Curiosities from 150 years of The Engineer archive

Continuing the theatrical theme of last issue’s aquatic circus, this article presented an innovation that, if it were ever deployed, would surely send theatre-goers running and screaming from the auditorium.

Invented by messrs Henry Dircks and J H Pepper, ‘The Ghost’ used a peculiar arrangement of glass screens, trap doors and lanterns to enable actors to share the stage with eerie, transparent, phantoms. At the heart of this complicated optical illusion was an additional lower stage, hidden from the audience, strongly illuminated but capable of being instantaneously plunged into darkness.

Placed on the ordinary stage and in front of the hidden one was a large glass screen. ‘The spectators will not observe the glass screen,’ reported the magazine, ‘but will see the actors on the ordinary stage through it, as if it were not there; nevertheless the glass will serve to reflect to them an image of the actors on the hidden stage when these are illuminated, but this image will be made immediately to disappear by darkening the hidden stage.’

The article explained that the screen was set in a frame that could be moved around the stage and adjusted to enable the spectators , whether in the pit, boxes, or gallery to see the reflected image.

The lanterns used to create this effect were, wrote the engineer, ‘provided with means for extinguishing or masking the light, and for reproducing it so that the phantom may be made to disappear or re-appear at pleasure.’ The spookiness of the effect could be further enhanced using a well or hole in the lower stage upon which an actor could rise — ‘he will then appear as a spectre rising out of the visible stage’ quaked The Engineer.