While digitizing the vast collection of over 30,000 photographs that make up the theatre production files at the Museum of the City of New York, a project generously funded by the Institute for Museum and Library Services, there oftentimes come to light incredible images that are unusual and dream-like, seemingly attached to a time and space very distant from a typical 21st century production. One example is the photographs by White Studios of the 1911 Broadway production of Chantecler, a Verse Play in Four Acts, by French poet and dramatist Edmond Rostand, adapted by Louis N. Parker. Rostrand had dealt with 10 years of writer’s block before writing the script and the production was particularly contentious: the public was shocked that such an elaborate production featured chickens; the original Paris production was postponed due to a great flood; and the American version was surrounded in controversy over the casting of a woman (Maude Adams) as the male protagonist.
The plot centers around the existential struggle of the rooster Chantecler (meaning ‘clear singing’), who is convinced that his crowing is solely responsible for the sun rising. There is much conflict among the barnyard animals: jealousy, deception, denial of the possibility Chantecler could emit a call so beautiful it could command daylight. Chantecler defends his belief in his life-summoning art, even placing its importance above the affections of a beautiful young pheasant (who eventually learns to accept his dedication to deliver the dawn after he nearly gives his life for it). Although it is revealed that the sun does rise regardless, Chantecler maintains his conviction that it is his duty to signal the new day to every creature and to call attention to the radiant rays of light that shield the farm’s inhabitants from birds that prey in the darkness.
Although peculiar in its approach and aesthetic, Chantecler was unanimously heralded as a great work of philosophy and artistic accomplishment. Most of the tickets were sold in advance, due to the public anticipation as to whether Maude Adams could take on such a symbolic masculine role. The casting was seen as a publicity stunt by legendary producer Charles Frohman, who preferred Adams in gender-atypical roles, previously casting her in 1905 as Peter Pan. Chanteclerpremiered at the Knickerbocker Theater (Broadway and 38th Street), January 23, 1911. “The demand for seats was unprecedented. A line began to form at four o’clock in the afternoon preceding the day the sale opened. Within twenty-four hours after the window was raised at the box-office as high as $200 was offered in vain for a seat on the opening night.” (1) The play ran four months with nearly 100 performances, and subsequently toured more than 60 cities.
“To Miss Adams’s mind the most violent misconception of ‘Chantecler’ is the idea that the chief character should be absolutely masculine…The whole play, in a nutshell, to her way of thinking, is the story of an idealist going forth into the world and getting the edges rubbed off his ideals by the stern realities of life. But she believes that the cock’s steadfastness to these ideas, even when he learns that his part in the scheme of things is not as important as he thought it was is the most lasting lesson in the play, sending men and women out of the theatre determined to do their level best in their various undertakings.”
It was the combination of pure spectacle with the humbling nature of the pastoral scene that made Chantecler such a unique phenomenon. The passions and aspirations of the ego in search of artistic expression and authenticity were reflected by literally stripping the stage of the human presence.
A review in the Indianapolis Star describes the impact of the unusual use of scale in the production:
“Chantecler…doesn’t look to most spectators more than twice the size of a real rooster and not more than half the height of Maude Adams. The transient effect is produced by an enlargement of the inanimate objects in sight…a haystack in the background is a mountain; a wheelbarrow fills the space of an oxcart…. That method of belittling the beasts and birds is feasible throughout, as no glimpse of a human figure is given in he whole play. A usual oak in a forest is a thick at the trunk of a California wonder tree.” (3)
Upon observing the bewildering beauty of the production photos, it should be no surprise that producer Frohman assembled a production design team of extraordinary ingenuity. Documents from the stage manager’s manual depict the cutting edge technology used to engineer the production. Remember, electric (tungsten) stage lights had only recently been invented!
Much of Chantecler’s stagecraft was developed by J.M. Hewlett, A.T. Hewlett, and Charles Basing under the direction of W.H. Gilmore. J.M. Hewlett (formally of McKim, Mead & White and founder of Lord and Hewlett) is perhaps best known for designing notable buildings such as the Brooklyn Masonic Temple (1907) and Brooklyn Hospital (1920), to name a few. As a team, Hewlett and Basing were responsible for the design and execution of the infamous celestial ceiling in Grand Central Station, as well as many other important public works, including the eight historical murals at the Bank of New York and Trust Company building.
A description under a press photo (above) describes the way the special effects were achieved:
“Viewed from the auditorium this is a stage setting done in the regular way. It shows a superb and realistic forest full of color and atmosphere. In reality, however, there is no color there at all except what is thrown on from colored lights. The trees are only pieces of white gauze and the back drop, with its apparent elaborate distant perspective, only a plain black curtain.”
Below, a few documents from behind the scenes reveal the technical skill ‘behind the curtain’ that went into producing this microcosmic wonder:
To read the original synopsis of the Chantecler play, view the story card that was handed out to Knickerbocker Theatre audiences:
(1) Frohman, Dainel and Marcosson, Issac F., Charles Frohman: Manager and Man, 1916.
(2) Fitzgerald, J.A., Chantecler Comes, Crows, and Conquers, Maryland Evening Post, Feb. 2, 1911
(3) Fyles, Franklin, Chantecler, Not only a Novelty in Gotham, Indianapolis Star, Jan. 29, 1911.