Behind the scenes: Traps & flying angels

The Italians invented everything in Western theater, it would seem, including the notion of building cloud-gondolaelaborate machinery to produce astonishing stage effects. There’s an excellent article about it at the Italian Renaissance Theatre site, which I highly recommend for the theater nuts among you. (And aren’t we all, at some level, theater nuts?) They begin, as we might have guessed, with commedia dell’arte, which began on wagons in town squares and ended up in gorgeous purpose-built halls.

This gondola on the right inspired and informed the midpoint disaster in Moriarty Brings Down the House. No spoilers! This drawing shows it from the back. The front is covered with sparkly gauze, or so I assume, to look like a cloud upon which the actors descend, backlit, I assume, with rosy light.

Victorian spectacular theater

Booth tells that the now-familiar shape of a theater, with an auditorium sloping gently toward a big rectangular proscenium opening, was established during the early years of the nineteenth century. The most important data point for this post is that the working space behind the opening — backstage — was larger than the auditorium itself. “…the average fair-sized late Victorian provincial stage, designed to take the scenery of touring companies [that glorious panto from London], had a proscenium opening 30′ wide, then a minimum of 17′ 6″ on each side of that opening was needed for wing space and the accommodation of scenery and sub-stage machinery. Similary, the height of the stage behind the opening itself, say about 50′-60′ for the standard 25′-30′ proscenium height. The distance from the proscenium to the back wall of the stage, which was usually the back wall of the theatre and hidden from the audience by scenery, depended on the size of the lot the theatre was built on and could vary from 30′ to 80′. The area beneath the stage was excavated, ideally, to a depth of 30′ for the operation of the sub-stage machinery…”


This picture’s from the book. It shows a set for a scene in which a ship is tossed by stormy seas. See the pillars underneath the deck? They could be raised and lowered by machinery in the cellar beneath the stage. If this is late Victorian, that raising and lowering was done by a gang of men pulling on ropes.

There’s a movie, one of those 40’s movies about vaudeville days that I watched a bunch of to get glimpses of life backstage… I think it was Cover Girl with Rita Hayworth. She or someone did a cute little song & dance routine dressed in Edwardian garb in which flat pieces of scenery would rise up through slots in the stage floor, like a little cafe where the singers would pretend to sit. They weren’t small flats — easily 15′ tall and the same length. They must have been arranged beneath the stage under drop-down slots in the floor and raised by — well, machines in the movie and maybe the Edwardian period, but by half a dozen burly workmen down in the cellar hauling on a big fat rope. No wonder so many theater crew were former sailors! 

Up, up, and away!

So here I am, a Victorian set designer, looking at a proscenium arch about 25′ tall by 30′ wide. Am I thinking, Ah, the elegance of minimal lines in a pure space? I am not. I’m thinking every cubic inch of that territory, speaking three-dimensionally, must be filled with as much eye-popping shazaamery as my budget will allow.

To my great surprise, I can’t find a single illustration of an actor flying above the stage in a Victorian drama. They must have done it. Look at that cloud gondola above, from the 18th century. They certainly had the machinery. And we all know actors will do anything to make the show a success.

Ropes for raising and lowering actors in harnesses and gondolas and whatever else they could dream up were managed from the fly galleries — one left, one right. More sturdy former sailors up there managing all those ropes. I assume you reach these galleries by winding up many narrow stairs from stage level. There’s a catwalk that spans the stage, well out of sight of the audience above the proscenium, 40′ or more up.

Booth provided photos of the fly gallery at Tyne Theatre, Newcastle. The only image I could find of an actor in a flying harness was the one I actually remember myself — Mary Martin playing Peter Pan. A much-loved TV re-run in my childhood.





Arise, demons, from the very depths of hell

Or fairies, or sorcerers, or barking dogs. Arise, anybody, really, provided you fit on the trap. The Encyclopedia Britannica informs concisely that there are several kinds of traps.

“The corner trap, for example, is a small, square opening, usually located at the side of the stage, fitted with a trapdoor or flaps that can be lowered out of sight. Through it, standing figures or objects can be lifted onto the stage. When a sudden, mysterious appearance is required, a star trap is used. The star trap is a circular opening with a lid composed of wedge-shaped sections, individually hinged to the circumference. An actor, standing below on a heavily counterweighted platform, can be projected through the opening with great speed. The sections of the lid are pushed up as he passes and immediately fall back into place, thus concealing his point of entrance. Another common trap with a long history is the grave trap, a large, rectangular opening in the centre of the stage floor. It is named for its most famous use, as an open grave in the graveyard scene from Hamlet. Most traps and their mechanisms are designed so that they can be taken apart and moved to any point in the stage floor where they are required or can be stored when not in use.”

We also have those long slotted traps I described above, for moving up whole painted flat pieces of scenery, like waves that might even rise and fall, or fish leaping the above the waves. 




Booth, Michael R. 1981. Victorian Spectacular Theatre, 1850-1910. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Booth, Michael R. 1991. Theatre in the Victorian Age. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

The Golden Age of Pantomime

Jeffrey Richards (see References, below) writes that “By the 1970s, the nature of pantomime waspanto1 changing, with the role of the harlequinade increasingly curtailed, prose replacing the rhyming couplets and most significantly the interjection into the stories of music hall comedians and their acts.”

This caused consternation and dismay among panto purists, who particularly objected to the appearance of vulgar music hall personages on the boards of their holy Royal Theatres (or it so sounds to me.) Happily for thousands of theater-goers, their cries were ignored, especially after the enterprising Augustus ‘Gus’ Harris Junior took over Drury Lane in 1979.

That controversy is dead and gone. The pro-music hall faction won, but the fairies hung on strong.

Yes, but how much per fairy?

Pantos weren’t just spectacles from the audience’s perspective, they were spectacularly expensive. My sources don’t lay out the money matters in the fashion best suited to blogging and writing novels, alas, and I’m not going to do that much work either, but here are some numbers to put things in perspective.

First, you’ll want to know what ordinary folks earned. These figures are from the Encyclopedia of Victorian London. A bank clerk, one of the legion of top-hatted semi-gents who thickly populate novels from Dickens to Trollope, made £20 to £50 per annum at aged 18, rising 5-10% per year. A laundry woman earned 2s. 6dto 2s. 8d. per day. 12p = 1s, 20s = 1 pound. A footman made £20 to £40 per annum; same as a clerk, but with a shorter career ladder and the clerk had higher status. A Stockbrokers clerk earned £80 to £100 at aged 18; typically with an annual rise of £20 and a present of from £10 to £15 at Christmas.

OK, on to the theater. Ellen Terry, one of the immortal actresses, earned £200/week. A leading comedy actress could earn £20-£40/week; the prima donna in an opera bouffe £40-£50/week; and a popular soubrette / burlesque actress could earn £10-£20/week. Not bad, especially considering that women couldn’t get jobs as clerks.

Male & female supernumeraries (spear-carriers, villagers, butterflies) were paid between 1s 6d & 2s a night in first-rate theaters The average annual income of performers lucky enough to be employed 42 weeks / year was likely to be only £105, or £2/week. That’s before job-related expenses, which bring it down to £70.

Average yearly expenses for actor earning £67 10s:
lodgings                                   £13      0s
washing                                        5     4
wardrobe                                    10     0
Newspapers & tobacco                5     0
Total                                          £33    4s

Actresses might save on tobacco, but have to spend more on clothes. For comparison, a school mistress had to spend £10-£16 on clothes, out of a salary of £100-£130. A clerk paid £227, spent £41; a journalist paid £338, spent £42. Educational requirement for all of these was similar.

Of seas and ships

Set design model for Giuseppe Verdi’s Otello, created for a Paris production in 1895

Wages were not the big expense in a pantomime, although they did hire hundreds of supers to march around in fancy dress. The big money went to sets and costumes. When Eliza Vestris and her husband Charles James Mathews were obliged to surrender Covent Garden with a £30,000 debt, they forfeited £14,000 in scenery, wardrobe, and properties. This was in 1841! 

Scenery paintings were made by noted artists like William Roxby Beverly and Henry Emden. Their names would be listed in the programmes. Costume designers would actually go to the Victoria & Albert museum to sketch historical costumes, to ensure perfection. Victorians wanted realistic sets: gorgeous paintings of shipwrecks or an undersea world or enchanted island.

Richards reports that in the 1875-6 production of Dick Whittington and His Cat, there were two major transformation scenes (when we’re transported by fairy magic from one world to another.) Dick and the cat are, for reasons opaque to me, on a voyage to Zanzibar. “As The Era (2 January 1876) put it, the ship suddenly disappeared [probably pulled down through a long slot in the stage floor]:

‘leaving behind the rigging, which is covered with sea-weed, and up which swarm dusky urchins [children, supernumeraries, 1s/night] whose head adornments send forth a dazzling light [portable electric batteries carried by each child, maybe]. Obedient to (the Fairy Bluebell’s) summons nymphs and mermaids rise from their emerald beds and coral banks [on trap doors], and there takes place a grand Ballet of Marine Wonders, reflecting credit on the taste and ingenuity of Mr. John Cormack [the choreographer, who also played Harlequin.]”

Oh, yeah.

Roll over, Mother Goose

You’re probably still thinking, “Wait. Zanzibar?” Me too. The fairy tales portrayed in Victorian Christmas pantos seem to have borne only a slender relation to the original stories we learned in our childhoods. They make Disney movies look like historically accurate docu-dramas! I can’t explain the whys or wherefores, apart from the combination of poetic license with the need to recoup the tens of thousands of pounds lavished on each production. So I’ll just give you a random sampling from Richards’ book.

Jack and the Beanstalk

From the Victoria & Albert Museum. A wonderful article you should go read!

I chose this one to be the panto my characters are producing. I liked the poster, mainly. I also liked the part about the heroes and heroines from Shakespeare’s plays who have been imprisoned by the Giant and descend from Cloudland in a grand procession after Jack liberates them. No — I didn’t remember that from the version I heard, either.

Twenty-one of the bard’s great plays were represented. Each couple paused to perform a short scene, then moved on down the staircase. This stair was made of giant books, because it originated in the Giant’s Library. I remember the Giant as being kind of stupid, but hey — in the privacy of his library, who would know what he read?

The Shakespeares were followed by another procession of the gods and goddesses from Olympus, along with other ancient luminaries. “The mythical figures of the Greek poets stand before us in classical garb, and in costumes in which the utmost artistic beauty has been displayed.” I guess the Giant got them too.

Note that Jack was played by a woman, daring to bare her legs before the world. Mother Trott was played by a man, preferably a large fat comedian with a nice deep voice.

We would need for them to leap into action and start blasting each other with godly fire or something. Waaay too static for 21st century tastes! But spectacle is easy for us.


The illustration, also taken from the excellent article at V&A without permission*  is of a production of Cinderella at Drury Lane in 1875, as reported in the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News. I have no idea how this battle scene relates to the standard Cinderella story but it sure as heck looks dramatic! 

Cinderella at Drury Lane, 1875
Cinderella at Drury Lane, 1875

Richards shares a snippet from The Era (1 Jan. 1865) about an earlier Covent Garden production of Cinderella  (p.258):

“The crowning glories are, as usual, achieved by the union of scenic and ballet attractions. To begin with the ballet scene par excellence, nothing more exquisitely delicate and beautiful has ever been imagined than the Butterfly Haunt, painted by Mr. T. Grieve. A calm and unruffled lake, finishing in flowery banks, occupies the breadth of the stage. From the surface rises an island, covered with delicate foliage, and showing the cliffs at the back. The enormous rock is pierced by two arched caverns, while to the left a distant and higher lake is seen, partly surrounded by mountains, and having a waterfall leaping down to the plain beneath. The wings of this lovely scene are formed by flowers and overhanging trees.”

I’m guessing a hundred children dressed as butterflies emerged from one of those caves or sprang up from beneath some three-dimensional papier-mache flowers. 

*I downloaded the 1875 volumes of Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, but couldn’t find this picture. Sigh. Here’s another for your delight, however.

Scenes from "Spectresheim" at the Alhambra Theatre, 1875
Scenes from “Spectresheim” at the Alhambra Theatre, 1875

Onward, into the Now

We don’t have Christmas pantos in Texas. Seems like a sad omission in our cultural options, which are many. But you can see them in London — a whole bunch of them — from early December to beanstalk2mid-January. Absolutely the very same stories that the Victorians enjoyed, but with fewer battles with insects, I’ll bet: Dick Whittington, Cinderella, Robin Hood, Jack & the Beanstalk…. Make your selections from the Big Panto Guide, which looks pretty comprehensive. 

Or maybe you just want your own beanstalk, 14 meters (45 feet) tall. You can order one and have it delivered. 45 feet is 15 feet over my local building code, so I can’t have one. Just as well. The shipping costs from England would be murder. But what a statement, eh? Order it from the Twins FX, stage effects creators extraordinaire.


Booth, Michael R. 1981. Victorian Spectacular Theatre, 1850-1910. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Richards, Jeffrey. 2015. The Golden Age of Pantomime: Slapstick, Spectacle, and Subversion in Victorian England. London: I.B. Tauris.