17th century theatre lighting


In Restoration England existing buildings which were converted into theatres were fitted with ‘scenes’ and lights. The lighting used included chandeliers, candles with reflectors and oil lamps.

Restoration theatre followed in the footsteps of continental scenic practice.

In his Treatise of the English Stage of 1658, Richard Flecknoe (1600-1678), maintains that 
English theatre of his day lags behind that of France and Italy in the area of ‘spectacles’.

Of lighting he writes: “In particular we do not yet know where to locate the lighting, such that 
we can achieve efficiency and intensity in lighting the stage”.

Flecknoe was particularly mindful of lighting on the stage and on May 12, 1669 after a visit to
the Lincoln’s Inn Field Theatre, where he apparently sat in the second gallery, he complained 
that the candlelight in the performance nearly ruined his eyesight as the smoke rising from the
cheap tallow candles was extremely irritating!

In Paris of the 17th century, theatrical performances were given both in public theatres and at 
Court. The Palais Royale theatre, where Moliere’s plays were presented, was illuminated by

six grand chandeliers and by rows of candles at the front of the stage. The scenery was lit 
from the sides by candles.

In a painting at the Comedie Francaise Museum, Moliere the actor plays on a stage lit by
six chandeliers, each with twelve candles, and thirty-four candles at the front of the stage -
a total of a hundred and six candles in the painting alone.

Large chandeliers similar to those on stage were hung in the auditorium. In addition to lighting
the auditorium, these chandeliers enhanced the lighting of the downstage area. A row of
footlights was placed at the edge of the stage, adding more light to the faces of the actors.

Inventory lists of theatres of this period provide us with detailed information about the types 
and quantity of candles, indicating that more candles were used in the auditorium than on the 
stage itself.

Restoration stage lighting in England:
The cover page of “The Wits, or Sport on Sport”, a collection of drolls [short comical sketch] published in 1662 and 1672. This is one of the earliest extant illustrations of the English Restoration stage.The illustration depicts the interior of a London Restoration theatre generally assumed to be  The Red Bull [The Red Bull was a playhouse in London during the 17th century. For more than four decades, it entertained audiences drawn primarily from the northern suburbs, developing a reputation for rowdy, often disruptive audiences]. Note the audience watching the play from the upstage balcony. 

Overhead chandeliers and footlight oil lamp illuminates the stage.

Standard Oil Lamp
Oil lamps were widely used for domestic and public lighting, including in the
theatre, until the end of the 18th century. 
The wick, when immersed in low-quality oil, produced not only light but also smoke
and a foul smell. High-quality vegetable oils, such as olive oil, provided more 
light with less smoke, and a better odour.

Oil lamp

Lighting in Covent Garden Theatre, 1674:
Chandeliers and wall sconces light the apron stage as well as the auditorium.
The smoking candles used for the chandeliers are probably lower quality tallow candles.

Covent Garden theatre fire.

Brass chandelier for candles, France, 17th century:
This type of chandeliers with several candles became common in the late 16th century.

Brass chandeliers


Hanging Lamps were common as early as the 12th century. At first they were made of
wood or iron. Beginning in the 14th century they were manufactured from bronze. 
Use of hanging lamps in theatre was common beginning in the 16th century. This Lucerna (Latin for lamp) was made in Spain ca. 1700. It was fed with olive oil


Model of 17th Century French Theatre with Lighting Constellation:
The model includes chandeliers in the auditorium and footlights at the foot of the stage.
his model is based on two sources:
 a sketch of performance in the Palais Richelieu (1641)
 and a painting of Moliere’s company (1670)

The Model

Lighting at the Palais Richeileu, 1641:
Cardinal Richelieu and King Louis XIII and his queen, in the Cardinal’s private theatre in 1641. Three rows of chandeliers light the auditorium and downstage area. Candles placed behind the flats illuminated the scenery. With the death of the Cardinal, ownership of the palace passed to King Louis XIV and it was named the Palais-Royal. In 1660 Moliere and his troupe were given use of this theatre.

Sketch in the Palais Richelieu

Moliere’s Company Performing (1670):
A performance of French farceurs and Italian masked actors. The Character on the extreme
left is probably Moliere.
The lighting includes chandeliers hanging from the auditorium ceiling and a row of oil lamps 
footlights at the front of the stage

A painting of Moliere’s company



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s