ENJOYING THE LIMELIGHT; WHATEVER THE HELL THAT IS?
July 4, 2016
You must have been caught in an electrical blackout - everyone has. The power goes out and you go to the dining room sideboard for a candle. Do you remember how bright the light was from that candle, or to be more exact, how dim the light was. Well, up until around 1820, candles and oil lamps were the source of lighting for stage productions. Obviously there were more than one; there were a multitude of candles and oil lamps but the output of that flickering conglomeration was still quite weak. As a result the upstage area was pretty dark. The director was compelled, for the most part, to arrange the cast in an arc along the stage apron. Some of the more innovative might have had one or two players sit in a chair.
Then in 1816, the Chestnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia installed gas lighting; probably the first theatre to do so. Now the full stage could be utilized. Actors had to begin paying attention to their blocking as well as to their lines. In addition to brighter light, the intensity could be controlled by regulating the gas supply. This feature would permit the introduction of stage-lighting affects. In 1830,at the Chestnut in a play called "The Railroad" a locomotive rolled onto the stage to the audience's amazement. By 1850 there were "gas tables," an early version of today's computerized control board. It allowed one person to control all the lights from one central location.
The ability to adjust the gas flow would effect more than the stage area. Previously the auditorium lighting was full ablaze during the performance. With controllable gas lighting, the house lights could be gradually dimmed once the curtain went up. In 1856, one critic labeled Laura Keene's keeping her auditorium lights brightly lit during a performance a "great error." A Boston reporter wrote in 1868, "It is only between acts...that it is necessary to have the auditorium lights lit; then it is that the audience wish to amuse themselves by seeing each other." The house lights could not be turned off completely and then brought back up because each lamp had to be lit by hand. This changed in 1869 when Booth's Theatre installed a wiring system that provided a spark to relight the gas. This provided the audience complete privacy during the performance.
Then in 1837 stage lighting took a Brobdingnagian leap forward when limelight was first used at the Covent Garden Theatre in London. Invented years earlier, limelight was created by pointing an oxyhydrogen flame at a cylindrical block of lime. The lime became incandescent giving off a brilliant white light. A cylinder of lime was used because the lime actually burned, albeit it very slowly, so the operator had to turn it constantly to expose a fresh surface to the flame. The apparatus was contained in a box into which led the two gas lines, hydrogen and oxygen. The two gases were contained in leather bags by the operator's feet. Weights were placed on the bags so that the gas came out under pressure or sometimes the operator stood on the bag to obtain the desired pressure. Later storage tanks with lines leading to the instruments were used.
Unlike gas lighting, limelight could not be manipulated from a central board. Each required an operator. In one production at Covent Garden, twenty-five limelight operators were needed. This disadvantage was outweighed by limelight's capacity to be focused. The front of the limelight box could be opened for floodlighting or it could be fitted with a lens (Fresnel Lens) and a mirror for spotlighting. Colored lenses could be utilized to create mood. Limelight's intensity permitted, for the first time, light to be directed on the stage from the auditorium. Thus, the follow spot was born. A new theatre profession was emerging - the lighting designer.
Before going on stage actors often would sit in a room illuminated by limelight. This "green room" allowed their eyes to become accustomed to the garish light before going on and prevented them from squinting when they made their entrance.
In 1882 the first American installation of electric lights occurred at Boston's Bijou Theatre. Although that foretold the death of limelight, it's demise was a slow one. For all of its convenience and safety, electric lighting for many years was literally outshone by limelight. Electric bulbs could not come close to matching limelight's brilliance until the turn of the century. Shocking!