I am going to be performing as Mark Twain in 1896, and want it to be as authentic as possible, even to the technology used (I am willing to use a mic when and if necessary, but only if it can be hidden and unnoticeable to at least most of the audience.

That's not what my question is, though, which is about lighting. Specifically, when did spotlights begin to be used to "follow" entertainers across the stage? If prior to 1896, I may consider using that, as I will be moving back and forth across the stage. My guess is that these were probably not used, but am not at all sure.

Any other info about what lighting techniques would probably have been used in 1896 would be appreciated, too.

I have read everything there is, I think, about Twain's performances/lectures, and don't think lighting was ever even mentioned in passing. Most of these occurred at night, so there had to be lighting of some sort...

  • 1
    Do you know what spaces Twain was speaking in?
    – rougon
    Dec 10, 2016 at 4:47
  • Opera houses, churches, small theaters, large theaters - pretty much anywhere lectures were presented. Dec 11, 2016 at 4:57

2 Answers 2


According to the Brief Outline of the History of Stage Lighting, the electric spotlight wasn't invented until 1904. However, during the 1890's they did have carbon arc spotlights, so you track down one of those or use an electric one and hope that no one in the audience is too hot on the exact history of the lamps.

  • Thanks; it probably took some time before they came into common usage, anyway, so I'm probably safe "playing it straight" in 1896. Dec 9, 2016 at 21:26

Before electrical lighting, there was gas lighting. One type of gas operated light is the limelight, where a piece of quicklime is heated white hot in a flame of hydrogen burning with pure oxygen. Quoting wikipedia:

Limelight was first used for indoor stage illumination in the Covent Garden Theatre in London in 1837 and enjoyed widespread use in theatres around the world in the 1860s and 1870s.[8] Limelights were employed to highlight solo performers in the same manner as modern followspots (spotlights).[9] Limelight was replaced by electric arc lighting in the late 19th century.

In general, gas lighting was how all theaters were lighted in the middle of the 19th century. Gas lights on stage were controlled from the gas table, which was the contemporary equivalent of a switchboard.

By the 1850s, gas lighting in theatres had spread practically all over the United States and Europe. Some of the largest installations of gas lighting would be in large auditoriums, like the Theatre de Chatelet, built in 1862.[25] In 1875, the new Paris Opera was constructed. “Its lighting system contained more than twenty-eight miles [45 km] of gas piping, and its gas table had no fewer than eighty-eight stopcocks, which controlled nine hundred and sixty gas jets.”[26] The theatre that used the most gas lighting was the Astley’s Equestrian Amphitheatre in London. According to the Illustrated London News “Everywhere white and gold meets the eye, and about 200,000 gas jets add to the glittering effect of the auditorium … such a blaze of light and splendour has scarcely ever been witnessed, even in dreams.”[25]

The main disadvantage of gas lighting was the fire risk, and once it was mature, electric lighting became cheaper than gas lighting mainly due to the lower fire insurance premium.

I guess this answer is too late for your performance, but it looks like either limelight or other gas lighting or else carbon arc lighting is the period appropriate choice. But beware that putting a real limelight in the theater where you are performing may get you in trouble with the fire department.


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