Stage and Ground: Scenic Tarot and the “Open Reading”

Open reading is a concept that, as best as I know, comes from the Marseille tradition. There’s much more to it than this, but you can think of it this way: looking at the way the cards are oriented on the table, do they look forward or backwards? Where are the obstructions? Taking in general patterns visually is how I might try to define it.

Now, the thing is, a lot of figures in Waite Smith decks are in scenes, which is to say, their facing can’t be taken on its own. They face certain directions to convey certain information already, and so while you could call attention to many figures facing backwards, some of them may or may not fit in with the overall "open reading." This essay is an attempt to test out certain possibilities for using the Waite Smith’s famous scenic composition to recreate a kind of "open" reading through distance.

breaking down the compositions

​ Setting aside the trumps as using different composition "rules," we can imagine three simple divisions for distance: close, middle, and far. Alongside that, there are what many call the "stage" cards, which are cards that feature a kind of platform or foreground square block that hides some of the scenery and could be read as "stood on" by the figures. Smith was surrounded by theater people, so it is unsurprising that she might use some of the compositional language of theater for the deck. ​ I won’t go through and list every single card and whether it is close or far, but here are some examples.

Foreground Focus

The 2 of Swords, 4 of Cups, and 4 of Disks are good examples of foreground-focused cards. Their scenery is fairly simple, though it differs between them. Single figures occupy the center of the image, and they are quite close to us. You can see that the 2 of Swords and the 4 of Disks are also both "stage" cards. We’ll talk about those later, but I want to note it now, as I’ve just included stage cards into each of these three divisions.

Middle Ground Focus

the 8 of Cups and the 5 of Wands are both good examples of middle focus. While the 8 of Cups certainly has the cups very close to us, the action is not near. The figure is in the middle ground, and in this case it creates a sense of being in the middle of doing something. That holds true for the 5 of Wands as well, where this combat — mock or not, depending on who you ask — is well underway. It’s gotten to complex and mixed up to have just begun, and it doesn’t look like anyone is going to quit anytime soon. That’s one thing that middle ground cards can do, though I am not claiming that every card with a strong middle ground focus is explicitly doing that.

Far or Background Focus

Cards like the 4 of Wands have most of their focus quite far away. Now, technically, this card has important images at each of the three distances. The wands make their canopy in the foreground, the figures are walking in the middle distance and the city they are leaving behind is in the far distance. I’m calling this a background focus card just because the figures are so far away. The stage amplifies that sense of distance, as do their foreshortened height, especially compared to the wands, which are both tall and very, very close to us.

Mixing It Up

Of course, most cards have a mix of at least two elements. So here are some cards that are significant in part because they have so much going on at each of the three distances: the Ace of Pentacles and the Page of Pentacles. In both cases, lush greenery in the foreground reaches backwards until a change in scenery makes us realize the distances involved: the distant gate in the ace reveals even more distant mountains. The page sort of looks like a giant, because the simplified foreshortening shows us trees and mountains so very far away.

The ace is often considered a card of a new, "distant" opportunity that the querent needs to follow up on, very "Bilbo running out of the house" energy, if you see what I mean. And the composition helps to create that sense.

Replicating Open Readings with Distance

Now, as I said, you can simply use the same strategies of open reading that you would on a Marseille deck. However, some of them are less than optimal. A Marseille pip card can look like an actual wall or gate barring the way of a court card. So while you can use the direction that people face, it’s a bit awkward because some figures face forwards and backwards while others face the viewer and the background. Additionally, the 4 of Disks certainly could mean an obstacle to a ready-to-go King of Wands, but the card itself has a lot of open space.

So, instead, you can use the distances. Here are some simple ways to start thinking with distances:

A plethora of cards with far distance focuses, surrounding a desired goal represented by a card that’s closer in focus, could mean the goal is more out of reach than the querent believes, or that there’s going to be work to keep it after getting it.

A middle distance card opposing a close distance card could mean that the querent needs distance, since a problem is being created (through opposition) and distance is the thing that’s missing.

If the problems are all close up and the solutions are all far away, either bunker down or explore other routes that might get you closer.

Adding the Stage Cards

I talked about cards above independent of whether they are the somewhat famous "stage cards." I’m not certain that there is an encoded meaning to the stages, as some other writers think. I think Smith was in a hurry to finish the cards in time to get some money for Christmas and sometimes drawing a line across the card and saying "that’s where people are standing" is easier than figuring out how to draw grass again. Watch any episode of Drawfee to see that every artist has different tricks to deal with someting that would take them too long to worry about if they’re on deadline.

However, that’s less important if we’re replicating an open reading. Because the stages are present, whether they were meant to be significant or not. In the same way that we read Marseille cards as though the flowers are significant when they were just decoration to fill white space, we can read the stages too.

Stages are for performing, which isn’t the most insightful comment, I know. But it’s where one must start. You can, with little other work, simply decide that every stage card has an element of performance to it and stop there. Simple, right? I say we go at least a little further, but that will be the platform on which everything else is built.

Let’s consider the 2 of Swords. Susan Chang calls this card "little Justice," because the figure is blindfolded, wielding swords, and the card is associated with the first decan of Libra. What might a person be doing on a stage — that is to say, performing — while blindfolded and wielding a bunch of swords? As Andrew Watt has said in his Decans Walk Patreon course,, we could consider the card as depicting a ritual, particularly as the Golden Dawn was very interested in the "middle pillar," finding a balance between two two poles of light and dark that they conceived as being the push and pull of the universe. A hoodwinked figure holding a sword on a stage certainly looks like someone in the middle of a ritual, doesn’t it? It doesn’t look like the figure is going to throw the swords or otherwise entertain.

Now, that’s a way to use the stage to understand a card. But how can we use it to flesh out a reading? If the 2 of Swords showed up in a reading, what might we usually say? The moon indicates mental and emotional turmoil, the depths of the sunconscious rising at last. The water is calm but not still. The figure is blindfolded but safe, controlling the dangers around them. If we see it as a ritual, then we might say that the figure indicates a time of silence and contemplation directed not toward gaining calm and acceptance, but towards gaining a measure of confidence, understanding, or initiation.

Now, let’s say the goal they are looking for has a stage as well. And let’s say the problems surrounding them are not staged. We can say, probably with some ease, that the querent needs to get in the public eye. The need for initiation in this case is not personal but social: the group needs to know that the querent can function as a part of it.

Curtain Call

This essay has essentially been a riff on "open reading" in order to talk about some of the information we can glean from card composition and the special "stage cards" of the Waite Smith tarot. The general principles are of course applicable to any deck that’s scenic, which is to say any deck that isn’t just abstract pips. But you may or may not encounter something analogous to the stage cards.

In the end, this is just a visual rhetoric technique to pull big picture information from a set of cards: are things far away or not? Are they public or private? Those are the kinds of questions you can answer with this set of techniques.

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