There is a common notion that stage lighting is the youngest of the stage arts, having suddenly been developed since the advent of electricity. Electricity was the final link in a chain of development stretching far into the past. True, stage lighting has come a long way since the dawn of electricity but its foundations were thoroughly established during the three centuries before Edison. Colored light, spotlights, translucencies, and dimming were well known before the incandescent lamp. This paper seeks to identify and explain some of the most prevalent forms and techniques of stage lighting during the pre-electricity era.
At the beginning of theatrical activity, light played an important role. The light used in the earliest productions was natural light. The open Greek theatres were built to use directional sunlight and had no need of artificial sources. The Greeks organized their plays to run a course through the day in order to use the different types of light available at different times (Penzel, 3). Although the Romans may have used torches in their theatres, the idea of light being controlled as a visual effect had not yet been discovered.
Until the Renaissance, the main purpose of theatre lighting was to permit the audience to see. Most ancient and medieval drama was performed outdoors. By the beginning of the Renaissance, oil lamps, torches, and candles were about all that was available to produce artificial light. The oil lamp had been used since prehistoric times, as had the torch, which may be the oldest of the three. The candle was developed somewhat later, although there is no documentation as to an exact date.
It is known that the molded candle was not introduced until the eighteenth century (Encyclopedia Britannica, 23. 26). Although window shutters on playhouses in England were sometimes closed to darken a set and create an effect, Renaissance Italy is probably the birthplace of lighting designed specifically for stage productions, as opposed to general-purpose lighting. Since the Italians were the innovators of scenic illusion, it is expected that they would have also have been the first to manipulate light (Hewitt, 18). One Italian theatre architect, Sebastiano Serlio wrote about the use of “bozze”.
Bozze were small glass containers that would be filled with colored water and placed in front of candles to produce colored light. Leone di Somi, another stage architect of the same era was the first to darken the audience area. His intent was to increase the fear and drama of a particular tragedy by making the audience feel isolated in the dark (Nicoll, 231). At the beginning of the Restoration, candle chandeliers continued to be the main source of stage light throughout Europe. A new innovation however was footlights. Footlight began to appear first as candles and later as oil lamps.
A painting of the Comdie Franais from around 1670 shows the stage being lighted by six chandeliers and a bank of thirty four footlights. It was not until about 1720 that molded candles were developed (Encyclopedia Britannica, 23. ,226). Molded candles allowed for bigger wicks and thus, more light. They also needed more maintenance and the candle snuffer’s office became an integral part of theatre management (Penzel 20). One of the most significant lighting developments of the eighteenth century was practiced at the Drury Lane Theatre, under the management of David Garrick.
Garrick’s innovation was the removal of the chandeliers. The chandeliers had, for a long time, obstructed the view fro the upper galleries and were also inefficient. The emphasis on lighting was now shifted to sources located behind the proscenium and across the apron. Garrick also introduced the “float”, a long metal trough filled with oil, in which a number of metal saucers, each containing two wicks, could float (Hogan, lxv-lxvi). The trough was lowered into the floor by ropes and pulleys and could thereby achieve a dimming effect.
The Argand burner, a new type of oil lamp, was perhaps the last major lighting innovation of the eighteenth century. It was invented by a Swiss chemist named Amie Argand who had invented the lamp to satisfy his own lighting needs and then later patented it (Thwing 71). His 1784 British patent reads: “A lamp so constructed as to produce neither smoak [sic] nor smell and to give considerably more light than any lamp hitherto known, by converting the smoak into flame, by causing a current of air to pass through the inside of air on the outside of the wick by means of a chimney. ” (Thwing, 73)
Not only did the lamp give off less smoke, it also used less oil. This was the first advance in lamp technology in thousands of years and it started a rush of lighting activity to take place during the nineteenth century. From the mid to late 1700’s, a new technology was in the works: gas lighting. Gas was much brighter than anything that has been used in the past and created many new opportunities for experimentation in lighting. By 1817, the development of gas production, storage, and metering was almost complete and it did not take long for gas technology to move into theatres.
One of the earliest theatrical installations of gas was at the East London Theatre at Wellclose Square. Its advertisement in the London Times of August 6, 1816 states: “GAS LIGHTS – The Public are respectfully informed that this THEATRE IS OPEN every Night for the Season; the whole of the interior and exterior totally illuminated with Gas. ” (2) It did not take long for other theatres to follow. Soon other major playhouses in London were converting to gas lights, including the Lyceum and Covent Garden.
A review of the King’s Theatre in January of 1818 states: “A superb chandelier, lighted with gas, is now suspended from the ceiling, and illuminates the Theatre, in lieu of the lustres and wax candles. Its form is beautiful, and the dispositions of thousands of brilliant cut beads produces the finest possible effects. ” (Theatrical Inquisitor, Jan. , 1818. p. 47) Gas was not always beneficial. “Many playgoers would complain of a burning and prickling sensation in their eyes, and a soreness in the throat, and a headache which lasted for several days afterward. Maqueen-Pope, 251)
This was a direct result of gas combustion, which both depleted the air in the hall, and produced toxic by-products like carbonic acid. Between 1822 and 1830, gas was removed from several large theatres. For instance, Covent Garden returned to oil and candles in 1822 following an explosion during some repair work (London Times, November 19 1828 p. 2). One offshoot of the basic gas burner was the limelight. This piece of equipment originated in the 1820’s and was also called the calcium light, the oxy-hydrogen light, and the Drummond light Encyclopedia Britannica, 9th ed. 480).
The basic principle of the limelight was the heating of a block of compressed quicklime by an oxygen-hydrogen flame. The light given off was very bright and had a green tint. Open limelights were used for bright washes, and lime spotlights were used for more concentrated beams and follow spotting. Limelights were the first instruments to be bright enough to make efficient use of colored lenses, and by crossing the beams of different colored lamps twilight and moonlight effects could be produced (Fitzgerald, 15).
By the mid 1800’s, practically every theatre of any importance had a gas installation (Penzel 69). It was now a theatrical commonplace and the trend was turning toward larger and more elaborate displays of light and equipment. The new Paris Opera was one of the largest theatres in the world. It’s lighting system contained more than twenty eight miles of gas piping with nine hundred and sixty burners (Fitzgerald, 18). Perhaps the largest gas installation was at Astley’s Equestrian Amphitheatre in London.
According to the Illustrated London News, everywhere white and gold meets the eye, and about 200,000 gas jets add to the glittering effect of the auditorium…. Such a blaze of light and splendour has scarcely ever been witnessed, even in dreams. ” (Oct. 28, 1871, p407) The time was approaching, however, when elaborate installations and ingenious effects would no longer be enough, because electricity was quickly catching the imagination of theatre people and the public. The first electric floods would be in limited use by 1860 and it would mark the steady decline of gas and limelight.