His influence, however, had made its indelible mark. In 1791, Garrick’s successor tore down the dilapidated Drury Lane and had it completely rebuilt to house the kind of spectacles Philippe had been the first to imagine. Three years later it reopened as the largest theater in Europe and one of the tallest structures in London, seating up to four thousand people. “You have come to act in a wilderness of a place,” complained a hoarse Sarah Siddons to a new recruit. The first hit of the new season was a burletta in which a full-scale castle was consumed by real flames, armies of Poles and Tartars fighting on its collapsing battlements to a thunderous orchestral accompaniment, and barely a word passing between them. The stage was already becoming a screen, hastening toward our era of industrial entertainment where the only limits to projecting our fantasies are the boundaries of technology. But while Loutherbourg had anticipated this move in the direction of ever-refined illusion, his aim had never been to fabricate reality down to the last granule. Verisimilitude was his occult science, a way of showing that what we see is the thinnest of veils.
Image: Thomas Rowlandson, An Audience Watching a Play at Drury Lane Theatre, c. 1785,
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