How to Make Stage Thunder and Lightning: 1829-1900


Stage thunder machine with cannon-balls.

Stage thunder machine with cannon-balls.

It is raining “cats and dogs” at the Hall—one may take the “April Showers” reference as read—and Mrs Daffodil has been peeping out the window, hoping for lightning displays.  Nature, however, has disappointed.  Mrs Daffodil has been at the theatre recently and the “natural” thunder-and-lightning has proved utterly inadequate when compared to the theatrical article.  Let us draw back the curtain on how these effects were produced in the theatres of the past.


Mr. Lee, when he was manager of the Edinburgh Theatre, was determined to improve on stage thunder, and having procured a parcel of nine-pound shot, they were put into a wheelbarrow, to which he affixed a nine-pound wheel; this done, ledges were placed at the back of the stage, and one of the carpenters was ordered to trundle this wheelbarrow, so filled, backwards and forwards over these ledges. The play was Lear, and in the two first efforts had a good effect; at length, as the King was braving the pelting of the pitiless storm, the thunderer’s foot slipped and down he came, wheelbarrow and all. The stage being on a declivity, the balls made their way towards the orchestra, and meeting with feeble resistance from the scene, laid it flat. This storm was more difficult for Lear to encounter than the tempest of which he so loudly complained; the balls taking every direction, he was obliged to skip about like the man who dances the egg hornpipe. The fiddlers, alarmed for their cat-gut, hurried out of the orchestra; and, to crown this scene of glorious confusion, the sprawling thunder lay prostrate in sight of the audience like another Salmoneus. The Dramatic Magazine, Issue 1, 1829

This was a special make of thunder. A very common kind is produced by rattling suspended sheets of iron or tin, and, to punctuate with crashes the roll thereby caused, dropping at intervals cannon-balls or heavy pieces of iron or lead. How much it resembles real thunder may be judged from a story that is told of Sir Augustus Harris. He was staging a storm. “Now, then,” he shouted, “hurry up with that thunder.” Immediately he had spoken a clap of real thunder burst over Drury Lane Theatre. “Not a bit like it!” exclaimed Sir Augustus angrily, proceeding to give directions that another man should be employed to manipulate the “teatray,” as the thunder sheet is sometimes flippantly called. At the Adelphi Theatre, where no pains are spared to secure realistic effects, thunder is produced by beating with a drum-stick a six-foot square leather-bound reverberator. When the thundermaker was new to this instrument and had not yet learnt its power, he played upon it with such effect that many rushed in terror to the exits. From the same instrument, differently manipulated, is produced the booming of cannon.

Though thunder is often heard in nature without lightning being seen, it is seldom so in the case of the manufactured article. Lightning is easily made, and it helps to bear out the illusion. Some thunder is so bad that, but for the lightning, it would not be recognised. In pre-electric days powdered resin, which is still burnt to imitate conflagrations, used to be blown through a flame to make flashes; now electric lamps, quickly flashed and extinguished, are employed. In outdoor scenes, the electric light is flashed behind cloud scenery, in which there is a zigzag opening covered with some transparent material. This gives a very powerful effect, vividly resembling the forked lightning of actuality, with its blanching terrors. By means of electric light, shed through coloured screens, all ordinary shades of sunlight and moonlight are now strikingly imitated. When the moon herself is visible, and supplies the light direct, she consists of a glass disc set in a case, with a light and a powerful reflector.

Water-scenes, however, which used to be generally represented by mirrors, are now made more realistic by means of the presence of actual water in the tank-stage. This water, coloured green and plentifully supplied with suds to provide foam, agitated by a broad paddle with hinged blade, becomes an ocean, the swish of the waves being represented by slowly working the rainmaking appliance. If required, a rocking deck-scene can be added by an additional flooring placed upon the stage and hinged to it in front; the back corners are then drawn irregularly up and down by cables worked by machinery. A most effective and thrilling touch is given to such a scene by the introduction of twinkling stars. These come from judiciously distributed incandescent lights, shining through a dark blue curtain allowed to swing gently. The scenic artist can easily provide a fog or mist, if wanted, by means of gauze suspended in front of the scene. Movable clouds are painted on canvas, and can be made to rise or fall diagonally or otherwise by winding machinery.

A rain-making machine, full of shot

A rain-making machine, full of shot

The patter of rain comes, true to nature, from a rapidly-revolved, large metallic drum, containing small shot or hard peas; and the howl of the wind from a cogged cylinder worked against a tightly-stretched sheet, which gives an exaggeration of the whistling sound one hears on moving the hands over new silk.

Pale moonlight special effect

Pale moonlight special effect

One or two different methods of manufacturing stage-thunder have already been described. In the machine illustrated cannonballs are also used. These are let go on the inclined plane marked X, and roll rumbling down till they strike the iron plate at the top of the box, so giving the crash which is succeeded by another crash when they reach the bottom. Cassell’s Magazine, Volume 20, 1900

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: The expression “to steal one’s thunder,” comes from the theatrical tradition thusly:

We are told by Alexander Pope, that stage thunder was invented by that great critic john Dennis, who was so jealous of his bolt being wielded by an improper hand, that being once in the pit at Drury-lane theatre when the company were performing Macbeth, and hearing the bowls rattling over his head, he started from his seat, grasped his oaken stick, and exclaimed, with an emphasis that drowned the voices of the players, “Eternal curses light on these  scoundrels! they have stolen my thunder, and don’t know  how to roll it!”

[The “bowls” refers to a tradition of beating bowls with pestles to produce thunder.]

When De Loutherbourg, who was for a time scene-painter at Drury Lane under Mr. Garrick’s management, opened his dioramic exhibition, which he called the “Eidophusicon,” we learn that the imitation of thunder with which he accompanied some of his pictures was very natural and grand. A large sheet of thin copper was suspended by a chain, and being shaken by one of the lower corners, produced the sound as of a distant rumbling, seemingly below the horizon; and as the clouds rolled over the scene, approaching nearer and nearer, the thunder increased, peal by peal, “until,” says an enthusiastic eye-witness, “following rapidly the lightning’s zigzag flash, which was admirably vivid and sudden, it burst in a tremendous crash immediately overhead.” Tubes charged with peas, and gradually turned and returned on end, represented the fall and patter of hail and rain; and two hoops, covered with silk tightly strained, tambourine fashion, and pressed against each other with a quick motion, emitted hollow whistling sounds in imitation of gusts of wind.

Appliances something similar to these are still in use at the modern theatres when a storm has to be represented. The noise of storm has been simulated, however, by other methods: notably by rolling to and fro a large empty cask on the floor of the room above tho ceiling of the theatre; a plan rather calculated to excite the anxiety of the spectators lest the thunder should come down bodily, crashing through the roof into the pit. Once a Week, 23 June, 1866


10 thoughts on “How to Make Stage Thunder and Lightning: 1829-1900

  1. Pingback: Mrs Daffodil Reviews Her Readers’ Favourite Posts of 2015 | Mrs Daffodil Digresses

  2. Pingback: Staging a Sandstorm: 1912 | Mrs Daffodil Digresses

  3. Pingback: Task 2 – Storm Sound Effects Research – Mariana Sany

  4. Pingback: Girls Make the Dragon: 1893 | Mrs Daffodil Digresses

  5. Pingback: Shoeing for a New Play – Theatrical Footwear: 1901 | Mrs Daffodil Digresses

  6. Pingback: In Lieu of Champagne: Mrs Daffodil’s One-Thousandth Post | Mrs Daffodil Digresses

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s