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Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

Professor Jan Clarke

“I found my period as an IAS Fellow extremely enriching and rewarding.”

Professor Jan Clarke, Durham University

IAS Fellow, Durham University (January - March 2014)

Jan Clarke is Professor of French at Durham University. Her first degree was in French and Theatre Studies and she has continued to occupy the liminal space between these two disciplines, examining the practical, material and social conditions surrounding the performance of the play text.

She began as a modernist, working on Jean-Louis Barrault’s productions of Paul Claudel for her master’s at Warwick University, but switched to the seventeenth century for her doctorate at the same institution. Having set out to examine the career of Thomas Corneille, her work took a significant turn when she discovered he had devised a series of spectacular ‘machine plays’ for the little-known Guénégaud theatre. Upon investigation, she found the Guénégaud had bridged the gap between Molière (who died in 1673) and the Comédie-Française (founded in 1680). Moreover, its account books were preserved in the archives of the Comédie-Française and had never been subject to detailed examination and analysis.

Professor Clarke proceeded to remedy this lack by producing first her doctoral dissertation then three monographs on the Guénégaud, examining its founding, design and production policy, reproducing statistics and information from the account books, and considering the contribution of Thomas Corneille and the Guénégaud to the spectacular stage more generally. She has also authored over fifty articles on topics including theatre architecture, stage design, the uses of music in spectacular productions, and company administration, with a particular focus on the participation of women as both actors and theatre employees.

Professor Clarke is generally acknowledged as the leading expert on practical theatre in seventeenth-century France. Her work has been published in French and English and, most recently, Portuguese. She is frequently invited to lecture in France and the US and last year gave a keynote talk in Brazil. She has twice served as Visiting Professor (in Bloomington and Kansas) and has on-going research collaborations with a number of other institutions, including the Comédie-Française itself. She has edited Seventeenth-French Studies, served as General Secretary of the Society for French Studies and is currently Secretary General of the International Federation for Theatre Research.

Professor Clarke is presently engaged on two major projects: an edition of the machine plays and operas of Thomas Corneille, for which she was awarded a BA/Leverhulme Senior Research Fellowship, and an examination of the nine years (1680-89) during which the Guénégaud served as the first home of the Comédie-Française. During her IAS Fellowship, however, she will develop her work on stage lighting. It is generally thought it was not until the nineteenth century that house lights were dimmed and that previously actors and audience had bathed in a shared illumination. Yet the technology to enable blackout existed far earlier and many plays call for lighting effects that would not have been visible from a lit auditorium. Professor Clarke will, therefore, seek to discover if there is evidence of an earlier darkening of the auditorium as well as of the technologies employed in the creation of lighting effects. She also hopes to determine what the audience would have been able to see in different lit environments.

IAS Fellow's Public Lecture – Stage Lighting as Spectacle in Seventeenth-Century France
18 February 2014, 17:30 to 18:30, Birley Room, Hatfield College, Durham University

All authors and designers of baroque operas and machine plays tried to dazzle their spectators, not only by the sumptuousness of their costumes, decors and stage machinery, but also, in a certain sense, literally. The clouds that carried divine characters down to earth were always ‘blazing, the palaces were ‘brilliant’, encrusted with crystals and precious stones that ‘dazzled’ the eyes… Horror effects, for their part, frequently called for the use of fire: the Python projected flames from its eyes and mouth, chariots were destroyed by bolts of lightning, palaces and pastoral perspectives burned, and innumerable Furies danced with their flaming torches. The spectators’ taste for such effects is confirmed by the fact that many were imitated on the comic stages: at the Comédie-Italienne, in the puppet theatres or the fairgrounds. All this implies a technological sophistication that is rarely attributed to the seventeenth-century public stage. In this lecture Professor Jan Clarke will explore the use of lighting effects on all the major Parisian stages in the latter half of the seventeenth-century, showing not only to what extent such effects were integral to the conception of spectacle at this time, but also attempting to explain how some of them may have been created. The actors were afraid of fire, with good justification: the Marais and Palais-Royal theatres both went up in flames and it is no coincidence that so few baroque playhouses remain. There is, therefore, no better proof of the power exerted by lighting effects over the popular imagination that all troupes were prepared to employ them in venues where everything was made of highly inflammable materials and where the fire buckets stood always ready.

Listen to this lecture in full.

Professor Jan Clarke Publications

Clarke, J. (2018) 'The Colossus of Rhodes according to Giacomo Torelli' in Strang, V., Edensor, T., Puckering, J. (eds.) From the Lighthouse: interdisciplinary reflections on light. Abingdon: Routledge, pp. 60-65.

IAS Insights Paper


This article seeks to demonstrate that lighting effects on the seventeenth-century Parisian stage were not as rudimentary as is sometimes supposed. Starting from the premise that sophisticated lighting effects are only possible when the auditorium and stage can be darkened separately from each other, it discusses the various means by which such ‘blackouts’ could be created. Eighteenth-century practitioners were not, though, satisfied with the prevailing conditions and no less a figure than Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier attempted (unsuccessfully) to address the problems caused by footlights in particular. The use of these in conjunction with chandeliers above the stage and lateral light sources in the wings meant that the rear of the stage was frequently left in darkness. This realisation has led to the elaboration of a new theory in an attempt to solve the mystery of why Thomas Corneille’s machine play ‘La Pierre philosophale’ was taken off after only two performances at the Comédie-Française in 1681.

  • Insights Paper

Volume 10 Article 2