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The Court Masque

Portrait miniature of an unknown woman in a masque costume, painted by Oliver Isaac, watercolour on vellum, probably England, circa 1609, presented by The Art Fund. Museum no. P.3-1942

Portrait miniature of an unknown woman in a masque costume, painted by Oliver Isaac, watercolour on vellum, probably England, circa 1609, presented by The Art Fund. Museum no. P.3-1942

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.

'The Works of Sir William Davenant', frontispiece, printed by TN for Henry Herringman, London, 1673.

'The Works of Sir William Davenant', frontispiece, printed by TN for Henry Herringman, London, 1673.

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.

Engraved print of Duke's Theatre interior, reproduction of an earlier 17th century print, late 18th century

Interior of the Duke's Theatre, engraved reproduction of a 17th-century print, late 18th 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.

Restoration Drama

Set design for Arsinoe by Sir James Thornhill (1675-1734), pen, ink and wash, England, 1705. Museum no. D.25-1891

Set design for Arsinoe by Sir James Thornhill, pen, ink and wash, England, 1705. Museum no. D.25-1891

Engraved print of Duke's Theatre, London, late 17th century

Engraved print of Duke's Theatre, London, late 17th century

Engraved print of Duke's Theatre, London, 17th century

Engraved print of Duke's Theatre, London, 17th century

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.

Restoration dramatists

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.

Women writers

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'.

Royal patents

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.

Restoration actors

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.

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