18th Century Theatrical Stage Effects

Written by caitlynn lowe
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18th Century Theatrical Stage Effects
Theatre was a popular form of entertainment during the 18th century, especially for the upper classes. (Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images)

Across Europe, drama flourished during the 18th century. This occurred largely due to the work and creativity of the era's playwrights, but architects and stage designers also contributed to the popularity of drama. Innovations in design during the 18th century and the century before it led to improvements in the quality of stage effects.

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Staging in General

In the 18th century, David Garrick, an actor, manager and playwright, restructured the stage so that the audience remained completely separate from it. The actors kept their actions to the area behind the proscenium, the section of the theatre between the curtain and the orchestra. Most European theatres restricted the action of the play exclusively to this area, but some English theatres also used an extended forestage or apron. Two doors on the proscenium separated the apron from the rest of the stage, and for the first half of the century, most acting in English theatre actually took place on the forestage.


In order to make scenes appear more vivid, the architect Giovanni Battista Aleotti designed a theatre with a permanent arch meant to frame the scenery. Additionally, to give added depth and perspective to the scenery, designers began painting scenery on parallel wings that receded from the audience. These flat wings also made changing scenery easier. The wings for later settings rested just behind the wings for the present setting. When the scenery needed changing, the stagehands simply removed the front wings and placed them at the rear.


By the early 17th century, theatres already used footlights and sidelights to better illuminate the actions of the actors on a dark stage, thanks to the innovation of the architect Joseph Furstenbach. From the beginning and well into the 18th century, these lights mostly consisted of candles. In 1783, a kerosene lamp with an adjustable wick took dominance over simple candlelight. By 1791, William Murdock, a Scottish inventor, devised a way for theatre buildings to use illuminating gas in quantity. Since this required constant attention, however, kerosene lamps still maintained their status as the lighting instrument of choice.


The overall structure of the theatre and stage area contributed to the effect and efficiency of acoustics. Enclosed theatres with oval and ellipsoidal building designs competed with one another to determine which layout aided the acoustics best. Moreover, the arch separating the proscenium from the audience helped prevent audience noise from muffling out the lines of the actors, and arched ceilings above the stage further amplified the noises of the play.

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