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Theatre Lighting in the Age of Gas

Entertainment Technology Press is delighted to be republishing this valuable historic work previously produced by the Society for Theatre Research in 1978. Theatre Lighting in the Age of Gas investigates the technological and artistic achievements of theatre lighting engineers from the 1700s to the late Victorian period.

Believed to be the definitive history of a fascinating and little known aspect of theatre technology, this book covers the techniques of oil lamps and candles, lime light, carbon-arc, coloured fire and the introduction of the incandescent electric lamp as well as examining gas lighting techniques and associated equipment. Today’s lighting designers and technicians reading this book will be surprised to discover where some of their standard practices have dated from as the narrative reveals the development of the method of stage lighting.

Terence Rees researched this work over a period of five years in places ranging from the libraries of the British Patent Office and the Institution of Gas Engineers to the decaying stuctures of about-to-be demolished theatres. The book contains over 80 illustrations which provide a clear visualisation of a bygone era. 

Author: Terence Rees
Publication Date: 14th March 2004
Book Format: Paperback
Kindle Version: Click here to buy from Amazon
Price: £24.95


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Theatre Lighting in the Age of Gas describes the evolution from candles and oil through to the great electric light bulb that we know and love. This is a great read for anyone interested in theatre history, particularly lighting, but I would also recommend this book to younger ALD members, as you will learn a lot about the jargon and methods that are still in use today. Yes, despite all your computerisation and wiggly lights, the stuff they teach you in college is taught because that’s how they did it 150 years ago! The book describes all aspects of stage lighting – general illumination, dimming, spot-lighting and followspots, special effects, colour changing, projection, pyrotechnics: everything we have today was invented by the Victorians!

Our advantage is that our versions of these contraptions are, if used correctly, inherently safe; whereas the Victorian’s devices were often accidents waiting to happen. Open flame gas lighting was asking for trouble. If a piece of scenery, a cloth colour-medium or a ballerina’s lightweight skirt brushed against the flame… well, we can imagine the consequences. So lamp-glasses were elevated from ‘accessory’ to a permanent feature. Additionally, different coloured glasses could be used to introduce the concept of coloured light. Today we have Supergel.

When bright lights were required, technicians would mix and pressurise highly flammable gases together to make lime-light. Later carbons or even magnesium were burned. Today we strike a discharge lamp into life. For side-lighting, Victorians would use a bunchlight, standard or tee-piece ‘plugged’ into a water joint, also known as a dip. Today we place a luminiare on a stand, or make a tee-bar to carry four or six small luminaires and plug them all into… dips. We may even use battens or ladders or scrolling colour-mediums, or ripple effects, or moon boxes… as the old adage goes: “It’s all been done before”.

Theatre Lighting in the Age of Gas is similar to The Exeter Theatre Fire in that as modern readers, we can see the dangers in their everyday lives and wonder why these people ever did some of the things that they did. How do you light an out-of-reach gas chandelier, for example? You use a spirit-torch – a burning spirit-soaked rag on the end of a long pole. How do you extinguish the torch when it is finished? Well, theory tells us that it is the vapour that burns, not the liquid, so quite naturally you plunge the burning rag into a bucket of flammable spirit. That’s what they could and would do… but I wouldn’t! 

How about a fantastical pantomime effect with bright coloured lights and smoke? Just take a few noxious and flammable chemicals, mix them together and set fire to them. Very effective. In fact, the book includes an appendix of ‘coloured fire’ formulae definitely not to be tried at home!

But of course these possibly mad, possibly eccentric Victorian gentlemen were not pyromaniacs at all – they were merely pushing the technology of the day to its limits with some remarkable effects, just as we do today. And as we read, we can also see that technical advances came through necessity – to prevent accidents or to create a bigger, brighter effect than the one in last year’s panto. And when electric light arrived, things really changed….

Or did they?

Jackie Staines, Focus