Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

In The Limelight

Posted by Elyse Bruce on April 27, 2010

Long before electricity lit the stages of Victorian theatres for actors and performers, lime was used as a source of illumination, especially in lighthouses.   For generations it was known that the combustion of hydrogen and oxygen on a lime surface produced a very bright light.  English chemist Goldsworthy Gurney discovered the limelight effect in the 1820s.  London’s Covent Garden Theatre was the first venue to use limelight on stage in 1837.  The use of limelight was meant to augment —  and not replace — the traditional theatre lighting of gaslights and torches. 

Within a decade, limelight was the lighting choice of theatres around the world.  However, as bright as this light source was, the entire stage could not be lit up all at once.  It could only provide spot lighting albeit excellent spot lighting.  What this meant was that, during performances where more than one actor or performer was on stage,  only some actors or performers could logically be in the spotlight while others were in the background.

Of course, the more well-known and the more talented actors and performers routinely found themselves in roles that required that they be in the limelight.  And, of course, those who routinely found themselves in the limelight enjoyed a certain level of “fame” for being in the limelight.

Even though Thomas Edison‘s electric lighting rendered limelight obsolete by the late 19th century, the term continues to this day and refers to any position of public attention in which an individual may find himself or herself.

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