The following document is an abstract of a paper accepted for presentation at the Visual Delights III — Magic and Illusion conference at the University of Sheffield, July 15-17th 2005.
By the start of the Victorian era, British theatre had lost its popular audience. Following the demise of the "Golden Age" of Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre, the Restoration period under Charles II saw only two theatres in the land licensed to present plays; the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, and Covent Garden (the "patent" theatres).
Non-"legitimate" forms of theatrical entertainment flourished — opera, ballet, melodrama, puppet shows and pantomime. Singing, narrating, or speaking in rhyming couplets was allowed. With the repeal of this Act in 1843, there was widespread building of new theatres equipped with facilities to produce all manner of sensational effects in tune with popular taste.
Where Shakespearian drama had created scenes in words only, there was a fondness of spectacle which crossed all class boundaries. Theatre now adopted many visual forms which had grown in popularity — the proscenium theatre was even described as a "giant peepshow", with its proscenium arch and wings and borders receding towards large painted backcloths or other scenery. Advances in lighting — from oil, through gas (1817), then limelight (1837) and electric light (arc lamps from 1848, filament lamps from 1881) — allowed actors to perform within the scenery upstage of the proscenium arch and for the auditorium to be blacked out.
Scrolling panoramas were incorporated, images were projected from magic lanterns, translucent gauzes made for backlighting effects, coloured light on smoke and coloured flares were used, and all manner of machinery around, above and below the stage was incorporated mdash; the proscenium arch conveniently hiding all necessary men and machinery. The stage itself was hollow, and accommodated removable panels, slots, lifts, 'scruto' (slatted rolling surfaces) and hand-operated and hydraulic trapdoor machinery.
In transformation scenes the whole huge visual presentation was changed before the audience's eyes. It was a combination of magicians' tricks on a vast scale using the many and varied facilities this machine called "the theatre" could achieve — a combination of new and old technologies. Victorian pantomime is the best example of a genre defined by these new techniques.
I will be charting the development of these techniques, relating them to other illusions of the age, and will use both contemporary illustrations and modern recordings of existing theatre machinery to recreate these visual delights.
3 May 2005