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Fade to Black – a history of the theatrical blackout

The convention which now seems part-and-parcel of theatre wasn’t always there – indoor venues and developments in lighting provided new staging opportunities. But what is the theatrical blackout for?

I have always thought that my favourite part about going to the theatre is in those few seconds of blackout at the end of a show. And no, that’s not me saying that I most forward to the bit when it’s all over and I get to go home. It’s about that moment of silence, of contemplation. If what you’ve seen has been particularly special, the blackout is when the audience can share a quiet moment, and realize that they have just witnessed something amazing.

At ending moments like these I have sometimes heard fellow audience members exclaim in sheer delight, as if they can’t keep their reactions in any longer. I myself have been privy to the odd gasp at the end of plays – the two-part, six- hour masterpiece, The Inheritance, at the Young Vic certainly gaining an involuntary yelp from an already tear-sodden me. Lighting designer and critic Scott Palmer wrote that the fade to black at the start of a play causes an “audible, collective intake of breath” in anticipation, and I would say the same about a play’s ending – although after a play’s end it is usually a communal exhale.

After I identified this feeling of release that an audience member often gets at the end of a play, I wanted to pin point exactly how the director made you feel that way. I also started to think more deeply about the role darkness plays in theatre – why, now, is it a convention to submerge our audience members in total darkness, and what effect does this have on the theatrical experience?

If we look back to some of the earliest examples of theatre, lighting was not an aspect of the performance that was considered particularly important. In Ancient Greece, theatres were outside, and performances were held in daylight. Other tools were employed to construct the theatrical experience – masks played a massive role in distinguishing actors and signifying the prominence of each character.

By the early modern period, during the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I, and when William Shakespeare’s company ‘The King’s Men’ were performing, the role of light in theatre shifted. Whilst it is true that theatre continued to be performed outside – the construction of the Globe in 1599 is testament to that – theatre-makers of this period were experimenting with new spaces. James Burbage, father of Richard Burbage, who was perhaps the most widely known actor in Shakespeare’s company and known for originating the title role in such plays as Hamlet, Othello, Richard III and King Lear, bought a property in 1596 which had been the refectory of a former priory, and converted it into a new indoor theatre.

The newly built Blackfriars Theatre brought with it an entirely altered theatrical process. The space was entirely candlelit, and the candles played such an important role in the performance that the end of each act signalled the point when candles had to be trimmed.

In the context of Shakespeare, this contrasts significantly to the way we choose to perform the playwright today – acts are now fused into each other, and theatre producers choose to perform Shakespeare’s plays in two halves. The interval is now seen as an opportunity to capitalize on audiences through the selling of drinks and ice creams.

The movement of theatre inside at the start of the seventeenth century forced theatre-makers to think about darkness as a technical problem that needed to be solved, but also as an opportunity to utilize light for dramatic effect. An example of the Jacobean indoor theatre can be seen at the fairly-recently built Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in London – whilst not an exact reconstruction of the Blackfriars Theatre, it is entirely candle-lit, and creates a magical, sensory experience which uncovers and iterates the theatre of seventeenth century London.

As indoor theatre developed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, many theatres would have windows, and shutters were commonly used to create an element of darkness, thus allowing audiences to focus on the stage. Yet, the auditoria remained lit during this period because theatre was a hugely important social event – audience members would attend performances to see, and to be seen, by others in their social circles. But the end of the nineteenth century saw a significant shift to how theatres were lit – the invention of the gaslight allowed for the stage and the auditorium to be lit independently of one another.

This change occurred alongside the development of naturalism in theatre, when Stanislavskian approaches sought to sever the relationship between audience and performer through the construction of the fourth wall. The submerging of the audience in darkness, and the focus on lighting the stage was a physical manifestation of this boundary, allowing the theatrical illusion to be sustained throughout.

In London, the first theatre that created an entirely darkened auditorium was the refurbished Lyceum, which opened in 1878. From that period onwards, theatre practitioners have continued to utilize darkness as a means of constructing the theatrical illusion. Aside from actually shifting audience member attention to what is happening on stage, darkness now also serves to establish a convention of behaviour at the theatre – when the lights dim, the audience tend to turn off their phones, finish their conversations, and prepare themselves to be absorbed by the performance.

Since the work of renowned practitioner Bertolt Brecht the stability of the fourth wall has consistently been called into question – contemporary directors regularly have performers enter through the audience or directly address the audience, reminding us that we are watching a play, and that the show isn’t real after all. But, like many things in life, this is cyclical – it harkens back to the soliloquies of Shakespeare’s stage. Early modern audiences were constantly made aware that they were watching a play – one must only recall Prospero’s ending speech in The Tempest when he requests that the audience applaud him: “release me from my bands / With the help of your good hands.”

It is important to remember that the illusion in theatre is a fairly recent phenomenon. Still, the blackout continues to be utilized by directors – even if they simultaneously employ techniques that shatter the theatrical illusion. I would argue that the submerging of the audience in darkness encourages individual audience members to mull over the performance independently. Without consultation with our neighbours, we are forced to think more deeply about the play in relation to ourselves. Scott Palmer also argues that, in a particularly post-Samuel Beckett context, the moments of darkness in the theatre act as a “subliminal reminder of our mortality”.

This idea is perhaps morbid, but it is also compelling. Whilst it might speak volumes about the individualistic nature of our society, I think the use of the blackout encourages a level of self-interrogation, and often facilitates an internal emotional reaction, that could be stunted by a lit auditorium.

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