PhD Researcher Neil Vallelly reflects on the latest Research in Action workshop in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse…

The opening act of Ben Jonson’s Catiline contains one of the most interesting stage directions for scholars of the early modern theatre: “A darkness comes over the place”. What exactly does this mean and was it even possible in a theatre illuminated primarily by candlelight? In early July we held a lighting workshop at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse as part of the Research in Action series in order to explore moments such as this one from Jonson’s tragedy. Dr. Will Tosh (Post-doctoral Research Fellow, Globe Education), Professor Martin White (University of Bristol), and Paul Russell (Production Manager, Shakespeare’s Globe) led the workshop with four actors performing scenes from three plays (including Catiline) originally performed at an indoor playhouse in the early 17th century.

Sam Wanamaker Playhouse stage © Hannah Yates 

As Martin pointed out during the workshop, we know very little about the exact lighting configurations at the indoor playhouses in early modern London. Certainly candles were used and scholars generally conclude that daylight, let in through windows, complemented candlelight. A potentially interesting piece of information emerges from Thomas Dekker’s The Seven Deadly Sins of London (1606), a pamphlet about the plague, in which he writes that the “Citty lookt like a priuate Play-house, when the windowes are clapt downe, as if some Nocturnal, or dismall Tragedy were presently to be acted before all the Trades-Men.” This reference implies that the indoor playhouses had some means to shutter the windows in order to block out daylight. If so, then candlelight became the dominant source of illumination in the playhouse and the potential to experiment with stage lighting increased.

The first scene we looked at was the opening act of Catiline, discussed above, which was first performed by the King’s Men at the indoor Blackfriars playhouse in 1610. Early in the scene the characters refer to the gloominess of the morning: “It is, methinks, a morning full of fate … She is not rosy-fingered, but swollen black”; “Dare they look day in the dull face?” For the workshop, all six chandeliers were lit and the shutters closed. The front chandeliers were raised to the roof prior the start of the scene, leaving the middle and back branches in the standard position (2.2 metres). The first sign that there may be an atmospheric shift in the scene comes when Bestia asks, “How is’t Cethegus?” Prior to this question the middle chandeliers were raised. Lentulus then says: “A strange unwonted horror doth invade me, / I know not what it is” – the stage direction “A darkness comes over the place” immediately follows. At this point, the back chandeliers were taken up to the ceiling. Bestia responds to this atmospheric shift: “The day goes back, / Or else my senses!”; Lentulus replies: “Darkness grows more and more!” Groans are then heard (wonderfully provided by Will), and the stage directions read: “A fiery light appears” (provided by a torch held by Paul on the stage balcony).

The subsequent dialogue helps describe the staging of this scene:

CATALINE:                    What light is this?

Look Forth. It still grows greater!

BESTIA: From whence comes it?

CATHEGUS: A bloody arm it is, that holds a pine

Lighted, above the Capitol! And now

It waves to us!

The dialogue acts as a cue for the movement of the actor with the torch. “It still grows greater!” (move forward); “A bloody arm it is, that holds a pine” (hold torch out); “It waves to us!” (move the torch from side to side). In these moments early modern play texts come alive as blueprints for performance. The dialogue acts not only to describe what is happening, but also how it happens.

Interestingly, audience members observed contrasting experiences of this scene from different positions in the playhouse. People in the upper gallery noted that the raising of the chandeliers actually illuminated their surroundings and the feeling of an impending darkness lessened. People in the lower gallery and pit observed light moving away from them, more akin to the experiences of the characters. One audience member noted that although the raising of the chandeliers reduced light onstage, the effect was subtle rather than significant. For a modern audience accustomed to modern lighting, particularly in the theatre, the effect is certainly subtle. Yet, for an early modern audience member devoid of universal street lighting and who may have had only a handful of candles at home, such lighting changes may have been visually significant. Whereas a theatre illuminated by around 80 candles seems quite dark to us, it would have seemed bright (and expensive!) to an early modern audience.

With the shutters closed, there is no doubt that raising the chandeliers accentuates the growing darkness that the characters experience in this scene from Catiline. However, we must take care not to presume that this was exactly how it was staged at the Blackfriars in 1610. The truth is we do not know (a rather sobering thought for most historians!). Jonson’s stage direction implies that there was a means to darken the stage relatively quickly, but it is certainly not a common stage direction from the period.

Another scene we looked at was from John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore (3.7), performed at the Cockpit playhouse in 1631 (and part of the upcoming season at Sam Wanamaker Playhouse). The scene takes place at night and depicts the murder of Bergetto (who is mistaken for Soranzo). All six chandeliers were lit, but the front and middle branches were raised, leaving just the back chandeliers in the standard position. This scene calls for the use of a “dark lantern,” which is essentially a regular lantern with a shutter in order to close off the flame. These lanterns were synonymous with malevolent characters, such as Bosola in The Duchess of Malfi. Most notably, a dark lantern was in the possession of Guy Fawkes on the night he was arrested in November 1605.

Guy Fawkes lanternGuy Fawkes’ Dark Lantern, on display at the Ashmoleum Museum (Source:

At the workshop, Grimaldi entered with the shutter open before closing it prior to the entrance of Bergetto and Philotis. There was a significant effect when the shutter closed: where before we could see the actor’s face quite clearly, it was suddenly plunged into darkness. The stage direction itself does not explicitly call for the lantern to be shuttered, but another play performed at the Cockpit in 1639, entitled The Bloody Banquet, suggests that it was a possibility, since it contains a stage direction that reads: “Opens a dark Lanthorne”. There is no doubt that this scene benefits from a darkened stage (as it was during the workshop). The other characters and the audience only learn of the severity of Bergetto’s injury when the officers enter with lanterns. In this way, the characters and audience share the same light, and thus, the same knowledge.

The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, as an archetypal indoor Jacobean theatre, offers the opportunity to explore some of the possibilities of early modern stage lighting. Whether dramatists experimented with light in the ways laid out above is open to debate. Perhaps Biron was right in Love’s Labour’s Lost: “Light, seeking light, doth light of light beguile”. Yet, there is no doubt that there was a huge shift in the experience of light between the outdoor and indoor playhouses in the early modern period which surely offered differing experiences of play-going. Ultimately, what we hope to achieve through the events of the Research in Action series is a better understanding of the possibilities of the indoor playing spaces in comparison to their al fresco neighbours, both then and now.

-          Neil Vallelly, PhD Student, University of Otago/Shakespeare’s Globe


Further Reading:

R.B. Graves, Lighting the Shakespearean Stage, 1567-1642 (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press)

Andrew Gurr, The Shakespearean Stage, 1574-1642, 4th edn. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009)

Martin White, ‘When torchlight made an artificial noon’: light and darkness in the indoor Jacobean theatre’, in Andrew Gurr and Farah Karim-Cooper (eds.), Moving Shakespeare Indoors: Performance and Repertoire in the Jacobean Playhouse (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 115-36.