Behind the scenes: Limelight & lighting effects

Shakespeare’s plays were performed for the public in the afternoon, as they are today at the Globe Theater in London. Private performances might take place indoors at night. But generally, the stage was lit by the sun, however cloudy the day. Even indoors at places like the Blackfriars Theatre, afternoon performances were lit by long high windows, augmented with candles.

When King Charles II restored the theaters of England, he introduced new developments in lighting from the Continent as well. There, theaters relied on huge chandeliers which lit the whole house, not just the stage. The stage was augmented by footlights — candles in sconces — set at the edge of the stage where they cast light up onto the actors’ faces. Wikipedia quotes Frederick Penzel’s 1978 Theatre Lighting Before Electricity: “Candles needed frequent trimming and relighting regardless of what was happening on-stage because “they dripped hot grease on both the audience and actors”.”

How delightful! Especially in the thin fabrics favored during the Regency period, depicted here. Note the chandeliers hanging in front of the galleries and the little rill of footlights at the front of the stage.


Loving the limelight

I expected to find all sorts of pithy quotations using the word ‘limelight,’ but no; nothing but pseudo-self-deprecating blah-blah from modern actors. I expected quotes from eminent Victorians, since the stuff was a major innovation of their era. One of so many, I guess, it wasn’t worthy of special note. So all I can offer you on the quote front is this succinct definition from OED: “1952   W. Granville Dict. Theatr. Terms 111   Fond of limelight, greedy for notice. One who claims the centre of the stage.”dancer univ baltimore

Limelight was discovered in the 1820s by Goldsworthy Gurney, an English chemist. Thomas Drummond gave his name to the lamp he invented for surveying purposes. I’ll give you a whole quote from Wikipedia solely for the pleasure of the quintessentially Victorian word found therein: 

“The earliest known use of limelight at a public performance was outdoors, over Herne Bay Pier, Kent, on the night of 3 October 1836 to illuminate a juggling performance by magician Ching Lau Lauro. This performance was part of the celebrations following the laying of the foundation stone of the Clock Tower. The advertising leaflet called it koniaphostic light and announced that “the whole pier is overwhelmed with a flood of beautiful white light”

Man, that light is like totally koniaphostic!!

Limelight moved quickly into the theaters, whose need for increasing spectacle made producers eager to experiment with new technologies. Covent Garden was the first to deploy the new tool in 1837, bringing yet another spectacularly hazardous device under the theatrical umbrella.

Limelight_burnerThe Drummond lamp is a kind of blowtorch, fueled by a judicious mixture of oxygen and hydrogen. The flame is directed onto a small piece of quicklime (calcium oxide), producing an intense white light that can be projected to form a spotlight on the stage. The light can be colored by positioning a filter, usually made of colored glass, in front of it. Victorian lighting managers would use crimson glass to create the illusion of fire.

They made their own oxygen and hydrogen, if you can believe it, on the premises; in my book, up at the top of the backstage area in the lighting crew’s workroom. I dug into this because I was determined to find ways to murder people that did not involve gas lighting. Too obvious! You make oxygen by burning potassium chlorate. You make hydrogen by dripping dilute sulphuric acid onto zinc. Both gases were stored in caoutchouc* balloons, which the limelight operator will press to feed the flame that burns the lime that shines the light that makes the show a hit.

*Another new word for the word junkies among us! It’s unvulcanized natural rubber.


Now, this is a lovely verb, adapted by unanimous acclaim from the title of George Cukor’s movie, in which the evil Charles Boyer tortures Ingrid Bergman by convincing her she’s going mad, partly by gaslight-1944manipulating the gas lighting in their house! Whoof!

And here’s something that will surprise you: the first supporting quote in OED for this verb comes from a popular TV show: “1965   Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. (The Grudge Match) (transcript of TV programme) 12 Nov.   Duke. Maybe..we can get through to the Chief. Frankie. How do you mean? Duke. I mean psychological warfare… The old war on nerves. We’ll gaslight him.”

Who’d’ve a-thunk it?

Gas lighting began spreading rapidly across Europe and America in the from the late 18th century. It reached the top tier of London by 1817, including the Lyceum, Covent Garden, and Drury Lane. Gas entered the building from a single source in the basement, where the flow was distributed into a maze of pipes and rubber tubing controlled by the gas table or gas panel. The pipes and tubes ran throughout the building, lighting everything: chandeliers in the auditorium, smaller lights in the foyers outside the tiers of boxes, rows of lights above the mirrors at actors’ dressing tables, footlights, border lights — strips of lights on bars hanging from the flies… They would run gas tubing across the stage, artfully concealed, to light lamps or fairy wands or spectacular simulations of fires.

Here’s a mind-boggling description from Michael Booth (p. 81): “The fairies of the ‘Valley of Jewels’ scene in Harlequin and Sindbad the Sailor (1881) carried white wands each surmounted by a capital letter in copper spelling out the names of jewels in words of blazing light, such as RUBIES, EMERALDS, and  TOPAZES, each group of fairies being dressed in the colour of its jewel. The gaslightingwords were made of gaspipe plunged into sockets… miles of gaspiping beneath the stage, a thousand holes punched in every letter, with care to ensure each tiny gas jet containing a roll of paper percussion caps to ignite the gas…”

Yes, I’ll carry that prop around for fifteen minutes, says nobody nowadays, ever. I had gas space heaters in my bedroom in the 70s, old-fashioned even then, but you know – cheap student housing. We were always conscious of that open flame, worrying about dog’s tails or shaking out a sheet. Here’s hoping nobody uses those dangerous things anymore.

But oh, all that lovely light! And no need for lightmen to rush about relighting candles. No more hot wax dripping on people. Sure, gas lights generated enough heat to melt the paint off an actor’s face and there was that little problem of explodability, but what glorious, bright, even light! Here’s Wikipedia’s dry take on that issue: “Gas lighting did have some disadvantages. “Several hundred theatres are said to have burned down in America and Europe between 1800 and the introduction of electricity in the late 1800s.”


The first theater to replace gas with electricity throughout was the Savoy Theatre in London, built by producer/entrepreneur Richard D’Oyly Carte and home of Gilbert & Sullivan’s inimitable comic operas. It didn’t take long for other theaters to follow suit. By the end of the century, all but the hopelessly poor or old-fashioned theaters in Europe and America had gone electric.

D’Oyly Carte explained the enthusiastic response thus: “The greatest drawbacks to the enjoyment of the theatrical performances are, undoubtedly, the foul air and heat which pervade all theatres. As everyone knows, each gas-burner consumes as much oxygen as many people, and causes great heat beside. The incandescent lamps consume no oxygen, and cause no perceptible heat.”


You’re wondering, yes, but what about those fairies? Well, electricity improved their lot as well. Now they could dance across the stage with bright wands and brilliant headpieces powered by batteries strapped to their backs.




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

Lauginie, Pierre. 2015. “Drummond light, limelight: A device of its time,” Bulletin of the Scientific Instrument Society, No. 127.



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.

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