Retrospective

From the Archives: A Defense of Isamu Noguchi’s Controversial Sets for ‘King Lear,’ in 1955

Isamu Noguchi, model for set and costumes for King Lear at the Royal Shakespeare Company, 1955.

©THE ISAMU NOGUCHI FOUNDATION AND GARDEN MUSEUM, NEW YORK/ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK

Most associate Isamu Noguchi with his curvy, minimalist sculptures, but, as an exhibition currently on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art makes clear, Noguchi’s work extended far beyond that. That show focuses specifically on Noguchi’s designs for playgrounds, though the sculptor also sometimes made the sets for theater productions. In 1955, he designed the sets for a production of William Shakespeare’s King Lear in Stratford-Upon-Avon, England. British critics had been scandalized by Noguchi’s sets, which were in no way traditional, relying mainly on oversized triangles and circles instead of period-appropriate details. Below, from the December 1955 issue of ARTnews, is a defense of those modernist sets by Alfred Frankfurter, who was then the magazine’s editor and president. —Alex Greenberger

“The controversial Noguchi sets for Lear”
By Alfred Frankfurter
December 1955

“Aim: to find a setting and costumes which would be free of historical or decorative associations so that the timeless, universal and mythical quality of the story may be clear. We have tried to present the places and the characters in a very simple and basic manner, for the play to come to life through the words and the acting.”—Statement signed by John Gielgud; Herbert Devine, director, and Isamu Noguchi, the designer.

The traditional conventionalities attached to The Bard at Stratford-upon-Avon have been scarcely less sacrosanct than the sentimentalities showered on Siegfried at Bayreuth. No wonder the recent revolutions at both places are shaking to the roots the Schwärmer and the memorializers of Edwin Booth’s dusty velour. Wieland Wagner, grandson of the composer, responsible for the startling new productions at Bayreuth, has at last virtually stripped bare the stage to expressionist essentials, in order to let singers and orchestras speak—thereby accenting the one ideology of Richard Wagner and fortunately submerging his ideology and the turgid Bismarckian Romanticism of his drama.

It is a not too dissimilar nineteenth-century cliché that has long haunted and invested most productions of Shakespeare. Since instead today to restore the Globe Theater would be as senseless an anachronism as to play in a house without heating or plumbing, what recourse other than the sophomoric banality of “Shakespeare in Modern Dress” could there be to the inherited convention descending from Edmund Kean’s acting and the dreadful dark of the Boydell Shakespeare engravings to the musty antiquarianisms of still strolling repertorians? The answer has always been a simple one—get an artist, not simply a designer but a thinking, creative artist, to design a whole production: sets, costumes, lighting. It is to the vast credit of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford that it has taken so radical, and so impressively successful, a first step by commissioning Isamu Noguchi to design its new King Lear. With John Gielgud playing the title part as perhaps the greatest in his career, the production has been touring Europe and will close in Stratford on December 17—with the pious hope voiced here that it be brought to America. Our stake in it is not simply pride that an American artist designed it but that it is just such a fresh example as the American theatre urgently needs. The new Piccola Scala in Milan will also open this month with an American artist’s designs—Eugene Bergman’s exquisitely scaled Così Fan Tutte—while the Metropolitan Opera still diddles out its Mozart in Franco-Viennese candy boxes or, still worse, in Hollywood swamps of bad taste.

The new Lear gives its characters a new dimension by relieving them of their Victorian properties, and replacing these with bold, stark outlines. The stage symbols—for Noguchi’s forms are these rather than backdrops or props—seem to be always in movement, like the fates in this tremendous drama itself. Perhaps the intended internationalism and timelessness seem weighted ever so slightly toward Samurai Nippon, yet surely there have been foolish, vain old kings and proud, seemingly ungrateful daughters in that world and time, too.

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