Beginning with its origins in Ancient Greece, theatre was always staged in outdoor performance spaces, relying on natural light to keep the performers visible, and utilizing scenery or dialogue to convey time of day. As these performances began to shift to indoor theatres, artificial light, such as candles or oil lamps, had to be used as a replacement. As lighting technology advanced, these advancements changed the way light could be manipulated, directed, or focused, allowing for new staging methods to be developed and introducing lighting as an indicator of mood. From the gas lamp to the electric light, the innovations in lighting made between the Spanish Golden Age and 1915 shaped the development of modern theatre.
Candles and Torches
The earliest indoor lighting sources were candles and torches, which, in addition to providing uneven and fitful lighting, required constant tending to keep from producing smoke or dripping wax. Hirelings, when not needed as performers or musicians, were used in many theatres as candle attendants, charged with trimming the wicks onstage even during the most suspenseful of tragic moments. The earliest record of theatrical lighting methods is in the writings of Italian architect Sebastian Serlio in 1566. Serlio proposed that bottles could be placed in front of torches and filled with white or red wine to create an amber wash, or a solution of aqua vita, vernis, and sulphuric acid for a blue wash. These bottles, known as “bozze”, could be used as “lamps..., color media, lenses, or reflectors” (Pilbrow 168). During this time, theatres in France and Italy began to break away from the currently established traditions. Stages became narrower, but pushed farther upstage or thrust into the audience, thereby requiring different organization of lighting. Large chandeliers full of tallow candles, which burned less brightly than wax but were also much less expensive, were suspended over the stage and the audience area. Lamps were also hung at the sides of the stage, and many theatres made use of footlights, arranged at the edge of the apron and bracketed by reflectors to direct the majority of the light to the stage. English theatres remained in something of a lighting design “Dark Age” until 1765, when David Garrick returned from France and adapted the Drury Lane Theatre with advancements he had seen on his travels, especially the use of wing- and footlights (Pilbrow 172). In order to make more effective use of the Drury Lane Theatre's design, he chose to do away with the overhead chandeliers and focused on improving the lighting around the stage.
The Argand Lamp
In 1784, there was a sudden surge in the popularity of oil lamps, due to the patenting of the Argand oil lamp by Aimé Argand, which added a glass chimney to the standard oil lamp, allowing excess smoke to be burnt away, leaving a brighter, whiter light source which gave off no obscuring smoke. Even with this addition, however, oil lamps had to be carefully...