Technical Theater During the Restoration Lighting and Scenic Design England 1660-1800
Lowrie Fawley Helton
The Restoration in England was an era ripe for the
development of new ideas in the arts. The return of the Stuart monarchy under
Charles II marked the end of eighteen years of almost dictatorial control by
Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan parliament. Cromwell had campaigned actively to
halt all theatrical activity. In the end, however, his laws were actually
responsible for helping move England forward in theatrical history. Actors,
under Cromwell's laws, were to be apprehended a rogues if they were caught
"in the act" so to speak of performing their trade. Some left their
careers and sought employment elsewhere. Most, however, remained undaunted by
parliament's threats. Productions continued quietly in tennis courts, inns and
private houses. Officials were bribed to keep silent their knowledge of
The theater in England had moved indoors as it had already done in France and Italy. Although the reasons for the move were different, the end result was the same. Up until this time plays had always been performed outdoors in the early afternoon. Performances traditionally relied on sunlight, natural scenery, and minimal set pieces that could be easily transported from one location to another. Indoor productions required something much more elaborate.
The preliminary concepts of scenic design and lighting design began to form in England in the late 1650's. During the Restoration, as controls were lifted, technical theater began to flourish. Many early examples of modern stage techniques were born between 1660 and 1800, making the Restoration a significant era in the history of scenic design and lighting for the theater. The art of scenic design did not begin in England. As early as 1570 the Italians were giving elaborate opera performances in the ducal courts using perspective scenes and various types of stage machinery. The French mimicked the design ideas of the Italian's and gave them a name, la scene a l'italienne. (Southern 221)
Although Cromwell had banned public theater, opera was still considered a lawful art form. In England, just prior to the Restoration, John Webb designed the scenery for William D'avenant's 'opera' production of The Siege of Rhodes. More like play than a traditional opera, it opened in 1656 and became famous historically as the first recorded performance in English theatrical history to make use of Italianete Scenery. (Brockett 271)
Italianete Scenery was a combination of both the Italian and French influences coupled with the reemergence of some of the elements of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century court masques. The masques were a toy for the nobility, an indoor extravaganza that lacked literary merit but provided much dramatic spectacle. John Webb was the pupil and son and law of renowned masque designer Inigo Jones. (Brockett 271) During the reign of Charles I, Jones created elaborate scenes and costumes for the masques and aided in the redesigning of banquet halls to accommodate stages up to 35 feet wide and 25 feet deep that were fitted with trap doors and machinery to allow for the manipulation of scenery from below.
Many of Jones' ideas were taken directly from the writings of Italian designer Sebastien Serlio in his published work D'Architechturra. Serlio created detailed drawings of three classic scenic designs, the tragic set composed of palaces and temples with great lofty arches and elaborate decorations, the comic set with contemporary houses set about a public mall or square, and the satyr set of outdoor landscape filled with forests, field and cottages.
Serlio's ideas focused on the technique of false perspective to create a three dimensional image. He used flats with wings set on an angle to create depth. He also experimented with effects such as thunder and lightning, moving mechanisms and wires for flying both actors and scenery. Jones also borrowed from the ideas of another Italian designer, Nicola Sabitini, from the Manual for Constructing Theatrical Scenes and Machines. Sabitini wrote on the problems of scene changes and the use of devices such as sliding tracks set in grooves on the floor of the stage to facilitate set shifts. He also pioneered a device that would simulate movement of special effects such as waves or clouds (Sporre 443). Jones passed his borrowed knowledge on to Webb who, in his turn, placed in on the English stage and began a tradition that was to be improved and refined throughout the Restoration.
One of the first things that Charles II did upon taking the throne was to lift Cromwell's bans on theatrical activity. An avid supporter of the arts, the new monarch hoped to see England become as sophisticated dramatically as France where he had been in exile. Two companies were formed, the King's company under the direction of William D'avenant and the Duke's company under the direction of Thomas Killigrew (Bergman 203).
D'Avenant had the advantage in terms of his knowledge of scenic design. He had succeeded Ben Johnson as a court masque writer and worked directly with Inigo Jones at the height of his career. He also retained the services of his assistant John Webb on a permanent basis. When D'avenant began adapting the Lisles' Tennis Courts for use as a theater he took into consideration the fact that he would need to accommodate scenic advances. He built a stage that was a combination of the masque stage and the old style open stage of the public playhouse.
In the public playhouse actors had entered and exited through doorways set in the back of the stage. D'avenant brought the entrances to the sides of a deep-set stage called the proscaenium (Southerne 237). The word proscaenium, changed in modern theatrical language to proscenium, comes from the Greek pro skene and the ancient proskenium stage. The proscenium stage is alternately referred to as the picture frame stage because it allows the audience to view the action through a rectangular opening called the proscenium arch (Gillette 45). The stage itself was walled on three sides and housed under a ceiling. Entrances were made from either side of the proscenium and the players performed most of their actions on the apron. The apron was, and still is, the area of stage in front of the proscenium arch that juts out into the audience. By placing the majority of the scenery behind the proscenium arch and keeping the acting area primarily confined to the apron, D'avenant's theater company was able to create the illusion of depth or forced perspective.
Killigrew, on the other hand, had very little background in the masque tradition and no real scene design concepts when he undertook the reconstruction of the Gibbon's tennis courts for use as his theater. Historical records describe the stage he created there as being somewhat like the traditional platform stage used in private house productions. No attempts were made to create any illusion of depth and scenery was extremely limited.
Killigrew's non scenic shows, however, were soon eclipsed by the popularity of D'avenant's spectacular designs. In order to keep from going broke, Killigrew was forced to move to an old riding school on Drury Lane. He created a scenic playhouse there, which became the first Drury Lane Theater.
D'avenant was not pleased with this development, so he commissioned Christopher Wren, the architect most famous for his design of St. Paul's cathedral in London, to build an elaborate spectacle house for his new Dorset Garden theater. Not to be outdone, Killigrew then retained the services of Wren as well (Southerne 239). This rivalry, while extremely intense, served to advance the overall conception of theater to something not entirely unlike our modern stage. The end result of the Killigrew and D'avenant rivalry was the Restoration stage at its finest, an elaborate mixture of ancient knowledge, French advances in technology and pure English pride. In the end, the stage itself was a combination of two distinct forms, the proscenium arch of Italy and France and the enormous apron and forestage of the earlier English public playhouse.
The Restoration stage generally included a proscenium stage with a deep apron where, as mentioned before, most of the action took place. Doors were place on either side of the proscenium arch and covered by balconies that were popular playing areas for many plays of this time. These doors were used as entrances and exits for all characters, and to exit through one door and enter through another was considered significant indication of a change in place. The use of the forestage as a playing area thrust much of the action into the audience reminiscent of the later twentieth century thrust stage. The floor of the stage was raked, built on a slight upward slope from the forestage to the back wall of the proscenium, to improve the sightlines of the audience. The house, as modern theater technicians call the audience area, was also raked to improve visibility, but in the opposite direction (Brockett 286).
Behind the proscenium arch numerous devices were used to create the illusion of depth. Movable flats and painted backdrops were used to resemble the background of various standard scenes. Sometimes the main drape, the curtain that divides the apron from the proscenium, was painted as well. Between the main drape and the backdrops groups of painted flats, free standing wood framed and fabric covered units, ran in a series of grooved tracks so that one could be easily pulled out to reveal a new scene on the one behind it. Two additional flats, one off stage right and the other off left, also ran in grooves along the back of the stage in such a way that they could be easily pulled together to hide the original backdrop and form a new back wall for the set. Called shutters, these flats could be easily used in place of a backdrop to create an entirely new scene (Sporre 453). Trapdoors permanently set into the floor of the stage and flying machinery, operated on an early version of the modern hemp house or rope and pulley system, completed the element of spectacle The ease in movement created by using flats set in tracks was particularly important to the restoration theater because, at this time, scene changes were still being done in full view of the audience.
Although, as we will discuss later, methods had been created for the dimming of lights, there was no way at this time to create the modern blackout. Along with a complete stock of flats and backdrops painted to resemble the standard scenic forms, each theater had a complement of potential set pieces that were used in combination with one another to form the furnishings of various scenes. When a theater was built scenery was commissioned even before the stage. The aim of scenic designers at this time was not to recreate a particular place, but to evoke the feeling of the place. In some respects, scenic design took on an early form of the romantic period that was soon to follow.
An unknown author, writing some time in the mid 1700's, listed the following sets as standard for a well run theater: temples, tombs, city walls and gates, palace exteriors, streets, chambers, prisons, gardens, and rural prospects. He adds that other sets are needed so rarely that, by combining elements of the existing stock, they can easily be created (Brockett 288).
There is very little information about the early scenic designers of the Restoration, probably because the concept was so new. Most often painters were employed based on artistic ability and commissioned to create particular scenes. From contract records it is known that John Webb worked exclusively for D'avenant. Killigrew employed Samuel Towers, Robert Robinson and Robert Streeter to paint many of his sets. Other designers who have received some mention are James Thornhill, whose works were extremely popular in the early part of the eighteenth century, John DeVoto, George Lambert, a landscape painter, and Francis Hayman and Thomas Lediard, who are credited with painting several of the scenes used at Drury Lane in the 1730's (Brockett 288).
This all changed, however, in 1682 when the playhouses merged under the direction of Christopher Rich. Rich moved all performances into the Drury Lane Theater where he immediately began renovating the space to allow for larger audiences. He enlarged the pit, the area in front of the stage where commoners were seated, by shortening the apron and moving the actors farther back from the audience (Nagler 203-205). He also began importing designers from Italy, France and Denmark. The most significant of these was Jean-Nicolas Servadoni. Servadoni was famous already for his work at the Paris Opera house. Rich commissioned several scenes to be designed by Servadoni that were not used until many years later when Rich introduced them as new scenery at his theater in Covent garden in 1773. Other well known artists employed by Rich from abroad included Florentine painter Giovanni Battista Cipriani, Danish painter Nicholas Thomas Dall, and noted picturesque landscape designer and Englishman John Inigo Richards (Brockett 288).
Meanwhile, prominent eighteenth century actor David Garrick had taken over the management of the Drury lane and had come up with some innovative ideas of his own. The element of spectacle had been notably missing from many theatrical performances of this time. This was due in part to an increased awareness of audience safety factors. During most performances audience members in the pit were allowed to sit on the edge of the stage. In 1762 Garrick put an end to this practice.
He made a trip to the continent and returned with many new ideas including the concept that settings should be particular and designed for each play. Of the thirty seven new plays Garrick produced at Drury Lane in 1765 and 1766, nineteen of them had entirely new scenery commissioned for the performance. For this purpose, he imported a designer who would go on to become one of the most prominent figures in Restoration design, Philippe Jacques DeLoutherbourg, a French artist who had studied under Boucher and Boquet at the Paris Opera. DeLoutherburg's main contribution to scene design could be seen in his efforts to recreate places rather than feelings of places. To gain an even greater sense of depth he began placing flats on asymmetrical angles . He also placed miniature figures at the back of the stage to create distant battles and ocean scenes. He pioneered the use of sound effects such as thunder and gunshots to heighten reality. Most significant, however, were his contributions to lighting design which shall be mentioned in detail later.
His association with Drury Lane ended abruptly in 1781 when Sheridan took over and proposed a reduction in his salary. For DeLoutherburg, however, this was an advantageous thing because, between 1781 and 1786, he designed, built and maintained a miniature theater all of his own. Called the Eidophusikon, it was a portable mini-stage measuring only six feet by eight feet on which he created remarkable replicas of specific events and places complete with realistic weather conditions and lighting effects, music, and sound effects (Brockett 288-289).
Like scenic design, lighting had been of little importance to the outdoor theaters. Because plays had been staged in the early afternoon, it was not necessary to use artificial light. If the weather was bad, a performance would be cancelled. The word theater means, literally, a place to see. When performances moved indoors, it became important that new ways be developed to allow the audience to see the action. Simply placing candles about as inside houses was an early answer, but as time went on and design processes flourished, the idea of designing with light took on new meaning.
Theatrical lighting has four major properties or controllable qualities: distribution, which refers to the direction from which the light hits an area and the size of that area and the quality or clarity versus diffuseness of that light; movement, which refers to the duration of time a light is on or the movement of on stage lights or the movement of an offstage source such as a follow spot; intensity, the level of brightness of a light; and color, the actual shade or tint of a projected beam of light (Gillette 288-289).
Despite obvious technological limitations – neither gaslight nor electricity were available at this time – Restoration lighting designers were able to learn about and manipulate all four of these properties with great success. Performances were still given, most often, in the early afternoon. Windows almost certainly provided at least some illumination (Brockett 289). Earliest attempts at lighting the stage focused simply on the attempt to create atmosphere. The stage was dark and shadowy for tragedy, bright and cheerful, to an extent for comedy (Sporre 352). The level of intensity was the only controllable factor manipulated, and only to the extent that less candles were used for tragedy than for comedy.
The distribution of light was simple. Chandeliers hung from the ceiling only to be partly obstructed by flats and set pieces. Footlights, candles placed at the foremost part of the stage floor, created upward modeling of light and enhanced the altogether eerie effect. another distinct disadvantage of this period was the fact that designers were unable to control the spill of light from the stage out into the auditorium. Pepys is said to have complained in his "Diary" on numerous occasions of having headaches brought on as a result of having looked into the lights.
In 1744 ladders were introduced. These were vertical mounting platforms on which candles could be mounted and placed in the wings, the areas off stage right and left, to allow for side lighting to be used (Brockett 289). Color was also one of the most easily manipulated qualities of light during the early years of the Restoration. In the sixteenth century, Sebastien Serlio had suggested ways to use colored liquids inside of glass bottles placed between the source of the light and the stage itself to create the illusion of colored light (Sporre 352). This simple innovation, popularized during the restoration, went on to become the basis of the modern system of gelled light by which a colored plastic, gel, is placed between the source of the light and the lens through which the beam is focused.
The concept of intensity interested designers of the period. candles were dimmed by trimming the wicks in early productions. later, footlights were mounted on pivots to allow them to be lowered below the level of the stage floor during productions effectively dimming the intensity of the light (Brockett 290). Candles were also dimmed in another fashion. Metal cylinders were designed to fit over the taper,. These cylinders were then hung from strings which could allow them to be lowered over the candle thus also creating a dimming effect (Sporre 353). All of these processes were time and labor intensive, however. Therefore, the application of many design possibilities was used only sparingly during the early part of the eighteenth century.
In 1783 the invention of the kerosene lamp brought about interesting new design possibilities (Sporre 353). In 1785 the Argand or patent lamp was invented. By using a cylindrical wick and a glass chimney the relative amounts of oxygen and oil could be manipulated. this lamp produced a much more intense light that was both steadier and brighter than candles. Also, the removable chimney could be colored and was interchangeable to allow for much more variety in the experimentation with colored light (Brockett 289). Source material also shows that the lights in the auditorium itself were also dimmed at this time. The number of chandeliers used was reduced while the intensity of light on the stage itself was strengthened. Whereas before there had been really very little barrier between the world of reality in the house and that of illusion on stage, now there were two very distinct worlds (Bergman 151).
For the majority of theater historians, David Garrick seems to be the name of choice when referring to influential lighting reformers of the Restoration. Much mention is made of his great lighting reform in 1759, but little detail is actually produced. It seems that he removed all visible light sources from the stage and increased brightness through the use of reflectors (Brockett 289). It was not, however, until he came into association with DeLoutherburg that any real artistic advances were made. DeLoutherburg took an interest in lighting the same way as he did in set design. He aimed for realism and used all of the controllable qualities of light to the best of his ability to achieve his goal. He used colored glass tubes to create illusions of fire and moonlight. He also pioneered the dramatic use of side lighting from the wings to create the modeling effect that is still very popular in modern dance performances (Sporre 360). By using silk screens to reflect light and transparent silk filters he gained even greater control over color and diffusion (Brockett 290). An engraving of a scene from Sheridan's "School for Scandal" produced in 1777 provides one of the strongest surviving testimonials to DeLoutherburg's genius. One can clearly see that in this production he made spectacular use of dramatic side lighting from the wings to highlight the play's intensity (Sporre 360).
A final use of lighting during the eighteenth century falls to some degree under all of the qualities of light. Light as spectacle has always been of interest to people. Lightning in the sky is seen even from our modern, scientifically educated eyes as something of beauty and also, to some degree, fear. Fireworks, so common to us on the fourth of July and other celebratory occasions, were not uncommon on the Restoration stage. Because of inherent fire hazards their use on stage was limited but not rare. As early as the middle of the eighteenth century fireworks were used as an element of spectacle to attract the public to a given performance. Their popularity increased throughout the years and eventually open air parks were created illuminated by thousands of glass lamps specifically so that the public could come and enjoy the fireworks display (Bergman 143).
Thus far this study has only focused on what the Restoration designers had to offer their audiences in terms of technological advancements. Of even greater importance, perhaps, was how these new concepts were used in production. What started with the use of perspective scenery in D'avenant's "Siege of Rhodes" built into common use in all Restoration productions. A look at the plays indicates, through their individual setting, the use of common set "places" as scenic areas. Thomas Otway's "The Soldier's Fortune" takes place in The Mall, a walk bordered by trees for which the garden and or street scenes were probably employed, A room in sir Davy Dunce's house, for which the chamber scene might have been used, Covent Garden, which since this play was produced in1682 was probably merely a suggestion of place using the garden scene, The Tavern, probably a modification of the chamber scene, The Covent garden Piazza outside of Sir Davy Dunce's House, which probably employed an existing street scene, Sylvia's chamber, another room in Davy Dunce's house, Lady Dunce's chamber and sir Jolly Jumble's house, all most likely slightly modified versions of the stock chamber scene. This is all just supposition based on the surviving text of the play; but it is easy to see how one set could be repeatedly used in combination with specific pieces to create a suggestion of place.
More detailed within the plays themselves is the use of machinery as an element of spectacle. Trap doors are mentioned in, among other works, the aforementioned "Soldier's Fortune" and Aphra Behn's "The Rover" as specific plot devices. In "Soldier's Fortune" a supposed dead man plays the part of the ghost by rising up through trap doors to frighten the man who believes himself to be responsible for his death. In "The Rover" a con artist prostitute uses a bed rigged to drop beneath the floor to dump her unsuspecting victim into the sewer. Both times the trap door was intentionally used for comedic effect.
Other uses of machinery, such as the flying machines that lower the gods from the heavens in John Dryden's "Amphytrion" may not have been intended to produce comedic reactions but can only have done so due to their limited capacity for serious dramatic use. It is humorous for the modern theatergoer to try and imagine what the actors must have looked like suspended from mid air on ropes and pulley in full view of the audience. George Villiers in his comedy "The Rehearsal" provides a view at the time of just how ridiculous spectacle could become.
Restoration designers did not confine their visions for use with new performances. One of the most popular ideas of the time, in fact, was the revamping of Shakespeare to suit the "modernized" stage. D'avenant, for example, saw Shakespeare as a writer badly in need of refining. The idea of spectacle that had originally been created for the court masques and their plotless environment had to some how be fine tuned to fit plays that had been written without this in mind. In 1672 D'avenant directed a production of Macbeth that was overlaid with spectacle which, to the audience, made up for his attempts to change the actual language and structure of the play. There was a good deal of use of trap doors and flying machines, especially for the parts of the witches. The supernatural was revealed through dance and acrobatics. Not to be outdone, the actor Thomas Betterton created his own rendition of Shakespeare in 1692. "The Fairie Queen" was a song and dance version of "A Midsummer's Night Dream" which, although the dialogue was mostly unchanged, allowed for great use of spectacle. Painted flats, backdrops, shutters and drop cloths were all employed. Running water traversed the stage and scenes were rearranged to make way for dance, flying machines, props and monkeys (Sporre 453). Although it is unclear as to what part the monkey's played in Betterton's theatrical production, it makes little difference. The importance was the spectacle and the spectacle was achieved through advances in technology.
So many of our modern ideas have their earliest beginnings in the era of the roofed playhouse. When theater moved indoors design processes truly began. The restoration and the theater it created are an important part of an ever changing and growing theatrical heritage. Aspects of Italiantente scenery exist in modern productions and the use of a perspective set on stage. Lighting systems are electronic and often computerized; but DeLoutherburg is still a source of inspiration for modern lighting designers because he pioneered the manipulation of light. dancer's dance through beams of light off trees in the wings because the first lighting ladder was created. The PAR lamp exists because of a candle and a barber's basin. Colored gels are used in all theatrical performances because the quality of color was once explored. The hemp house system has been replaced by the counter weight system which is rapidly being eclipsed by the electric batten; but the concept of flown scenery is far from ignored in modern performances. What the Restoration borrowed from France and Italy was improved upon and borrowed from again and again to the end result of what is now modern technical theater. Years from now our modern ideas will probably seem antiquated as well; but what we have borrowed from our past paves the way for our future.
Works Cited: Bergman, Gosta. Lighting in the Theater. Stockholm, 1977. Brockett, Oscar G., ed. History of the Theater. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1968. Gillette, J. Michael. Theatrical Design and Production. Mountain View: Mayfield, 1993. Nagler, A.M., ed. A Sourcebook in Theatrical History. New York: Dover, 1952. Southern, Richard. The Seven Ages of Theater. New York: Hill & Wang, 1961. Sporre, Dennis J. The Art of Theater. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1993.