The Court Masque
The most lavish 17th-century productions were not open to the public. King James I (reigned 1603–25) and later his son Charles I (reigned 1625–49) commissioned spectacular private performances called 'masques' which involved music, dance, opulent costumes and extraordinary scenery and special effects. They were performed once or twice at one of the royal palaces and were only seen by members of the court. Such lavish court entertainments were fashionable throughout Europe as an expression of princely power.
Masques were often used to celebrate royal occasions such as a wedding or birth. Design and visual symbols played an important role in masques which called for lavish costumes and sets. Nobles and royalty would take part, often playing gods or heroes while the other roles were played by professional actors.
Court entertainments were far more opulent than those of the public playhouses, but professional actors and writers crossed over between both. Masque-like elements began to be included in popular plays. There are masque scenes in Thomas Kyd's 'The Spanish Tragedy' and Shakespeare's 'Cymbeline' and 'The Tempest'. Ben Jonson wrote masques for the court as well as drama for the public playhouses.
Inigo Jones (1573 - 1652)
Inigo Jones introduced the proscenium arch and moveable scenery arranged in perspective into British theatre.
While travelling in France and Italy he had been impressed and inspired by the use of stage machinery and scenic invention. Under James I and Charles I he collaborated with the writer Ben Jonson on a series of masques and elaborate court productions that cost a fortune.
Inigo Jones's scenery used a series of shutters that slid in and out using grooves in the floor. He even flew in scenery from above and introduced coloured lighting by placing candles behind tinted glass.
After a series of successful collaborations Ben Jonson and Inigo Jones quarrelled. Jonson accused Jones of ensuring that the scenic changes and transformations had more predominance in the masque than his poetry. Indeed 'The Masque of Oberon' in 1611 cost over £2000 and the costumes alone cost over £1000. Jonson received £40 for writing the script.
Inigo Jones went on to design theatre buildings. In 1619 he transformed the Banqueting House at Whitehall into a theatre and in 1629 built the Cockpit at Court.
Engraved print of a court ballet
This print shows a court ballet performed before Maximilian, Duke of Bavaria, in Vlasislav Hall, Prague Castle in 1617. Spending vast sums on such lavish, ephemeral spectacles was quite usual in 16th and 17th century Europe. Their purpose was often to impress visiting dignitaries and present a positive image of a ruler and his court. They included vast processions, dances, sung episodes and acted interludes, all sumptuously costumed with elaborate coaches and chariots and stage effects. From these spectacles evolved ballet and opera. In this production, the dancers form geometric patterns on the floor of the theatre before what we would now think of as the proscenium arch, which is 'designed' as a rocky archway. It helps to give the perspective illusion to the scenery behind it, as well as helping to mask the ropes, pulleys and counterweights that worked the cloud machine and the god descending in his chariot.
Costume design for Jacqueline The Knowing One
Costume design for Jacqueline The Knowing One in the French Ballet des Fées de la Foret de Saint Germain, pen and ink over lead, watercolour heightened with gold, 1625. Museum no. S.367-1988
Engraving published in Les Plaisirs de L'Isle
The ballet La Princesse d'Elide was part of a seven day fête held in May 1664 at the Palace of Versailles. The festivities celebrated the birth of a son to Louise de La Vallière, mistress of the French king, Louis XIV. Versailles had no theatre, so temporary stages were set up around the palace and in the gardens. Here the stage has been set up in the grounds with the stage and orchestra pit looking up the avenue of trees and hedges towards the palace. Actors are shown performing before the king (seated centre front) and the court. The engraving is titled Seconde Journée - Theatre fait dans la meme allée, sur lequel la Comédye et le Ballet de la Princesse d'Elide furent representez.
Such lavish celebrations helped impress foreign dignitaries and reinforced Louis' image as absolute ruler. Louis and his courtiers often took part and Louis' nickname, The Sun King, came from his performance as Apollo, the Greek god of the sun, in the Ballet de la Nuit in 1653.
Costume design for a drummer in the French Ballet des Fées de la Foret de Saint Germain
Costume design for a drummer in the French Ballet des Fées de la Foret de Saint Germain, pen and ink over lead, watercolour, 1625. Museum no. S.369-1988
Engraved print of a ballet at Versailles
This engraving shows a comedy-ballet called The Princess of Navarre being performed at the French Royal Palace of Versailles, just outside Paris. It was produced as part of the celebrations of a royal marriage; the King's son, the Dauphin, had become engaged to Maria Theresa of Spain. The composer Jean Philippe Rameau was asked to write the ballet in partnership with the author Voltaire. The decorations were arranged by Charles Nicolas Cochin who also made this engraving of the event.
The Closure of the Theatres
In 1642 civil war broke out in England and theatres were closed to prevent public disorder. The theatres remained closed for 18 years, causing considerable hardship to professional theatre performers, managers and writers. Illegal performances were only sporadic and many public theatres were demolished.
The Puritans, led by Oliver Cromwell, opposed theatrical performances and were at loggerheads with King Charles I who promoted theatre at his court. In 1632 William Prynne had lost his ear for denouncing dancing as a 'Devil's Mass' and women actors as 'notorious whores' in his book Histriomastix. This was seen as a personal attack on Queen Henrietta Maria who loved the theatre and often performed in masques.
However, Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans were less censorious about musical entertainment and tolerated occasional small-scale masques as the unavoidable trappings of government.
In 1656, William Davenant succeeded in producing 'The Siege of Rhodes' in his home in an all-sung version. He staged it with moveable scenery arranged in perspective, which was to prove highly influential.
According to legend, Davenant was the illegitimate son of William Shakespeare. He contributed to the last of the Stuart masques and was a fervent Royalist. After Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660, Davenant and Thomas Killigrew were granted royal patents, which gave them virtual monopoly over presenting drama in London. These monopolies were not revoked until the 19th century.
Davenant opened the Duke's Theatre where he presented adaptations of Shakespeare's plays with music, forerunners of the semi-operas of Purcell. Most scholars consider that Davenant's 'The Siege of Rhodes' was the first English opera. It was performed in 1656 at Rutland House in London.
Davenant wrote the text but the score was the work of several different musicians. At this time, the theatres were closed and plays forbidden by law, although music was still played. It is possible that the entertainment was rather a way of getting round the law than an attempt to write a true opera.
This engraving depicts the 'Duke's House' (later Duke's Theatre) where the Duke of York's players performed from 1661. It was originally a tennis court, built in Lincoln's Inn Fields, which Sir William Davenant converted into a performance space.
It was at the Duke's Theatre that the first 'scenic' production of 'Hamlet' was staged, with Thomas Betterton as the Prince.
The picture gives us an idea of the interior of the theatre. A large, richly decorated proscenium frames the stage. Above is a small room with a curtained opening, presumably used by the musicians.
The actors are shown performing the 'The Empress of Morocco', presented at that theatre in 1673.
The term 'Restoration' refers to the period following the restoration of Charles II to the throne of the United Kingdom in 1660.
The introduction of scenery and elaborate stage machinery to the English public stage in the 1660s gave rise to blockbusting semi-operas. Many of these were adaptations of other plays, often by Shakespeare. These had episodes of music, singing, dancing and special effects. They even had transformation scenes.
The 1674 production of 'The Tempest' had many spectacular scenes including a storm.
The advances in scene design impacted on the design of theatre buildings, and behind the thrust stage a scenic stage was added, framed by a proscenium arch.
The Duke's Theatre in Dorset Garden was planned by William Davenant and designed by Christopher Wren, the architect of St Paul's Cathedral. It cost £9000 (about £600,000 today) paid for by 'adventurers' (we would call them backers).
It stood by the River Thames and steps led up from the river for those patrons arriving by boat. The theatre was the grandest ever seen in Britain up to that time, with an elaborate proscenium arch, one of the first in London.
Over the theatre were flats, where Thomas Betterton, the leading actor of the late 17th century and director of the acting company, lived.
Audiences had a preference for Restoration comedy and heroic tragedy in addition to plays by Jonson, Beaumont and Fletcher and Shakespeare. Restoration dramatists include William Wycherley, George Etherege, Thomas Otway, William Congreve and George Farquhar. The double standards of courtiers and members of the aristocracy were reflected in Restoration drama's obsession with social behaviour. Powerful and well-mannered characters were often portrayed as corrupt and sexually promiscuous.
The Restoration period also saw women become recognised as professional playwrights. The most famous of these was Aphra Behn. A group of women writers known as The Female Wits produced many works for the stage. They included Mary Pix, Catherine Trotter and the prolific Susannah Centlivre who wrote 19 plays including 'A Bold Stroke for a Wife'.
Wax figurine of Edith Evans
Wax figurine by Agatha Walker of Edith Evans as Mistress Page from The Merry Wives of Windsor by William Shakespeare, moulded plaster coated in wax and coloured, 1924, Eddison Collection. Museum no. S.1043-1996
Scene from Tyrone Guthrie's production of The Country Wife
Horner, the central character in William Wycherley's comedy, The Country Wife, is a sexually voracious man about London who pretends he is impotent. Mrs Squaeamish, Lady Fidget and Margery Pinchwife are three of his conquests, though it is Margery who is the 'Country Wife' of the title. Gallants (men about town), fops (foolishly effete gentlemen) and cuckolds (men whose wives have cheated on them) were nothing new to English comedy at the Restoration it was probably a combination of the character of Horner, and Margery's country ways introduced into London society, that made the play different. Here are Ernest Thesiger, Ursula Jeans and Freda Jackson (the maid) from Tyrone Guthrie's 1936 Old Vic production of the play. It was a huge success, starring Michael Redgrave (who was at that time new to the London stage) as Horner, and Edith Evans as Lady Fidget.
Portrait of George Farquhar
The Irish playwright, George Farquhar, began his career as an actor. He accidentally wounded another player during a stage fight by using a real sword instead of a stage prop and decided that acting was not for him. Instead he tried his luck as a playwright in London. His first major success was The Constant Couple or a Trip to the Jubilee, performed at Drury Lane in 1699. Farquhar's next plays were not so popular and he tried to solve his money problems by marrying a rich woman. To his surprise, his chosen bride turned out to be penniless. He joined the army, which provided a regular income, and was sent to the Midlands to recruit soldiers.
Farquhar used his army experience in a play, The Recruiting Officer, written in 1706. This was a great hit with the public and Farquhar followed it with another, The Beaux' Stratagem, in 1707. Both plays are frequently staged today. Sadly, Farquhar did not live to enjoy his successes. He died soon after the first performances of The Beaux Stratagem, aged 29.
Portrait of Susanna Centlivre
The playwright Susannah Centlivre was a contemporary of the female wits and wrote her first play in 1700. She was successful during her lifetime and her works were regularly performed for the next two centuries.
Centlivre is best known for her comedies, many of which were adapted from French and Spanish works. Her plays were in the style of Restoration comedy, with immoral characters and risqué jokes. Often, however, it is the resourceful woman who comes out on top, rather than the leading man. Her prologues often express an active feminism and challenge male prejudice against women writers. Little is known about her personal life. Rumour has it that she came from a puritan family, but joined a troupe of strolling players after her parents’ death. She apparently lived for some months disguised as a man. This was not as uncommon as it sounds, a woman alone was at risk, and this was a means to protect oneself. She was married three times, first to an actor, then to an army officer and lastly to a cook in the royal household.
Portrait of Aphra Behn
Aphra Behn was the first English woman to earn her living by writing. She was born in 1640 and brought up in the West Indies but returned to England aged 18. She married a Dutch merchant, but after his death, she found herself in a debtors' prison and was forced to look for means to support herself. Her first employment was as a spy, but she was not paid and turned to writing. Her first play The Forced Marriage was a tragi-comedy and was produced at one of London's two main theatres, Lincoln's Inn Fields Theatre, with the famous Thomas Betterton playing the lead. She went on to write many more comedies in the Restoration style (full of bawdy jokes and immoral characters). These were considered perfectly acceptable if written by a man, but not from the pen of a woman. She also wrote a novel set in the West Indies called Oroonoko which was made into a play shortly after Behn's death in 1689.
Portrait of Thomas Otway
Thomas Otway began his career as an actor, but only made one stage appearance. He suffered so badly from stage fright that he gave up acting and turned to playwriting instead. In 1675 his first play Alcibiades, a tragedy, was staged at the Duke's Theatre. One of the minor roles was taken by Elizabeth Barry, who went on to become the greatest actress of her day. Otway fell passionately in love with Mrs Barry, but she did not return his feelings. He wrote two more plays containing leading roles for Barry, then abandoned the theatre for a while and joined the army. But he soon returned to writing and had great success with The Orphan or The Unhappy Marriage and Venice Preserved, both of which again gave starring roles to Mrs Barry. Her successes do not appear to have made her any fonder of the playwright, however. Venice Preserved, a tragedy of politics and personal honour, was enormously popular and is still revived today.
Scene from The Beaux' Stratagem
The Beaux' Stratagem, a comedy by George Farquhar, was first performed at the Haymarket Theatre, London in 1707.
Archer, one of the beaux of the title, is wooing Mrs Sullen, the discontented wife of a country squire. In this photograph, Archer is played by John Clements and his wife, Kay Hammond, plays Mrs Sullen. Clements and Hammond were a popular husband-and-wife acting partnership of the mid 20th century and appeared together in a number of 18th century comedies. The Beaux' Stratagem, produced and directed by Clements, was extremely popular and ran for over 500 performances.
The beaux are two fashionable London gentlemen, who, like their creator hope to marry wealthy women. Arriving in Lichfield, where they are not known, they pass themselves off as a lord and his servant. Aimwell, the 'lord', woos Dorinda, sister of Squire Sullen, but Archer prefers the Squire's wife. All ends happily when Dorinda falls in love with Aimwell and, radically for the time, the Squire grants his wife a divorce on the grounds of incompatibility.
When Charles II was restored to the throne, the theatre companies were quick to provide public performances again, initially in converted tennis courts. However, their freedom was short lived and Charles II soon reorganised the theatre by creating a monopoly through royal patent. This licensed only two companies to produce theatre in London. Their theatres Lincoln 's Inn Fields and Drury Lane became known as the 'patent theatres' and were managed and directed by Thomas Killigrew and William Davenant respectively.
Charles II had a taste for the drama and opera he had seen in exile in France. He encouraged Killigrew and Davenant to introduce women on stage, thus breaking with the tradition of boy actors taking female roles and to introduce moveable perspective scenery which revolutionised staging and the design of theatre buildings.
The royal patents also permitted a wide-ranging repertory, such as tragedies, comedies, plays, opera, musical theatre and dancing.
Reproduction of an engraved ticket for The Mock Doctor
This reproduction of an engraved ticket for a benefit performance of The Mock Doctor at Drury Lane in 1732 is rather a puzzle. The original engraving is signed William Hogarth' in the bottom left hand corner and has been reprinted by Samuel Ireland whose name appears below the print. The design is almost certainly a forgery. it is one of a group of engravings printed by Ireland and bearing Hogarth's name, but which are entirely unlike his style or that of his assistants. Even more suspicious is the fact that the ticket has been filled in with the date April 20th 1732, but the play did not open until June 23rd and no benefit is recorded until April the following year.
Painting of Hester Booth
Painting of Hester Booth (c1680-1773) as a female Harlequin, John Ellys (ca 1701-1757), oil on canvas, c. 1772-1725, Museum no. S.668-1989
Etching of Rich's Glory
This satirical print from the workshop of William Hogarth was made after the opening of Covent Garden theatre in 1732.
Actor-manager John Rich moved from his theatre in Lincoln's Inn Fields which he had been regularly selling out with performances of his new invention, the pantomime. He had lately had an even greater triumph with a musical play, The Beggar's Opera, by John Gay.
The scene shows a carriage arriving in Covent Garden (we can see St Paul's Church in the background) with a procession moving towards the newly opened Theatre Royal. In the carriage is John Rich, dressed as the performing dog that appeared in his version of Perseus and Andromeda. Rich was most famous for playing the character of Harlequin in his productions which combined classical subjects with pantomime to popular effect. Hogarth's low opinion of the quality of Rich's shows is indicated in this depiction of him as a dalmatian dog. A Harlequin is shown driving the carriage which is pulled by satyrs. John Gay follows, carried by a porter, while the crowd shouts 'Rich for ever'. The poem below the print criticises other followers in the parade, actors from the 18th century popular stage, including James Quin.
The leading Restoration actor was Thomas Betterton whom diarist Samuel Pepys regarded as the best in the world, noting that 'he could command attention even from the fops and flower girls'. Betterton went on to manage the Duke's Company from 1668. Other Restoration actors included Cave Underhill, Thomas Otway and Colley Cibber.
The first women on stage
The Restoration saw the emergence of the first professional actresses and playwrights. Breeches parts, where women disguised themselves as men (and thus revealed their ankles and legs in men's clothing) quickly proved very popular in Restoration drama.
The first woman to appear on the professional stage in England is generally considered to be Margaret Hughes who performed at the Vere Street Theatre in 1660 in a production of Othello. Davenant employed eight actresses to perform with his company shortly afterwards.
Other notable actresses included Elizabeth Barry who was known as the queen of tragedy. She was trained for the stage by the notorious womaniser, the Earl of Rochester, who was also her lover. The most infamous actress of this period was Nell Gwyn, who was painted nude for Charles II and bore him two children.
Figurine representing Susannah Cibber
This figurine represents Susannah Cibber as Sigismunda, the vivandière in James Thomson's tragedy Tancred and Sigismunda. In the 18th century a vivandière was a woman who sold food and drink to soldiers and was often a soldier's wife. Susannah Cibber played Sigismunda opposite David Garrick as Tancred at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane in 1756. Garrick played Tancred in the original production in 1745 and he frequently revived the play at Drury Lane.
The figure was produced by the Derby factory as a pair to the figurine of Garrick as Tancred. The Derby porcelain factory was established in about 1750 by the Huguenot, Andrew Planche. In partnership with William Duesbury, they produced figures of extremely high quality. By 1770 Duesbury acquired the famous Chelsea China Works and the Bow moulds which resulted in the transfer of a number of extremely skilled craftsmen from London to Derby. They opened a London showroom in 1773 and in 1775 King George III granted the factory the honour of being able to incorporate a crown into the backstamp.
Portrait of Cave Underhill
The Restoration actor, Cave Underhill, had an unusual and memorable name and a distinctive face which made him a natural choice for comic parts. In Sir Robert Howard's comedy The Committee (1662), he played the puritan clerk, Obadiah, who is made drunk by the servant Teague.
Portrait of Anne Bracegirdle
Anne Bracegirdle was one of the first English actresses. Here we see her as Semernia, the Indian Queen in Aphra Behn's play, The Widow Ranter. Her first known stage appearance was at Drury Lane in 1688 when she would have been aged about 25, but she may have acted as a child. She was brought up in the family of Thomas Betterton, the greatest actor of the day, and he is likely to have trained her for the stage. Mrs Bracegirdle (like all Restoration actresses she was addressed as Mrs, although she never married) excelled both as virtuous, suffering tragic heroines and as the sophisticated leading ladies of comedy. William Congreve wrote a succession of roles for her, the most famous being the witty Millamant in The Way of the World. Mrs Bracegirdle was extremely popular with the public and her fellow actors, but she retired from the stage in 1707, preferring to leave while still at the height of her fame.
Portrait of Thomas Betterton
Thomas Betterton was the son of one of Charles I's cooks. He was on the stage for 50 years, yet just before he died he claimed modestly that he was 'still learning to be an actor'. Both Samuel Pepys and Alexander Pope hailed him as the best they had ever seen, and Pepys praised the restraint of his performances. Betterton's range of characters was extremely wide. He created about 130 new roles, aside from playing such leading parts in the older dramas as Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear and Othello. Colleague and rival Antony Aston admitted, 'His voice was low and grumbling, yet he could tune it by an artful climax, which enforced universal attention, even from the fops and orange-girls'.
Betterton was always heavily involved in the politics of theatre management, as well as being a highly regarded actor. He made his debut in 1660, the year the theatres reopened, and in 1661 was hired by Sir William Davenant for the Duke's Company. When the King's Men collapsed, the two companies merged in 1682. The joint result, with Betterton as the artistic leader, played at Drury Lane until 1695, when the older actors, led by Betterton, left to set up their own company at Lincoln's Inn Fields.
Portrait of Elizabeth Barry
Elizabeth Barry was brought up by Sir William Davenant, who was awarded one of the two patents when the theatres reopened in 1660. He was also a friend of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, poet and rake. When Barry first met the young earl in 1675 she had just started her acting career. To win a bet, Rochester undertook her training for the stage and promoted her in fashionable society, in return for which she became his mistress from 1675 to 1677.
Her first success was as Leonora in Aphra Behn's Abdelazar, after which she played a number of leading roles including Hellena in Aphra Behn's The Rover, and Emillia in D'Urfey's A Fond Husband. The poet John Dryden pronounced her 'always excellent'. Barry went on to have a prolonged and brilliant career, establishing her reputation as England's leading actress with her performance as Monimia in Otway's The Orphan. She died aged 55.
Portrait of Colley Cibber
Cibber was a man of many parts: actor, theatre manager, playwright and, from 1730, poet laureate. He began his acting career in 1690 with Thomas Betterton's company at Drury Lane. His strength as an actor, as it was with his writing, was in comedy. He particularly excelled in the role of the fashionable coxcomb. His performances as Sir Novelty Fashion in his own play Love's Last Shift and as Lord Foppington, the same character renamed, in Vanbrugh's sequel The Relapse, established his reputation as a comic fop. The wig he wore as Lord Foppington became the talk of the town.
Cibber was a small man and the wig was colossal. It was brought on to the stage in a sedan chair and the actor donned it publicly to the admiration of all beholders. Cibber was a real man of the theatre and his gift as a writer, apart from his instinctive understanding of what the audiences wanted, was to fit himself and his colleagues with parts nicely suited to the talent of each.
Portrait of Nell Gwyn
Eleanor 'Nell' Gwyn is the best known Restoration actress. She started out as an orange-seller at Drury Lane theatre where her wit, looks and charm led to her becoming the mistress of the leading actor, Charles Hart, who trained her to perform. Described by Samuel Pepys as 'pretty, witty Nell', she was a talented singer and dancer and began appearing in plays in about 1665, soon becoming a leading comic actress. Charles II was a great fan of the theatre and of the actresses, several of whom became his lovers at one time or another.
Gwyn was the King's mistress from 1669 to his death in 1685. Several portraits were made of her and even more have been mistakenly identified as her. This engraving is after a portrait painted in about 1664 by the court painter Sir Peter Lely.
Portrait of Margaret Hughes
Margaret Hughes was one of England's first actresses, who appeared on the stage shortly after the Restoration of Charles II to the throne in 1660. A performance of The Moor of Venice (Othello) was given in December of that year in an indoor tennis court that had been converted into a theatre. Margaret Hughes is thought to have played the role of Desdemona, the first time that a woman rather than a boy actor had appeared in the part.
Samuel Pepys saw her in the same part in 1669. An actress's wages were not generous and many of the women looked for rich lovers for financial and social advancement (as well as for love of course). Margaret had an affair with an aristocrat called Sir Charles Sedley in the 1660s and a few years later she moved even further up the social scale when she became the mistress of Prince Rupert, a cousin of King Charles II.