The Music Hall and Theatre History Site
Dedicated to Arthur Lloyd, 1839 - 1904.

The Lighting of Theatres in 1881

Backstage Articles Index

We are quite sure many playgoers must have felt as we have done ourselves this hot weather, that the lighting of Theatres, especially during the summer, is a subject worthy of more attention than it receives, and the rapid decline of the dramatic season is owing more to the temperature of the Theatres than to any apathy respecting the performance.

At the present time the system of illuminating the Theatre carries with it not a little discomfort for the audience. Only consider the immense heat coming from the footlights alone. That of itself is equal to a number of fires burning in front of the stage, and every breath of air that comes from the stage carries this heated atmosphere into the body of the house.

There is a remarkable difference between the methods adopted. In some houses the auditorium is cheerfully lighted and the atmosphere is not oppressive, while in other houses, where the audience portion is comparatively dark, it is like sitting in an oven. The difficulty, of course, is greatest in the older Theatres, constructed in times when our forefathers were contented with an auditorium lighted with a few candles or dim oil lamps, while if they just managed to see the performers on the stage audiences of those days were quite satisfied. There were no elaborate set scenes to be shown, no moonlight effects, no sunsets, no fashionable drawing-room scenes embellished with esthetic furniture, china, glass, and pictures; neither were the costumes of the costly description we are now accustomed to.

But theatrical representations have so greatly changed that the lighting of Theatres will also have to undergo a change, in order to secure the comfort of the audience without sacrificing the brilliancy of the scenery upon the stage and the many illusions introduced by modern art. And in the auditorium a change is necessary, for there are few audiences, especially ladies, who will be satisfied to sit in darkness, as at Bayreuth, where high festival was kept by people who could not see each other, and who were compelled to look at the stage because they had nothing else to look at. Now, this system is never likely to become popular, and we should be sorry if it did.

There is much pleasure to the ordinary playgoer in seeing a handsomely decorated Theatre, filled with a well-dressed and refined-looking audience, while the beauty of the fairer portion is quite extinguished by a gloomy, sombre-looking house, in which the occupants of:boxes on opposite sides are invisible to each other. Granted that in dramatic or operatic performances the stage, and what goes on there, should have the principal attention; yet we imagine that to many half the charm of the Theatre would be lost if the practice became general of audiences sitting in the gloom of an unlighted house, in order to lower the temperature or to force them to pay greater attention to the performance on the stage.

Moderation is required in these matters, and we fancy nothing is more likely to enhance the cheerfulness - of a comedy performance, for example - than the sight of a large and elegant audience in a gracefully lighted Theatre. In such circumstances there is more sympathy between the audience and the performers; and we have frequently observed that a capital old comedy goes best in the good old style; that is, with the Theatre fairly lighted and the stage not unduly glittering and showy. There is apt to be a great abuse of lime-light. In brilliant scenes of a spectacular kind it is extremely useful, and adds much to the effect; but where the piece depends mainly upon the acting it is best, as at the Theatre Francais, for the scenic and other accessory aids to stage illusion to be seen in a moderate light.

Mr Fitzgerald, in his remarkably interesting work upon the stage, says "The whole principal of lighting the stage is involved in difficulties of the most perplexing kind, which are not likely to be resolved until some genuine scientific man condescends to take the matter up. The main difficulty is, that the stronger the light, the blacker and more marked are the shadows; which can, however, be neutralised by additional light cast in their direction, but at the sacrifice of the first light. The whole is a series of compromises and shifts. When the dancer is performing and the burlesque queen singing her song, we can see the fierce, strong bar of lime projected from the corner - often, too, the lamp and the man that holds it. Nay, before the drop-scene ascends, he has taken his place aloft, and the rays, not to be restrained, stream out fiercely across the curtain. It performs fitful and irregular motions as the operator changes his glasses to a new colour. There is something grotesque and primitive in the position in which the dancer pirouettes and gambols over the expanse of the large stage; the operator tries to pursue and overtake her with this lamp, always succeeding in displaying his illuminative ring upon the boards. M. Gamier, in the lighting of the Grand Opera, Paris, would hear of nothing but the lustre. It is one of the most troublesome questions a theatrical architect has to grapple with. In other buildings there is no such difficulty, because they are mainly used in the daylight.

The church, the palace, the court of justice, the picture gallery are built so that natural daylight may have free play. Not so in the Theatre. There is a strong objection now raised to the everlasting "sunlight" as it is called. In the first place it causes a terrible heat, and the occupants of the upper portion of the Theatre suffer intensely from its glare, and, arrange it how we may, it always has a coarse and inartistic effect.

A curious example of lighting is to be seen at the Chatelet Theatre, Paris. It was probably suggested by our House of Commons, where the lamps are virtually outside the house, and thus all heating and flame is avoided. The whole Theatre is thus filled with a subdued light like that of the setting sums. Yet there are serious objections. First, as may be imagined, the enormous cost, a cost yet more enhanced by the fact that a third of the light is supposed to be intercepted by the tinted glass. Above all, there was something bizarre in so vast a building being covered in after so greenhouse-like a fashion. The sound of the voices was also said to be affected by this odd reflector, though I have never noticed that it was inferior to that of other houses. Finally, the enormous waste of glass, and the general apparatus itself, was altogether out of proportion to what was sought.

At the French Vaudeville a sort of illuminated glass hemisphere is adopted, and at the Gaiete a number of fantastic engines of the same kind at intervals over the ceiling, something after the fashion of the old Princess's. The question of lighting must, of course, depend in a great measure upon the form of the Theatre. A house with a domed ceiling will obviously require a different mode of illumination than the Theatre with a flat roof.

M. Garnier, of the Paris Grand Opera, asks with enthusiasm, "What but the lustre could exhibit such a variety of shades of light, such bright specks, such sparkling of crystals? A well-shaped lustre, proportioned to the enclosure it fills, is a beautiful object, with its balloon of silvery, glittering light, so brilliant and yet so soft; in a ballroom it fills every corner, and illuminates faces and dresses to perfection. But there is an architectural reason for the presence of a lustre in a Theatre; it becomes a measure of space. All that waste towards the roof is unfilled, and has a certain barrenness; once the lustre is hung, it brings out the size and distance appreciably. The lustre is an equal distance from all, and lights up all in an equal Measure. These are great recommendations. There is the objection that it impedes the view, hanging between the stage and the eyes of those in the higher tier and galleries. Many of the great Theatres have flat ceilings, which are of poor effect, and singularly inappropriate to such great areas. There is nothing more beautiful or suggestive of splendour than a grand and brilliant Theatre, glittering with gold and colour - crowded - the boxes or balconies brimming over with beauty and intelligence - the area filled with ranks and ranks of listeners - the figure of the conductor projecting a little above the stage; aloft a waste of the blue empyrean, with glowing gods floating in the clouds, just above the edge of the painted balustrade, foreshortened with marvellous skill; and, above all, the noble proscenium, solid yet not heavy, with massive and rich draperies, the boundary of the world of enchantment."

For the lower portion of the house, no doubt, the lustre is elegant, and the pearly effect of the light is beneficial to the display of an elegant toilette. But the magic word electricity will probably, ere long, solve all these difficulties, and give all the requisite illumination without the suffocating heat and disagreeable odour of gas. The danger of fire and the risk of explosion will also be greatly modified.

This article was first published in the ERA, 23rd of July 1881.

Archive newspaper reports on this page were collated and kindly sent in for inclusion by B.F.

Share this page on Facebook