STAGING A SANDSTORM
By WENDELL PHILLIPS DODGE
The busiest actor on the stage of the Century Theatre, where Robert Hichens’ drama, ”The Garden of Allah,” is still attracting large crowds, is the sand man. Though he occupies the centre of the stage only about one-fifth of the time that it takes Lewis Waller to give Boris Androvsky’s long soliloquy, he nevertheless grips the audience more than any other incident in the play.
While the sand man does not appear in the cast, still he is very much in evidence behind the scenes. For his one big scene he requires the entire stage from the foots to the back drop, from wings to wings and from the boards to the flies; and for his quick-change dressing-room he must have the great thirty-foot deep pit, the breadth and depth of the stage itself, which extends under the stage. For his “make-up” he requires almost a ton of dry colors for the ground alone, and no less than three hundred pounds of powder for the high lights. In making up he has to use eight tables, and is assisted by thirty dressers in putting on his costume. His “make-up” is put on with the aid of a dozen powerful electrical blowers, in order to give the right blend, and his costume is made to fly before the breeze by an electrically-driven stage gale that would make the winds of Chicago’s lake front seem like a gentle summer’s night air ripple. He makes his entrance at top speed and keeps on moving in a whirling-dervish sort of a way throughout the scene, occupying the centre and every other part of the stage at once and all the time until the close of his speech, which is the most heart-body and-soul-rending in the whole play, filling the minds and hearts of the audience with all the emotions that exist between earth and sky.
In order to stage the sandstorm in “The Garden of Allah.” in spirit and in truth, George C. Tyler, of the firm of Liebler and Company, went into the heart of the great Sahara Desert, accompanied by Hugh Ford, general stage director, and Edward A. Morange, of the firm of Gates and Morange, scenic artists, and laid siege to an actual and ferocious sandstorm which they captured and have transported in all its fiery temper to the Century Theatre, New York.
Mr. Tyler sent his automobile to Cherbourg, and from there the motor trip into the desert began. At Marseilles, they embarked on the Ville d Oran, a small boat, to the African coast. After a rough passage the party reached Philippeville, from which point they put out for the Sahara. On the road between El-Arrouch and Le Hamma the sight of the “devil wagon” spread consternation, once entirely demoralizing a caravan, causing a stampede of camels. After some hours of speeding over the sands of time, the party passed El Kantara. Another hour and they arrived at an oasis in the centre of which lies the city of Biskra. Here they met Mr. Hichens, and after a reading of the dramatization of his novel amid the true atmosphere suggested in the book, they started out to reach the heart of the desert. Their’s was the first automobile that had ever penetrated the sands of the Sahara, and this it did to such an extent that on one occasion it sank so deep it took six donkeys and a camel to pull it out of the hole it dug as it plowed through the sand, embedding itself deeper and deeper with each drive. They were no sooner out of this difficulty than they ran into a real sandstorm.
“We had been gone from Biskra a short three hours,” said Mr. Morange, “when we began to find it necessary to put on our goggles and raincoats to protect our bodies from the sand, lifted and swirled around by intermittent, playful gusts of wind. Looking at” a herd of camels, probably an eighth of a mile away, we noticed that different groups of them would suddenly be veiled to our view while others to both sides would be perfectly visible. Turning to look at the low hills that stand out dark against the sands in front of them and darker still against the sky beyond,
we saw faintly what appeared to be steam, along the surface in various shapes, rising from the sands as they approached the dark hills, and veiling them until they, the sky above and the sands in front melted into one even tone of light, misty, yellowish gray. Around the veiled mass the sun was shining. A feeling of discomfort, not unmixed with anxiety, possessed our party as the bright sun, with which we started out, disappeared. To move our jaws but slightly found us grinding sand with our teeth, and we instinctively tied our handkerchiefs around our heads, covering our nostrils and securing some protection for the mouth. We could no longer pick out the road that but a few moments before was well defined by the ruts made by the mail diligence that regularly struggles between Biskra and Touggourt. The shifting sand had been blown over the road as snow might obscure a highway. We had gone to the desert for ‘atmosphere’ and we were getting it with a vengeance.
“We stopped the car, as we all agreed that it would be dangerous to proceed. From the direction from which we had noticed many little whirling steam-like gusts appear, we were now startled by the appearance of a huge irregular cloud, probably a hundred feet in width, moving rapidly toward us. A curious feature of it was that the bottom of it seemed to clear the ground, often rising and sinking alternatively. The color of the cloud was much darker than that of the sands around it. It was of a rather dirty yellowish red, but very luminous in quality. A half dozen camels that we could dimly distinguish, crouched or knelt, huddled together, stretching their necks close to the ground, their heads turned toward the approaching cloud. “The edge of this cloud, nearest to us, seemed entirely independent of the surrounding atmosphere, but as we were directly in its path, we instinctively closed our eyes, crouched in the automobile and turned our backs on it, as one would a blinding onslaught of snow and sleet. We were conscious of a hot, stinging sensation in the parts of our flesh exposed and a peculiar whistling, swirling rush of something passing over us for a few seconds. When I partially opened my eyes. I realized that it was almost as dark as night. When it grew lighter, we found ourselves in a yellowish, smoky fog of fine sand. We had to wait for probably fifteen minutes before the air cleared sufficiently for us to distinguish objects fifty feet away. Protected in the car as well as we were, we were still half-choked with sand. Little piles of sand were heaped up in front of the wheels and in all places that would allow them to form, as drifts of snow might pile. At this moment, we fully realized the oppressiveness of this dreary waste, this awful ocean of seemingly boundless sand.”
The question now was how to transfer the real, living sandstorm to the stage of the Century Theatre. Stage sandstorms date back more than twenty years, when one was introduced in Fanny Davenport’s production of “Gismonda.” This sandstorm, naturally, was very crude, since in those days there was no such thing as light effects nor stage mechanism. The players themselves created the sandstorm by tossing handsful of Fuller’s earth over their heads to the accompaniment of the rubbing of sandpaper in the wings to give the suggestion of wind blowing. Belasco put over the first realistic sandstorm in “Under Two Flags,” causing Fuller’s earth to be blown through funnel-like machines from the wings, while at the same time stereopticon cloud storm effects were played on gauze drops. Mr. Belasco also introduced the now famous bending palm to stage sandstorms, to convey the idea of motion. Once when “Under Two Flags” was produced in San Francisco the local stage manager told the property man to get something that could be blown across the stage, to be used in the sandstorm scene. There was not time for a scene rehearsal, but the property man connected a “blower” made out of a soap box with the ventilating system, and as the cue was given, tossed heaps of flour into the box to be blown over the stage. The play ended right there, with scenery and everything covered as if a blizzard had struck the place! It required weeks to get the flour off of the scenery, to which it stuck and hardened. Last year Frederic Thompson introduced a sandstorm in a scene showing the Western Bad Lands, sawdust being blown from the wings. But the sawdust scattered everywhere, even into the orchestra.
Messrs. Tyler and Ford found no bending palms in the storm they witnessed and encountered on the Sahara, so no bending palms appear in “The Garden of Allah” sandstorm. Yet motion is suggested by other means—the robes of an Arab going across the stage waving, the sides of the Arab tent flapping in the wind, the garment of Batouch, Domini’s servant, fluttering when he emerges from the tent to tighten the anchorage rope to the windward. Besides these things, there is the whirling swirling sand forming real sandspouts, such as have never before found their way on the stage.
To create the actual whirlwind that blows the sand at the Century Mr. Ford installed under the stage a series of powerful electric blowers, and connected these with pipes leading up through the stage flooring at carefully planned points of vantage. One set of pipes is located by the left-stage tormentor near the front of the tent, and another on the other side of the proscenium by the right-stage tormentor. There is another set of these pipes hidden behind the tent towards the centre of the stage, and still another set back stage. The pipe sets consist of four pipes such as are used for drain-pipes on houses, of different heights and with the openings placed at slightly different angles. Under the stage alongside of the electric blowers are two rows of troughs, one on either side of the stage, into which a dozen men feed the “sand,” which is forced up the pipes and blown at a rate far exceeding that of any windstorm ever experienced on land or sea! In all there are twenty blowers, arranged in four series of five each. Another single blower is placed in the left-stage tormentor and blows only air, to dispel the continuous streams of sand blown through the pipes by the other blowers. The pipes are so placed and arranged on the stage as to provide a continuous whirling swirl of sand, never ending, never-ceasing, ever increasing in its fiery fury, until the storm quiets down and the light of day brightens the scene.
Mr. Ford placed the pipes at different angles so that each one would send a stream of sand that would cut and dispel the stream from another pipe, thus obtaining a continuous spiral sandspout instead of a streak of sand like the tail of a comet from each pipe. Also, the three sets of pipes used for creating the sandstorm are started and worked alternately. beginning with the set in front of the tent, then the set at the right side of the proscenium, and finally the set beside the tent, towards the centre of the stage. This alternate movement gives the swirling effect that makes the storm real. The one set of pipes placed back stage behind the tent, however, shoots straight across the stage in order to give a cloud of mystery and add density to the scene.
About three hundred pounds of sand is blown through the four sets of pipes at each performance. This is kept from blowing into the auditorium by means of an “air curtain” at the foot lights and at the first entrances, enough pressure of compressed air to keep the “sand” back. The sand used is nothing more nor less than good old cornmeal! Three hundred pounds is wasted at each performance—enough to feed a whole ranch!
Cornmeal was resorted to after everything else, including sand itself, had failed to blow and act like sand on the stage. Real sand from Fire Island beach was first tried, but besides being too heavy to be kept swirling in the air, it did not look like sand when the lights were thrown on it. Real sand on the stage when the lights were thrown on it as it was blown across the stage looked like so much soft coal soot.
The heaps of sand on the stage, forming the minor sand dunes, and also the ground of the desert, are composed of ground cork, painted an orange yellow. Cork is used because it is clean and dustless and easily handled.
To light the sandstorm, Mr. Ford uses only the footlights, the central portion being a deep orange with a deep blue on either side. This keeps the heart of the storm, so to speak, in the light, and the edges are blended away into the darkness at the sides of the stage, providing not only absolute realism, but shadings that suggest the most delicate of pastels. The wonderful lighting of this scene shows the varying color emotions of the desert, with its sand dunes of the palest primrose, and the purple fury of the desert storm.
Stereopticon storm cloud effects are thrown on the sand curtain formed by the cornmeal slung across the back of the stage by the pipes put there for that purpose, and on a gauze curtain just behind, from arc-lights placed on two lighting tops built on either side of the proscenium.
To obtain the delicate pastel light effects of the sandstorm and of the other desert scenes in “The Garden of Allah,” Mr. Ford first painted the scenes with stage lights using the remarkable switchboard of the former New Theatre for his palette, and the clouds of cornmeal as his canvas. In that way, having the true picture of the sandstorm, which he had himself seen in the Sahara in his mind, he achieved what no one else ever has done before—he has, “in spirit and in truth,” transported the sandstorm of the desert, with all its multitudinous shades and shadows, feelings and emotions, to the stage.
The Theatre, Volume 15, 1912
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: The Garden of Allah, which made its stage debut in New York, was adapted from the novel by Robert Smythe Hichens, published in 1904. It was filmed several times: mostly notably with Charles Boyer and Marlene Dietrich in 1936. The heroine, Domini, flees to the desert for spiritual renewal, where she falls in love with a renegade Trappist monk, Boris Androvsky. He hides his past from her, they marry, and set off on a honeymoon journey into the Sahara. Naturally they meet French Legionnaires who recognize the former monk by his special liqueur (as one does.) Spiritual crises and personal misery ensue for several hundred pages and eventually Boris returns to the monastery at the urging of his wife. Fade-out.
Naturally Mrs Daffodil is dubious about such things as monasteries and vows, although the religious system that created green chartreuse may be said by some enthusiasts to be not without merit. Mrs Daffodil has not seen any of the films, nor the play; undoubtedly they were “tear-jerkers.” However, when the family was in New York, Cook, who has little tolerance for melodrama, saw the aforementioned play and pronounced it a waste of perfectly good cornmeal.
For a post on the ingenious methods for making stage lightning and thunder, see here.
Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes
You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.