Tracy C. Davis

In twenty-first-century Westernized culture, mer-creatures are currently understood to take a specific form: a human (usually female) upper body that becomes scaly from the hips downward, lacking legs or feet and culminating in a double-fluked tail. Prior to the Enlightenment, this was not the case: mer-creatures in illustrations and sculpture could be dual-tailed or, very often, take entirely human form, yet still be understood to represent the water spirits of seas, lakes, rivers, or wells. As the extraordinarily rich graphic collections of the Theaterwissenschaftliche Sammlung (TWS) of the Universität zu Köln demonstrate, the nineteenth-century theatre was crucial in reconciling the varied forms into one, particularly through two operas common in the Germanic repertoire: Albert Lorzing's Undide (1845) and Richard Wagner's Das Rheingold (composed 1853; first produced 1869). Unlike painting, sculpture, and literature, the theatre not only asserts the existence of mers in relation to the human world, but must depict them (through bodies, voices, and movements) via human performers. Whereas Lorzing did this through a non-tailed water spirit, Wagner envisioned tailed mermaids.

Baroque spectacles utilized real water, with mythic and allegorical sea creatures moving on the surface. Romantic ballet dispensed with the real water and made water spirits etherealized creatures who moved on the land (and somewhat above the stage floor). Lorzing made a radical breach from both traditions by culminating Undine with a sequence in which the stage was (narratively) engulfed by water. This was the pretext for a transformation scene into the underwater realm of the Danube, revealing the throne room of sovereign beings who were the essence of water but otherwise looked and locomoted like humans. Wagner began his opera in precisely such a realm, with the three mermaid sisters of the Rhine deep in their water element. Elevated by machines (and after the turn of the century, suspended on wires), they appeared to "swim," with leg-hugging gowns and trains trailing below. In both operas, audiences recognized mermaids. These staging conventions, which included grottoes, water flora, and the refraction of light into water creatures' domain, were adopted into aquariums, which were popular from the mid-nineteenth century, and later explored in underwater painting and photographic techniques. The costuming conventions for mers, utilizing green and blue draperies, red coral accessories, and weed-like dripping hair and hemlines connected mers back to Germanic folklore and forward to twentieth-century interpretations of the iconic Hans Christian Andersen novel in animated film and staged versions. Their form, coloration, and movement are distinct from early twentieth-century revue figures of other (non-mythical) sea creatures that represent various kinds of fish, mollusks, and crustaceans.

Not only nineteenth-century theatre audiences but also twenty-first-century consumers of mass media of all sorts have learned to recognize mermaids when they see them. Multiple instances of stage practice spread over decades amounts to a repertoire of intelligibility that guided the collective imaginary to understand and accept specific conventions, both of the tailed and non-tailed manifestations of mers. This supersedes changes in style—nineteenth-century pictorialism, modernist abstraction, and post-modern deconstruction—to consistently refer to cogent conventions of scenography, physiological form, and iconic silhouettes.

In my print essay for the September 2019 (71.3) special issue of Theatre Journal on "Theatre and the Nonhuman," I explore the specific stage innovations and conventions for depicting female water spirits (naiads, Nixe, Meerjungfrauen, mermaids, and all the other names by which these creatures are known), emphasizing the importance of German-language theatre in putting these figures onstage into environments and costumes that accommodate locomotion as well as habitus. This establishes the patterns and precedents still in use in the twenty-first-century theatre; Disney's adaptations of Andersen's tale demonstrate the now-global reach and intelligibility of these practices. This photo essay expands the imagery offered in print and allows readers to see the importance of color as well as depth in both scenography and costuming. Much more can be explored online; for example, through promotional videos of the European and Asian productions of The Little Mermaid, the recent productions of Rusalka and Das Rheingold, and illustrations of mid-nineteenth-century aquariums in London and Paris. Most importantly, this photo essay reproduces documentation from the graphics collection of TWS, which make observation of the diachronic tradition possible. 

Figure 1. Set design for the Water King's palace, Johann Karl Jakob Gerst, Undine, die Wassernymphe (Franz Schmidt), Berlin, 1836. Tempera. TWS G30121a.
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Figure 1.

Set design for the Water King's palace, Johann Karl Jakob Gerst, Undine, die Wassernymphe (Franz Schmidt), Berlin, 1836. Tempera. TWS G30121a.

 

Figure 2. Set design for Grotto, Johann Karl Jakob Gerst, Undine, die Wassernymphe (Franz Schmidt), Berlin, 1836. Tempera. TWS G30121b.
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Figure 2.

Set design for Grotto, Johann Karl Jakob Gerst, Undine, die Wassernymphe (Franz Schmidt), Berlin, 1836. Tempera. TWS G30121b.

 

Figures 3a–d. Choreographic and scenographic drawings, Les Néréides ou le Lac Enchanté, ballet, decor by M. Devoir, machines by de M. Tonny, Lyon, 1861. TWS 70468.
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Figures 3a–d.

Choreographic and scenographic drawings, Les Néréides ou le Lac Enchanté, ballet, decor by M. Devoir, machines by de M. Tonny, Lyon, 1861. TWS 70468.

 

Figure 4. Transformation to the underwater crystal palace, Franz Angelo Rottonara, Undine (Albert Lorzing), Kaiserfestpiele, Wiesbaden, 1899. Tempera TWS G4068.
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Figure 4.

Transformation to the underwater crystal palace, Franz Angelo Rottonara, Undine (Albert Lorzing), Kaiserfestpiele, Wiesbaden, 1899. Tempera TWS G4068.

 

Figure 5. Underwater palace, Julius Mühldorfer (atelier), Undine (Albert Lorzing), Kiel/Bremen, 1904. Tempera. TWS G2010/245/1.
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Figure 5.

Underwater palace, Julius Mühldorfer (atelier), Undine (Albert Lorzing), Kiel/Bremen, 1904. Tempera. TWS G2010/245/1.

 

Figures 6a–f. Sets for Rudolf Hraby, Undine (Albert Lorzing), Kōln, 1900. The last image is the underwater palace. Photographs. TWS PS 2066.
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Figures 6a–f.

Sets for Rudolf Hraby, Undine (Albert Lorzing), Kōln, 1900. The last image is the underwater palace. Photographs. TWS PS 2066.

 

Figure 7. Underwater palace, Undine (Albert Lorzing), Mannheim, 1936. Photograph. TWS.
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Figure 7.

Underwater palace, Undine (Albert Lorzing), Mannheim, 1936. Photograph. TWS.

 

Figure 8. Underwater palace, Hans Gassner, Undine (Albert Lorzing), Hagen, 1935. Watercolor. TWS G11535e.
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Figure 8.

Underwater palace, Hans Gassner, Undine (Albert Lorzing), Hagen, 1935. Watercolor. TWS G11535e.

 

Figure 9. Underwater palace, Robert Stahl, Undine (Albert Lorzing), Weimar, 1935. Gouache. TWS G7146b.
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Figure 9.

Underwater palace, Robert Stahl, Undine (Albert Lorzing), Weimar, 1935. Gouache. TWS G7146b.

 

Figure 10. Undine costume, Anonymous, Undine (Albert Lorzing), Coburg Hoftheater, 1853. Pencil and watercolor. TWS G6464b.
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Figure 10.

Undine costume, Anonymous, Undine (Albert Lorzing), Coburg Hoftheater, 1853. Pencil and watercolor. TWS G6464b.

 

Figure 11. Costume for Undine as the fishers' daughter, Basil Crage (Theaterkunst Atelier of Hermann Kaufmann), Undine (Albert Lorzing), Berlin, ca.1915. Ink and watercolor. TWS G3122a.
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Figure 11.

Costume for Undine as the fishers' daughter, Basil Crage (Theaterkunst Atelier of Hermann Kaufmann), Undine (Albert Lorzing), Berlin, ca.1915. Ink and watercolor. TWS G3122a.

 

Figure 12. Costume for Undine as Wassergeist, Basil Crage (Theaterkunst Atelier of Hermann Kaufmann), Undine (Albert Lorzing), Berlin, ca.1915. Ink and watercolor. TWS G3122b.
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Figure 12.

Costume for Undine as Wassergeist, Basil Crage (Theaterkunst Atelier of Hermann Kaufmann), Undine (Albert Lorzing), Berlin, ca.1915. Ink and watercolor. TWS G3122b.

 

Figure 13. Costume design for Undine, Atelier Hermann Kaufmann, Undine (Lorzing), Berlin, ca.1925. Tempera. TWS G3390.
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Figure 13.

Costume design for Undine, Atelier Hermann Kaufmann, Undine (Lorzing), Berlin, ca.1925. Tempera. TWS G3390.

 

Figure 14. Brünnhilde costume, Carl Emil Doepler, Der Ring des Nibelungen (Richard Wagner), Bayreuth, 1876. Lithograph. TWS G2013/11/1.
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Figure 14.

Brünnhilde costume, Carl Emil Doepler, Der Ring des Nibelungen (Richard Wagner), Bayreuth, 1876. Lithograph. TWS G2013/11/1.

 

Figure 15. Rheintōchter costumes, Carl Emil Doepler, Der Ring des Nibelungen (Richard Wagner), Bayreuth, 1876. Lithograph. TWS G2013/11/3.
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Figure 15.

Rheintōchter costumes, Carl Emil Doepler, Der Ring des Nibelungen (Richard Wagner), Bayreuth, 1876. Lithograph. TWS G2013/11/3.

 

Figure 16. Carl Lautenschlager, device for flying Rheinmaidens. Drawing. TWS.
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Figure 16.

Carl Lautenschlager, device for flying Rheinmaidens. Drawing. TWS.

 

Figure 17. The Rheintōchter, Das Rheingold (Richard Wagner), Berlin, 1906. Postcard after photograph by Emil Schwalb. TWS.
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Figure 17.

The Rheintōchter, Das Rheingold (Richard Wagner), Berlin, 1906. Postcard after photograph by Emil Schwalb. TWS.

 

Figure 18. The Rheintōchter aloft, winched by stagehands, Das Rheingold (Richard Wagner), Bayreuth, 1930. Photo by Felix H. Man. TWS.
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Figure 18.

The Rheintōchter aloft, winched by stagehands, Das Rheingold (Richard Wagner), Bayreuth, 1930. Photo by Felix H. Man. TWS.

 

Figure 19. The Rheintōchter attract Alberich, Das Rheingold (Richard Wagner), Bucharest, 1908. Unidentified newspaper clipping. TWS.
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Figure 19.

The Rheintōchter attract Alberich, Das Rheingold (Richard Wagner), Bucharest, 1908. Unidentified newspaper clipping. TWS.

 

Figure 20. Wogelind mocks Alberich, Das Rheingold (Richard Wagner), Bucharest, 1908. Unidentified newspaper clipping. TWS.
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Figure 20.

Wogelind mocks Alberich, Das Rheingold (Richard Wagner), Bucharest, 1908. Unidentified newspaper clipping. TWS.

 

Figure 21. Das Rheingold set, Staattheater Bern. Date unknown. Photograph. TWS.
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Figure 21.

Das Rheingold set, Staattheater Bern. Date unknown. Photograph. TWS.

 

Figure 22. Set design, Johannes Schrōder, Das Rheingold (Richard Wagner), Duisberg/Bochum, 1922. Chalk, kohl, and gouache. TWS G11734a.
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Figure 22.

Set design, Johannes Schrōder, Das Rheingold (Richard Wagner), Duisberg/Bochum, 1922. Chalk, kohl, and gouache. TWS G11734a.

 

Figure 23. Costume design, Richard Kintzel, Wassernixe Wellgunde, Berlin, 1920s. Tempera. TWS G3123c.
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Figure 23.

Costume design, Richard Kintzel, Wassernixe Wellgunde, Berlin, 1920s. Tempera. TWS G3123c.

 

Figures 24a–b. Two costume designs for fantastical male sea creatures, Erna Bergmayer, Meeresleben Ballett, Berlin, 1920. Watercolor. TWS G3507e, G3507f.
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Figures 24a–b.

Two costume designs for fantastical male sea creatures, Erna Bergmayer, Meeresleben Ballett, Berlin, 1920. Watercolor. TWS G3507e, G3507f.

 

Figure 25. Costume design for a Neck (male water creature), Basil Craig, Der Sturm, ca.1920. Pencil and watercolor. TWS G3258.
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Figure 25.

Costume design for a Neck (male water creature), Basil Craig, Der Sturm, ca.1920. Pencil and watercolor. TWS G3258.

 

Figure 26. Costume design for Seejungfrau, Erna Bergmayer, Meermädchen Ballett, Berlin, ca.1920–25. Tempera. TWS G3464e.
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Figure 26.

Costume design for Seejungfrau, Erna Bergmayer, Meermädchen Ballett, Berlin, ca.1920–25. Tempera. TWS G3464e.

 

Figure 27. Revue figures (coral, starfish, oyster, and mollusc), Basil Crage (Theaterkunst Atelier of Hermann Kaufmann), Unterwassertiere Ballett, Berlin, ca.1915. Tempera. TWS G3252.
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Figure 27.

Revue figures (coral, starfish, oyster, and mollusc), Basil Crage (Theaterkunst Atelier of Hermann Kaufmann), Unterwassertiere Ballett, Berlin, ca.1915. Tempera. TWS

G3252.

 

Figure 28. Costume design for Nixe with ice skates, Richard Kintzel, Undine, Berlin, ca.1925. Tempera. TWS G3123c.
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Figure 28.

Costume design for Nixe with ice skates, Richard Kintzel, Undine, Berlin, ca.1925. Tempera. TWS G3123c.

 

Figure 29. Fish Man costume, Gaby Frey, Undine (ballet, music by Hans Werner Henze), Düsseldorf, 1981. Colored pencil. TWS G31040h.
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Figure 29.

Fish Man costume, Gaby Frey, Undine (ballet, music by Hans Werner Henze), Düsseldorf, 1981. Colored pencil. TWS G31040h.

 

Figure 30. Undine costume, Gaby Frey, Undine (ballet, Hans Werner Henze), Düsseldorf, 1981. Colored pencil. TWS G31040o.
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Figure 30.

Undine costume, Gaby Frey, Undine (ballet, Hans Werner Henze), Düsseldorf, 1981. Colored pencil. TWS G31040o.