Candles were made from tallow – essentially pig fat. The courts would have the most expensive candles which would be the first skim of the fat and the poor people’s homes would have the last skim of the fat, making them give off a thick, black smoke and not very much light. The wick was made from twisted rush which burned down quite quickly. As the rush became longer, the flame would be smaller, giving off much less light. Theatres spent huge amount of money on candles. Wax candles were available but very very expensive. Salisbury court used between 2 and 4 dozen per performance. Very expensive, considering this would still not emit that much light.
The theatres employed a “snuffer man” who would walk along the front of the stage and trimmed the wicks of the candles. This meant the candles would burn with a good, strong flame and give off as much light as possible. Because this was such an important job, the snuffer man would walk across the stage at any given moment, regardless of the scene to keep the light bright.
Chandeliers and Footlights
Chandeliers were suspended from the ceiling which covered both the stage and the audience with light. Each chandelier had eight arms, two tiers of four. These were at waist height as the audience entered the theatre then were raised as the play began. Footlights were at the front of stage and, again, used tallow. Later, the theatres used oil as it burned more slowly and with a brighter flame.
Theatres were painted in lavish colours, particularly the ceilings. This would have helped reflect the light from the chandeliers down on to the stage. Some theatre owners ordered the ceiling be covered with a copper plate to prevent damage from the smoke. In some cases, the flames would spread to the theatre and the theatre would burn down.
Mostly known for his architectural work, Inigo Jones (1573-1652) saw the work that was done in Italy with the proscenium stage and footlights and brought it to England to use on the Jacobean stage. He was also well know for his theatre design alongside Ben Jonson for introducing the masques. Martin White of Bristol University has spent lots of time researching the stage layout and looking at the lighting using candles and some tungsten too. For more information on his work, visit: MartinWhite
One of the major problems is that today’s audiences leave well-lit houses and walk down well-lit streets or drive with headlights on. They enter well-lit building and a theatre with emergency exits in the corners. Today’s audiences rarely see darkness. Shakespeare’s audience would have left dimly-lit homes and walked down dark streets. Upon entering the theatre, it must have seemed very bright. This will become part of my final project; to adjust the audience’s eyes to darkness before entering the theatre otherwise the theatre will seem very dim.