The following article first appeared in the 1886 edition of The Cornhill Magazine.
The Scenic World
[F]ifty years ago, scenery decorations and properties were all of the rudest kind… Much of the extraordinary change that has taken place within twenty years is owing to the resources of science being applied to the stage. This is illustrated by the progress made in lighting… It is difficult to conceive the contrast to all this in Garrick’s day, when the stage was lit, not by footlights, but by four large chandeliers, which hung over the heads of the players. This was a rational system, for the faces were effectively lit up, and the scenery left dim and indistinct. But then these were the old foolish times when nobody cared for scenery, but for the play only and the actors.
Then any stuff would do for dresses—the coarsest was most effective—for there was but little light to see the texture. In Macready’s dress in ‘Virginius,’ now in Mr. Irving’s possession, the armour was of pasteboard covered with tinfoil, and the dagger of wood. There was a scarf of red serge, a linen tunic and sandals, &c. The whole could not have cost a couple of pounds. But a rich dress would have been wasted, and now the searching rays would display the poverty of material. Hence the introduction of rich and costly stuffs which makes the actress’s bill for dress now as high as that of a lady of fashion in the season. Hence those superb plushes and velvets of many tints, the brocades, the rare ornaments.
In the pantomimes we see whole bands of young ladies with their helmets, shields, and breastplates—no longer of pasteboard—made of a brilliantly polished silvery metal which reflects the bright rays of the limelight. This metal is costly enough, and these suits of armour cost a good deal. Stage jewellery now is a regular manufacture, and though many actresses wear real diamonds, it need not be said that the mimic stones are more effective. Sham furniture looks more like furniture on the stage than the finest that could be ordered from Maple’s. It would take too long to expound this, but in illustration it may be said that at the Théâtre Français there is a property clock for a boudoir elegantly painted and made of papier-maché, and which cost five or six hundred francs…
Nowadays there are regular costumiers, and when a play is brought out a contract is made with the person who makes and hires out the dresses at a fixed charge, and takes them back at the close of the season. They are then hired again to inferior theatres in town or country. This system is particularly adopted in the case of pantomimes, when some hundreds of dresses are required, which it would be quite too costly a business to buy outright for only a few weeks’ use. At the end of the season they are purchased, with the pantomime itself, scenery and properties, for some provincial theatre. They thus return again and again to the costumier’s store, and can be finally used for fancy balls, private theatricals, &c.
Smith, Elder, & Co., ed. “The Scenic World.” Cornhill Magazine 1886: 281-83. Google Books. Web. 23 Feb. 2016.