Almost everyone has noted that the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot images, especially for the Minor Arcana, look like scenes in a stage play. This is not unexpected since Pamela Colman Smith spent much of her early life involved in the theatre, from miniature stage productions to set and costume design to her own costumed story-telling performances. She even wrote two articles on set design and decoration.

I here present selections from her article, “Appropriate Stage Decoration,” that appeared in The New Age magazine (7:5, June 2, 1910. pp 7-9) shortly after the deck was published. I think you’ll find that it will heighten your appreciation of her Tarot cards. I’ve interspersed commentary that shows possible relevancy to her creation of the deck. Pamela begins:

ABOUT us is the glowing beauty of the world, with its leaves and flowers, rags, gold and purple. Kings on thrones of iron, beggars on beds of clay, laughing, weeping, dreaming.

Notice how Smith poetically evokes the scene before our eyes, weaving together shape and color with emotion. My own research fifteen years ago of nearly a hundred people demonstrates high agreement in the assignation of similarly-related emotions to individual cards in the RWS deck.

 

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Land of Heart’s Desire

This pageant of life moves before us, intensified, in the theatre.

Theatre, Pamela tells us, is an exaggeration of life, a march of characters before our eyes. In a tarot reading we have a progression of scenes whose figures are comparable to ourselves and to other people with whom we are involved. It is this intensification of a personal issue in people’s lives that allows them to recognize a repeating theme and, if desired, begin to change it.

People go, most of them, to the play to be amused, and in spite of themselves, are often tricked into a mode of thinking quite contrary to their usual habit of thought. That is why the theatre is the place where all beauty of thought, of sound, of colour, and of high teaching, comes to be of use.

In the U.S. for instance, Tarot, for legal purposes, is billed as entertainment—an amusement that ‘tricks’ querents out of the usual ruts in their thinking, turning the experience into a place of ‘high teaching.’

All arts are branches of one tree.

We can picture this as tree of life and wisdom. It is a reminder of, “As above, so below.”

There in the theatre, unconsciously, the onlooker is moved, or interested, and finds himself agreeing or disagreeing with the playwright and every time he enters a theatre he comes out with a little more knowledge than when he went in. Agreeing or disagreeing, it brings uppermost in his mind some thought which crystallises and becomes a new intelligence.

In many circumstances the information provided by readers is not unknown to their querents, but its significance is usually heightened or it is seen as part of a larger pattern. And it is not so important that querents agree completely with what a reader says. Rather the important thing is that they leave with greater insight than when they came in. This is what we hope for: a new and beneficial realization or insight, or as Pamela expresses it, “some thought crystallized.”

Theatre-going is a habit, where one cultivates a new kind of observation, a new pair of eyes and ears.

In order to enter into this new kind of observation one must have, in Coleridge’s phrase, “a willing suspension of disbelief.” We accept for a moment that mere cards are mirrors of the soul, reflections of our personal issues with answers to our questions. Furthermore, when we make reading our own cards a personal habit we can observe our own patterns of thought and so recognize where we are prone to delude ourselves.

Pamela disparages the then-modern vulgar theatrical display of too realistic scenery—real trees, flowers and animals—that she called “a self-conscious sham without purpose or meaning.”

Those in power have not remembered that illusion is the aim of the theatre. It is a great game of pretence that recalls the time when, as children, we baked stones in the sun for cakes, and feared the dragon that lurked behind the garden wall, or by the pond. A remnant of that imaginative life we re-live in beholding a play set forth before our eyes.

It is through a playful sense of analogy among the figures on the cards and our everyday situations that we are able to face our own dragons.

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Caliban from The Tempest

If the illusion is good, we follow it more easily, and illusion to be good need not be realistic. Realism is not Art. It is the essence that is necessary to give a semblance of the real thing.

Absolute correctness in dress or scene does not necessarily give the illusion. Everything must be exaggerated in order that it may be visible across the footlights.

A deck that is too real may be off-putting. A card depicting an office-worker with a computer may be too “real” an image to correlate with someone’s job as carpenter or herbalist. An idealized movie star as Knight of Wands could do little to suggest a problematic boy friend. By contrast, a fantasy fairy tale. as in Pamela’s faux-medieval Minor Arcana, may be easier to inhabit. Moreover, it can help one see the mythic dimension of one’s own life.

The designer must insist on the balance being kept, and work in harmony with, and not be ruled by, the producer or stage manager. Of course the producer must have confidence in the designer to complete his work.

We may take this as a statement of the working relationship between Smith and Waite, in which Smith was cognizant of the importance of not being ruled by Waite, the stage manager/producer. Likewise, Waite apparently gave over illustration of the Minor Arcana cards primarily to Smith, with confidence in her ability to do justice to the task.

Regarding decks that are slavishly based on their predecessors, Pamela complains that all too often costumes are “hired merely in the tradition of the part, the model having done duty in many revivals.” So we should not be surprised when her deck takes a decidedly new form of expression. It might even make one wonder what Pamela would have thought of so many RWS influenced decks.

A great many people find her colors garish. When critiquing the artistic effect of her cards we should take into account that for Pamela:

Colours are forces but little understood. Strong colour is disliked, and perhaps the fear and hatred of strong, clean colour is due to ignorance.

She asks us to:

Observe the work of the French impressionist painters, who use red, blue and yellow side by side to get the effect of light and atmosphere. Is it the fear of the dreaded accusation of vulgarity? I believe the public would prefer the effect got by the use of strong primitive colour, if they saw it.

While some may see her strong colors as a call to vitality and a celebration of life like that perceived in the French theatre posters of the period, we see here that she was also influenced by the impressionist experiments in color theory.

How rarely does one see an entire production welded together into a thing of beauty by artist hands?

 As we’ve already seen, historical correctness is secondary to an exaggerated illusion welded into “a comprehensive thing of beauty.” She further claims that costume is more important than scenery. The latter, she notes, should be kept simple and in harmony with the costumes. Nevertheless, Pamela ends her article with a plea for a dramatic library that would provide historical details for design purposes (much as can be found with simple google searches today). She asks, “Where would one look for the dress of a Jewish woman in England in the year 1185?” and answers herself, “There is the material to go on, given the knowledge of where to find it.” Here’s one source.

I read this as Pamela’s call for historical awareness at the same time that she observes the primacy of dedication to the art plus the necessity of illusion as essential to having one see with “a new pair of eyes and ears.” This is a formula with which all tarot readers have to contend. And then, knowing what we know of Pamela Colman Smith, we must add a significant dash of intuitive awareness allowing us to experience other realms of perception.

Please add your own thoughts in the comment section.