Performance of the masque
The idea of a masque was certainly not a new one in the reign of James I (1603-25), but under him and his son, Charles I (1625-49), it became a specific form of court entertainment: a cross between a ball, an amateur theatrical, a play and a fancy dress party.
The purpose of the Stuart masque was not merely entertainment but to demonstrate the Stuart concept of kingship, delivering messages about royal authority, responsibility and privileges. The masque was brought to its final form by the fruitful and dynamic partnership of the architect Inigo Jones (1573-1652) and the playwright Ben Jonson (1573?-1637) who for 25 years produced a series of ever-more elaborate masques.
The masque had two parts
First was an 'anti-masque' performed by professional actors who generally depicted a world of disorder or vice, often combined with comic elements. The second part involved audience participation when members of the court rose up and danced, banishing disorder and bringing in harmony and courtly graces. This part gradually merged with a ball and the dancing could continue all night. The whole was accompanied by incredible illusionistic sets with mechanical devices and ingenious lighting effects.
The first masque staged in the Banqueting House was Jones and Jonson's Masque of Augurs performed on Twelfth Night 1622 when the building was in the final stages of completion. The last, performed here in 1635, was The Temple of Love by Sir William Davenant.
Lead image of Lucy Harrington Countess of Bedford in her masque costume, copyright Woburn Abbey Bridgeman Art Library