Robert Edmond Jones was born on December 12, 1887, in the township of Milton, New Hampshire, in a house built by his great grandfather Levi Jones. He was the second child born to Fred and Emma Jane Cowell Jones.
Robert entered Harvard University in the fall of 1905 where he pursued a liberal arts curriculum and graduated cum laude in 1910. During his time at Harvard he studied under the great George Pierce Baker. After graduation Jones stayed at Harvard for two more years as a graduate assistant and instructor in the Department of Fine Arts. In 1912 he went to New York for a series of small jobs and in 1913 departed for Europe.
Despite being denied admittance to the Art School of English scene designer Gordon Craig, Jones short time in Europe was well spent and essential in his development. Jones produced a “conceptual” design for Shelley’s The Cenci that clearly foretold his future greatness.
He then spent a year in informal study at Max Reinhardt’s Theatre in Berlin. While working on a production of the The Merchant of Venice World War I erupted, and Jones was forced to return to New York early in November of 1914. Jones was bringing back to America the concept of “The New Stagecraft.”
Jones, armed with the concepts learned from Reinhardt as well as the teachings of Gordon Craig that were now circulating throughout Europe, sought to integrate the scenic elements into the storytelling instead of having them stand separate and indifferent from the play’s action. Jones would quickly become known for his use of bold, vivid color and his simple, yet dramatic lighting.
Once back in New York he quickly mounted an exhibition of stage designs, including that of The Merchant of Venice. Held in a vacant Fifth Avenue store, this exhibit brought Jones to the attention of Arthur Hopkins. Hopkins quickly hired Jones to design his production of Anatole France’s The Man Who Married a Dumb Wife. The show was successful and not only marked the beginning of a long collaboration between Hopkins and Jones, but proved to be a pivotal point in American stage design. The simplicity and style of Jones’s design, his use of color and dramatic lighting to enhance his imaginative sets, clearly broke the “realistic” tradition of scenic design and pointed the way to a more complete and coherent collaboration between the director and the designer.
Over the next 19 years, in his association with Hopkins he designed sets (and usually costumes as well) for 39 productions, many of which became hallmarks of American design. The mark of Jones work was an expressionist style, often referred to as simple realism. But realism was never Jones aim. He believed realism to be something we “settled for when we weren’t feeling up to making a greater effort”.
Jones’s directing credits began with a modest production of Simon the Cyrenian for the Colored Players, an early all-Black company. Along with Eugene O’Neill, and Kenneth Macgowan, Jones founded an extension of The Provincetown Playhouse, for which he Directed, Designed and Produced many shows. Jones returned to Europe in 1922 and along with Macgowan produced the book Continental Stagecraft. A few years later – in 1925 – he published a collection of his designs under the title Drawings for the Theatre.
Jones did the designing for the early three-color-process film La Cucaracha (1933) and in 1934 Jones did the “color designs” for the film Becky Sharp. His only other film work was The Dancing Pirate,which carried the credit “Designed by Robert Edmond Jones.”
Jones work continued until 1953 when, under failing health, he retired to the Jones farm in New Hampshire. He died there on Thanksgiving Day in 1954. Jones published several books and many of his students went on to successful and influential careers of their own. Most notably, Joe Mielziner, won an Academy Award and Multiple Tony Awards, designed Tennessee Williams, A Streetcar Named Desire and The Glass Menagerie, as well as designing Arthur Miller’s Pulitzer Prize winning, Death of A Salesman.
But Jones impact didn’t stop with Mielziner or Gorelik or any of his other students. His impact is still evident today, in the work of designers like, the former apprentice of Joe Mielziner, Ming Cho Lee, who produced such award winning and innovative designs as K2, Electra and his own design for a Japanese production of Macbeth.
Mordecai Gorelik (another of his students) summed up Jones career thusly: “He was the founder of the whole present day tradition of scene design in the United States.” Perhaps his most famous written work is, The Dramatic Imagination, published in 1941. This collection of essays defined an understanding and respect for the art of the theater that is as relevant today, more than 70 years later, as it was the day it was written.
Books by Jones include Towards a New Theater (1952); The Dramatic Imagination (1941); Drawings for the Theatre (1925); and Continental Stagecraft (1922), written with Kenneth Macgowan. See also Ralph Pendleton, editor, The Theatre of Robert Edmond Jones (1958), and Lee Simonson, The Stage Is Set (1932).