Theater technicians, directors, and playwrights rarely balk at the idea of testing the limitations of what can and cannot be done on a stage. From periods in which enormous spectacle was the fashion to more modern, minimalist phases, there have always been different approaches to creating the illusion of the play and its particular problems.
A number of productions throughout theatrical history have needed to deal with one specific challenge: horses. Hippodrama was a genre developed for the express purpose of showcasing horsemanship. However, it typically was staged in an arena with a dirt floor and stadium seating that was well-suited for equestrianism. The first hippodromes were large Greek amphitheaters, where horses and chariots raced in a circle.
Getting a horse onto a stage in a theater, however, is a little more complex. Here are a few notable instances in which directors and designers have approached this challenge with creativity, resourcefulness, and absurdity.
1. The Ben Hur Stage Play
A poster for the stage production of Ben Hur. (via)
A stage adaptation of the 1880 novel Ben Hur: A Tale of Christ by Lew Wallace opened in 1899 and instantly astonished audiences with its chariot race scene. Four chariots, with four horses apiece, thundered forward at top speed in front of the audience. A team of horses would pull ahead of the other, then fall back, while another team took the lead. And yet, this all took place within the confines of a theater stage.
The effect was achieved using a set of separately rigged treadmills, which could advance and retreat independently of one another. The chariots contained hidden electric motors that turned their wheels to match the illusion of the sprinting horses. A panoramic backcloth rolled in a continuous loop behind the chariots to mimic the appearance of the scenery flying by. Dust was even sprayed out behind the chariots. The spectacle was one of the best of its time.
A diagram of the treadmill apparatus in action. (via)
Even the horses were convinced that they were actually racing. One of the chariot drivers, William S. Hart, a former Western star who played Messala, said that he felt sorry for his team of horses because they had to lose every night. In fact, one night, the horses were so hellbent on winning that they actually outran the treadmill.
2. "Property Quadruped for Stage Purposes"
Sometimes, though, you don’t want to bother with an elaborate system of treadmills or pulleys or ramps, and you just want to get the point across that there’s a horse onstage without getting fancy about it. At least that was the idea behind US Patent #695,903.
The diagrams accompanying the patent, provided by inventor Alexander Braatz. (via)
Alexander Braatz, a music hall performer, invented this unintentionally silly-looking device in 1901, as a substitute for equestrian performers. Braatz described his creation as such:
The present invention consists of a property quadruped for stage and pantomimic purposes, according to which the two front legs of the animal are those of the person performing, and by their movement the hind legs are moved mechanically by suitable levers and cords, as hereinafter set forth.
The internal workings of the suit are clearly complex and constricting, and one can’t help but wonder what happens if one gets stuck in the thing.
Although neither Braatz nor his property quadruped gained fame in their own right, the patent has been cited by a few other subsequent patents for pantomime quadrupeds, such as this dinosaur (patent US 8727898 B2):
Diagram of a pantomime dinosaur. (via)
3. Picasso’s Horse
In 1917, the ballet Parade, composed by Erik Satie, was first performed by the Ballets Russes. The choreography was done by Léonide Massine, the scenario was created by Jean Cocteau, and the costumes were designed by Pablo Picasso. The score was written for typewriters, sirens, airplane propellers, Morse tickers, lottery wheels and two pianos. As could be expected, the ballet was a surreal, avant garde experience. In fact, the term “surreal” was coined in Giullaume Apollinaire’s program note for the ballet, three years before the widely acknowledged beginning of the Surrealist art movement.
Picasso designed some of these costumes using cardboard, which, while creating a distinctly cubist effect, hampered the movements of the dancers significantly.
Picasso’s horse costume. (via)
The horse is composed of two performers: one who stands upright and holds up the head, and another who has the unfortunate task of performing bent over, gripping his partner by the waist. The costume originally included a mannequin rider, but it fell off during the premier performance to the laughter of the crowd. Picasso did not bother to fix it for the following performances.
Parade is notable not only for its set design, but for the uproar surrounding it. One such scandal was a legal embroilment with critic Jean Poueigh. Erik Satie was infuriated when he read Poueigh’s negative review, published under a pseudonym, which said the ballet “outrages French taste.” Satie responded by sending Poueigh a series of insulting and inflammatory postcards. Among the choice terms Satie used to describe Poueigh were “an a**hole—and an unmusical a**hole at that” and “Monsieur F*ckface.” Poueigh took Satie to court for libel, because, as the correspondence was in the form of postcards, at least Poueigh’s postman had been able to read these castigations. Satie spent a week in jail, and was ordered to pay Poueigh 1100 francs in fines and damages. The Princesse de Polignac gave Satie money to pay the fine and had him released, but Satie refused to ever give Poueigh the money on principle. He used it for living expenses instead.
Some productions place such a heavy emphasis on horses as characters that it is impossible to expect actual horses to handle the job. In Equus—in which a young man develops a religious fascination with horses and ends up blinding six of them in a fervor—costuming made it possible to pull off this kind of drama. In recent stagings, horses have been played by actors with spare, cage-like horse-head helmets on wirey, hoof-like stilts.
War Horse, which premiered in 2007, took on its dilemma of having a horse as an actual protagonist in a similar way. The actors who operate the puppet that portrays Joey, a horse that is sent to the cavalry in WWI and witnesses the horrors of war, are clearly visible to the audience. However, the puppet is a captivatingly animated, life-sized horse, created with steel, leather, and aircraft cables. The puppets, built by the Handspring Puppet Company, manage to artfully describe horses without seeming too much like, say, Patent # 695,903.
Two horse puppets from War Horse. (via)
Whether these horses have been real, fake, or really bad fakes, they’ve all contributed something to the history of theater, and its technical innovations. They can also help us see, in a little capsule, some of the many different styles of theater we’ve invented throughout history. Let’s give them a hoof.