Stage machinery

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Technical and mechanical aids that are used for a theatrical performance are referred to as stage machinery or theater machinery .

Machines and how they work

Theater machines in the original sense were used to use drives, drums and winches to make set pieces rise or disappear into the sinking (from the so-called Charonian stairs), to show ships in rough seas, dragons snort fire, waterfalls flow and clouds move to leave, but also to offer burnt offerings on altars. Figures could fly by means of a flying machine or celestial apparitions as deus ex machina (with the help of the Mechane , a crane with which the deus ex machina fell onto the scene) descend from the sky. Stage machines were also used for the purely mechanical movement of the curtain , the brochures , the backdrops and the festoons .

In the wind machine , coarse linen was stretched over a wooden wheel with a crank, the wheel was turned, rubbed against the fabric and made the sound of a howling storm.

The rain machine was based on a similar principle, a rotating drum filled with peas or small stones.

The thunder machine was a device to mimic thunder. It was located in the theaters of the Greeks and Romans, which they called Bronteion (Bronteum), behind the stage and consisted of an iron cauldron into which stones were poured from tubes, creating a thunder-like roar. At present one uses either a kind of kettledrum or a long, inclined wooden tube through which stones are rolled down, which hit the ledges on the inside, and finally heavy wagons resting on angular wheels, which are placed on the lacing on specially prepared tracks be moved back and forth.

In the past, a flap was opened for the sinking , the devil, for example, stood on the elevator flap in the basement, which was similar to the stage floor, and helpers loaded stone weights onto a pulling device. When the actor's weight was reached, the technicians remove the latch and the devil appeared on the stage.

The revolving stage is permanently installed as a rotatable part of the stage floor in the middle of the stage or placed as a platform (turntable). A revolving stage has already Leonardo da Vinci designed in 1490, the Japanese Kabuki -Theater she was familiar since the 17th century, for the European theater was redesigned in Munich 1896th It was originally introduced to enable the cumbersome, illusionistic furnishings of the 19th century to change scene quickly. In the Vienna Volkstheater there was a manually operated revolving stage until the eighties of the 20th century, with a dozen stagehands standing on the turntable making it rotate with their feet by using crutches to support themselves on the stage floor outside the disc.

Historical development


Even in the ancient Roman Colosseum there were facilities for extremely complicated stage machinery, such as trap doors, ramps and elevators. With the help of a complex system of winches and pulleys, elaborate decorations and sets could be transported into the arena . Within a few minutes, for example, to the surprise of the audience, a complete forest or desert landscape could rise from the ground. Ridley Scott's film Gladiator (2000) provides a good reconstruction of some of these facilities in gladiator fights . The Heron of Alexandria, who teaches at the Museion of Alexandria, developed automated theater machines with special effects .

The Deus ex machina (“God from the machine”) was the divine authority in the ancient theater, who intervened in the last moment before the catastrophe to turn everything for the better. It can be found in the ancient tragedy , especially in Euripides , where the god hovered over the playing surface on a crane-like flying machine. Cranes with pulley blocks have been around since 750 BC. Known as dugout cranes, braced with ropes and running over three ( trispastos ) or five pulleys ( pentespastos ); around 225 BC Archimedes is said to have even constructed a crane with multiple pulley ( polyspastos ). The cranes were used in construction, ports and quarries; after all, they had to lift weights of nine tons more than ten meters high - for example when the Parthenon was being built in Athens . In contrast, slewing cranes were used in the theater. With their help, the intervening deity could be lifted onto the stage from outside. A rolling platform ( Ekkyklema ) was also used, with the help of which processes that had to take place in the so-called Skene (“behind the scenes”) were transported onto the stage.

Middle Ages and Renaissance

With great effort, performances were staged in the medieval cathedrals, for example to celebrate the Ascension of Christ . In Florence such a play was staged with a theater machine by Filippo Brunelleschi , in the course of which Jesus stepped up to the Mount of Olives. A contemporary description describes the progress:

“When it reaches the top, you can hear a thunder. The Sphaera hanging above this scene in the open roof structure of the church opens and God the Father appears in the glow of many candles. Boys who represent angels circle around him. Larger angels, painted on discs, also turn in circles. From this angelic sphere a cloud floats down into the nave. On top of it stand two boys dressed as angels with golden wings. […] Thereupon Christ floats upwards towards the cloud with the help of seven ropes and at the same time blesses the two Marys and the apostles. When he reaches the cloud, the angels standing on it kneel before him. Many lights hidden in the cloud become visible and spread unearthly splendor. Christ, now accompanied by angels, continues upward to heaven. At the moment when he reaches the Sphaera with God the Father, the music suddenly stops and a rumble of thunder can be heard. The Son of God ascended to God the Father. "

In 1497 Brunelleschi also designed the machinery of an annunciation scene in San Felice in Piazza as an ascent and descent to the spheres under the church roof; the resurrection from death, on the other hand, was staged with movable saviors and mobile grave shrines.

Even Leonardo da Vinci designed a revolving stage for the rapid change of scene two decorations in 1490, the invention of interchangeable perspective scenery but either Castro (1543), Ferrara (1561) or Florence attributed (1566). Earlier versions used the periaktoi , rotating houses designed by the Roman architect Vitruvius (14 BC).

Simple machines were also used in the Elizabethan theater ; for example, in Shakespeare's Macbeth (1606), when the words "Why is this cauldron sinking?", A cauldron in the stage floor sinks.

Baroque theater

Sabbatini's cloud machine (1638)

The baroque drama and the French and Italian opera were very elaborately designed and required a professional stage set-up. Thus, in several construction phases from 1681 to 1683, a scenery stage with rapid transformation was created. Invented in Italy in the middle of the 17th century, it was to determine the stage technology of European theater for over two hundred years.

The Italian architect Nicola Sabbatini (1574–1654) revolutionized the design, lighting and machinery of the baroque theater . He designed sophisticated machines that simulated realistic visual effects such as the sea, storms, thunder, lightning, fire, hell, flying gods and clouds, published in his book Pratica di fabricar scene e macchine ne 'teatri of 1638. Among his many innovative ones Inventions that allowed surprising effects and that became known as scènes à l'italienne were:

  • Angel wings: flat panels on the side of the stage that have been turned like the pages of a book
  • Periaktoi : painted triangular constructions that could be rotated to change the scene
  • Roll-up curtains that were lowered from above and pushed over the previous scene
  • Portcullis : flat parts of the scene that were pulled up from the lower stage by means of counterweights

The popular "Intermezzi" (interlude acts) of the 16th century, which later established the genre of opera , used six basic types as decoration (cloud scene in the sky, delicious garden, rock cave with dragons, hell scene, water scene with mermaids, dolphins and ship and another cloud scene), whereby heaven, sea and hell were particularly suitable for spectacular machines and effects. The sea monster from Andromache became famous in the Venetian Teatro San Cassiano by Francesco Guitti (1637).

The cloud machines, which had to transport deities, allowed dramatic actions, and often had their own lighting, but which also disguised the technical equipment, were particularly popular.

In Florence, as elsewhere, the choice of material and the dramaturgy of new pieces were largely determined by the technical conditions on the stage (based on the Teatro degli Uffizi in Florence). The Medici Theater had spectacular machines since 1589 : “ Cinque macchine-nuvole con movimento verticale, Monte Parnaso con grotte praticabili, drago mobile (moving kite), carro su nuvola con movimento orizzontale, onde marine, galea all'occasione si trasforma in conchiglia di Tetide, delfino mobile (mobile dolphin), città di Dite-inferno ”, which had to be used in all later performances.

The introduction of the setting stage , so the painted wood walls scenery is generally the architect Giovanni Battista Aleotti attributed (1546-1636), who in 1606 a theater in Ferrara and in 1618 in Parma , the famous Teatro Farnese built the first theater with fixed proscenium arch . The advent of the backdrop stage opened up new scenic possibilities, the stage architects erected pompous, in-depth backdrop walls that simulated palaces and parks. An elaborate stage machinery allowed sinking and disappearing upwards and offered great possibilities for technical equipment to bring scenes of earth, heaven, sea, hell etc. to life, as required above all by the baroque opera .

The opening of the Teatro Novissimo in Venice with La Finta Pazza by Francesco Sacrati in 1641 brought an innovation: the architect Giacomo Torelli (1608–1678) combined sets of sets with a pulley system , which meant that they could be changed at lightning speed and by just one person who held the weights Movement continued. Previously, you had to have a stage worker for every backdrop to move it forward in the rail. Torelli pierced the stage and hung each backdrop on a high frame that was passed through the slots in the stage floor and that could move back and forth on a rail under the stage. All wagons were connected to a central roller by ropes. Depending on the type of stage machinery used, up to three wings were directly behind each other and thus enabled the stage set to be changed one after the other. This invention spread rapidly in large parts of Europe; a fully preserved system is still in its original state from 1766 in the Swedish Drottningholm Palace Theater and in use ( Ingmar Bergman filmed Mozart's Magic Flute here in 1974 ).

The second Baroque theater in Europe completely preserved with historical stage machinery is the Castle Theater in Český Krumlov in the Czech town of Krumlov . The entire stage mechanism of this theater is made of wood, 35 people are required to operate it. Without interrupting the game, new scenes can be conjured up from a pool of 17 sets such as a pillared hall, military camp, garden, city, dungeon or jungle by inserting backdrops. Originally preserved are 11 brochures, 40 festivals and 250 backdrops as well as 50 effect machines and over 200 lighting fixtures. The construction is supplemented by walkways, lacing and lower stage with a complete set of machinery with movable frames, hoisting winches, rollers, rope guides and a sliding ramp. The stage floor is also still the original, which contains slidable and hinged panels and four recesses. The theater was built between 1680 and 1682 on behalf of Prince Johann Christian von Eggenberg, who was a great art lover and patron. Today there are performances (with very limited space) as part of an annual baroque festival in June.

Torelli continued his inventions with the introduction of the perspective stage by simulating ceilings with linen borders and creating the first peep show stage with boards between the scenes . In 1654 Torelli went to Paris, other set designers from Venice followed suit; Lodovico Burnacini went to Vienna, Francesco Santurini to Munich. Inigo Jones , who had spent many years in Italy and was influenced by Andrea Palladio and Giulio Parigi , subsequently became the most important stage architect at the English court. From 1640 he used a complicated system of flat backdrops in guardrails. All these technical developments at court soon caught on in private theaters as well, until this development was stopped by the Puritans in 1642.

In the libretto of the opera L'Argia , which was performed in Innsbruck in 1655 on the occasion of the abdicated Swedish Queen Christine converting to the Catholic faith, there is a precise list of the stage machinery required, such as: B. a flying chariot for the goddess Venus.

In 1683 the stage machinery in the Ekhof Theater in Gotha was put into operation. The scenery wings on the left and right side of the scene are in so-called scenery wagons, which are located under the stage. This means that the backdrops along the slits in the stage floor, the “free rides”, can be driven out of the audience's field of vision and back in again. There are three wings directly behind each other and thus enable three successive changes in the set. So that, to the amazement of the audience, the backdrops, the rear prospect and the festoons closing the stage could be transformed at the same time, all parts are connected to one another with a sophisticated system of ropes and corrugated trees. In this way, a complete set could be changed within seconds. Today only a few copies of the stage set with quick change have been preserved, the Ekhof Theater is the oldest palace theater in the world with fully preserved stage machinery.

In 1758 the theater machinist Johann Christian Keim constructed the stage machinery in the Ludwigsburg Palace Theater , which has also been preserved. This still allows a change of scenery in seconds on the open stage (11 seconds). In addition, there were technical-sensual effects from rain and wind machines, a chimney-like resonance chamber as a thunder shaft and delightful surprises from recesses and sliders ( deus-ex-machina effects). A large corrugated tree in the lower stage, with its drive drums, is the central element for the transformations of the stage set, it pulls the scenery wagons. A variable upper stage, movable side scenes and complicated lighting with open flames completed the sophisticated stage technology .

The 49 copper engravings in the encyclopedia by Denis Diderot and d'Alembert , which showed the furnishings of the Paris opera house in the Palais Royal , built in 1770 according to designs by the architect Louis-Alexandre Giraud († 1778) , and which showed a precise cross-section through, were detailed representations of the stage machinery offer the theater technology of the Ancien Régime , such as the movement of the curtain, the prospectuses, the scenery, festoons and the function of the actual theater machines.

Magic theater in the 19th century

The magic piece or magic game and its special form, the magic opera is a theatrical genre that was mostly realized with elaborate stage machinery, the transformations on the open scene, sinkings enabled and more spectacular entrances and exits.

The Queen of the Night appears in Mozart's Magic Flute . Set design by Karl Friedrich Schinkel (1815)

The almost cinematic directing instructions for the magic pieces called for new stage machinery. Goethe mentioned them in the prelude to the theater in Faust I (1808):

So don't spare me brochures or machines that day!
Use the light of the heavens, great and small, you may waste the stars;
There is no lack of water, fire, rock faces, animals and birds.
So the whole circle of creation stretches out in the narrow wooden house
And walk slowly from heaven through the world to hell!

The machine comedy was a variant of the folk play or folk theater and involved a lot of effort with stage technology , costumes and props and tried to constantly amaze. There were often transformations in the open scene , such as a hut that becomes a castle. Mozart's Magic Flute is in some ways a machine comedy (e.g. the appearance of the Queen of the Night, wandering through fire and water).

The special national specialty of the magic opera was created in London , in which " special effects " played a major role. An important example is Handel's Alcina (1735), but also compositions by Jean-Baptiste Lully , Henry Purcell , Christoph Willibald Gluck , Joseph Haydn and Claudio Monteverdi's L'Orfeo . Handel's Rinaldo (1711) offered an abundance of possibilities for the spectacular theatrical machinery valued at the time, and Handel's second opera Teseo after Racine was a celebration of baroque theatrical machinery and was a great success at London's Haymarket Theater. In 2004 it was re-produced by the Goethe Theater in Bad Lauchstädt . The Goethe Theater (built in 1802 by Heinrich Gentz ) is the only original classical theater with a functional and wooden stage machinery in Europe.

During the Romantic period in the 18th and 19th centuries, the Spanish comedias de magia delighted contemporary audiences with magic and technology, which worked more and more together, as the stage machinery played a central role in the implementation, for example in Don Juan Tenorio by José Zorrilla . In the magical scenes of the comedias, the audience saw flying actors or other effects such as the sudden disappearance of people, transformations or the automatic lighting of a candle. But characteristic of the magic comedies were the choirs, the dances and the visible rain of fire. The trapdoor, which was becoming modern at the time, also belonged to the repertoire of technology. There was also a so-called caxa de truenos , with the help of which a thunderstorm could be caused.

In the 19th century, with the advent of the fairy tale game and melodrama, the stage machinery was enriched by numerous effects; in the magic games of the Alt-Wiener Volkstheater in the plays of Ferdinand Raimund (1790–1836) they played a major role in the mixture of the fairy world and folk action Role. In Der Alpenkönig und der Menschenfeind (1828), for example, Rappelkopf fights against the ghosts of his three deceased wives, the face of the fourth appears to him in the moon when a lightning strike turns the forest into a sea on which the Alpine king appears in a boat:

“Rappelkopf climbs up the tree. The women disappear, it hits the hut, it is in bright flames. Heavy rain, howls of storms and thunder. The flood of water swells ever higher until it rises to Rappelkopf, who has saved himself to the top of the tree, to his mouth, so that only half of his head can be seen. - Quick transformation: the boat turns into two ibexes with golden horns. The tree on which Rappelkopf stands in a beautiful cloud car in which the Alpenkönig and Rappelkopf are. The water disappears. The whole theater is transformed into a picturesque rocky area, presenting the Devil's Bridge in Switzerland, on which children, dressed as gray alpine riflemen, fire firecrackers while the cloud car drives across the stage. "

- Ferdinand Raimund : The Alpine King and the Misanthrope. 1st act, 21st appearance

For the Rhine daughters scenes in Richard Wagner's opera Das Rheingold , the composer himself had special "swimming machines" constructed, which were controlled by three stage workers and with which it should look as if the Rhine daughters were swimming. The singers lay in a sloping lattice at the top of an iron frame about 6 meters high.

Modern times

In 1903, Max Reinhardt pulled out all the stops of the latest technology in Shakespeare's Midsummer Night 's Dream in order to literally draw the audience into the action on the stage and thus make them part of the fantastic world that he had perfectly organized for them. The revolving stage on which the forest and its inhabitants were installed evoked enthusiasm. The viewer "swung himself on the turntable carousel in his mind to participate in the world of theatrical play".

Since Bertolt Brecht (in the epic theater ) and before that in part with the Russian constructivists , e.g. B. Kazimir Malevich or Tatlin began to disclose the stage machinery as a means of disillusionment.

The revue became popular all over Europe at the beginning of the 20th century and presented pieces of equipment that impressed the audience with a huge amount of costumes and decorations, lighting effects and the stage machinery and which have been adopted in other big city theaters, especially in England and America, and in which the performing arts often have been transformed into an end in themselves.

In musicals and other forms of modern show theater, very elaborate stage machinery is used for the most part; a spectacular example of this is the chandelier falling onto the stage in The Phantom of the Opera by Andrew Lloyd Webber .


  • Klaus-Dieter Reus (Ed.): Fascination of the stage. Baroque world theater in Bayreuth . 3rd edition. Verlag Rabenstein, Bayreuth 2008, ISBN 978-3-928683-41-8 .

Individual evidence

  1. MACHINES DE THÉATRE. Retrieved September 10, 2019 .