Sunday, April 5, 2020

Theatrical special effects | Thayer's disappearing man

Abbott H. Thayer holding one of his duck decoys (upsidedown)
Until recently, I had not heard of Percy MacKaye (1875-1956), an American poet and playwright. That should come as no surprise, since (according to Michael J Mendelsohn in his essay by on “Percy Mackaye’s Dramatic Theories”), he “is rarely mentioned today.” But in “the pre-Freudian, pre-O’Neill days of American drama, he was a major figure.”

A Harvard graduate, MacKaye traveled and lived in Europe from 1897 to 1900, then returned to the US to teach at a private school in New York. In 1904, he moved to Cornish NH (ten miles from Plainfield), where he was allied with the Cornish Art Colony, which included such prominent artists as Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Maxfield Parrish, Daniel Chester French, Paul Manship, George de Forest Brush, and Barry Faulkner.

Sixty-five miles southeast of Cornish is Dublin NH, at the foot of Mount Monadnock. At the time, there was considerable contact between the artists in Cornish and Dublin, in part because the latter was the location of the disheveled home and studio of artist-naturalist Abbott Handerson Thayer (the so-called “father of camouflage”). Faulkner was Thayer’s cousin,  Brush was his closest friend, and some of the artists mentioned above were his long-time associates.

Only lately have I learned that Thayer and Percy MacKaye were also acquainted, possibly well-acquainted, and, in 1906, they made an attempt to collaborate on the “special effects” for the staging of Edward H. Sothern and Julia Marlowe’s 1907 production of MacKaye’s play about Joan of Arc, titled Jeanne d’Arc. The playscript was dedicated to Augustus Saint-Gaudens.

In the script, Jeanne d’Arc reveals that she has been visited by St Michael the Archangel. In a couple of scenes, “the glorified form of St Michael” appears as an apparition, then disappears. At a certain point, the ghostly form of Charles the Great (aka Charlemagne) appears within a stained glass surface, then speaks with the voice of St Michael. Obviously, anyone producing the play would need to decide how to handle these ethereal appearances (and vanishing acts) of Jeanne's visions of St Michael.

As early as the mid-1890s, Abbott Thayer had been researching, writing about, and devising demonstrations of a natural form of camouflage called countershading (essentially inverse shading). He claimed that it accounted for the prevalence of “white undersides” in the coloration of animals.

Thayer's disappearing duck (as recreated by Fuertes)

Using wooden duck decoys, as seen in the photographs above (or even raw sweet potatoes), he could make solid forms all but vanish in a natural ground surrounding. (In these two photographs, made by Thayer's student, Louis Agassiz Fuertes, a white sheet of paper has been placed behind the duck decoys to make the counter-shaded one visible, on the right.) Scientific audiences were astonished by his outdoor demonstrations of this. He published articles about countershading in scientific journals, and it led to his being invited to European universities to demonstrate and to install exhibitions of the same phenomenon.

Thayer was inept at managing money. But when his discovery of countershading (sometimes known as Thayer’s law) was received so laudably, he began to imagine practical ways by which he and his family could profit. One of his options had to do with theatrical stage effects. Instead of vanishing duck decoys, could countershading be applied to an actor’s skin-toned leotards, and then, by a simple switch of the lights, might the actor disappear?

We know that Thayer actually carried this out because two photographs of the effect have survived (as reproduced below). They are before-and-after photographs of a male artist’s model (a Boston man named Dutton) wearing counter-shaded tights, in the setting of a lighted box. In one, the light is coming from the bottom (contrary to natural lighting), in which case the figure is easily seen. In the other photograph, the light is coming from the top, and the model all but disappears.

Thayer's vanishing actor in counter-shaded leotards

In 1906, as Percy MacKaye was preparing for the premiere of Jeanne d’Arc, he may have reached out to Thayer—more likely Thayer appealed to him—about the possibility of using on-stage countershading as a way to bring about the appearance and disappearance of St Michael. We know this in part because MacKaye described it in Percy MacKaye: A Sketch of His Life with Bibliography of His Works (Cambridge MA: Harvard University, 1922). Here is the passage—

Midwinter, in the little town hall of Dublin NH: a man-model against a dusky curtain: Abbott Thayer, the artist-inventor, intent, excited, testing (in 1906!) his new “camouflage” principles to create a stained-glass vision of Charlemagne for the Sothern-Marlowe production of my play Jeanne d’Arc.

But did their collaborative efforts succeed? The answer is no: In the end, their project came to naught. There are letters from Thayer to MacKaye in the Archives of American Art that record his frantic if genuine efforts to locate appropriate lanterns and to photograph the model in tights. On March 26, 1906, he sent photographs to MacKaye (perhaps the same two reproduced here), saying: “When Dutton got his suit on again, and took his place, the effect was almost as perfect as ever, quite enough without a single retouch (but the lantern’s the thing!)” A full month later, on April 26, he assured MacKaye that he has made “progress, but only that,” and is awaiting a shipment of new and better lanterns, which, he hopefully asserts, “will make a true total invisibility.”

There is apparently more to the story, but the details remain rather murky. In the files of the Archives of American Art, there is another letter to MacKaye (dated May 25), written by Emma Thayer, on behalf of Abbott, her husband. She reveals that Thayer is overwhelmed, and instead—

he has got that gifted young man [his student] Rockwell Kent (whom Abbott wanted before and could not) to do the thing. Abbott has had him up here, and Abbott says he will do it superbly. But to make sure Abbott is having him do the only complicated thing, the St Michael, first and if he has any difficulty he is to telegraph Abbott, and Abbott will go down.

Rockwell Kent is swiftness itself—and having more endurance can do the thing quicker than Abbott, and is masterly and precise in the way he does everything.

Despite such good intentions, Thayer and Kent were not able to provide a final prototype for the Sothern and Marlowe production. “Unable to get [it] together in time,” according to Thayer’s biographer, Nelson C. White, the collaborative experiment concluded “in complete failure.”

Soon after, Thayer came to realize the futility of making a fortune by inventing practical things. As he wrote to his patron, Charles L. Freer (as quoted by White)—

My failure to make my cursed invention suit itself to Sothern’s immediate needs was the eye-opener I need. I had gone on thinking the Thayer family must have the thousands I was to scoop so easily so as to set me free to work. My eyes opened for good and all and although the thing got into such perfected shape that it seems both to me and my patent lawyer destined for success, nothing will divert another thought from my own work [as an artist], which envelops me like the arms of a beloved again…

…P.P.S. The theatre invention is all ready for someone to take up, patent applied for and covered already in four foreign lands. If the right man looms up within a year or two he shall have it. Otherwise, it can go to hell. I am safe cured! 


The above was posted only three days ago, but I've just found two updates, including one that's especially surprising: (1) From a news article about a talk that Gerald H. Thayer gave in 1921 in Lowell MA (Lowell Sun, January 20) it appears that he showed the lantern slides of the model who vanished in his leotards. In the article, the space in which the man is posed is described as a "piano box" (a box for shipping pianos), set up in the Dublin NH town hall. (2) Today, I found out that the autobiography of psychologist Michael Wertheimer, the son of Gestalt psychologist Max Wertheimer, has been published in Europe. I couldn't resist buying a digital copy, as expensive as it was. When I paged through it, I was completely aghast to discover that Michael's first wife's grandfather (her mother's father) was—you guessed it—Percy MacKaye. See photo below—I do love these hidden links.

Percy MacKaye