- Theatre lighting at its most primitive during the period before electricity consisted solely of candlelight, and this was often the condition in small-town halls in rural America even very late in the 19th century. Schoberlin (1941) cites an instance in which only 12 candles served an entire facility—both stage and auditorium. Plays were written in acts that could be played before the candles burned down and had to be changed. Still, a smoking candle might require wick-trimming or snuffing during a scene. Safety, convenience, and illumination all improved with the use of oil lamps, which first replaced candles in the footlights. According to The Autobiography of Joseph Jefferson, during the first half of the 19th century in Midwestern towns, "a second-class quality of sperm-oil was the height of any manager's ambition."Gas lighting was the norm for theatres in most cities during most of the 19th century, with steady improvements in the equipment and ability to control its effects. The gas table allowed centralized control of the valves that regulated the gas lines to individual instruments. Gaslight required fairly large backstage crews of gasmen. This was also the era of the limelight.Toward the end of the 19th century, electric lighting began to replace gas lighting in theatres. It was safer, more economical, and easier to control. Similarly, the carbon arc replaced the limelight. Yet many artists remained partial to gaslight, and many turn-of-the-century theatres were built with both gas and electric lighting in compatible systems.Scene designer Ernest Gros told an interviewer (Theatre Magazine, August 1908): "The electric light is brutal. We try to control it by the use of different media, but in no way can we get the softness and mystery of gas." Thus, even after electric lighting replaced gas in theatres, the great English actor Sir Henry Irving preferred the softer effects of the calcium light (limelight) and, on his 1899-1900 American tour, he brought his own gas tanks along on the train. His manager Bram Stoker recalled in his Personal Reminiscences of Henry Irving (1906) that when they played Kansas City and stacked the scarlet oxygen tanks outside the stage door, a reporter published his assumption that Irving was a dying man, kept alive only by using oxygen.
The Historical Dictionary of the American Theater. James Fisher.
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