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scene design and stage lighting

The Nineteenth Century

The 19th cent. brought extensive changes in lighting and scene design. Gaslight was first introduced (1817) in England. Although it was responsible for many theater fires, gaslight had, by 1849, the advantage of being centrally controlled. Sir Henry Irving, at the end of the century, was first to darken the auditorium completely. He also was first to experiment with the color and intensity of gaslight. The first spotlight was the limelight (1816); it was followed by the arc light (1846). With the invention (1879) of the incandescent bulb, light became the primary scene painter. Through the efforts of Adolphe Appia, modern stage lighting was born.

In 1840, Mme Vestris successfully employed the box set (three solid walls joined together) complete with a ceiling. The concept of the invisible "fourth wall" forced the acting area to be located behind the proscenium arch, thus eliminating the need for a wide apron and glaring footlights. Decorative props were still painted on the flats, but as the naturalistic movement (in the theaters of André Antoine, Otto Brahm, J. T. Grein, and Constantin Stanislavsky) gained impetus, realistic and even actual objects were used. This trend toward realism and historical accuracy culminated in the photographic realism of David Belasco, who even incorporated smells into several productions. The invention (1839) of the photograph was a further influence toward realistic settings.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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