The Court Masque in the 17th Century
The most lavish 17th-century productions were not open to the public. King James I and later his son Charles I 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.
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