The points which, in the opinion of the Society of Arts Committee, should be attended to in the construction, etc, of theatres, may be classified as follows: - (a) Structural (including arrangements for heating, and with special reference to exits). (6) Arrangement and treatment of scenery and accessories, (c) Arrangement of illuminating appliances, and stage effects' involving the use of gas, pyrotechnic compositions. etc.
These are certainly the most important of all. First, the building itself should be constructed in a manner calculated to check the spread of a fire. To this end it should be divided as much as possible by fireproof partitions, and above all, there should be a division between the stage and the auditorium, extending from the base to the roof. The opening from the stage in this partition should be defended by a metal screen, or a fireproof curtain of some sort, though it appears, from the experience of the fire at the Berlin National Theatre, that the iron curtain actually tore down part of the wall, so that this means of protection has its objectionable features. Perhaps the curtain devised by Capt. Shaw, which can, in a very few minutes, be saturated with water, would be effective to this end. There should be an ample water supply, either by reservoirs at sufficient height, or by connection with the street supply - the latter for preference. Hydrants, and other proper fittings, should be provided in abundance. The Committee have bad a favourable account of the action, in some warehouses in America, of an arrangement for deluging any part of a building by a shower of water from fixed perforated pipes.
Means should be provided for carrying off smoke and heated air, in case of a fire breaking out on the stage or amongst the scenery, so that they may pass away, instead of being, as would now nearly always be the case, drawn into the body of the theatre by the draught usually existing. It is desirable that a theatre should be, as far as possible, separated from adjoining buildings, especially from buildings in which any trade or business is carried on likely to lead to fires, The same provision is also of importance with regard to exits, it being of the greatest consequence that a theatre should discharge its audience into more than one street, even, if possible, into more than two. The different parts of the theatre should have different exits leading right out to the street, exits bringing streams of persons together being specially dangerous. Such exits should increase in width outwards, and should be free from interruption or impediment of any character. Steps in passages, either ascending or descending, should be avoided, and any other obstruction likely to cause people to fall. All doors should open outwards.
Staircases should be properly fitted on both sides with hand-rails. As regards heating, it does not appear that special arrangements are generally adopted for heating theatres, except by means of ordinary fire-grates in refreshment rooms, lobbies, etc. Should the electric light come into general use for lighting theatres, it is possible that they will require to be specially warmed, in which case the usual precautions will have to be employed.
(6) Arrangement And Treatment Of Scenery And Accessories
As regards the scenery and the lighter sort of costumes, there seems to be no doubt that measures ought < to be taken to render these uninflammable, or at all events, not easily inflammable. For fabrics, the best material seems to be tungstate of soda, and this has been successfully employed in some theatres. Henderson, at that time the proprietor of the Criterion Theatre, giving evidence before the House of Commons Committee of 1877, said that he used it, and that there was no difficulty in its use as regards new scenery; to old scenery, he said, it could not be applied. There appears to be no reason why the woodwork of scenery should not be treated with silicate of soda, either with or without a lime-wash.
The scenery of some London theatres is now treated with some of the more recently invented preparations, most of which, it is understood, have a silicate or a borate for their basis. The effect of all such preparations is, that it coats the articles, or, in case of fabrics, the fibres of the articles, with a non-inflammable substance. This does not prevent the evolution of gas from the material when sufficient heat is applied, and the gas thus evolved takes fire, and burns. When the source of external heat is removed no more gas is evolved, and combustion ceases. Thus it may be said that the article will burn when exposed to sufficient heat, but has not, in itself, the power of supporting combustion. One effect of this is, that it is very much more difficult to set such materials on fire, and this alone is sufficient either to prevent the breaking out of fire at all, or to render it much easier to deal with after it has broken out.
(c) Arrangement of illuminating appliances, and of stage effects involving the use of gas, pyrotechnic compositions, etc. - There is not much to be said about the ordinary lighting arrangements. In all theatres they are generally under the control of a special gas-man. It is desirable that precautions should be taken for the ventilation of places in which the meters are fixed, generally underground cellars, to avoid the risks of explosions.
When electrical illumination is employed, the necessary precautions should of course be taken; in fact the rules laid down by the Society of Telegraph Engineers apply equally well to theatres as to other buildings. Whatever system of illumination may be employed, whether gas or electricity, it is absolutely necessary that oil or candle lamps should be fixed up in the passages, and near the doors, so that, in case of the failure of the ordinary lighting arrangements, the audience may not be left in the dark. This is now done in many theatres, and ought to be done in all. Curiously enough, it has happened that these lamps have proved a source of danger, as a theatre in Hungary is reported to have been burnt by one of these "alternative," lamps,
The lighting arrangements for the stage are often very dangerous. The rules which now exist as to the use of naked lights upon the stage ought to be strictly adhered to. All lights should be, and in many theatres are, carefully protected: the footlights should have a grate before them; wooden battens over the stage, carrying rows of gas lights, should never be allowed.
Small accidents have not unfrequently occurred from the careless use of the oxy-hydrogen light. This light, when carefully employed, is perfectly safe, but in the hands of careless or inexperienced persons it is liable to give rise to explosions of a dangerous character. The causes of many of the explosions which have occurred, not only in theatres, but during other exhibitions where the light has been used, have not always been traced, but probably in many cases they are due to the gases having become mixed in one of the bags. A bag in which a little hydrogen remained may have been, by mistake, filled with oxygen, and thus a mixed gas of a very explosive character produced. Another source of these explosions is sudden alteration of pressure upon the bags, by which the mixed gases are drawn back into one of the bags, when a similar result occurs. It would be well if the very simple device were employed of storing the gases, when the ordinary coal-gas mains are not employed, or the oxygen gas when they are, in proper gas-holders and outside the walls of the theatre, laying the gas or gases on in the same way as ordinary illuminating gas is laid on.
The use of pyrotechnic compositions is a common source of danger, and it is believed that many of the most serious fires are due to them. Portions of the material are left about after the conclusion of the performance, become ignited, and the result is a fire. Some of these compositions have, moreover, been proved to be capable of spontaneous ignition. Whenever these materials are used - and it would probably be useless to attempt to stop their uses the greatest precautions ought to be taken. In some places, burning houses have been introduced on the stage. This is certainly a most dangerous practice, and might well be forbidden.