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“Unseen… but alas never unheard”: Staging "The Tempest"

What would the special effects of "The Tempest" have looked like on stage in the 17th and 19th centuries? Jo recounts the details of Charles Kean's production in 1857 at the Princess's Theatre.

Jo Wilding

If I could borrow the Tardis from Doctor Who, I would be hard put to choose whether to go back to the early 17th century or to the 19th century to see how The Tempest was staged. There are no surviving accounts of performances of The Tempest in the early 17th century other than evidence that it was performed in 1611 and probably during the 1612-1613 celebrations of the marriage of James I’s daughter. On the other hand, there is a feast of accounts of 19th century productions.

Today we are constantly bombarded by all sorts of visual media and technology, such as CGI, that can deliver previously unimagined spectacle. In the 19th century, however, it was the theatre which sought to entertain with spectacle. Charles Kean’s production of The Tempest at the Princess’s Theatre in 1857 reached the height of extravagant Victorian staging.

The final scene from Charles Kean's production of The Tempest
The final scene from Charles Kean's production of "The Tempest"

With a distinct lack of false modesty Kean requested the audience’s indulgence in delays caused by the scene changing, saying that “the scenic appliances of the play are of a more extensive and complicated nature than have ever been attempted in any theatre in Europe, requiring the aid of above 140 operatives nightly, who (unseen by the audience) are engaged in working the machinery, and in carrying out the various effects”. The Literary Gazette commented on this “unseen… but alas never unheard”!

Kean (who played Prospero himself) was noted for sparing no expense on his productions and he went to town on the storm scene, the banquet, the masque, and the final scene. The text was cut to allow for the effects but even so the opening night audience was in the theatre from 8pm until nearly 1am. In a biography of Kean published the following year, John William Cole describes Ariel: “at one moment descending in a ball of fire; at another, rising gently from a tuft of flowers; again, sailing on the smooth waters on the back of a dolphin; then, gliding noiselessly over the sands, as a water-nymph; and ever and anon, perched on the summit of a rock, riding on a bat, or cleaving mid-air with the velocity of lightning”.

The play ended with a ship carrying off Prospero, and with Ariel (who was played by Kate Terry, sister of Ellen) hovering over the sea watching it leave. The second image shows a sketch of this which is pasted into a rather special and very fragile item we have in the Collections – a scrapbook on Kean’s career, kept by the box keeper at the Princess’s Theatre, W.W. Massingham.

Hans Christian Andersen saw Kean’s production while staying with Charles Dickens, and although impressed by the spectacle, ultimately felt that “no one tasted the spiritual banquet – it was forgotten for the golden platter on which it was served”.

I wonder if I would have liked it – I would love the chance to find out! So let’s see… Dear Doctor Who………

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