It is a great big theatrical spectacle/ experience akin to a modern cgi Hollywood blockbuster. It is the complete opposite to the stripped back stage of other Renassiance theatre (Globe etc) that relied on the audience using a lot more imagination. A masque is what “Wicked” is to “Waiting for Godot”. What started as just a dance a few decades prior with Henry VIII, morphed into the Stuart Extravaganza. Music, singing and spoken word was added to help the story along. It’s not a ballet, not an opera, not a play but a strange fusion of the three to create something akin to Renaissance musical theatre with an underlying message.
The less formal entertainments that ran through the early 16th Century courts suddenly became formalised with La Ballet Comique de la Reine in 1581. Written by Balthasar de Beaujoyelux, it combined dance, song, written verse, music and great spectacle to tell a story. It has been argued that all Masques that came after were just rehashes of this original. While there is a certain amount of truth in this, one could also find similarities in the themes and arches of many plays and novels and I think it is unfair to dismiss an entire canon of work created over several decades.
In England, the popularity of the Masque as a from exploded under the reign of James I (VI of Scotland) and his wife Anne of Denmark. She and their son Henry were noted as exceptional dancers and Anne made great advancements for the involvement of women on the stage.
Prince Henry, the heir to the throne did not live to maturity and so his younger brother Charles became the new Charles I. Like his father, he was not a strong dancer but, again like his father, his wife was. Henrietta Maria also brought with her the traditions of France, her home country. While the Masques of the Caroline court grew in the elaborate nature, Charles still maintained a firm hand over allowing things such as mixing Noble and professional performer.It was during his reign however, under the influence of Henrietta Maria that allegedly the first professional woman appeared on stage in Tempe Restor’d.
The obsession Charles had with Divine Right resonated fully with the intention of any Masque but sadly was not appreciated by the general population. The English Civil War began and Charles lost his head. The Masque in this country was no more. Henrietta took her children and court into the safety of her nephew, Louis XIV, and the dance form evolved once more. The Baroque ballet era was born and by the time Louis’ cousin became Charles II of England theatre had transformed.
So what form did a 17th Century Masque take?
Each masque follows the same general structure, as follows:
1.Entry of the Monarch
2.Anti-masque performed by the professionals
3.Procession of singers and musicians
4.Vision of masquers and/or dance by noble youths
5.The Main Masque
6.The Revels (where all the courtiers get to strut their stuff individually – a Rennaissance dance off)
7.The ‘Going out’ and go to banquet
Each dance was (confusingly) called an ‘Entry’. The Main Masque was always danced by the Nobles, they wore masks (vizards) and didn’t speak. The anti masque was danced by professional men and grew out of the country dance/commedia tradition. They often used acrobatics and folk imagery (hobby horse etc). Professional Anti-Masquers did not mix with the noble performers in England but in France they did. The Anti Masque were a set of dances performed as a sort of first act usually ending with the Torchbearers (who held the practical job of lighting the stage). They also represent the chaos or problem the divine nobles must solve in the main masque. The were allegorical in intention the characters coming from the ancient classical stories.
The sets were fantastical with great flying machinery designed and used not just for flying sets in and out but to allow the performers to descend and ascend form the heavens.
The sole intention of anyone taking part was to impress the monarch. Great favour could be gained from a good performance. Much could be lost if you did not impress. They were closed to only the most important members of society and, by the time of Charles, they were seen as an unnecessary extravagance.
Yet the dancers and choreographies were virtuosic and and all but been lost to us. What we do know from the Italian manuals of Negri and Caroso show intricate footwork and intricate patterning, each infused with it’s own symbolism and meaning.
While we may not be able to view these pieces with 17th Century eyes we can still appreciate the dance for dance sake and perhaps, in time be able to access and understand the context.
There is nothing like a Masque still being performed today. These lost steps and choreographies need space to be able to breath again