Three nights at the theater

Two nights in London last month; one night in Austin last year. The performances in London inspired me to share them all with you. Each was fabulous in its own way and wonderfully relevant for both of my series, the Elizabethan and the Victorian. The theaters themselves were a big part of the fun.

The theaters

The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

The minstrel gallery by candlelight

This is the indoor theater at Shakespeare’s Globe in London (another experience to put on your bucket list.) The SWP is a recreation of a 17th-century theater, loosely modeled on Blackfriars Theatre, which was possibly the first indoor theater in England.

The Blackfriars Theatre was opened in 1596, over the objections of Francis Bacon’s aunt, Lady Elizabeth Russell. I’ve blogged about her before and probably will again. There’s a great book about this conflict: Laoutaris, Chris. 2015. Shakespeare and the Countess: The Battle that Gave Birth to the Globe. London: Penguin Books.

Note the dress-up hiking clothes. The guy in the black suit works there.

The Wanamaker Playhouse is lovely, lovely, lovely. It’s an intimate space, very vertical so you look down onto the projecting stage. The actors use all the space, often emerging from the stalls or the aisles, sometimes sitting next to a startled — and delighted — person in the audience. It officially holds 340 people. I guessed 150, which shows you how bad I am at guessing quantities. We sit on lightly padded benches with barely enough room for purses under our knees. There’s a cloakroom, so you don’t have to bring your layers in with you.

People were not dressed up, in case you’re wondering. Standard costume seemed to be what I call dress-up hiking clothes, which all tourists seem to wear everywhere nowadays.

Scottish Rite Theater

Scottish Rite Theater from the parking lot

I have lived in Austin since 1974, and I didn’t know about this theater until a local writer pal recommended this particular performance on her Facebook page. Ya think ya know a place…

The theater was built in 1871, so I have no excuse, though t is unassuming on the outside. It started out as a German opera house, then became the home of Scottish Rite Masons, who created the non-profit theater in 2004. They mostly host children’s plays, which look hugely fun. The Victorian reproduction I saw was an unusual event I sincerely hope they’ll repeat. 

Marlowe by candlelight

Before the play begins: Edward I’s coffin

This was amazing, and it took me by surprise, even though they say on the SWP website where I bought my ticket that plays are performed by candlelight. This is as close to the Elizabethan experience at Blackfriars as I’ll ever get. If I’d been wearing period garb, I would’ve taken up two spaces instead of one, but the usher told me that Blackfriars Theater was much bigger, so there would’ve been more room.

The candles weren’t just lighting at SWP; they became part of the performance. We started out fully lit, with two big candelabras hanging over the stage and lots of candles in sconces on the pillars in front of the stalls and the musician’s gallery. The gallery stayed lit throughout, but as the play turned to the dark side, actors lowered the candelabras whilst delivering a thoughtful monologue and snuffed out the candles. Spooky!

Then later another actor lit a few of them again. During some impassioned scenes on the floor of the stage, an actor would take a sconce from a pillar and hold it to illuminate their faces. Once or twice toward the end, actors came out with a basket of candles to set at the front of the stage. Footlights!

The floor, designed for Edward II, though this pic was taken before Edward I

One thing I wouldn’t have thought of just from pictures and floor plans: the theater grew cooler as they put out more candles. The Swedish lady sitting next to me and I were quite chilly! That’s exactly the sort of detail that makes a whole trip worthwhile.

The play was Edward II, by Christopher Marlowe. I’ve blogged about him before and will again. This play is dark and grim, like all of Kit’s plays. This one was first performed in 1592. It just occurred to me that I will definitely blog about this play again next year, when I publish Now and Then Stab, which will be the 7th book in the Francis Bacon mystery series. That title is a quote from Ed II. That ticket was tax-deductible in all directions :-).

The performance I saw in February consolidated several characters and cut several scenes that didn’t carry the central conflict. The result was a play more about prejudice than about favoritism; a modern perspective. Marlowe balanced the two. In a nutshell: King Edward had a favorite, a lover named Gaveston. He showered money and titles on this upstart, neglecting his queen, the other noblemen, and his subjects. Naturally, this caused resentment, also distaste for the unnatural relationship between the two men. Nobles remonstrated Edward; he refused to mend his ways. So they rebelled and ultimately murdered him. Gaveston dies too, of course.

Apart from re-aligning the major theme, the alterations kept the show down to two hours. Which I appreciated, because it was cold as the dickens that night and I had to walk about 6 blocks to the tube station. Safe as houses, though. Even this old Houston girl felt comfortable (apart from the cold) walking those well-lit streets. Next time, I’ll bring a sweater in addition to my raincoat.

Actors turn a hash into a feast

Sunday night’s fun was a “reading” of George Peele’s play, Famous Chronicle of Edward the First. This was published in 1593, so it must have been performed sometime before that. Before or after Marlowe’s hit play, I wonder?

The minstrel gallery. For Edward II, they had brilliant musicians playing a variety of period instruments.

I downloaded The Works of George Peele, edited by A. H. Bullen (Boston: Houghton Mifflin and Company, 1888) to read on my phone whilst riding the tube hither and tither that day. Don’t we love the internet and the kindly people who scanned these classic works to make available through Google Books? (We don’t thank Google because they rarely acknowledge the librarians who preserved, catalogued, and scanned these works for us.)

I actually never got past the introduction, which is excellent; very informative. Recommended, especially when you’re stuck waiting in line or somewhere like a subway where you can’t get a signal. At some point I jotted down this quote to share with you, because it is the perfect description of that wacky hodge-podge of a play. Bullen said, “It is tiresome, windy, bombastical stuff, but it held the stage.”

More of the amazing ceiling.

Only because the actors were so enthusiastic about what amounted to an improvisation of a long dead and quite terrible play. They performed in street clothes with highlighted sheafs of paper in their hands. They’d had a read-through earlier that day — their entire acquaintance with the play. I had expected this reading to be a scholarly, somewhat dry event. I grossly underestimated the talent, inventiveness, and spirit of the London actor!!

Edward was played by Jason Hughes, who played DS Jones on Midsomer Murders. He was totally convincing as the imperious king, and the rest of the cast was equally delightful. They climbed all over that theater, using the whole space. They had minimal props like a crown or a bench, which they carried in and out as needed. Electric lights were on and it was always fairly bright. The usher told me that actors love these readings, because it’s only a day’s commitment, but they get to really exercise their acting skills in the company of a little group of equally engaged colleagues.

The play is dreadful as literature, but Bullen was right: it held the stage, meaning it was entertaining. It’s like a song hits of the 1590s. Here we have a scene where a messenger delivers troublesome news to the king. Then later, for no discernible reason, Evil Isabel the Queen poisons somebody (the king? her son? I can’t remember) by pouring poison in his ear. (Hm, we wonder who else saw this play back in 1592?) The next scene bears no relation to what came before or what comes after, but it was fun, in and of itself. This is what you get when you write without a theme.

The plot is ridiculous and the set speeches the very definition of bombastical. But the actors were having so much fun, we did too. We laughed and laughed! Perhaps not the effect George Peele was looking for, but if he was a typically pragmatic Elizabethan, he would have shrugged and said, “It likes me well enough.”

Boo! Hiss! The Victorian experience

Scottish Rite Theater, from their website

The Hidden Room Theater calls itself “A theatrical curiosity shop in Austin, TX. We make time machines.” And that’s all I can find out in a general way. They’re not a place; they’re a group who now and then conjures up a unique theatrical experience.

The one I got to enjoy was a performance of Shakespeare’s Richard III. The script and staging were taken from the original book of John Wilkes Booth. Yes, you read that correctly! So this was a 21st-century recreation of a Victorian production of a Jacobean play. Pure experiential ambrosia for a writer of historical fiction set in those periods!

The Beth Burns, the director, spoke to us at the start of the play to explain a bit of the context. She encouraged us to enter into the recreation by performing the role of a good Victorian audience. We should boo, she said, and also hiss, and call out things like “He’s lying!” or “Look out!”

The dastardly Richard III, from Austinot.

It was a riot. Nobody must ever have fallen asleep at the theater in Victorian times. You’re too busy participating!

Judd Farris played Richard. He also played us like a well-tuned violin. He would creep out onto the stage, sort of hidden from the other actors by the curtain, and grimace at us with his hunchbacked wickedness gleaming in his eyes. We would hiss and boo and stamp our feet. That just made him all the more wicked!!! We cried “Kill him! Kill him!” and eventually they did. We cheered lustily.

I am longing for them to do this again with another play. Any other play. The worst play from the 19th century would be an evening of great entertainment in these people’s clever hands.

Sorry I don’t have pictures of the actual performances. But only a barbarian — or a theater critic — takes photographs during a play.

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.



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