Robert Edmond Jones:

Founder of Modern American Stage Design

A well respected set, lighting, and costume designer of the early 20th century, Robert Edmond Jones is known for bringing a modern philosophy of stage design to the United States.  Originally from New Hampshire, he attended Harvard University and, shortly after graduation, traveled to Europe in 1913-14.  There he apprenticed at the Deutches Theatre in Berlin and absorbed the ideas of ‘the new stagecraft,’ which provided inspiration for his career as a theatre artist.   

The new direction of stagecraft was developed in Europe during the late 19th century by Adolph Appia and Edward Gordon Craig.  Its main premise was that all elements of the production; acting, sets, costumes, and lights, should combine to create a cohesive dramatic whole.  In contrast with the naturalistic style of theatre popular at the time, new stagecraft valued symbolism above painstakingly realistic detail.  It also reacted against the stock flats and drops then in use by creating sets that were specifically designed to reflect the themes of a particular play. 

On his return to the US, Jones began to experiment with these new ideas in his own work.  His design for The Man Who Married a Dumb Wife in 1915 was the first American designed Broadway show to use the principles of new stagecraft and was revolutionary in its use of symbolic rather than realistic set design.  He went on to become a well respected scenic designer, working on more than fifty Broadway productions, including ten of Eugene O’Neill’s premiers.

As he continued to design, Jones also continued to develop his aesthetic and his vision for the future of American theatre.  He believed that a theatrical designer should find the essence of a play and express the emotions and ideas of central importance to the drama in his or her design. Accordingly, he maintained that sets, lights, and costumes were meant to evoke the special world of the play, always supporting the actors.  Jones also aspired to an ideal version of American theatre.  He believed that contemporary theatre had stripped all of the awe and mystery from the theatre with its stark realism and argued that it was necessary to put the magic back into theatre.  To Jones, this meant more imagination and less realism, an increase in artistry. 

Later in his career, Jones began to organize his ideas about American theatre and design in lectures on a variety of college campuses.  Eventually, he wrote them down in The Dramatic Imagination, published in 1941.  Jones’s philosophy, as expressed in The Dramatic Imagination, provides the basis for modern stage design theory.  In the chapter addressed “to a young stage designer,” Jones shares a key element of his vision, “Truth in theatre, as the masters of the theatre have always known, stands above and beyond mere accuracy to fact… Unless life is turned into art on the stage it stops being alive and goes dead.”

--Emily Waecker

Sources and further readings:

Feinsod, Arthur B.  “Stage Designs of a Single Gesture: The Early Work of Robert Edmond Jones.” The Drama Review: TDR 28.2 (1984): 102-120.

Jones, Robert Edmond.  The Dramatic Imagination.  New York: Theatre Arts Books, 1941.

Pendleton, Ralph, Ed.  The Theatre of Robert Edmond Jones.  Middletown, CT:  Wesleyan University Press, 1958.

*Image courtesy of NYPL website.