Candle-lit Theater

Posted in journal articles, on site by Editor on April 19, 2014

Michael Hawcroft’s article in the current issue of French Studies should be useful for anyone thinking about candles and early modern lighting conditions, particularly  in the theater. At a more immediately experiential level, The Globe’s new Wanamaker Playhouse (opened since January) serves as the ideal venue.


Les Farceurs italiens et français, ca. 1670
(Paris: Collections Comédie-Française)

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Michael Hawcroft, “New Light on Candles on the Seventeenth-Century French Stage,” French Studies 68 (2014): 180–92.

Abstract: Modern accounts of the seventeenth-century French stage have repeatedly asserted that plays were divided into short acts of some twenty to thirty minutes in performance because the candles that lit the theatres had to be snuffed at frequent intervals. This article claims that there is no evidence for this assertion and aims to evoke the technological constraints of candle usage at the time so as to suggest that candles could be managed in such a way that they did not actually dictate dramaturgical practice. The article considers seventeenth-century theoretical discussion of the division of plays into acts: such discussion never alludes to candles, but refers to historical precedent and spectator attention spans as perceived explanations for the phenomenon of act division. It aims to adduce compelling evidence against the traditional view and concludes that the snuffing of candles took advantage of the opportunity offered by act division, but was never its cause.

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The Wanamaker Playhouse as described by Andrew Dickson for The Guardian:

Andrew Dickson, “New Globe Playhouse Draws Us inside Shakespeare’s Inner Space,” The Guardian (7 January 2014).

Crafted from oak and lit by candles, the Globe’s new playhouse isn’t just a jewel box of a theatre—it’s also a time machine

The new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse—an offshoot of the modern Globe, named in memory of its founder—aims to bring the work of Shakespeare and his contemporaries in from the cold, creating an indoor playhouse closely modelled on the one his company began to use in 1608, across the Thames at Blackfriars. Although it’s not the first time someone has attempted the feat—US scholars constructed a rival Blackfriars in the unlikely setting of a small city in Virginia 13 years ago—this will be the most authentic version yet, accurate (or as close as is possible) down to every hollow-bored oak pillar and trompe-l’oeil fresco. The whole project has cost £7.2m: one reason it’s taken the Globe nearly two decades to get around to building it. . . .

The first shock, after descending from the attic, is how tiny the auditorium feels: while the Globe can accommodate 1,500 people, with up to 700 jostling on foot, the Playhouse seats just 340. But this only makes it more intimate, says academic Farah Karim-Cooper, who chairs the research group that has steered the project. “The proximity is unbelievable,” she says. “You can get intimacy in the Globe—and when that happens it’s beautiful. But here, it’s really something.” . . .

But the greatest indoor breakthrough was something we now take for granted: control over light, impossible in the open air until the invention of gas lighting in the late 18th century. The Playhouse will be illuminated exclusively by candles, with artificial electronic daylight filtering through internal ‘windows’. The team hopes this will be the new space’s true revelation. The Jacobeans used candles made from animal fat, but the Globe have gone for pure beeswax, costing up to £500 per show. . .


One Response

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  1. Mark A. Turdo said, on April 19, 2014 at 3:21 pm

    While it isn’t directly to do with theaters, here’s another view of how time- and sanity-consuming early modern lighting was:

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