The negative part of travel in my family (for lack of a better word for a single parent and single child; somehow the word 'family' conjures up images of parents, two siblings, and a mangy dog) can be summed up with an in-joke phrase coined on our trip to CO/NM/AZ/UT in 1988:
      "Look at the goddamn scenery!"

There was quite a bit of treacherous driving to be done in the Rocky Mountains, and my mother kept threatening, while we careened down a two-way snow-covered, cliff-and-rockface-hugging road seemingly narrower than the car, that if I didn't look at the (admittedly mind-blowingly gorgeous) view, she would. (I, of course, was gripping the seat and staring at the three feet of road visible in front of us in the falling snow.)

It was humorous, but it's representative of the general tone of all my trips with her -- an unspoken (or, often, explicit) accusation that I wasn't properly appreciating whatever it was we were doing, seeing. I wasn't taking it in enough. I wasn't reading the signs (I was; I just read much faster than she does.) I wasn't sufficiently grateful for this Educational Opportunity.

It's quite possible that she was right, at the time; I probably didn't really grasp it fully, and I certainly wasn't aware of how privileged I was to be going all these places. It boggles my mind that my mom was able to budget a substitute teacher's salary with sufficient skill to allow for these trips. But, then, we didn't have a big-screen TV, or cable, or season tickets to every sports team in a 100-mile radius, or new designer clothes twice every season, or a new car every two years. Gee, what a let-down.

In retrospect, of course, those trips (CO, CA, ME, ON, VT, NC/SC...) made me who I am today. I have a better idea of what this country looks like than most of my peers, of just how big and varied it is. I was instilled with a sense of geography; I know people who, given a large map of the US, can't point out which half the Grand Canyon is in. She did good.

Wings have been used in play scenery for as far back as any record shows. A wing is a rectangular frame made of lightweight lumber, usually made of spruce or pine. In the beginning, the 1750s, wing construction was most likely made using down and glue or mortise and tenon joints. Linen canvas was used to cover flats and wings. To form masking and entrances wings were placed at proper intervals at the side of the stage. Grooves in the floor and the ceiling supported the wings. Scene changes were made by sliding one wing offstage and revealing another directly behind it.

Borders were made of painted strips of canvas. They were used to complete overhead masking. During scene changes borders were raised using pulleys that were suspended from the ceiling. When they were raised it would reveal the borders behind them.

Drops were also known as cloaths. They formed the upstage background. They were made of canvas on battens. To expose the next scene behind, they were rolled or tripped.

A well-equipped wing-and-drop stage would have five sets. They were:

  • A fancy interior
  • A plain interior
  • A garden
  • The woods
  • A street scene
Often, theaters with limited budgets would work with only three sets of wings. They would double wood wings for street and garden scenes. Well-equipped stages had four sets of borders. These included:
  • Ceiling for fancy interiors
  • Ceiling for plain interiors
  • Leaf borders
  • Sky borders
Scene changes were so simple that they were made in full view of the audience by stagehands dressed as servants. Apparently furniture was kept to a bare minimum and was also slid on and off of the stage by these servants. The beginning of constructed, rather than painted, scenery is generally credited to John Burke.

American theatrical productions paid little attention to historical accuracy during the eighteenth century. Costumes were mostly either contemporary, traditional, or improvised from material at hand. Properties and furniture were used as found, crudely built of wood or papier-mâché, or painted on the backdrop. It is thought that the first attempt at historical accuracy was made for the 1809 revival of De Montfort in New York’s Park Theatre.

Right from the beginning of theatre in America and right through the first half of the nineteenth century, staging was basically wing-and-drop style. Stages, at least for the most part, followed a given pattern. A large apron extended into the auditorium. The stage was generally slanted toward the audience. On each side were proscenium doors. There were permanent grooves in the wing positions.

Things began to change with the opening of Booth’s Theatre in 1869. In this theatre, there were no conventional raking (slanting of the stage), grooves, proscenium doors, and apron. There was a stage house that was built to a seventy-six-foot height so that drops could be framed tautly and flown in and out of sight. Wings were still used most of the time, but were now individually braced and set at irregular intervals in accordance with the directors dictations, not the stages. Another new thing was the hydraulic-powered traps that were used to lower heavy pieces of scenery to the basement, where other scenery could be slid in place and raised to the stage level. It should be noted, that this was not the first theatre to introduce any of the elements, but was the first to include them all in a total disregard for traditional conventions in staging.

For whatever reason, there is practically no record of how American scenery was built prior to the twentieth century. One of the first books on the subject was written in 1916 by Arthur Edwin Krows. It was called Play Production in America. This book was a matter-of-fact telling of what appears to be commonly used, and well-established practices.

Virtually every town that had a population of more than a thousand has its own opera house or an equivalent by the beginning of the twentieth century, and there were more than five hundred separate companies touring the US. Many of the theaters maintained a supply of stock sets, scenery to be used over and over for many different purposes. These included wings, borders, and drops for familiar street scenes, a woods scene, plain and fancy interiors, and garden scenes.

Three-dimensional set pieces found their way into the permanent equipment of many theatres. These were most likely an evolvement of box sets. One of the most persistent three-dimensional pieces was known as the “center door fancy” which was the only piece to be suspended in the flies when it wasn’t in use.

Certain standardizations of construction methods came along as drama courses began being taught in colleges and universities. With the advent of motion pictures, theaters and theatre companies have dwindled, but are still in just about every major county.

Scen"er*y (?), n.


Assemblage of scenes; the scenes of a play; the disposition and arrangement of the scenes in which the action of a play, poem, etc., is laid; representation of place of action or occurence.


Sum of scenes or views; general aspect, as regards variety and beauty or the reverse, in a landscape; combination of natural views, as woods, hills, etc.

Never need an American look beyond his own country for the sublime and beautiful of natural scenery. W. Irving.


© Webster 1913.

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