Shakespeare Tercentenary Celebration. At the very least, this "community masque" must be considered a monumental production for its extensive use of outdoor lighting and over 3,000 costumes.
Jones's directing credits began with a modest production of Simon the Cyrenian for the Colored Players, an early all-Black company. Soon, however, he was directing, designing, and producing for the Experimental Theatre in Provincetown, Massachusetts. This was an extension of the Provincetown Playhouse organized by himself, Eugene O'Neill, and Kenneth Macgowan. Jones returned to Europe in 1922 and along with Macgowan produced the book Continental Stagecraft. A few years later—in 1925—he published a collection of his designs under the title Drawings for the Theatre.
In 1932 he was appointed art director for the Radio City Music Hall, and as such was responsible for its inaugural program on December 27; however, his resignation was announced by January 9 of 1933. In the summer of 1933 he married Margaret Huston Carrington.
Hollywood beckoned, and in 1934 Jones did the "color designs" for the film Becky Sharp. He had previously done work on a short film called La Cucaracha which was released in 1934. His only other film work was The Dancing Pirate, which carried the credit "Designed by Robert Edmond Jones."
Returning to the "legitimate" theater, Jones continued to produce, direct, design, and write. Perhaps his most famous written work is The Dramatic Imagination, published in 1941. This collection of essays defined an understanding and respect for the art of the theater that was as relevant over 40 years later as at the time it was written.
Although Jones's last significant design is generally considered to be Lute Song, which opened in 1946, his influence continued to grow through the work of his apprentices, such as Jo Mielziner and Donald Oenslager, for many years. Mordecai Gorelik (another of his students) summed it up: "He was the founder of the whole present day tradition of scene design in the United States."
In the late 1940s Jones's health began to fail, and although he continued to design and write into the 1950s, his work was clearly restricted. In 1953 he retired to the Jones farm in New Hampshire, where he died on Thanksgiving Day, 1954.
Further Reading on Robert Edmond Jones
Books by Jones include Towards a New Theater (1952); The Dramatic Imagination (1941); Drawings for the Theatre (1925); and Continental Stagecraft (1922), written with Kenneth Macgowan. See also Ralph Pendleton, editor, The Theatre of Robert Edmond Jones (1958), and Lee Simonson, The Stage Is Set (1932).