Energies of Spectacle

On the Theatricality of Electricity and the Electrification of the Theatre, 1870-1930

Research project, funded by    Logo Volkswagenstiftung

Principal investigator: Prof Dr. Ulf Otto
Research assistant: Dr. Miriam Höller

2012-2017 (1st phase, Foundation University of Hildesheim)
2017-2020 (2nd phase, Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich)

The electrification of theater around 1900 is more than just the application of the spotlight to the scene. The arrival of currents and rays in the stage house and auditorium fundamentally changes how theater is made and thought. From the everyday practices of theatrical work to the discourses of the theatrical avant-gardes, industrially generated and engineer-controlled electricity takes effect. The artistic upheaval is therefore closely linked to the cultural enforcement of electro-consumption and is set in the context of the expansion of nightlife in the metropolises and the labor market in the peripheries. It has its counterpart in the spectacular productions of electrical engineers like Tesla and Edison, which emerge from a tradition of electrical demonstrations going back to the Enlightenment and Romanticism. Aesthetics and technology thus help each other to success in the spectacles of the fin de siècle, converging in a re-enchantment of the world that promises to suspend or at least disguise the reality of production in the age of fossil energies.

The aim of the project is to investigate the link between electrification and theatrical culture and, concomitantly, the leading question of the relationship between technology and aesthetics in the context of industrial culture. Research will therefore be conducted firstly into the role of embodiments of electricity in the context of 19th-century spectacular culture; secondly into the significance of electricity in the transformation of 19th-century theatrical aesthetics and programmatics; and thirdly into the role of electricity as a means of staging and regulating in the working processes of the theater.

By reconstructing in detail the introduction of electrical technology on the backstage, its appearance at the center of late 19th-century exhibition culture, and the long history of allegorical and spectacular embodiments of electricity, this research proposes a new reading of the history of theater. The electro-aesthetic of theater is described as a new order of visibility that redefines what can and cannot be seen. The connection to the efforts of modernity to heal the wounds that the industrial revolution had inflicted on society through the reformation of hygiene and communication is particularly prominent.


  • International symposium: (An)ästhetiken der Elektrizität (2016)
  • Professional article: …
  • Monograph: Das Theater der Elektrizität (2020)
  • Monograph: …
  • Workshop: …