Throughout his life, Paul Robeson was an outspoken advocate for civil rights and racial equality and earned international praise for his performances on film and stage. But perhaps lesser known is his collaboration with Stevens Institute of Technology professor Harold Burris-Meyer in the 1940s and their development of a device that would have a profound impact on the history of live performance.
Writing in 1939, Robeson complained he had “lost his own self” on stage while performing in the newer, cavernous auditoriums of that era. Through a mutual friend, Robeson was put in touch with Harold Burris-Meyer, a well-known researcher in the field of audio engineering and director of the Dramatic Society at Stevens. To solve the problem of performing in these acoustically imperfect spaces, Robeson and Burris-Meyer set to work on a device that would “create an acoustic envelope” which enabled performers to hear themselves clearly on stage, “as if they were singing in the shower.” Robeson praised the device, which he affectionately named “Synthea” —saying he no longer had to strain his voice to be heard above the din of the concert hall.
*2. Paul Robeson holding “Synthea.”
The two photographs featured in this post come from the Dramatic Society’s staging of the Second Sound Show from April 17-19, 1941, which, in addition to Robeson, featured a number of notable Broadway figures such as Margaret Webster, Herbert Graf, and Cheryl Crawford. In attendance were representatives from The Metropolitan Opera, Bell Laboratories, Western Electric, The New York Times, and a host of others who were keen to see this demonstration of the latest advances in controlled sound. In addition to using “Synthea” for Robeson’s performance, Burris-Meyer and his team of student assistants also introduced another innovative audio device for the performance, the Stevens Sound Control System, which could produce a stereophonic mix of six audio sources and broadcast the results through eight speakers, “thereby faithfully reproducing the impression of acoustic sources and playing on movement effects.”
*3 Program for the Second Sound Show at the Stevens Theater (now DeBaun Auditorium), 1941.
The production featured a medley of scenes taken from the plays of William Shakespeare, Charles Gounod, and Eugene O’Neill. Robeson reprised the role of Brutus Jones for the first two acts of Eugene O’Neill’s 1920 play,
The Emperor Jones. Robeson had previously starred in the 1925 New York stage revival of The Emperor Jones and had cemented his reputation as an international film star in its 1933 motion picture adaptation. The widely hailed performance at the Stevens Theater served as the culmination of Robeson and Burris-Meyer’s two-year collaboration and demonstrated to the general public the creative uses of the “re-made voice, subsonics, and reverberation control” and its viability in future theatrical productions. “Synthea” and the “Robeson Technique” went on to have a profound impact on theatrical staging and influenced the development of the monitor speaker systems used in concert venues today.
*4 Diagram for ‘The Robeson Technique’
- Photo 2: Paul Robeson holding “Synthea.” (Faculty of Stevens Institute of Technology Collection, SCW.007)
- Photo 3: Program for the Second Sound Show at the Stevens Theater (now DeBaun Auditorium), 1941. Robeson performed on Saturday, April 19 while Juano Hernandez played his role during the previous two evenings. (Faculty of Stevens Institute of Technology Collection, SCW.007. Archives & Special Collections, Samuel C. Williams Library)
- Photo 4: Diagram for ‘The Robeson Technique’ from Harold Burris-Meyer’s article, “The Control of Acoustic Conditions on the Concert Stage,” featured in the January 1941 issue of The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America.