Alma -Tadema’s Designs for Henry Irving’s Coriolanus by Sybil Rosenfeld

In July 1879 Irving announced his intention of presenting Coriolanus at the Lyceum.1 No new production had been seen in London since that of Samuel Phelps in 1848. Since Irving wished to exhibit artistic pictures on the stage he frequently employed artists to design scenery which was then executed by his scene painters. Laurence Alma-Tadema was an obvious choice for a Roman play though he had not previously been involved in professional stage work. He had made his name in England in 1865 as far as classical subjects were concerned and there­after became celebrated for his many pictures of Roman history and domestic life.2 He must also have appealed to Irving, who was a stickler for accuracy, on account of his researches into classical anti­quities which included architecture, decorations and everyday utensils. His drawings and photographs of these objects came in useful for his stage work.3

After accepting Irving’s commission, the artist started to investigate Etruscan remains in order to set the play correctly in the Rome of about 500 B.C. Irving had described to him the scenes he required and bad given hints as to the ideas he wished to convey as well as their practical realisation.4 On August 4, 1 880,~ Alma-Tadema .wrote to en­quire what Irving wanted him to do with the drawings which he hoped to have finished by the beginning of September and continued:

I had worked myself blunt & blind again on them & had to do something else. In the mean time my architect is continually working at the drawings for the scenes, that is making under my supervision perspective outlines of columns & buildings from my sketches. He is now busy at it for the fourth month at the rate of £5 weekly so you see I do not neglect you altogether.

We do not know who this architect was, but the very fact that he was employed at all is evidence of Alma-Tadema’s concern with the ac­curacy of perspective detail.

There was indeed no hurry for Irving postponed his production for two decades. The play was finally brought out on April 15, 1901’ and was Irving’s twelfth and last Shakespeare production. During the twenty-two years of its gestation, Alma-Tadema had been commissioned by Irving to supervise Henry Viii in 1892 andCymbeline in 1896, whilst Beerbohm Tree had employed him for the classical settings for Hypatia in 1893 and Julius Caesar in 1898.

In order to follow the sequence of scenes one must first consider Irving’s drastic cuts. In the printed text of his version ~, he reduced the scenes from 27 to 17 and gathered them into three acts. Among the scenes omitted entirely were Iii which introduces Aufidius; l iv, v in which Caius Martius enters Corioles alone and wins the day for the Romans; I vii, viii where he fights with Aufidius; IV i where he bids farewell to his family after his banishment; IV ii in which Volumnia curses the tribunes, and IV iii which is a dialogue between Roman and Volscian soldiers. At the age of 63, Irving was unwilling to undertake the fight­ing part of his role nor did he command the robust style necessary for it, but in omitting the combats he upset ‘the balance of the play between action and argument. In addition to cuts Irving spliced scenes into one another: for instance he inserted IV vii, in which Aufidius expresses his envy of his rival’s popularity, between Menenius’s unsuccessful attempt to persuade Coriolanus to save Rome and Volumnia’s successful one. As The Athenaeum’ pointed out, the alterations in the disposition of the scenes amounted to a virtual reconstruction. There were many severe cuts in the speeches and dialogue, and Irving’s own copy of the text’ records further excisions as well as one or two restorations. This ruthless compression was said to be due rather to the length of the play than to Alma-Tadema’s 15 scene changes which occasioned only brief intervals.” Given the naturalistic nature of the settings the changes could hardly have been avoided even for the sake of salvaging more of the text.

The three scene painters who executed the scenes were Hawes Craven, Joseph Harker and Walter Hann. The first two were regularly em­ployed at the Lyceum and Hann had previously worked for Irving on curtains for Romeo and Juliet in 1882 and on Twelfth Night in 1884. The order of the scenes as printed in the programme is as follows:

Act I i           Rome Forum. Harker
Act i ii          Room in Caius Martius’s House. Harker
Act i iii         Near Camp of Comenius. Hawes Craven
Act I iv        Rome. Street. Hawes Craven
Act I v         Street. Forum. Harker
Act I vi        Street. Hawes Craven
Act I vii      Capitol. Hann
Act II i        Rome. Forum. Harker
Act Il ii       Street. Harker
Act II iii      Room in Coriolanus’s House. Harker
Act II iv      Forum. Harker
Act III I      Antium. Before Aufidius’s House. Hawes Craven
Act III ii     Hall in Aufidius’s House. Hawes Craven
Act Ill iii     Rome. Forum. Harker
Act III iv    Camp near Rome. Hawes Craven
Act III v     Rome. Forum. Harker
Act III vi    Antium. Public Place. Hawes Craven
Since Harker’s Forum was employed six times and his Coriolanus’ house and Craven’s street scene twice, there were in all ten different scenes. Alma-Tadema’s principal innovation was to place the play in the Etruscan period whereas hitherto it had been inaccurately set in the much later classical Rome. He drew on the carvings in Etruscan tombs for the architecture of his streets, public places and Coriolanus’s house. For the contrasting scenes in Antium be studied the Lycian tombs of Asia Minor which reproduced for the dead the kind of rooms in which they had lived. Thirdly, he drew on Vitruvius’s description of an Etruscan temple for his temples. The result of his researches was that no previous production had rivalled his in the correctness of its ar­chaeological reconstruction.11 He was also aware of the need to dif­ferentiate between the more sophisticated style of the capital city and the primitive Volscian counterparts. Comparison of the two house interiors and the two forums demonstrates his successful handling of this crucial point.

Alma-Tadema’s method of work was to make a model of the Lyceum Theatre, 2 ft. wide and 1 ft. 10 in. high, with a proscenium which in the actual Theatre was partially hidden. He then designed his scenes to scale and supplemented them by water colours of backcloths and wings. The backcloths were cut out in silhouettes of distant temples against the sky which could be blue, dawn or moonlit. The side wings were separately designed on card so that the artist could see the .total effect. Lighting was by electricity which Irving had hitherto eschewed in fa­vour of the less brilliant but warmer gaslight.

The proscenium depicted two columns, based on plinths of winged sphinxes, which carried an entablature decorated with reliefs copied from Etruscan tombs. Most of the scenery was painted in perspective on backcloths and wings or on drops rather than constructed in a suc­cession of built up pieces whose setting up would have necessitated lon­ger intervals. Owing to his skill as a draughtsman Alma-Tadema suc­ceeded in suggesting by two-dimensional means an illusion of architec­tural solidity. The opening scene of the Roman Forum, which was to be contrasted with the Forum at Antium, had as its centrepiece on the backcloth the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus, flanked on three sides by a colonnade with heavily projecting balconies on the second storey. An arch and flight of steps led down from the Temple to a wall, and below the wall was an open arcade. On each side was a temple, that on the stage right with a double row of columns in front but with plain sides represented a stone building with a red tiled roof. In contrast on the left was an Etruscan temple with characteristic wooden projecting eaves and with two columns and piers squared at the angels. The terra cotta enrichments were taken from models in Florence. All this was painted in perspective. There were two pairs of wings. Those on the stage right consisted of a tribune and projecting portico with square columns taken from the Tomb of Pilasters at Cervetri in the second place, and on the front wing an Etruscan stall covered by an awning, which bore a bronze brazier for the heating of pine cones and a wine skin draped round a small column. The corresponding wings on the left represented an exedra and tree in front of the temple and on the front wing a handsome doorway. When Coriolanus later made his victorious entry in this scene, a triumphal arch replaced the exedra and tree wing. This set piece consisted of fluted columns on two plinths with an en­tablature decorated with round shields. Through this entered a pro­cession of soldiers with Martius in a gilded chariot drawn by four white steeds, while a troupe of girls welcomed the conqueror with waving palm branches.12 The arch, at first discarded, was eventually used though not fully approved by Alma-Tadema.”

What is remarkable about this and other sets is that the artist not only reconstructed the ancient buildings but was careful to distinguish their different materials and to demonstrate the methods of their construc­tion. The wide eaves, for instance, were supported by the type of beams mentioned by Vitruvius. In such ways Alma-Tadema was able “with the ephemeral materials of canvas and strips of wood, to produce the illusion of solid architectural forms”.’4

The following scene of Caius Martius’s house (Plate 1) exhibited a lofty room leading to the courtyard through a portico of fluted columns. On the stage left was an enclosed bed chamber decorated with frescoes, and on the back wall was painted a sundial as described by Vitruvius, an­other example of the artist’s meticulous care for detail. In designing the house he was influenced by Etruscan tombs, and in the courtyard by  Vitruvius’s description of a Greek house rather than by Roman models from Pompeii. He stood out against simulated marble which did not come into use until three or four centuries after the date of the play. The original water colour is in Manchester City Art Gallery. Miss Elizabeth Johnson, keeper of the paintings, has kindly supplied details of the colouring: “The walls are grey-white, with blue and red-ochre motifs, friezes and capitals. The door on the stage left is red-ochre with a blue surround. The dado of the inner courtyard is yellow-ochre. The vegetation is green with red flowers. The statue on the table is green.  The sky is brilliant blue. The inner recesses of the building have black walls.” It is well nigh impossible to translate the water colour into its stage components. It seems unlikely that it was a drop for such an im­portant interior scene, and it could hardly have been a box set as it was in each case adjacent to the elaborate Forum scene; we are left with the conjecture that it must have been composed of lateral flats, a backcloth for the courtyard and ceiling borders.

We have no design for the third scene near the camp of Cominius, which followed on owing to the omission of two Scenes before Corioles (l iv, v). After the words “which of you / But is four Volsces”, the curtain fell on a tableau to mark the passage of time necessitated by the omission of I vii, viii. It rose again on Cominius’s speech “If I shall tell thee” (l ix), and the scene ended with all acclaiming “Caius Martius Coriolanus”. The scenery changed to a street in Rome by Hawes Craven (II i) which was presumably that mentioned by Spiers as an additional street scene for which there is no illustration, as it was not in the original scheme but was “set out by him (Alma-Tadema) in the painting room of the theatre”. On the other hand, Harker tells us that his street scene was used twice, once near the beginning and once near the end of the play,15 whereas the programme mentions it only on one occasion and that in the middle (III i, Irving’s l iii). We must assume that either Harker or the programme is mistaken, and I have chosen to abide by the programme rather than by Harker, who was writing 26 years later. Hawes Craven’s street scene descended at right angles from the proscenium to an entrance gateway of three arches through which was glimpsed a public building with a row of shops under the peristyle of the upper storey. his would seem to be a more suitable setting for Volumnia’s entrance than Harker’s back street. It was un­doubtedly a drop to allow for the setting behind of the Forum with its triumphal arch in the middle of l iii with the arrival of the victorious Coriolanus. This spectacular Scene ended with “On to the Capitol”, and Craven’s street was again dropped on Brutus’s speech, partially rewritten in the name of clarity and Victorian propriety.

The street scene rose on the most famous of all the scenes, that of the Capitol. It is the second for which the original water colour sketch is available” (Plate 2). The scene was an artistic triumph, confined in colour to tones of stone, red and blue with black accents. The backcloth was deep blue sky which also showed between gaps in the velarium. The back wall was dark red, and the red flutings of the columns were echoed in the stripes on the velarium and the borders of the senators’ robes. The frieze, which depicted centaurs, warriors, musicians and a horse drawn chariot, was of red brown with blue and black elements. The only other decoration, since the statue shown in the sketch was omitted, was a tripod for incense. The great amphitheatre was filled by the senators in their white togas, with white or bald heads as Alma ­Tadema wished them to look venerable as well as dignified.’7 The monumentality of the square Etruscan columns added solidity to a scene whose effect was achieved by simple means with a minimum of ornamentation:

Against grey stone walls with little ornamentation, tier upon tier of seats filled the whole back of the scene, on which were seated the white-robed, grey-bearded senators, whose interest in the proceedings was intense.’8

Or as the Era 19 critic described it:

The very plainness and simplicity of the costumes has something in it which is magnificent and majestic. The semi-circles of grave and reverend senators the pure outlines of the architecture, and admirable dignity and demean­our of the whole assembly, all combine to help us to picture the power and gravity of ancient Roman government.

Act Ill, i (II of Irving’s version) opened with the Forum, was closed by a curtain and succeeded by Harker’s street scene which was a drop. In contrast to the Craven street, this was a narrow alley of shops through which were seen a distant temple and part of a house with a pergola. The shop for pots, seen at right angles on the stage right, was protected ‘by an awning; the frontal vegetable stall on the left was garlanded and behung with dried fish. Harker tells us that “Anxious to achieve the necessary degree of realism, I painted a life-like re­presentation of a turbot… Irving was down on the turbot as soon as he set eyes on it. ‘Take that fish out, my boy… I’m going to the wars in, the play and it won’t keep until I get back’ “~2*~ Harker cites this as evidence of Irving’s eye for detail. This shop had a second storey, projected out on corbels, whose walls were shown to be constructed of mud and wood as described by Vitruvius. In the foreground was a raised street with stepping stones, such as may be seen in Pompeii, and a trough for water.

After further repeats of Coriolanus’s house and the Forum, the pro­duction jumped right on to Antium before Aufidius’s house (IV iv) which was a moonlight scene that “left the audiences gasping with de­light”.2’ The central feature was a great olive tree by the side of which was a reproduction of the Chimaera from the Florence Museum. The tree partly hid a temple in the centre background with steps leading down to the street. On the stage left was part of another temple portico with characteristic square piers but with simpler capitals than those in its Roman parallels. On the stage right was depicted the three storey house behind a wall. The second storey had a balcony resting on heavi­ly projecting corbels, based on the Lycian tomb from Payava in the British Museum, which Spiers criticised as being a little too weighty for the wooden structure carrying it, and the third storey, set back with a flat roof which was plain, may have been intended to represent the servants’ quarters. It was an impressive scene, though the brilliant moonlight effect somewhat obscured the house.

The next scene of the hail in the house was a drop painted in perspective and was based on an Etruscan tomb at Corneto. The walls were decorated with an upper frieze of chariots and horses and a lower of musicians and dancers. Because the coved ceiling, adorned with loz­enges and medallions, could not have been seen by actual lamplight, the lamps and their reflections were painted on the canvas. The scene provided a dim contrast to the brighter and more sumptuous house of the Roman.

After a return of the Forum scene, the next one of a camp near Rome made use of the full depth of the stage. It opened at night and went through lighting transformations to a sunrise, accompanied by a change of sentinels, and thence to full daytime. Though we have no design for this, we know that the battlemented walls were taken over from an unused scene of Antium from without, for which there is a water colour, and that these were flanked by woods.~ After returning to the Forum for V iv, we come to the last scene of a public place or Forum at Antium. The design is a much simplified companion piece to the Roman Forum. Again the centre was occupied by a temple raised on a podium from which steps descended. A terra cotta pediment bore a central carving of winged lions, the crest of Antium, in the middle and two braziers at the sides. In front was a high bronze altar with bulls’ heads and horns. On each side were portions of temples on plinths joined, as in the Roman Forum, to the central one by arcades. Spiers points out “that the framing and construction of the roof bears tes­timony not only to Sir Laurence’s draughtsmanship in the perspective of such complicated forms but to his intimate acquaintance with the practical framing of timber”. There appear to have been two pairs of wings in front of the backcloth. The second pair represented the return ends of the arcade, the first depicted on stage right the elaborate entrance doorway of a magnate’s house with a barrel roof based on the tomb of Payava, which was covered with bronze plates and bore a terra cotta cresting. The corresponding left wing was of the entrance gate­way to Antium, the top of which was concealed in the theatre by a velarium. In this setting Coriolanus was killed and borne off the stage with the words of the 1st Lord, spoken here by Aufidius:

And mourn you for him; let him be regarded
As the most noble cone that ever herald
Did follow to his urn.

At the opening Alma-Tadema had cause to criticise some scenic blunders:

When the curtain rose on the Forum scene I found a sky border dropping in front of ‘the building to the left being the first behind the proscenium it was very unsightly

The Coriolanus house is spoil’d by a boarder interior of Tullus Aufidius.
The borders in the Camp do not fit the colour of the Cloth as far as sky goesThe oak wreath you wear in the triumphal Scene is too grass green. Oak leaves are not that colour
The interior of Aufidius is in perfect darkness; a little light would improve it
In the last scene part of the senate house was used for a wing. Surely that is not right.23

The scene shifters had evidently been careless. All the items are ticked except for the oak leaves and the last which is deleted.

It is unfortunate that the absence of sketches 24 except for Coriolanus’ house and The Capitol precludes our knowing how they were coloured. However, sketches for some of the costumes can be seen at Messrs. L. & H. Nathan who have kindly allowed me to examine them. (25) They were designed by Karl and carried out by Nathan’s and Mrs. Nettleship, Ellen Terry’s costumier. Karl, who had joined Nathan’s in 1888, had met Alma-Tadema in Antwerp and had worked with him. Karl loved historical costumes and made his design to suit not only the figure but the personality of the actor.~ Coriolanus in his triumphal appearance with the green oak leaves, criticised by Alma-Tadema, wore a magni­ficent red toga patterned in gold, and red buskins. Titus Lartius in armour had a red tunic, sleeves and buskins and a white cloak edged with gold leaves whereas the Lieutenent to Aufidius wore a blue tunic and a helmet crested with a winged lion also seen in the Antium Forum. Alma-Tadema had studied togas from antique statues, and their sculpturesque folds are evident in the designs. He restored them as a garment of heavy cloth which could be worn in various styles instead of a robe of thin material and scanty proportions or Macready’s “voluminous night-shirt” .~7 By contrast the citizens wore short or rather longer tunics in various sober shades, some with hoods or caps which they could throw up in acclaim. The women were garbed in white with black cloaks draped over their heads.

One of the finest features of the production was the management of the crowd scenes. Even by Lyceum standards these were wonderfully effective and controlled. Irving spared no expense and, after deciding that the crowd in the Forum scene was not large enough, he told Nathan that he must have more supers and costumes for them. Nathan pointed out that they would not be seen out on the side so it was a waste of money: “‘Maybe not’ replied Irving ‘but I can see them and that is what matters.’ ““ The plebeian mob, which was no mere pack of supers, and the meeting of the senators were singled out for special praise. Critics agreed that the production was artistic in its simplicity: “rather severe than showy or gorgeous”.2’ There were one or two querying notes as, for example, that Alma-Tadema’s designs were too superb for early Roman costumes and architecture.~ The Athenaeum8’ even sus­pected that the picturesque scenes were centuries later in period than that of the action, in spite of the fact that such efforts had been made to place them correctly in the early Roman style. Yet another critic com­plained that the arms and accoutrements of the soldiers returning form the wars looked too fresh and bright.32 On the whole, however, the scenery was acclaimed the outstanding contribution of the production. The Era” summed it up:

 It is with a sense of absolute faith that we lean upon the antiquarian lore of Sir Laurence Alma -Tadema.
A visit to Coriolanu3… is a liberal education in the attire, the furniture, the weapons, and the architecture of Rome five hundred years before Christ.

It was a triumph for the artist rather than for Irving and Ellen Terry who were temperamentally unsuited to their roles. It was the culmina­tion of the realistic, pictorial and archaelogical setting allied to artistic beauty which so delighted Victorian audiences but which so detracted from Shakespeare. The spectators were eager to be shown in canvas and paint the world in which his characters had their being and to have the historical background recreated for them on the stage. This Irving and Alma-Tadema provided to the best of their knowledge and ability, but to the extent that the visual elements equalled and even dominated the drama. Concentration on the conflict, on the argument, on the poetry, was weakened because attention was diverted to the setting. The liberating quality of Shakespeare’s imagination was imprisoned in too literal an environment.


Illustrations cf. Bildteil Ill, IV.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Fill out this field
Fill out this field
Please enter a valid email address.