The Plays of Wilkie Collins: A Digital Archive

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The Lighthouse (1855)

First produced by Charles Dickens at the Tavistock House theatre, 16-19 June 1855, and at Campden House, Kensington, 10 July 1855.
First professionally produced at the Olympic Theatre, 10 August - 17 October 1857.

The setting of the play is based on the Eddystone Lighthouse that Collins saw in 1850 with his friend, Henry C. Brandling, on a walking tour of Cornwall. His journal was later published as Rambles Beyond Railways; or, Notes in Cornwall taken A-Foot (London: Bentley, 1851), with illustrations by Brandling. The passage relating to the lighthouse is in 'Chapter 3: A Fishing-Town on the South Coast [Looe]', pp. 42-3:

We ascended the heights to the westward, losing sight of the town among the trees, as we went; and then, walking in a southerly direction through some cornfields, approached within a few hundred yards of the edge of the cliffs, and looked out on the sea. The sky had partially cleared, and the rain had ceased; but huge, fantastic masses of cloud, tinged with lurid copper-colour by the setting sun, still towered afar off over the horizon, and were reflected in a deeper hue on the calm surface of the sea, with a perfectness and grandeur that I never remember to have witnessed before. Not a ship was in sight; but out on the extreme line of the wilderness of grey waters there shone one red, fiery spark—the beacon of the Eddystone Lighthouse. Before us, the green fields of Looe Island rose high out of the ocean—here, partaking the red light on the clouds; there, half lost in cold shadow. Closer yet, on the mainland, a few cattle were feeding quietly on a long strip of meadow bordering the edge of the cliff; and, now and then, a gull soared up from the sea, and wheeled screaming over our heads. The faint sound of the small shore-waves (invisible to us in the position we occupied) beating dull and at long intervals on the beach, augmented the dreary solemnity of the evening prospect. Light, shade, and colour were all before us, arranged in the grandest combinations, and expressed by the simplest forms. If Michael Angelo had painted landscape, he might have represented such a scene as we now beheld.

smeaton's tower

Further images

The Lighthouse was the third on the Eddystone rock, designed by John Smeaton, and stood from 1759 until it was dismantled in 1882. In 1845, the oil-lamp reflectors were replaced by lenses which gave the lighthouse what Collins saw as a 'red, fiery spark'. The lighthouse was rebuilt on Plymouth Hoe and opened to the public in September 1884 where it can still be visited.