This is chapter 3 of Michael R. Booth’s fabulous, incredibly detailed book Theatre in the Victorian Age. This book is pretty much all you ever needed or wanted to know about the Victorian theater. He also quotes a wealth of primary sources in which people write about their experiences with the theater, which makes me feel better about finding contemporary reactions to plays, playhouses, etc.
In this chapter, he begins by describing the auditorium, and I’m going to include some long quotations from this section, since I think it will really help my argument. Booth writes that many Victorian auditoriums had a “drawing-room” feel to them, so that people would feel like they were in their own homes: “Percy Fitzgeral commented that in Irving’s Lyceum, ‘the whole has an air of drawing-room comfort … The spaces in front and behind the footlights seem to blend'” (58). He also quotes H.A. Saintsbury, who writes, “the spirit gripped you: it had enveloped you before you took your seat, gas-lit candles in their wine-coloured shades glowed softly on the myrtle-green and cream and purple with its gilt mouldings and frescoes and medallions … You were in the picture, beholding, yet part of it” (qtd. in Booth 58-59, my italics). This brings me to my favorite part of the chapter:
The Picture-Frame Stage: “Indeed, the stage was moving with architectural inevitability toward its final Victorian form: the picture-frame stage. The idea of the stage as a picture and the proscenium as its frame had been in the air for many years. George Saunders declared in 1790 that ‘the scene is the picture, and the frontispiece, or in other words the frame, should contrast the picture, and thereby add to the illusion’, and Benjamin Wyatt said of his 1812 Drury Lane that the proscenium ‘is to the Scene what the frame of a Picture is to the Picture itself’. Increasingly, […] the arts of painting and production came closer together. This development was concluded architecturally in 1880, when Bancroft put a moulded and gilded picture-frame, two feet wide, around the proscenium of the Haymarket, flush with the front of the stage” (70-71).
Why does the picture-frame stage matter?
No longer could the actor come downstage into the auditorium in a close relationship with the pit in front of him and the stage boxes on either side of him. Fixed behind the proscenium, he was now part of a stage picture, integrated with scenic effect and lighting in a manner previously impossible. (71)
So, the picture-frame stage changes the ways in which actors and audience can interact, and it also registers a growing quietude and detachment among theater audiences. Before 1880, audiences watched plays in lighted auditoriums, since they went to the theater “to see and be seen,” as it were. The play was only one part of a larger social interaction in the theater: “the Victorian theatre was a place of social resort as well as a facility for the performance of a play” (62). Later, Booth writes, “as time passed and manners changed audiences became quieter and more decorous, and people commonly went to the theatre for the sole purpose of seeing a play” (62). This is when it became okay to dim or turn out the house lights.
Booth continues on to discuss stage machinery and scene painting. Apparently, during the early part of the 19th century, audiences accepted sparse stage effects, since they expected a certain level of romanticism or impressionism from a play. They used standardized scenery (i.e., a generic forest scene for any play needing a forest backdrop). Booth writes, “[t]his system served a theatre whose public knew perfectly well that they were watching a play and did not insist on the illusion of reality; scenery was selective and aesthetic, almost suggestive representation of the interior and exterior world, not a replication of it” (74).
The Victorians, however, “were coming more and more to accept the doctrine of realism, or at least verisimilitude,” so “the old methods seemed increasingly inadequate” (74). So, scene-painting became much more detailed and time-consuming, and theaters also started using three-dimensional scenery in addition to elaborately-painted backgrounds. This made scene changes take much longer, so playwrights started including “carpenter scenes,” in which characters could act on the small strip of stage that protruded from behind the curtain while stage mechanics changed the scenery. Advances in lighting technology also meant that minutely-detailed backdrops were much more visible to the audience. And the picture-frame stage meant that scene-painters were much more important to the stage’s overall effect than they ever had been before. In fact, celebrated scene-painters like Clarkson Stanfield, David Roberts, and David Cox “went on to careers as famous easel artists and Academicians. Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Ford Maddox Ford, and Edward Burne-Jones designed sets, costumes and properties for Irving and Tree” (95). This all drives the Victorian stage further and further toward (historical and archaeological) realism.