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Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

Back to Black: Variable Lighting Levels on the Seventeenth-Century French Stage, Lavoisier and the Enigma of La Pierre philosophale


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