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Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

Past Events

IAS Fellow's Seminar - Back to Black: Variable Lighting Levels on the Seventeenth-Century French Stage

24th February 2014, 13:00 to 14:00, IAS Seminar Room, Cosin's Hall, Palace Green, Professor Jan Clarke (Durham University)

It is generally believed that the theatre auditorium remained lit throughout the performance up until the nineteenth century, so that actors and public bathed, as Gösta Bergmann (1977) puts it, in the ‘gold shimmering light’ of a ‘common dream world’. This ‘fact’ has important implications with regard to such key questions as public reception of the performance, interaction between actors and audience, and audience behaviour in general — the famous ‘see or be seen’. It is also widely assumed that, in consequence of this ‘fact’, those lighting effects created were either crude and rudimentary or quite simply non-existent — characters carrying lanterns to indicate that a scene is set at night, for example. I have, however, discovered textual evidence to indicate that highly sophisticated lighting effects were sometimes called for, including blackouts, the use of gauzes, live flames and explosive devices. And an examination of archival and other sources has provided some information as to practice on both public and private stages. The questions I would like us to address in my seminar, therefore, are the following. To what extent would such effects have been perceptible to the public in a lit auditorium? How, indeed, could you have a blackout on stage while the auditorium remained lit? The technology certainly existed to create a complete, instantaneous blackout, so why use it for the stage and not for the auditorium? Lights-up on the other hand could be more problematic…Or perhaps it really did not matter… In any event, it is to be hoped that, via our discussion, we will work towards a fuller understanding of the performance practices of the seventeenth-century spectacular stage.

Fellows' seminars take place on Monday lunchtimes in the seminar room at Cosin's Hall.

Places are limited and so any academic colleagues interested in attending a seminar should contact the Institute in advance to reserve a place.

The aim of these seminars is to develop new thinking on the big issues that are of current concern/interest for the Fellows . Each Fellow is asked to present a core idea that informs their current work, or a problem that they are tackling, that could benefit from cross-disciplinary thinking. These seminars are informal and designed to encourage discussion.

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