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University of Texas at Austin

Boris Aronson:

An Inventory of His Scenic Design Papers at the Harry Ransom Center

Creator: Aronson, Boris, 1900-1980
Title: Boris Aronson Scenic Design Papers
Dates: 1939-1977
Extent: 5 boxes, 4 oversize boxes (4.1 linear feet), 47 oversize folders
Abstract: Russian-born painter, sculptor, and most notably set designer Boris Aronson came to America in 1922. The Scenic Design Papers hold original sketches, prints, photographs, and technical drawings showcasing Aronson's set design work on thirty-one plays written and produced between 1939-1977.
Call Number: Performing Arts Collection PA-00007
Language: English
Access Open for research

Administrative Information

Acquisition Gift and purchase, 1996 (G10669, R13821)
Processed by Helen Baer and Toni Alfau, 1999

Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin

Biographical Sketch

Boris Aronson was born in Kiev in 1900, the son of a Jewish rabbi. He came of age in pre-revolutionary Russia in the city that was at the center of Jewish avant-garde theater. After attending art school in Kiev, Aronson served an apprenticeship with the Constructivist designer Alexandre Exter. Under Exter's tutelage and under the influence of the Russian theater directors Alexander Tairov and Vsevolod Meyerhold, whom Aronson admired, he rejected the fashionable realism of Stanislavski in favor of stylized reality and Constructivism. After his apprenticeship he moved to Moscow and then to Germany, where he published two books in 1922, and on their strength was able to obtain a visa to America. In New York he found work in the Yiddish experimental theater designing sets and costumes for, among other venues, the Unser Theatre and the Yiddish Art Theatre.
Aronson's first major success was The Tenth Commandment, directed by Maurice Schwartz at the Yiddish Art Theatre in 1926. His reputation was further improved by an exhibition of his set models in New York in 1927 and by the 1928 publication of a book about Aronson by the art critic Waldemar George. Aronson quit the Yiddish theater to avoid the "ghettoization" of his work and began doing Broadway productions in 1932. Between 1935 and 1939 he did several productions for the Group Theatre, among them two Clifford Odets plays and Irwin Shaw's The Gentle People, the latter considered a breakthrough for Aronson. In the 1930s and early 1940s Aronson experimented with projected scenery and did his first settings for a ballet and a musical.
Despite Aronson's critical successes in the 1930s, his career was in limbo for much of the 1940s and 1950s. In a Broadway which favored tactful sets over dramatic designs, other designers were getting many of the better productions. Aronson was forced to temper his abstract, Constructivist inclinations and produce naturalistic sets, but he continued to make important contacts. In 1953 he created sets for The Crucible, the first of six Arthur Miller works that he would design. He worked frequently with the directors Harold Clurman and Garson Kanin and was praised for his sets for the long-running The Diary of Anne Frank (1955). He became proficient in using collages, and some of his work anticipated the epic style that he employed to great effect in the "concept"musicals of the 1960s and 1970s.
Aronson's career upswing began with Fiddler on the Roof (1964). His first commercial success, the play marked the beginning of Aronson's fruitful association with the producer-director Harold Prince. After creating sets for two productions at the Metropolitan Opera, Aronson collaborated with Prince on Company (1970). The show featured Aronson's most Constructivist sets to date and established Stephen Sondheim as a composer. Three more Price/Sondheim/Aronson shows in the 1970s ( Follies, A Little Night Music, and Pacific Overtures) solidified Aronson's reputation as one of Broadway's most respected artists. His last set design was in 1976 for The Nutcracker, choreographed by Mikhail Baryshnikov. Aronson won eight Tony Awards and maintained an active career as a sculptor and painter until his death in 1980.
The Boris Aronson Scenic Design Papers were donated to the Ransom Center by Lisa Aronson in 1996. One rendering for Love among the Ruins was a purchase.


The finding aid for the Boris Aronson Scenic Design Papers is a conflation of the original inventory created in 1999, and of a small addition that was catalogued in 2006. The addition, consisting of two models for The Creation of the World and Other Business and two set designs for Fidler on the Roof is described only in the Folder List, continuing the box and folder numbering sequence. The Scope and Contents does not make reference to the addition.

Scope and Contents

The Boris Aronson Scenic Design Papers, 1939-1977, contain original sketches, photostats and copy prints of sketches, photographs, art reproductions, scripts, technical drawings, and a model which document Aronson's work as set designer for thirty-one plays written or produced between 1939 and 1977. The papers are arranged alphabetically by title of production and can also be accessed by playwright, librettist, or translator via the index of authors following the folder list. Items are grouped together in accordance with their original order, e.g., the two folders of photographs for The Garden of Sweets have not been interfiled, but are left in Lisa Aronson's original groupings.
Though the papers are slightly skewed toward the later part of Aronson's career, his work in the 1940s and 1950s is amply represented. In particular, works by Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, and Irwin Shaw abound. These production materials include Miller's The Crucible and A View from the Bridge, Williams' The Rose Tattoo, and Shaw's The Gentle People. Also represented are two Stephen Sondheim works ( Company and Pacific Overtures) and four Harold Prince productions ( Fiddler on the Roof, Cabaret, Company, and Pacific Overtures). Two of the works represented in these papers, The Golden Door and Love among the Ruins, are unrealized projects for which Aronson made preliminary sketches. Also included are scripts of three plays on which Aronson did not work: Sex and Death by Woody Allen (never produced, though Death was published in Allen's Without Feathers in 1975); Vieux Carré by Tennessee Williams; and Benjamin Sonnenberg's unproduced 1975 translation of Fernand Crommelynck's Les Amants puérils.
The bulk of the papers comprises concept drawings, study sketches, and preliminary and final renderings for stages, scenery, show curtains, and cyclorama projections. The sketches range from a single prop to individual scenes to overall floor designs. They are executed in pencil, ink, watercolor, lithographic crayon, or pastel. (For brevity and clarity, all of the drawings, renderings and sketches are referred to as "sketches" in the folder list; those utilizing color media such as watercolor and pastel are so noted.) Complementing the renderings are research files and production photographs. The research files contain art reproductions, a few postcards, and photographs, many of which were taken by Robert Galbraith of Jamaica, N.Y. The production photographs depict Aronson's models or the finished sets. Also present are technical drawings and a stage model for Arthur Miller's Incident at Vichy. Completing the papers are rehearsal copies of scripts, including multiple versions of Pacific Overtures and Company, and a folder of bulletins written by director Garson Kanin to production personnel during rehearsals for Dreyfus in Rehearsal. Annotations found throughout the papers are usually Lisa Aronson's.
Item-level descriptions of all materials except for the Incident at Vichy model are available in an earlier finding aid in the Reading Room.
Notes Concerning the Folder List
In the folder list, year of production is given in parentheses after the title of the work. Dates for the contents of individual folders are given only if known and if they differ from the year of production. The number of items per folder is given in parentheses.
Abbreviations used in the folder list are as follows
  • ff = flat file
  • osb = oversize box
Source: Rich, Frank, with Lisa Aronson. The Theatre Art of Boris Aronson. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987.

Related Material

Elsewhere in the Theater Arts Collection is an Aronson costume rendering for Day and Night (1924) which can be found in the W. H. Crain Costume and Scenic Design Collection. Other Aronson papers are located at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

Index Terms


Furth, George, 1932- .
Kanin, Garson, 1912- .
Miller, Arthur, 1915- .
Shaw, Irwin, 1913- .
Weidman, John, 1946- .
Williams, Tennessee, 1911-1983.


Theaters--Stage-setting and scenery.
Set designers--United States.

Document Types

Set design drawings.
Technical drawings.

Boris Aronson Scenic Design Papers--Folder List

Cabaret (1966). Script location 1.3   
A Childhood Disease (translation of Les amants puérils). Script, 1975 location 1.4   
Company (1970). Script, 1969; see also A Husband, a Wife and a Friend location 1.6   
Do Re Mi (1960). Script location 2.4-5   
Dreyfus in Rehearsal (1975). Company bulletins by Garson Kanin with clipping, 1974 location 2.6   
A Husband, a Wife and a Friend (an earlier version of Company). Script, nd location 3.3   
The Merchant of Yonkers (1938). Sketch with pastel location ff 27   
Orpheus Descending (1957). Script location 4.1   
Sex and Death. ca. 1975 Script, location 4.7   
The Survivors (1948). Sketches with watercolor (2); photostat of sketch location osb 7.8; ff 34   
Truckline Café (1946). Sketch with watercolor location ff 40   
Vieux Carré. Script, ca. 1977 location 5.3