I confess that I always felt that this was a rather shortsighted attitude, at least after my own undergraduate years. I’ve felt for a long time that it is possible to learn something from the past. And, I’ve also learned that the past isn’t always quite as cut and dried as some folks appear to think. I think that what I discovered along the way was that there seem to be relatively few (if any) ideas which spring (or have sprung), fully-blown into anyone’s mind without any outside influences. In other words, there is a past to virtually everything.
The past may be of influence by showing us that others have walked in the same direction as that we wish to go, or it may show us something which we wish to reject completely, or the past’s influence may be pretty subtle and unobvious. But the odds are that something in the past has had some sort of influence on most ideas of the present. And, it’s just possible that having some grasp on the past will help us to better evaluate the direction we are moving in the present.
Anyway, I was reminded of the importance of history again recently by a couple of things. One was the latest costume exhibit at the Biltmore Estate in Asheville. The other was an Internet story I ran across about the “Battle of Atlanta” cyclorama being moved to a new site in Atlanta and undergoing restoration. I found both of these to be of interest to my historical curiosity.
As anyone who has ever been to the Biltmore House can tell you, George Vanderbilt acquired a vast library (about 22,000 items total) and equipped his house with a library to house and display it. This library includes many first editions (including a First Folio), but individuals are not allowed to “paw around” among them (which is probably a good thing). Mr. Vanderbilt actually read at least most of those books, however, and there are currently (through July 4, 2017) costumes from movies based on some of the books he was especially fond of displayed throughout the house in (mostly) the major public rooms. For example, there is this costume from The Golden Bowl (2000, based on the 1904 book by Henry James).
I confess that I was fascinated by the, roughly, 40 costumes currently on display and I would encourage all designers (especially costume designers, obviously) to make it a point to get to Biltmore and take a look at these. As with the earlier exhibits, I think you will find them worth your time. I confess that I was especially intrigued by the use of long twists of heavy paper to make the wigs for the female mannequins. Not only is the craftsmanship of the wigs interesting; they suggest an appropriate hairstyle without distracting from the costume being displayed. I found them fascinating and well worth seeing.
In addition, few days ago, I ran across a story on the Internet regarding the closing of presentation of “The Battle of Atlanta” in preparation for moving it from its old site near the Atlanta Zoo in Grant Park in downtown Atlanta to a new site at the Atlanta History Center in Buckhead. I think any theatre person, certainly anyone interested in design, should see one of the few remaining cycloramas left in the world while they can. Of course, at this point you’ll have to wait until at least the fall of 2018, when “The Battle of Atlanta” reopens in its new site after some major restoration.
So, unless you are a Civil War nut, why should you care? Today, we tend to use the term “cyclorama” interchangeably with “sky drop,” which we probably shouldn’t. A Sky Drop hangs flat across the stage, while a cyclorama has curved ends and wraps the “sky” around the acting area (some even curve over three dimensionally over the top of it). But, before it appeared in Germany in the late 19th Century (I think it came to the US via the “New Stagecraft” in the early 20th Century), a cyclorama was a popular form of entertainment as a painting designed to fully surround the viewer (who viewed it from a central point) to totally immerse the viewer in some scene, often a great battle of some sort.
As strange at it might seem today, this was a form of popular entertainment in the late 19th Century, with special buildings built to display such works in most major cities and a variety of subjects portrayed. In fact, there are a number of these paintings which have survived in Europe, where I am told they are still, occasionally, painted, even down to the present.
I know of only two of these treasures which have survived in the US; one of part of the battle of Gettysburg, located at the Gettysburg battle site, which is open to be viewed, and “The Battle of Atlanta” which has been available until recently (and will be again in late 2018). I remember visiting “The Battle of Atlanta” many years ago in its old building in Grant Park. To say it is impressive is to shortchange it. This was the IMAX experience of the 1890’s. I hope I get the chance to see it again sometime (or to see the one in Gettysburg).
I have heard that a copy (these things were apparently routinely copied so that they could tour more widely) of the Gettysburg cyclorama had been owned by Wake Forest University, but that they sold it about ten years ago. I think it would be a shame if this treasure was sold out of the country. I will grant that it’s rather old-fashioned technology, but it was a major form of entertainment in its day.
I think we theatre people, while I do NOT advocate refusing to take advantage of new technologies, that we should not forget our past. After all, theatre was the popular entertainment back in the day and the technology which we developed, scene painting, costume techniques, lighting effects, etc., are still capable of moving audiences. Here’s a taste of one small part of “The Battle of Atlanta:”