The sophisticated technology and machinery of the late 19th century stage produced a succession of 'sensation' dramas in which special effects became the principal attraction. Scene painters working with expert technicians produced realistic reproductions of the natural world. Using ropes, flats, bridges, treadmills and revolves, they could produce anything from a chariot race in Ben Hur to a rail crash and the running of the Two Thousand Guineas in The Whip.
The Whip, mansion exterior, photograph, Drury Lane, London, September 1909
The Whip by Cecil Raleigh and Henry Hamilton was a tale of love and skulduggery among the aristocracy. The plot itself was extremely slim, and was essentially a framework on which to hang the scenes of spectacle and special effects so beloved of audiences. Falconhurst, seen here from the outside, in a set designed by Henry Emden, is the seat of the Marquis of Beverley, grandfather to Lady Diana Sartorys, and will become hers on his death. Captain Grenville Sartorys and Mrs D'Aquila plan to sabotage the chances of the Marquis's horse 'The Whip' by killing the hotly tipped favourite before the big race, the 2000 Guineas. They also attempt to destroy the romance between Hubert, Earl of Brancaster and Lady Diana. But in a thrilling last minute rescue, 'The Whip' is saved from a devastating train crash and goes on to win the race (usually!). Mrs D'Aquila's claim to be Hubert's wife is shown to be false, and all ends happily.
Cartoon of The Whip by Norman Morrow in The Bystander, London, 22 September 1909
The Whip by Cecil Raleigh and Henry Hamilton was a tale of love and skulduggery among the aristocracy. These cartoons by Norman Morrow, published in The Bystander in September 1909, the year the show opened, poke gentle fun at the melodramatic 'types' in the production.
The plot was essentially a framework on which to hang the scenes of spectacle and special effects so beloved of audiences. Characters had to be broadly portrayed by the actors so as to be easily recognisable. How much more villainous, for instance, could Cyril Keightley look as Captain Grenville Sartorys in the top left-hand picture? And Miss Nancy Price in the centre is labelled the 'Wicked Woman', rather than with her character name Mrs D'Aquila, although it's perfectly obvious from the drawing that she's no angel. Jessie Bateman and Vincent Clive, down left, have the thankless 'goodie' roles, always less fun to play, and Charles Rock as jockey Joe Kelly is easily spotted as the source of comic relief.
The Whip, weighing room and stables, photograph, Drury Lane Theatre, London, September 1909
The Whip, which opened at Drury Lane in 1909, was one of a succession of 'sensation' dramas in which special effects became the principal attraction. The scene in the stables at the beginning of Act III was designed by Bruce 'Sensation' Smith. He was responsible for some remarkable stage effects, famously the onstage train crash at the end of Act III of The Whip, but he could also create beautiful stage pictures, full of detail, as these bustling stables show.
Smith's other sensational spectacles included dramatic scenes in the 1913 show Sealed Orders. This featured an airship from which two villains locked in mortal combat fall to their deaths leaving their hostage, the heroine, on board. The airship is shot down and the heroine rescued from the sea.
To us, used as we are to cinema spectacle, this doesn't sound particularly remarkable, but if you consider that it was all done within the confines of a theatre, you begin to see how Smith got his nickname.
Sepia photograph, hydraulic ramps, backstage at Drury Lane Theatre, London, 1898
In this picture you get a good view of the hydraulics which operated the stage machinery at Drury Lane. It was this extensive array of stage technology which made possible the extravagant spectacles and effects for which Bruce 'Sensation' Smith got his nickname.
In 1898 the theatre's manager Arthur Collins modernised the machinery backstage, installing new electric 'bridges'. Electrical operation made the movements much smoother, and paved the way for even more elaborate effects. The bridges could raise or lower any object or scenery placed on them. These ramps could be angled back and forth to simulate, for instance, the rocking of a ship. In September of that year, The Great Ruby made use of the new bridges for the first time, and Smith would go on to create sensation after sensation at Drury Lane: horse races, sinking ships, earthquakes, flooded towns, giants, balloon ascents, underwater fights and train crashes.
The Whip, racecourse scene photograph, Drury Lane Theatre, London 1909
Act IV, scene 3 of The Whip was the 2000 Guineas horse race, the climax of the plot. Although the onstage rescue and train crash in Act 3 was arguably the highpoint in terms of spectacle, the culmination of the story lay in whether the horse 'The Whip', having been rescued in the nick of time, could go on to win the race. The programme tells us that this scene was designed by R McCleery, but the stage mechanics which created the race effect were the work of Bruce 'Sensation' Smith. Smith's reverse movement of McCleery's beautiful panoramic backcloth, seen here, was impeccable, gaining speed with the horses with absolute precision. As it rolled backwards, the horses appeared to accelerate forwards. Unfortunately on the first night, through no fault of Smith's, 'The Whip' somehow came to be in the wrong 'grid' for the race, and instead of winning came in a rather poor fifth. Despite this slight setback, The Whip went on to be a winner, selling out at Drury Lane, with revivals and countless tours to come.
The balloon ascent in Act IV, Scene 2 of The Great Ruby, sepia photograph, Drury Lane Theatre, London, 15 September 1898
The Great Ruby opened at Drury Lane in the autumn of 1898. The sets were by William Perkins, R Caney, and Bruce Smith and it was 'Sensation' Smith who was responsible for the sequence you see here.
A review in Punch gives an excellent description of events: 'Mrs Henry Wood, the heroine, was in a balloon over Hampstead Heath with the villain hanging on by his eyelids to the car ... Mrs Wood loosened his hold and chucked him over ... the Balloon business is not precisely a novelty but never was the situation more realistically represented. Drury Lane vibrated with enthusiasm'.
Smith carefully placed the circus tent at stage left (the right as we look) so that as the balloon ascended, the tent was lowered to exaggerate the effect. Cloud then obscured the balloon temporarily so that a smaller version could replace it, giving the effect of being higher up and further off.
Costume design for robin in Babes in the Wood, watercolour and pencil on card, Drury Lane Theatre, London, 1907
This design for 12 robins, dancers in the 1907 Drury Lane pantomime Babes in the Wood, was by the prolific designer Attilio Comelli who dreamed up many of Drury Lane's pantomime costumes. Other animals dancing in this pantomime in the forest scene included eight storks and 12 pairs of insects.
Drury Lane prided itself on producing the most visually impressive productions in the country as it had done since the days when Augustus Harris had been producer. At this date Arthur Collins was in charge at Drury Lane, and he was the co-author of this pantomime. As had become traditional in Babes in the Wood, the plot included the characters Robin Hood, Maid Marion, Little John and Will Scarlet. Not all the scenes were entirely relevant to the plot, however, such as the scene in Lollipop Land played almost entirely by children, with scenery designed by the famous Bruce 'Sensation' Smith.
The Sins of Society: On Board the SS Beachy Head, photograph postcard, Drury Lane Theatre, London, 1907
The Sins of Society, produced at Drury Lane in 1907, contained more sensational scenes created by Bruce Smith and his fellow designers at the theatre, Henry Emden and R McCleery. There was a dramatic scene at a weir in which the hero, wrongly suspected, dived into the waters to escape police pursuit.
The Tatler thought this 'a splendid example of stage realism ... never before has real water poured over a weir so realistically'. This photograph is of Smith's set for the troopship SS Beachy Head, which involved our hero in another spectacular moment as 'he alone escapes from the sinking troopship which, with ordered discipline and soldiers singing the National Anthem as they await their death, affords a superb spectacle of patriotism' (The Sketch).
The Sins of Society: Village Church, photograph postcard, Foulsham & Banfield, London, 1907
The Sins of Society, produced at Drury Lane in 1907, contained all the required elements of a successful melodrama - a spotless heroine, a vile and dastardly villain, and a put-upon hero who has to come through all his trials with flying colours. It also boasted spectacular scenes and events created by Bruce 'Sensation' Smith which thrilled and moved the audience.
There were lavish set designs including a beautiful Art Nouveau interior for one of the houses, and the racecourse at Longchamps, contributed by Henry Emden, and the rather grand Village Church which you see here, designed by R McCleery, which was the setting for the grand denouement of the plot.
The players you see, as described in The Sketch, were 'Miss Adrienne Augarde as Lady Gwendolen Ashley, the sweet but erring ingenue', led to the altar by 'Mr Lyn Harding as Noel Ferrers, the villain', and prevented from a dreadful marriage in the nick of time by the hero, Mr Julian L'Estrange as Sir Dorian March, a young Guards Officer, who cries out, 'Stop, Stop, I Forbid It'.