Theater at the Bauhaus (1925)

Oskar Schlemmer

Image: Walter Gropius, design for the
“total theater” at the Bauhaus (1926)


From a lecture-demonstration at the Bauhaus by Oskar Schlem­mer to the Circle of Friends of the Bauhaus (March 16, 1927).

Before speaking about theater proper at the Bauhaus, we should first take a brief look at the way in which it came about, consider the justification for its existence, and observe its path and its goals. In short, we should review its primary endeavor, which is to approach all our material from a basic and elementary standpoint. It is because of this endeavor that the stage here has became an organic link in the total chain of Bauhaus activity.

It is natural that the aims of the Bauhaus — to seek the union of the artistic-ideal with the craftsmanlike-practical by thoroughly investigating the creative elements, and to understand in all its ramifications the essence of der Bau, creative construction — have valid application to the field of the theater. For, like the concept of Bau itself, the stage is an orchestral complex which comes about only through the cooperation of many different forces. It is the union of the most heterogeneous assortment of creative elements. Not the least of its functions is to serve the metaphysical needs of man by constructing a world of illusion and by creating the transcen­dental on the basis of the rational.

Cover to a more recent edition of Oskar Schlemmer's writings on the theater

Cover to a more recent edition of Oskar
Schlemmer’s writings on the theater

From the first day of its existence, the Bauhaus sensed the impulse for creative theater; for from that first day the play instinct [der Spieltrieb] was present. The play instinct, which Schiller in his wonderful and endur­ ing Briefe über die ästhetische Erziehung des Menschen [Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man, (1795)] calls the source of man’s real creative values, is the un-self-conscious and naIve pleasure in shaping and pro­ ducing, without asking questions about use or uselessness, sense or non­ sense, good or bad. This pleasure through creation was especially strong at the beginning (not to say the infancy) of the Bauhaus
…….in Weimar
and was expressed in our exuberant parties, in improvisations, and in the imaginative masks and costumes which we made.

We might say that during the course of its development, this state of naïveté, which is the womb of the play instinct, is generally followed by a period of reflection, doubt, and criticism, something that in turn can easily bring about the destruction of the original state, unless a second and, as it were, skeptical kind of naIvete tempers this critical phase. Today we have become much more aware of ourselves. A sense for standards and con­stants has arisen out of the unconscious and the chaotic. This, together with concepts such as norm, type, and synthesis, points the way to creative form [Gestaltung].


It was due only to intense skepticism, for example, that in 1922 Lothar Schreyer’s plan to form a Bauhaus theater failed; at the time there was practically no climate for strong philosophical points of view (Weltan­schauungstendenzen), none at least which could be found in the sacral garb of Expressionism. On the other hand, there was a distinct feeling for satire and parody. It was probably a legacy of the Dadaists to ridicule automatically everything that smacked of solemnity or ethical precepts. And so the grotesque flourished again. It found its nourishment in travesty and in mocking the antiquated forms of the contemporary theater. Though its tendency was fundamentally negative, its evident recognition of the origin, conditions, and laws of theatrical play was a positive feature.

The dance, however, stayed alive throughout this period. During the course of our growth it changed from the crude country dancing of our “youth hostelers” [Rüpeltanz der Wandervögel] to the full-dress fox trot. The same thing happened in music: our concertina metamorphosed into our jazz band (A. Weininger). Group dancing found its image reflected on the stage in the dance of the individual. And from this developed our formalized use of color [das Farbig-Formale], and the Mechanical Ballet (K. Schmidt, Bogler, Teltscher). Experimentation with colored light and shadows became the “Reflectory Light Play” (Schwertfeger and L. Hirschfeld­ Mack). A marionette theater was begun.

While we had no stage of our own in Weimar and had to give our productions on a sort of dubious suburban podium there, since the move
…….to Dessau
we have been in the enviable position of having a “house-stage” of our own in the new Bauhaus building. Although it was originally meant to be a platform for lectures as well as a stage for performances on a limited scale, it is nevertheless well equipped for a serious approach to stage problems.


For us these problems and their solution lie in fundamentals, in elementary matters, in discovering literally the primary meaning of Stage. We are concerned with what makes things typical, with type, with number and measure, with basic law. • • • I scarcely need to say that these concerns have been active, if not necessarily dominant, during all periods of great art; but they could be active only when preconditioned by a state of hypersensitive alertness and tension, that is, when functioning as the regulators of a real feeling of involvement with the world and life. Of many memorable statements which have been made about number, measure, and law in art, I cite only one sentence from Philipp Otto Runge: “It is precisely in the case of those works of art which most truly arise from the imagination and the mystique of our soul, unhampered by externals and unburdened by history, that the strictest regularity is necessary.”

If the aims of the Bauhaus are also the aims of our stage, it is natural that the following elements should be of first and foremost importance to us: SPACE as a part of the larger total complex, building [Bau]. The art of the stage is a spatial art, a fact which is bound to become clearer and clearer in the future. The stage, including the auditorium, is above all an architectonic-spatial organism where all things happening to it and within it exist in a spatially conditioned relationship. • • An aspect of space is FORM, comprising both surface (that is, two-dimensional) form and plastic (three- dimensional) form. Aspects of form are COLOR and LIGHT, to which we attach a new importance. We are primarily visually oriented beings and can therefore take pleasure in the purely optical; we can manipulate forms and discover mysterious and surprising effects in mechanical motion from concealed sources; we can convert and transfigure space through form, color, and light. • • We can say, therefore, that the concept Schau-Spiel would become a reality if all these elements, comprehended as a totality, were brought into being. We should then have a real “feast for the eyes,” a metaphor come true. • • • If, going even beyond this, we atomize the con­stricting space of the stage and translate it into terms of the total building itself, the exterior as well as the interior — a thought which is particularly fascinating in view of the new Bauhaus building — then the idea of a space stage would be demonstrated in a way which is probably altogether unprecedented.

Spatial composition illustrating figures from the Triadic Ballet (1924).

Spatial composition illustrating the main
figures from the Triadic Ballet (1924).

We can imagine plays whose “plots” consist of nothing more than the pure movement of forms, color, and light. If this movement is to be a mechanical process without human involvement of any sort (except for the man at the control panel), we shall have to have equipment similar to the precision machinery of the perfectly constructed automaton. • • Today’s technology already has the necessary apparatus. It is a question of money — and, more importantly, a question as to how successfully such a technical expenditure can meet the desired effect. How long, that is, can any rotating, vibrating, whirring contrivance, together with an infinite variety of forms, volors, and lights, sustain the interest of the spectator? The question, in short, is whether the purely mechanical stage can be accepted as an inde­pendent genre, and whether, in the long run, it will be able to do without hat being who would be acting here solely as the “perfect machinist” and inventor, namely, the human being.4

Since we do not yet have a perfected mechanical stage (the technical equipping of our own experimental stage lags for the time being far behind that of the government-subsidized stages), man remains perforce our es­sential element. And of course he will remain so as long as the stage exists. In contradistinction to the rationalistically determined world of space, form, and color, man is the vessel of the subconscious, the unmediated experi­ence, and the transcendental. He is the organism of flesh and blood, con­ditioned by measure and by time. And he is the herald, indeed he is the creator, of possibly the most important element of theater: SOUND, WORD, LANGUAGE.


We confess that up to now we have cautiously avoided experimenting with this element of language, not in order to de-emphasize it but, con­scious of its significance, to master it slowly. For the time being we must be content with the silent play of gesture and motion — that is, with pantomime — firmly believing that one day the word will develop automatically from it. Our decision to approach the human word “unliterarily,” in its primary state, as a happening, as if it were being heard for the first time, makes this particular field a problem and a challenge.

Since the above was written, we have learned from an experiment along these lines called “House π” that an approach to word development within the dra­matic process as suggested above is a thoroughly tenable one. Starting with a prepared stage with its own set of spatial relationships (involving various levels constructed of movable skeletal boxes with flooring where needed), and with experimental light effects, it was possible to obtain through pure chance, inspiration, and the extemporizing of the participants an “extract,” which, as it developed, became more fascinating, the clearer the possibility became of giving the action a definitive form. It was demonstrated here, too, that the growth of a scene must follow ultimately a rhythmical and somehow mathematically determinable law, perhaps most closely akin to the laws of music, without, however, its involving music as such.

What has been said about word and language applies also to SOUND and HARMONY. Here too we try in our own way to create out of necessity and need an appropriate aural expression for each experimental production [Gestaltung]. For the time being, such simple “stimulators” as the gong and kettledrum are enough.

Oskar Schlemmer, preliminary sketch for the Triadic Ballet (1919).

Oskar Schlemmer, early sketch
for the Triadic Ballet (1919).

A brief word about our series of stage demonstrations: First of all, when confronted with any new thing, we are accustomed to pause and investigate its essence. We generally do this with both skepticism and a kind of buoy­ancy. • • Let us begin with the curtain and investigate this object as a Ding an sich [“thing-in-itself”], with an eye to its essential and to its particular properties. • • To­ gether with the ramp, it separates the two worlds of auditorium and stage into two hostile-friendly camps. It imposes a state of excitement on both sides. Out there the audience’s excitement asks: What’s going to happen? Back here our question is: What’s going to be the effect? • • “The curtain goes up!” • • But how? It can go up in any of a hundred different ways. Whether in the matter-of-fact tempo of “now-it’s-open, now-it’s-closed,” or solemnly and sedately rising, or torn open with two or three violent tugs, the curtain has its special vocabulary. We can imagine a curtain-play which would evolve literally from its own “material” and reveal in an entertaining way the curtain’s own secret nature. • • • By adding an actor, the possibili­ties of this sort of play are further multiplied.

Let us now take a look at the empty stage and by means of linear division organize it in such a way as to be able to understand its space. We first divide the square surface of the floor in the middle and then into bisecting axes and diagonals. We shall also delineate a circle. Thus we obtain a geometry of the floor area. Now by following the movements of a man over it, we get a clear demonstration of the elementary facts of its space (illustration 1). By means of taut wires which join the corners of this cubical space, we ob­tain its midpoint, while the diagonal lines divide it stereometrically. By add­ing as many such aerials as we wish, we can create a spatial-linear web which will have a decisive influence on the man who moves about within it (illustration 2).

Dancers from Oskar Schlemmer's Triadic Ballet at the Bauhaus (1926)

Dancers from Oskar Schlemmer’s Triadic Ballet at the Bauhaus (1926)

Let us now observe the appearance of the human figure as an event and recognize that from the very moment at which it becomes a part of the stage, it also becomes a “space-bewitched” creature, so to speak. Automat­ically and predictably, each gesture or motion is translated in meaningful terms into a unique sphere of activity. (Even the “gentleman from the audi­ence,” removed from his sphere and placed on the stage, would be clothed in this magical nimbus.) The human figure, the actor, naked or in white tights, stands in space. Before him, the receptive spectator, awaiting every motion, every action. Behind him, the security of a wall; at each side, the wings for his entrance and exit. This is the situation which any person creates who instinctively steps back from a group of two or more curious spectators in order to “act out” something for them. It is the basic situation which produced the peep show. It might even be called the origin of all theatrics.

From this point on, two fundamentally different creative paths are pos­sible. Either that of psychic expression, heightened emotion, and panto­mime (illustration 3); or that of mathematics in motion, the mechanics of joints and swivels, and the exactitudes of rhythmics and gymnastics (illus­trations 5 ff.). Each of these paths, if pursued to its end, can lead to a work of art. Similarly, the fusion of the two paths can result in a unified art form. The actor is now so susceptible to being altered, transformed, or “entranced” by the addition of some applied object — mask, costume, prop — that his habitual behavior and his physical and psychic structure are either upset or else put into a new and altogether different balance. (The nature of the actor, and of the potential actor, is best revealed in the depth of the transformation of his behavior as effected by these inanimate at­tributes, a cigarette, hat, cane, suit, or whatever it might be.)


Since, moreover, we are not concerned with imitating nature and for is reason use no painted flats or backdrops to transplant a kind of second­-rate nature onto the stage — since we have no interest in make-believe rests, mountains, lakes, or rooms — we have constructed simple flats of wood and white canvas which can be slid back and forth on a series of parallel tracks and can be used as screens for light projection. By back-lighting we can also make them into translucent curtains or wall areas and thereby achieve an illusion of a higher order, created directly from readily avail­able means (illustrations 8, 9). We do not want to imitate sunlight and moonlight, morning, noon, evening, and night with our lighting.Rather we let the light function by itself, for what it is: yellow, blue, red, green, violet, and so on. • • • Why should we embellish these simple phenomena with such preconceived equations as: red stands for madness, violet for the mystical, orange for evening, and so on? Let us rather open our eyes and Jose our minds to the pure power of color and light. If we can do this, we shall be surprised at how well the laws of color and its mutations can be demonstrated by the use of colored light in the physical and chemical labo­ratory of the theater stage. With nothing more than simple stage lighting, we can begin to appreciate the many possibilities for the imaginative use of color play.

We shall dress one…two…three actors in stylized padded tights and papier-mâché masks. The effect of the tights and masks together is to re­ group the various and diffuse parts of the human body into a simple, unified form. The three actors will be dressed in the primary colors: red, yellow, blue. If we now assign to each of these actors a different way of walking – a slow, a normal, and a tripping gait – and if we let them measure out their space, so to speak, in time to a kettledrum, a snare drum, and wooden blocks, the result will be the “space dance” (illustration 5). If we put cer­tain basic forms, such as a ball, a club, a wand, and a pole, into their hands, and if we let their gestures and movements instinctively follow what these shapes convey to them, the result is what we can call “form dance” (illus­tration 6). • • • If we now provide the masks with mustaches and glasses, the hands with gloves, the torsos with stylized dinner jackets, and if we add to their various ways of walking also places to sit down (a swivel chair, an armchair, a bench) and also various kinds of sounds (murmuring and hissing noises; double-talk and jabbering; an occasional bit of pandemonium; perhaps also a phonograph, piano, and trumpet), the result is what we call “gesture dance” (illustrations 7, 10). • • • The intentionally grotesque “Musical Clown” with his bare-ribbed umbrella, glass curls, colored pom­-pom tuft, goggle eyes, inflated nobnose, toy saxophone, accordion chest, xylo­phone arm, miniature fiddle, funnel-shaped leg with a drum attached, gauze train, and floppy shoes, is the winsome and pathetic companion to the other three figures in a quite seriously intended quartet (illustration 12). With these four actors as a nucleus, we now expand into a chorus of gray and ghostlike stereotype figures which, either individually or as a group, will demonstrate both rhythmic and dramatic patterns of motion (illustration 4). • • • Finally, we shall create for the players a universe of walls, props, and other stage equipment which can be easily transported and put up anywhere (illustration 11).

Oskar Schlemmer, costume designs for the Bauhaus theater

Oskar Schlemmer, costume designs for the Bauhaus theater

By confining ourselves to one area of that vast complex called the stage, to the area of pantomime and the highly disciplined chamberwork [Kleinkunst],
…….the sense of our endeavor
is to arrive at an art form which will at least try to compete with the “legitimate” theater. This self-restriction does not come from a feeling of resignation but from the realization that by intensifying our work in such a limited area, in contrast to the ambitions of the state-supported opera and theater, we have the considerable double advantage of being free from the external restrictions of the latter (restrictions which often go far toward actually vitiating the artistic) and therefore of being able to give freer rein to imagination, invention, and technical execution. Our aim, further, is to cre­ate a different sort of play from those of others with whom we are often com­ pared (for example, Tairov and The Bluebird). On the one hand, the na­tional quality of our work is to be a native, an inherent one. On the other hand (and in no sense a contradiction), ours is a search for that which is universally valid for the creative theater. If we care to look for models, they can be found in the Javanese, the Japanese, and the Chinese theater, rather than in the European theater of today.

The point of our endeavor:
To become a traveling company of actors which will perform its works wherever there is a desire to see them.

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