Behind the scenes

A Spatial History of Trapdoors at BLDG BLOG sent us off on this diversion. Apart from bringing to mind the fantastic British animation (which spawned an equally brilliant Spectrum game), there’s also a physical history to be explored in the structures and mechanisms that underpinned the classic theatre trapdoor. Original stage mechanisms represent very complex architectural engineering, little of which survives today. Rare examples include the Alexandra Palace Theatre in London and the rope and lever strewn understage at the Isle of Man’s Gaiety Theatre. The Gaiety also has a ‘Corsican Trap‘, a special device (also known as a ‘ghost glide’) developed especially for the 1852 play The Corsican Brothers. The complicated melodrama called for a specific illusion:

‘Act three opens with Chateau Renaud and Montgiron, Renaud’s friend and second at the duel, trying to flee the country after Louis’ death. However, their carriage crashes in the very part of the forest where Louis died. Fabian Dei Franchi suddenly appears from among the trees and both the other men think they are looking at the ghost of Louis.’

‘To achieve this a specialised trap was devised that would make the actor (or ghost!) appear through the stage, glide across it while also rising at the same time. Our trusting actor would stand on a small platform (located under the stage)at the base of a set of rising rails, or track. The small platform would travel up the track operated manually on a drum & shaft and winch system, while at the same time a specially designed moving floor, called a Scruto, would travel in the same direction and at the same speed, thus allowing the actor to appear through a specifically located hole in the Scruto giving the gradual rising appearance of our dead hero!’

There is an expansive blog post on the architecture, interior and mechanical innards of the Gaiety at Shades of Grey, the ‘Jewel of the Irish Sea‘. Grey links to these Victorian Pantomine Notes (pdf) from the Cambridge Arts Theatre, which are full of drawings and diagrams of the complex substage arrangements of over a century ago. In 1902, for example, the Theatre Royal produced Ben Hur, a hugely successful stage version of Lew Wallace’s epic Biblical novel ‘Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ‘. It was revived in 2009 at the 02 Arena, with rather less mechanised panache. From the wikipedia article:

‘The horses galloped full-pelt towards the audience, secured by invisible steel cable traces and running on treadmills. Electric rubber rollers spun the chariot wheels. A vast cyclorama backdrop revolved in the opposite direction to create an illusion of massive speed, and fans created clouds of dust. They had imported 30 tons of stage equipment from the United States, employed a cast of over 100, and featured fountains, palm trees, and the sinking of a Roman galley’

Little wonder that the Drury Lane’s ‘Management would esteem it a favour if all Ladies would remove their hats, as it is obvious that the enjoyment of many is entirely spoiled by the view being obstructed by Ladies’ Hats.’ The above images are taken from a Ben-Hur Souvenir Album from 1900. There is lots more on Victorian theatrical illusions at Early Visual Media, a site found via this Metafilter post from 2004, including the classic illusion known as Pepper’s Ghost.


Such specialist stage mechanisms evolved out of the stage reform movement, a push towards realistic settings, ‘an imitation of the landscape or surroundings in which the piece was set.’ As a result, technical demands expanded rapidly: ‘In future, a successful production would require not only dramatists, but painters, sculptors, joiners and costumiers to create the scenic art to which the theatre-going public were soon to become accustomed.’


This history at Stage Beauty (quoted above) tells of the 1902 restoration of the Covent Garden Opera House by architect Edwin Sachs. It ‘involved dividing the stagefloor into a few large sections which could then be moved with the aid of electrical power. It also employed the ‘Brandt’ system of counter-weighting for scenery suspended from above, electric lighting in four colours, and a flat stage as distinct from the earlier sloping stage.’ There are many substage images at the Edwin O Sachs Photographic Collection at the Royal Opera House. Stage automation is still big business, from the celebrated drum revolve at the National Theatre (video) to the work of Stage Technologies (who updated the ROH at the turn of the century).


Other things. The short, dry and entertaining 2005 documentary about the classic Roland TB-303, Bassline Baseline is available on YouTube. The 303 story is well known; a device that essentially failed in its primary task – to replicate the traditional electric bass guitar so that bass-less bands and musicians could play along. It was only a couple of years after its introduction that adventurous musicians realised that changing its parameters in realtime could produce radical and otherworldly sequenced soundscapes. It is still widely used to this day, although predominantly in emulation (see the ReBirth Museum as well). From the film:

‘So today we have computer software consisting of representations of a three dimensional interface on a two dimensional screen, being controlled by third party hardware so as to emulate the sound of a machine built twenty years ago, which was itself built to emulate the sound of a machine built thirty years before it.’


General links. Buy guitars from the collection of Richard Gere / Die Puppenstubensammlerin, an extraordinary collection of post-war German dollhouses, as well as a blog. Found via The Cartoonist and Voices of East Anglia / art and animation treasures at One1more2time3’s weblog / more drawing at Making a Mark / Babylon Falling, ‘scans from my collection of 60s and 70s underground newspapers and counterculture magazines, 90s Hip Hop magazines, and political ephemera’ / Attentive, mostly art.

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