The development of stage machinery in the nineteenth century British theatre : a study of physical and documentary evidence

Wilmore, David

History; Literature; Mass media; Performing arts; Machinery tools
March 1989

Thesis or dissertation

© 1989 David Wilmore. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced without the written permission of the copyright holder.

Thc devolopment of scene changing machinery in Great Britain is perhaps one of the few disciplines in the field of mechanical engineering which have virtually never relied upon new discoveries in technology for their advancement. Instead it has always lagged behind, perhaps modifying, certainly adapting, existing techniques. This study aims to examine the evolution of stage machinery during the nineteenth century, when many techniques had already been in existence and traditions firmly established since the previous century. The degree of development in the course of the nineteenth century was in many ways a reflection of the type of drama presented. As time went by, the public's taste for spectacle and visual presentation intensified and fostered an increase in the complexity of scene changing equipment. This in turn meant that many of the theatres built in the eighteenth century, especially in the provinces, were sadly inadequate for housing the vast quantities of equipment which machinists needed to install above and below the stage. As a result architects, began improving and enlarging existing theatres as well as building new ones, with increased stage width and depth, increased flying space above and increased depth below the stage.There was indeed an enormous rise in demand for scenic effects shortly after the beginning of the nineteenth century. This rapid growth caused the smaller existing Georgian playhouses, like the Theatre Royal, Ipswich, either to be modified in an attempt to cater for new trends, or to close. This dilemma alone must be acknowledged as a significant contributory factor in the decline of the Georgian playhouse and helps to explain the comparatively small number of such theatres surviving to the present day.The techniques of the stage machinist in the first half of the nineteenth century relied almost totally on  technology and basic engineering principles which had existed for many years. Certainly the comparison often made between the backstage of a theatre of this period and a sailing ship is a very apt one, since both relied on manually hauled ropes, sheaves and the principles of mechanical advantage. However, these techniques had also been utilised for other, non-theatrical purposes. For instance, housed in the central tower of Beverley Minster is a large treadwheel, which was, and is still, used to raise equipment from ground level into the roof space [sec photo.1]. This is based upon the principles of mechanical advantage, in much the same way as many pieces of scene-changing equipment.Thus, because the theatrical profession was slow to adopt now apparatus and constantly replacing old machinery with brand new near-replicas, its evolution was comparatively slow. The job of a stage machinist was quite often a family concern, as the techniques, traditions, secrets and tricks of the trade were passed from father to son. The Sloman family and the Grieve family were particularly well known in London for their knowledge and expertise in this hold. Change was to a greater or lessor extent resisted and in any case many saw little need for change, especially those who were steeped in the traditions of the machinist and his machinery. It was, in fact, this basic resistance which caused a disruption in the evolutionary development of stage machinery. Many theatre architects were happy to furnish a traditional stage machinist with a blank drawing denoting "The Stage", requiring him to fill in the details as he saw fit, whilst the innovators devised all manner of new equipment, that which worked and sometimes that which emphatically did not. There was therefore a bifurcation, with the 'traditional school' refining the 'English wood stage' to a higher degree of sophistication, whilst the 'modern school' developed and attempted to apply the engineering technology associated with other disciplines. In essence, the latter attempted to replace muscle power with hydraulic or electrical power.This thesis documents the development of stage machinery from its comparatively primitive state at the beginning of the nineteenth century, through years of growth and expansion, and finally into the last decade of the century, when theatrical productions were in truth exercises in spectacle.

Department of Drama, The University of Hull
Qualification level
Qualification name
Filesize: 86,299KB
QR Code