The Stage and Backstage

Proscenium Balconies and Doors Grooves and Traps Stairways
Flies and Proscenium Crossover Painting Room

With the several drawings in Henry Warren's scrapbook, we have been able to develop a rather good understanding of the workings of the stage at the Chestnut Street Theatre.

The Proscenium

Both the New York Magazine and James Mease comment on the entablature of the proscenium. According to the former: "The emblematical device over the stage is very applicable, and well executed -- it represents an eagle hovering in the air; beneath is a boy holding a blue ribband, on which is inscribed 'the eagle suffers little birds to sing.' Shakespeare." ( New York Magazine or Literary Repository, April, 1794)

Seventeen years later, Mease writes of the proscenium: "Over the stage, occupying part of the entablature and plafond* of the front scene, is an emblematic representation of America, encouraging the drama, under which are the words, 'For useful mirth, and salutary woe.' " (James Mease. Picture of Philadelphia, 1811. pp. 330-31)*

Like most theatres of the early 19th century, the Chestnut Street boasted doors let into the proscenium walls, with a balcony above each door. Moreau de Saint-Mery was critical of these: "The forestage is large. The sides of the forestage represent the facades of handsome buildings but they face too much toward the stage so that they interfere with the view from the side boxes." This flattened effect may be seen in a schematic drawing which represents the curve of the first floor boxes, the forestage and proscenium, and the proscenium doors and balconies.

Proscenium Doors and Balconies

Before working on the Chestnut Street Theatre, we had more or less taken for granted the practical balconies common to 18th and early 19th century theatres, without much consideration of how such elements fit into the stage space. To include these in a reconstruction of the theatre, however, demanded an answer to this question.

Backstage space at the Chestnut Street was very tight, wing space virtually nonexistent. The solution offered here brooks no other for this theatre, given the need for masking the opened proscenium door and providing masking behind the balcony rail.

Grooves and Traps

The evidence for grooves and traps in the theatre is compelling. Logically we would expect to find them, since no 19th century professional theatre could function without both.

There are countless references to grooves in the numerous Chestnut Street Theatre prompt books which survive, and numerous references to working traps. in play texts, in newspaper commentary and in actor's memoirs and journals.

Physical evidence is provided by Warren's plan of the theatre*, which shows six banks of wings, three small traps across the front of the stage behind the curtain line, and a large "Hamlet" trap* between the second and third banks of wings.

In the 3D computer model of the theatre, the position of the grooves and traps have been approximated, as nothing in the record provides the precise location of these components.

The Flies and the "Passage above the Proscenium"

This area is the most complex reconstruction in the 3D computer model, with perhaps the exception of the stairway which opens off the stage to connect with the flies and painting room.

Studying the two views of the backstage area to see the relationship between the various parts, then looking at the perspective views of the same area, should provide an understanding of this part of the stage complex.

Based on information in Henry Warren's scrapbook, this reconstruction was evolved rather than being deduced, an evolution made possible by the "what if" capability of the computer. As the various elements of the proscenium, lobbies, hallways and rooms began to take shape in the model, we were able, bit by bit, to piece together an elevation of this area, testing various configurations against the pieces already in place.

There is still no indication of to what purpose the "Picture Room" was put, or how the rooms on either side were used. We only know of this room through Warren's sketch of the upper floors.

One final aspect of the arrangement of the flies and passages at the level of the flies did not fall into place until the computer model was all but finished. Only then were we able to reconcile Henry Warren's statement on the plan of the flies that refers to a "passage to the 2nd Floor Lobby" with the difficulty of placing such a passage.

Stairways to the upper floors

Understanding stairways is unquestionably the most difficult of part of architectural reconstruction. By far the most complex stair system in the Chestnut Street Theatre was that of the northeast corner of the building, stairs that reached from stage level to the flies and painting room.

The Painting Room

We are indebted to Henry Warren's sketch of the upper portion of the theatre for information about the painting room, an area seldom documented by the iconography of the 19th century. It is understandable that Warren, for many years one of the theatre's principal artists, would take pride in mapping his domain.