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The Evolution of Lighting in Theatre

Stage lights are just one of the components of a stage production which supports the

overall enjoyable experience of performances in theaters. Stage lighting provides a dramatic

effect for stage plays which highlight scenes of the story. Today, lighting has become an art form

due to the advancements in electronic technology. However, it did not start that way. This paper

will take us back to the times where the only stage lights were the natural light from the sun until

the time when modern lighting has became available.

Stage lighting in Ancient Times

During the time of the ancient Greeks, plays were performed in open-air theatres. The

theatre was circular in form with a “flat orchestra pit located in the hollow between two

hillsides” (Questia).The plays were usually staged during the daytime in order to take advantage

of the natural light from the sun. Further, the time of day for staging the play would coincide

with the kind of scene that they envisioned for the play. The location of the stage should also be

such that it could obtain the best effect of the natural light from the sun. “They would present

their plays at different times of day, to take advantage of the different types of natural lighting.

This type of planning was in essence, early lighting design. The Theatre of Dionysus (Athens,

about 330 BC) and the theatre at Epidaurus (finished about 340 BC) are examples of these early

public theatre facilities” (Williams). They also used mirrors and other background materials that

could reflect the natural light in order to change the lighting in the play. The use of torches was

said to have begun with the Romans whenever they performed during the evenings.

15th Century

In the 15th century, “oil lamps came about and it made indoor theatres possible”

(Norton). Candles were also used which were mounted over the stage and its wings. In 1545,

Sabastiano Serlio introduced the use of “colored light liquids in bottles (red) wine, saffron

(yellow), ammonium chloride in a copper vessel (blue)” (Wilson & Goldfarb, 2006, p. 121). This

is the time stage lighting gained importance in the production of stage plays. Qualities of light

such as distribution, intensity and color had contributed to the scenes which made them more

dramatic and engaging. For Leone de Somi in 1550, happy scenes were illuminated while tragic

scenes were much darker through the subtle use of “candles, crude oil lamps, torches, and

cressets (hanging lamps)” (p. 125). To distribute the lights in the stage, there were stagehands

that would walk around and would adjust lightings from candles by snipping their wicks.

16th to 17th Century

In 16th century, Joseph Furstenbach latched on to the idea of footlights (floats) and

sidelights. Other such innovative lighting techniques such as dimming the candles through the

use of metal cylinders lowered on the candles were introduced by Nicola Sabatini, a writer of

theater books (Trumbull). Sabbatini designed a number of innovative stage lighting techniques,

such as a dimming mechanism to lower the whole stage lighting, adjustable spot lamps for

lighting certain parts of the stage (it is thought that he invented the first spotlight (reflector), by

attaching a polished sink behind a luminous source) and several others, thus effectively being,

together with Sebastiano Serlio (1475-1554) and Leone De Somi, one of the architects of stage

lighting for theatrical purposes, including scripting lighting changes in concert with the play or

opera. Chandeliers made up of candles were used in order to fully illuminate the stage as needed.

Glass chimneys were also popular with the invention of the Argand burner which was an

improved oil lamp with a burner and a chimney.


18th Century

While candles had been the lighting of choice for many theaters, the invention of the

kerosene lamp with adjustable wick in 1783 in France changed the lighting history of theaters.

William Murdoch, an engineer in England and Philippe Lebon of Paris in the late 18th century,

had developed the use of coal gas which also became very popular as stage lighting. Coal gas

was first used as an illuminant in the late 18th century

19th Century

The 19th century ushered in many improvements in stage lighting with the invention of

the Bunsen Burner by Robert Wilhelm Bunsen and the invention of the Welsbach mantle, “a

device developed by the Austrian scientist Carl von Welsbach that gives off bright light when

placed over a flame, greatly stimulated the use of gas for lighting purposes” (Columbia

Encyclopedia). The limelight, which was invented by Henry Drummond was developed by

“heating a piece of lime with a flame of oxygen and hydrogen (for a follow spot or to indicate

sunlight)” (Trumbull). The limelight has a greenish tint which was popularized by Paris Opera

houses. Another invention in lighting that influenced stage lighting was the invention of the

electric arc by Sir Humphrey Davy in 1810. Davy was an English chemist who “discovered

several chemical elements (including sodium and potassium) and compounds as well as

inventing the miner's safety lamp” (Encyclopedia Britannica). It was in 1880 that a true electrical

distribution system was invented by Edison, further improving the possibilities for stage lighting.

While the electric light was not used in theatre lighting at this time, this century did contribute

many concepts in the evolution of stage lighting.


Modern Lighting

With the development of the incandescent lamp late into the 19th century, “small safe,

portable lighting fixtures that could be easily placed anywhere around the stage, and then

controlled by a remote electrical dimmer system” (Williams) came into use. This use of

incandescent lamps replaced the cumbersome and odorous gas lighting which theaters used for

many years. In 1881, Richard D'Oyley Carte opened the new Savoy Theatre in London with an

advertisement saying that it was the “first public building lighted 'entirely' by electricity.” In fact,

there were a total of 1158 of the new Swan lamps (as invented by Joseph W. Swan), used to light

the auditorium, the dressing rooms, the corridors and the stage” (Williams). It was announced by

an article published in Engineering, March 3, 1882 that “in an artistic and scenic point of view,

nothing could be more completely successful than the present lighting of the Savoy Theatre. The

illumination is brilliant without being dazzling, and while being slightly whiter than gas, the

accusation of ‘ghastliness,’ so often urged against the light of the electric arc, can in no way be

applied” (USD). This made the experience of going to the theater further enjoyable as the

atmosphere was cooler due to the absence of gas and it smelled better. Spotlights developed by

Louis Hartman were a “250 watt baby lens used in David Belasco's production of The Music

Teacher” (Wild). Since then, technology has rapidly developed; expanding the use of lighting in

theater such as the development of the halogen lamps and high intensity discharge lamps as well

as computerized lighting effects and remote operation. Lighting has now become an art form

where plot, costume, scenery and all other facets of production are integrated. It satisfies the

three main concerns such as mood, focus and visibility as it becomes the effective tool that

director’s utilize today. Technology has provided to stage lighting the necessary tools to make

dramatic stage performances an enchantment to watch.

Works Cited

Columbia Encyclopedia. Lighting. 1 February 2008.

"Davy, Sir Humphrey, Baronet." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2008. Encyclopædia Britannica

Online. 27 January 2008 <>.

Norton, J. There Wasn't Always Electrical Lighting in Theatre Plays? How Lighting Has Evolved

in Theatre. April 2007. Associated Content. 2 February 2008.


Questia. Scene Design and Stage Lighting. 2 February 2008.


Trumbull, Eric. A History of Stage Lighting. 4 February 2008.

University of San Diego. Hollywood Lighting. 1 February 2008.

Wild, Larry. A Brief Outline of the History of Stage Lighting. 1 February 2008.

Williams, B. PART 1 - An Introduction to Stage Lighting. 27 January 2008.

Wilson, Edwin & Goldfarb, Alan. Theater: The Lively Art, 5th Edition. New York: McGraw-Hill

Humanities. December 2006.