John Iacovelli's set for SCR's production of Sweeney Todd.
Victorian stagecraft owes a heavy debt to the Italian Renaissance, when artists, architects and engineers collaborated to design elaborate machinery for church-based spectacles and operas. Their complicated contraptions rotated painted columns to simulate waves, lowered angelic choirs from the heavens on a system of ropes and pulleys, and even flooded portions of the theatres for water spectacles. In fact, the first modern proscenium (the arch that frames the stage in most contemporary theatres) was developed as a means of concealing the many mechanical devices that were de rigeur in 17th-century Italian productions.
The proscenium arch in Venice’s Teatro Goldoni, constructed in the 1720s.
The story of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is set against the backdrop of the Industrial Revolution, when rapid technological change catalyzed both an urban population boom and a host of sweeping social changes. The population of London exploded, growing by a factor of six over the course of a century, with nearly four-fifths of its denizens belonging to the working class and frequently living in poverty.
What was happening on British stages mirrored what was happening in the streets: mainstream theatre took a popular, rather than elitist, bent, and dramatists embraced the expanded storytelling possibilities brought by new technologies. New theatres sprang up in the poorer neighborhoods of London, moving away from a rotating repertory of shows and towards a commercial model that ran the same show every night for as long as it remained profitable. No longer the domain of the wealthy, educated classes, 19th century theatre catered largely to the working classes and had strong roots in the urban experience. Classical dramas in verse were out; melodrama and, later, realism were in.
Melodrama dominated popular theatre on both sides of the Atlantic in the early part of the 19th century. The basic plot of melodrama was always the same: a virtuous protagonist is pursued by an evil villain, but, after many trials and tribulations, good emerges triumphant. In the early decades of the 19th century, sweeping tales of pirates, castles and dungeons were in vogue; after the 1830s, the domestic melodrama prevailed. The plots were just as sensational, but the settings were contemporary homes in London or the country, and the plays highlighted issues of money, class, crime and family life. In order to keep the genre exciting, playwrights often incorporated the latest novels or true crime stories, and experimented with elaborate effects, novel settings and convoluted plot twists. As the century progressed, realism replaced melodrama as the public’s favorite theatrical genre, bringing with it new trends in stage design.
Scenery & Special Effects
For the early part of the century, stage scenery consisted of little more than flat, painted backdrops that stretched behind the actors to suggest a setting. The Romantic movement found onstage expression in the lush, detailed backdrops of the early nineteenth century, which luxuriously portrayed the beauty of the natural world. “Moving panoramas”—in which a very long strip of painted fabric was slowly unwound across the stage by turning spools—offered the illusion of movement, and were used for effects like horse races or voyages. One popular American play, William Dunlap’s A Trip to Niagara, which opened at New York’s Bowery Theatre in 1928, used a panorama to illustrate the entire journey from New York City to Niagara Falls.
This engraving by Wilson Lowry depicts a mechanism for producing the illusion of onstage waves, as well as devices to move a ship across a sea and a chariot through the sky.
As writers sought to sate the public’s taste for adventurous fare, their melodramatic plots called for ever more complicated special effects, leading to the development of highly specialized devices. The “Vampire trap” was a new kind of trapdoor invented for an 1820 adaptation of Polidori’s The Vampyr. It had two sprung doors that swung closed as soon as pressure was released, allowing actors to “walk” through walls or floors. A more elaborate version, called the “Corsican Trap,” was developed for Dion Boucicault’s 1852 adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’ novel The Corsican Brothers. This trapdoor involved a wheeled cart that ran up an ascending track through a camouflaged opening, giving the impression of a ghost gliding upwards through the floor. The play’s runaway success—Queen Victoria herself attended several times—was largely due to the sensational effect of the Corsican Trap, rather than any virtues of the script; and the many other theatres that hurried to produce it all installed a Corsican trap of their own.
Prior to the 19th century, lighting effects were limited to what could be accomplished with candles, oil lamp, and sunlight, all of which were dim and difficult to focus. In 1916, Philadelphia’s Chester Street Theater became the world’s first theatre to use gas lighting, revolutionizing the field. The invention of the limelight, first used at London’s Covent Garden Theatre in 1837, provided the means to spotlight certain performers. (Although theatrical lighting technology has since progressed, the phrase “in the limelight” is still used for someone in the public eye.) By the end of the 19th century, electricity began to replace limelights, allowing for still greater safety and precision.
Before the advent of recorded sound, theatres relied upon a variety of specialized mechanical devices to create common sound effects. A thunder run, which consisted of cannonballs being rolled through chutes, was a must for any storm scenes. Thunder sheets and rain- and wind-makers were also kept in the wings. It wasn’t until 1890 that recorded sound was introduced into the theatre--the first documented instance being a phonograph recording of a baby’s cry.
Greater ease of travel and communication brought previously unknown locales into focus—and made far-off, seemingly exotic countries popular settings for Victorian plays. Along with a desire for adventure came the pressure to deliver a seemingly authentic experience. As the 19th century progressed, both sets and costumes became more detailed and more realistic.