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Welcome to Episode 194 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that goes behind the curtain and into the real life and history of William Shakespeare by interviewing the experts who know him best.

When Shakespeare performed scenes like the ocean waves of the Tempest, the flying acrobatics of ghosts, or had his characters change location from the streets of verona to the castles of Kings of England, there were technologies, machines, and specialty techniques used in the 16th century to accomplish these feats of nature and fantastic visual effects on stage. 

Our guest this week is an expert in early modern performance illusions and the machines used to create them. We are delighted to welcome Frank Mohler, professor emeritus of the Department of Theater and Dance at Appalachian State University. He joins us today to share the history of 16th century flying machines, set changes, trap doors, and even elevators that were used in Shakespeare’s lifetime. 

Join the conversation below.

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Dr. Frank Mohler began at The Ohio State University in Engineering Physics, but graduated with a B.A. in theatre, a M. A. in theatrical design and a Phd. in theatre history. Over his career, Dr. Mohler created more than 125 set designs and 170 lighting designs, in addition to over 20 publications and 50 invited lectures or papers. He has also been involved in theatre production as an actor, fight arranger and in theatre management. Mohler has been an active member in a number of professional organizations including the United States Institute for Theatre Technology and the Southeastern Theatre Conference, the largest comprehensive theatre organization in the world, which he served as president. Mohler has received many grants and awards throughout his career for teaching, scholarship/creative activity and service including a University of North Carolina Board of Governor’s Excellence in Teaching Award and the Suzanne Davis Award for Service to Theatre in the South.

In this episode, I’ll be asking Frank Mohler about :

  • Frank writes for an article on the Appalachian State University website that we will link to in the show notes for today that “Sabbattini described a [flying machine] that allowed a person to be lowered to the stage without using a cloud so that he may immediately walk about and dance.” The technology for this device was very crude compared to the effects that followed a few years later.” Frank, what was the method of flying on stage that incorporated a cloud?
  • Sabbatini was in Italy, so were his methods being applied by someone like Shakespeare? 

  • Would lightning have also been artificially created on stage for Shakespeare’s lifetime?


… and more!

Sometimes we see a cloud that’s dragonish

Antony and Cleopatra (IV.14)

Sketch of Sabattini’s Scenic Stage Reconstruction, provided by Frank Mohler, Retired Appalachian State University professor. Used by permission.


Sabattini’s Flying Cloud

Frank writes for an article for Appalachian State University that “Sabbattini described a [flying machine] that allowed a person to be lowered to the stage without using a cloud so that he may immediately walk about and dance.” The technology for this device was very crude compared to the effects that followed a few years later.” Frank explains the method of flying on stage that incorporated a cloud:

Sabbatini was an architext in the noble courts in Italy. His job was to design and build theaters (temporary) whenever there was a visiting dignitary or someone to entertain. Very different from England scenic stage, sides back and top of the stage itself, creating the illusion of an actual place. Most of them took place behind the main performance area. In the English theater it was opposite with a thrust stage and no scenery, the private thetaters were similar with the audience at one end and the theater at the other. Sabatinni wrote a manual but it was all out of date whenhe wrote it. He described what was being done at the end of the 16th century and early 17th entyury. This effect was done on the intersage, vertically on the back wall of the theater, the beam was controlled by a wench under the stage when a person came in without a cloud, he’d sit on the beam and the stage hand would lower hium down and he’d get off and dance. You could also do it with a cloud, a cut out cloud of cardboard, with the actor behind it. By the middle of the 17th entury, it was done without the channel but an actual device that oculd be lowered in the main performance area. One read it was effective is that it was done in candlelight, and these theaters (as the Stuart court theaters later) were indoor and lit by candles, so things looked better than they might have looked otherwise. There was one effective flying production done in 1580… wedding for christine of lorraine, la Pelligrina, Apollo flies in, dances in the sky, lands on the stage, and kills a dragon. We know how that was done because of court records in Florence, it was a cut out suspended by wires and moved him around the sky, to the stage floor, immediately replaced by a live actor.

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Sketch of Italian Renaissance Theater, including the lift that transports the actor that Dr. Mohler talks about in today’s episode. These sketches belong to Dr. Frank Mohler, professor emeritus at Appalachain State University. Images used by permission and are not to be reproduced. All rights belong to Dr. Mohler.

Thunder and Lightning

One of Shakespeare’s plays that uses a lot of thunder and lightning on stage is The Tempest. There’s a huge scene in that play involving a shipwreck during a storm. Frank explains some of the machinery that accomplishes this effect:

Julius Pollocks (create thunder bag of stones into a brass vessel) 1514, architext thunder as rolling a large stone in the overhead over the theater itself. Sabatinni created a thunder run, a wooden hallen with steps in it and canon ball would rol down the run and go “rumble rumble boom” like thunder. Something like that might have been used in the tiring house, but by the 18th century they used vertical thunder runs. In English theater, they would have used drums to create thunder.

Frank explains some of the thunder history research that provides the foundation for our understanding of how thunder was created in the early modern theater. These notes were sent over by Frank after the recording and we thank him for adding these details for you. 

 The stage directions in the Birth of Heracles include “ye drums for thunder.” Cited in Lily Campbell’s Scenes and Machines on the English Stage During the Renaissance.

Leslie Thomson’s article “Thunder and Lightning: Stage Directions and Audience Expectations” noted Every Man in His Humor includes:

Where neither Chorus wafts you ore the seas;

Nor creaking throne comes downe, the boyes to please;

Nor nimble squibble is seene, to make afeare’d

The gentlewomen; nor roul’ed bullet heard

To say, it thunders; nor tempestuous drumme

Rumbles, to tell you when the storme doth come; 

Thomson also quotes John Melton’s Astrologaster: “. . . While Drummers make Thunder in the Tyring-house,”

Since you cannot have thunder without lightning, there were also ways to create lightning on the 16th century stage. Frank explains:

It would have been more difficult Sirlio 1545, described how to do it, a box full of resin and the top of the box has holes in it, candle in the top of hte box. Stage hand makes a throwing motion, resin is lit by the candle creates a flash of light across the stage. Greek resin (same german guy as above).Cerlio, thunder bolt (lightening bolt) consisted of a ricket that was on aw ire stretched across the stage and on that rocket was painted gold with sparkle (glitter) and at the right time a stage hand would light it and it would flash across the stage. For these to work,, you’d need to hide the stage hand somewhere and at the Globe that was complicated.

Furttenbach [see recommended resources. wrote about how] to create rain, you put a device above the ladies and drop rose water.

1573–this was done when a Polish prince visited Oxford, a report said that the Tempest wherein it rained small onfits and rose water,…

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The Great Picture, comissioned by Lady Anne Clifford showing herself as a child and as an old woman, with her parents and siblings in the middle. As a child Lady Anne Clifford was a favourite of Queen Elizabeth I of England; Lady Anne also danced in masques with Anne of Denmark, queen of King James I of England. She was the Nymph of the Air in Daniel’s masque Tethys’s Festival, and filled roles in several of the early Court masques of Ben Jonson, including The Masque of Beauty (1608) and The Masque of Queens (1609). Public Domain. Source  Credit: Ann Longmore-Etheridge 

Playhouse versus the Court Masque

In the playhouse, larger effects like ocean waves rely on illusion. Frank explains:

Variety of wave machines used, but the Globe probably wouldn’t have [tried to use wave machines]. [It could be accomplished with a board] painted as waves, ropes with cloth on it to create the effect of waves. [The] best one is a serpentine column… horizontal and as you rotate it it creates the effect of waves moving across [the stage].

Frank doesn’t think a wave machine would have been used in the playhouse theaters of England. His example is that in The Tempest, they had so many other effects and the waves would be so hard to accomplish ocean waves in that space. So Frank believes they would leave that out. Instead, to compensate and still create the scene Frank explains:

The other effects with the strong dialogue would carry the illusion of a tempest for Shakespeare. There is one example from Dekker’s Seven Deadly Sins of London “All the city looks like a private playhouse” so if you can dim the stage, the storm could be more effective.

Frank explains some additional examples of tricks Shakespeare used to create a scene in the minds of his audience in lieu of being able to create elaborate effects technologically. Frank mentions the example of  Herny V, where the prologue asks the audience to imagine a great deal. 

We have discussed previously on our show about Ben Jonson and the staging of some impressive court masques, making the case that court masques were more elaborate than performances staged by the King’s Men, even performances Shakespeare’s company would have presented at court. Frank addressed the technological differences between court masques and performances by the King’s Men, because the special effects that were attempted at court were often much more impressive technologically. Frank explains, 

The scenic stage would have been used for court masques, The private theater was very much like the Globe, and the whole setup was designed to be extremely minimal and portable. Masuqes were done to glorify royalty, and public performances were something other. 

[One feature was the] Cockpit at court… Inigo Jones, court artchitect, studied at Florentine court, renovated the cockpit into the cockpit and court. Sometimes used by professional players at court. Players were sometimes hired to perform at court masques, the mean and nasty character, and some players were hired to coach the courtiers [who were often the main actors at court masque performances].

of thunder and lightning heard.

stage directions

Tempest (I.1)

Newington Butts Present Day Photograph by Laurie Johnson

Portrait of John Lowin, considered potentially the first actor ever to play Shakespeare’s Henry VIII. This portrait is an engraving by Thomas Holloway done after a painting at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Undated. Public Domain. Source 

The canon shot that burned down The Globe

We mark the end of Shakespeare’s writing career with the burning down of the Globe in 1613 as a result of a canon catching fire. Frank explains what could have happened and why was the canon able to set the theater on fire.

There are several accounts of this fire, which is unusual. The canon was not associated with movies like Hornblower (not a huge ship tupe canon) they also used something like a swivel gun, whih is the csmallets of the things called canons. It was loaded with gunpowder and wadding which is essentiallysrap fabric crammed int o hold the gunpowder inplace and then it was fired. One report says it was negligently fired, which could mean it was misaimed, or that it had been overloaded (more gunpowder), it was very fortunate that the thatch caught on fire, so teh fire burned down instead of catching up, and allowed everyone to get out., the only loss besides the theater was one man’s pants caught on fire, put out by a canker of ale. 

One of the things a man saw at the florentine theaters was vats of water kept in the beams, so fire was always a threat in the theater and planning for it was part of the industry. 

Frank points out one theater saying from Sabatinni that perhaps could have saved the Globe on that fateful day:

Stage hands should,be worthy and sincere men, and that fools and ….should not be allowed to participate.

Books & Resources Frank Mohler Recommends

The Renaissance Stage, edited by Bernard Hewitt. This book consists of English translations of
works by Sebastiano Serlio, Nicola Sabbattini, and Josef Furttenbach.

The Theatres of Inigo Jones by John Orrell. The book describes the indoor stages designed by
Inigo Jones and his assistant John Webb. It discusses some illusionistic productions at the
Stuart court.

The Development of the English Playhouse by Richard Leacroft. It has many drawings and
photos of English playhouses over the ages including influences from the continent. A website devoted to the study of Renaissance and Baroque theatrical
spectacle. It includes computer animations of spectacular theatre devices.

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