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Stage Lighting Design in Britain: The Emergence of the Lighting Designer, 1881-1950

When it became apparent that indoor lighting could never echo the qualities of the sun, and that any artificial light source gave significance to what was presented, the notion of light as a controlling agent of drama was born, and the potential to manipulate meaning became apparent. The quest to make lights contribute creatively to the staging of plays and to put forward a rationale for their use began. Lighting design was in its infancy. 

Yet the first requirement of these primitive early lights was raw illumination. The actor must be seen: any added meaning was a bonus. It would be a long time before this could adequately be achieved. However, as sources slowly got brighter, atmosphere and effect became more distinctly articulated in thought, technique and application. The potential influence light might have on drama became apparent and was exploited. 

Stage lighting achieved sufficient brightness to supersede the function of mere illumination by the early to mid nineteenth century, when the first bright light source, the limelight, was used on stage. Lighting now took on a more profoundly important role in influencing how we see the stage. The introduction of incandescent electric light in 1881 heralded brighter stages; thereafter lighting was in the hands of man’s ingenuity, and at the service of his imagination.

Indeed the role of lighting as accepted in theatre today became established well before modern technology allowed the medium to be manipulated to such a degree that it would be considered to be ‘designed’. The digitally controlled, high-technology contemporary lighting rig regularly seen on the West End or rock concert stage in fact offers nothing beyond what had been demonstrated or discussed in pre-electric days. It is the reliance on lighting that has changed in the twentieth century, within the context of the theatre stage growing in technical complexity and artistic ambition. It was this growth that prompted the emergence of the specialist position of lighting designer.

In today’s theatre, good lighting is inseparable from direction, performance and scenic design as a storytelling device. The lighting designer is now firmly established in the creative team, on the playbill and in the public’s awareness, being employed to light all performance events from the most complex musical, opera or play to the simple platform concert, from the largest to the smallest venues.

Author: Nigel Morgan
Publication Date: 10th May 2005
Book Format: Paperback
Kindle Version: Click here to buy from Amazon
Price: £24.95


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Until the arrival of electricity in the theatre the main concerns of those responsible for lighting the stage were to make sure that the actors could be seen and to show off the scenery behind them. With the limited means available, little thought was given to artistic lighting to suit the mood of the play. With the introduction of gas and limelight, a few practitioners, notably Henry Irving, had the vision to be more creative but the level of light available was still severely restricted. The introduction of electricity in 1881 changed all that, although it still took time, especially in Britain, for theatre managers to use the full potential of this technology as it developed.

In this book, the author, himself an active lighting designer and teacher, sets the scene by considering the history of lighting methods and equipment available in the periods leading up to the introduction of electricity.

In a comprehensive study of the subject involving meticulous research, he divides the following years into periods of technical development, detailing the equipment as it became available and influence from both America and Europe, as well as the person­alities of the practitioners, the lighting com­panies, the pioneers of lighting design and the eventual emergence of the designated 'lighting designer' we know today.


An immense amount of detail is packed into under three hundred pages, the footnotes

alone, on some pages exceeding the amount of substantive text, contain a wealth invaluable and not easily accessible information, expand­ing the main course of the story with further biographical and technical detail.

This work is destined to become a standard reference tool in its field, its one failing being not to provide an index, an essential aid in making the best use of such a complex study.


Graeme Cruickshank


Theatres Magazine