The court masque era
What is a court masque?
The court masque was an entertainment performed for and by the Stuart kings and queens and their courtiers.
It was an extravagant theatrical production which combined poetry, dance, music and song. These were accompanied by spectacular special effects and fanciful scenery design.
They celebrated the benefits of ‘divine’ kingship and showed how the first two Stuart kings, James I and Charles I, brought peace and prosperity to a troubled land.
Masques were pieces of elaborate propaganda disguised as mythological stories set in a ‘Golden Age’ with symbolic characters who personified, at first, chaos and despair and then the harmony brought about by Stuart rule.
Masques usually took place on dark winter evenings and were lit up by flaming torches and tinted lamps. The atmosphere was magical and mysterious.
Ben Jonson, Masque playwriter
Ben Jonson, the famous poet and playwright, worked with Inigo Jones to create some of the finest masques. He believed that the writing of the masque was more important than the designs and special effects. Of course, Jones disagreed and they quarrelled furiously.
After their masque Chloridia was performed at the Banqueting House in 1631, Jonson and Jones parted forever, although the poet carried on writing angry verses about his enemy.
Inigo Jones, set designer
Inigo Jones was the engineer and set designer for the masques. Following Italian practice, his stages were at one end of the hall with the King’s throne and seating for the rest of the audience at the other.
Huge curtains were used to hide scenery changes and as back-cloths. These were painted with beautiful landscapes, buildings or with gods performing astonishing deeds. Quick scenery changes in the wings were operated by turning three-sided columns on pivots, called 'periaktoi'.
Stages were deep enough to hide clever special effects, such as ‘cloud machines’. These were large scale contraptions equipped with ingenious levers, pulleys and pivots and were operated by manpower.
They lifted scenery clouds and carried performers down onto the stage. All were framed by a grand proscenium arch, with dancers spilling out in front of the King’s throne.
Inigo Jones designed the masque costumes – the more bizarre and outlandish the better.
The anti-masque dancers were grotesque, sometimes dressed as witches or devils, frightening ‘barbarians’ or as wild and half-human, half-animal creatures.
The costumes of the courtiers and singers were strange and beautiful, spangled with costly embroideries and jewels and shining with bright colours. Fantastical hats completed their outfits, often adorned with characterful embellishments, such as lightning bolts or stars.
This is a description of Queen Henrietta Maria’s costume for her role of Divine Beauty in Tempe Restored; 'the Queen’s Majesty was in a garment of watchet [blue] satin with stars of silver embroidered and embossed from the ground, and on her head a crown of stars mixed with some small falls of white feathers.'
Music and dance
Music was a crucial part of every masque. Composers such as Nicholas Lanier, William and Henry Lawes and Alfonso Ferrabosco wrote special music and sometimes sang and played in the masques too.
The actors danced to the tune of the orchestra, usually made up of the finest musicians from the King’s Music, who played types of lutes, violins and trumpets.
Special sound effects were made by harps, bagpipes and drums. Loud musical sound effects were important because they disguised the noise of moving scenery.
The music for the antimasque was suitably chaotic and noisy, whilst the tunes for the Masquers’ dances were more serene and sedate.
A masque was made up of a series of dances. It began with an anti-masque, performed frenetically by professional dancers dressed as animals, devils or ‘barbarians’, denoting a chaotic world before the reign of the Stuarts.
Then more stately dances were performed by courtiers and sometimes the King or Queen, introducing harmony and order.
After the masque was over, the audience would dance in the revels. These were informal dances, although usually only one couple at a time would dance, watched by everyone else.