As the fight against COVID-19 rages on, the plight of British theaters, which have suffered catastrophic financial burdens thanks to the lockdown, continues to rumble through the art world. The theaters had to close at the end of March and have since remained closed with a few exceptions. These venues will have to decide if they can reopen at the time of the last lockdown relaxations, as the very real prospect of further social distancing measures that will make a live performance nearly impossible.
Even after the UK got out of lockdown all too briefly in the summer, ticket sales were limited and profits plummeted. Now with a second lock in place and with Christmas shows looming, the future of British theater remains highly questionable.
Electrophone auditorium at Pelicon House London headquarters on Gerrard Street (ca.1903). George R. Sims (1847-1922)
One source of hope has been live streaming shows – and a number of theater groups, including National Theater Live, have had some success with this format. Interestingly, the idea of streaming live theater to people’s homes dates back to Victorian times.
An advertisement for the London Electrophone Company. Image reproduced with permission from BT Archive
From 1893 to 1925, the London Electrophone Company streamed the sound of live theater home with a telephone known as an electrophone.
Inventors of the day, including Alexander Graham Bell, had looked at the phone and seen something that could reach large groups of people – they understood that phone cords could be used to deliver information from one person to many, and not only for one-on-one meetings.
Music concerts, academic lectures, church services and theater shows were “streamed” into the homes of those who could afford them across the country. Lecture halls have been created for those on a smaller budget. For the first time you could see a show without being in the theater. This, of course, was long before the first live radio broadcast in 1920.
A French advertisement for ‘Le Théâtrophone’ (1896), Jules Chéret
Thanks to the work of French Ernest Mercadier (who first patented headphones), the electrophone made possible primitive headsets that were copied from the French Théâtrophone (although, unlike the Théâtrophone, the Electrophone did not use stereo technology). In the late 19th century “circulars” were tested across Europe (the Hirmondo telephone in Hungary was still in use in 1945).
The electrophone was most similar to the French version in that it streamed audio from theater and music venues, while both the Hungarian and Italian versions were slightly different in that they also broadcast their own news service to subscribers.
Shock of the new
The electrophone sent information over telephone cables to a central receiver in the house, to which one or more headsets could be installed (each additional headset came at an additional cost). The audience heard small microphones hidden behind the spotlights on the front of the stage. In church services, the microphones were hidden in forged wooden Bibles.
Every Electrophone performance was a real live show that took place somewhere in the country – most often in major London theaters like the Adelphi Theater or the Covent Garden Opera. In 1896, the Musical Standard reported that users from the period said they could hear the theater audience “rustle like leaves” during the performance, which was broadcast live.
Promotional image used to market the Electrophone in the 1890s. London Electrophone Company, circa 1895, courtesy of BT Archive
Streaming real live shows meant that the listener at home experienced the start, end and interval of a show as if they were there. If someone slipped or forgot a line, it was just as obvious to the audience listening through headphones as it was to those in the theater. Electrophone listeners could enjoy the experience of finding out “Whodunit” at the same time as the spectators who were sitting at the stands.
The electrophone cost £ 5 a year when it first went on subscription in the 1890s – the equivalent of around £ 120 today – and the low profile technology meant there was no need to shrink the theater audience size. The London Electrophone Company paid for the technology to be installed in the theater, the National Telephone Company (later the Post Office) took care of the maintenance of the telephone lines, and the theater received a portion of the Electrophone Company’s profits – exact records of how the profits were shared remains to be revealed will.
Subscribers could pay an additional fee to be hooked up to a theater for the season, such as the Covent Garden winter season. The high cost of the electrophone (much more than a Netflix subscription today) almost certainly meant that it was mainly used by the wealthy, but sets installed in hotels, public gardens, and exhibitions were powered by coin slots and for a lower fee People could hear clips from live theater and music.
Two customers using electrophones with the assistance of a more experienced supervisor, likely in the electrophone parlor on Gerrard Street. Unknown photographer, courtesy of BT Archive circa 1900
People who for some reason couldn’t go to the theater could listen at home – just like the French writer Marcel Proust at the beginning of the 20th century when he was too sick to get out of his house.
Since COVID-19 became available in the UK, theaters have had to reduce audience numbers to allow social distancing. This means less income for the theaters and everyone involved in productions. However, some companies have successfully combined the live experience with the live stream, as they did in Victorian theaters with the electrophone.
The London Electrophone Company closed its doors in 1925 because it simply didn’t have enough customers to survive. The idea of sitting still for long periods of time and listening through headphones was bizarre for most people at the time. But now a generation has grown up with streaming technology, so the challenge that the electrophone faced in selling its product was less of a worry.
With the prospect of months of restrictions in place, we’re likely to see more live streaming, especially as theaters and live performers figure out how to produce socially distant productions. However, when you settle down at home to see a screening of your favorite stage show, remember that you are revisiting a tradition established by theater lovers about 150 years ago.
This article has been republished by Natasha Kitcher, PhD Student, Department of Communications and Media, Loughborough University The conversation under a Creative Commons license. read this original article .
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Published on December 25, 2020 – 11:00 UTC