Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli


It sometimes happens, in the history of national amusements, that a name survives while the thing itself is forgotten. This has been remarkably the case with our court Masques, respecting which our most eminent writers long ventured on so many false opinions, with a perfect ignorance of the nature of these compositions, which combined all that was exquisite in the imitative arts of poetry, painting, music, song, dancing, and machinery, at a period when our public theatre was in its rude infancy. Convinced of the miserable state of our represented drama, and not then possessing that more curious knowledge of their domestic history which we delight to explore, they were led into erroneous notions of one of the most gorgeous, the most fascinating, and the most poetical of dramatic amusements. Our present theatrical exhibitions are, indeed, on a scale to which the twopenny audiences of the barn playhouses of Shakspeare could never have strained their sight; and our picturesque and learned costume, with the brilliant changes of our scenery, would have maddened the “property-men” and the “tire-women” of the Globe or the Red Bull.1 Shakspeare himself never beheld the true magical illusions of his own dramas, with “Enter the Red Coat,” and “Exit Hat and Cloak,” helped out with “painted cloths;” or, as a bard of Charles the Second’s time chants —

Look back and see

The strange vicissitudes of poetrie;

Your aged fathers came to plays for wit,

And sat knee-deep in nut-shells in the pit.

But while the public theatre continued long in this contracted state, without scenes, without dresses, without an orchestra, the court displayed scenical and dramatic exhibitions with such costly magnificence, such inventive fancy, and such miraculous art, that we may doubt if the combined genius of Ben Jonson, Inigo Jones, and Lawes, or Ferobosco, at an era most favourable to the arts of imagination, has been equalled by the modern spectacle of the Opera.

But this circumstance had entirely escaped the knowledge of our critics. The critic of a Masque must not only have read it, but he must also have heard and have viewed it. The only witnesses in this case are those letter-writers of the day, who were then accustomed to communicate such domestic intelligence to their absent friends: from such ample correspondence I have often drawn some curious and sometimes important information. It is amusing to notice the opinions of some great critics, how from an original mis-statement they have drawn an illegitimate opinion, and how one inherits from the other the error which he propagates. Warburton said on Masques, that “Shakspeare was an enemy to these fooleries, as appears by his writing none.” This opinion was among the many which that singular critic threw out as they arose at the moment; for Warburton forgot that Shakspeare characteristically introduces one in the Tempest’s most fanciful scene.2 Granger, who had not much time to study the manners of the age whose personages he was so well acquainted with, in a note on Milton’s Masque, said that “these compositions were trifling and perplexed allegories, the persons of which are fantastical to the last degree. Ben Jonson, in his ‘Masque of Christmas,’ has introduced ‘Minced Pie,’ and ‘Baby Cake,’ who act their parts in the drama.3 But the most wretched performances of this kind could please by the help of music, machinery, and dancing.” Granger blunders, describing by two farcical characters a species of composition of which farce was not the characteristic. Such personages as he notices would enter into the Anti-masque, which was a humorous parody of the more solemn Masque, and sometimes relieved it. Malone, whose fancy was not vivid, condemns Masques and the age of Masques, in which, he says, echoing Granger’s epithet, “the wretched taste of the times found amusement.” And lastly comes Mr. Todd, whom the splendid fragment of the “Arcades,” and the entire Masque, which we have by heart, could not warm; while his neutralising criticism fixes him at the freezing point of the thermometer. “This dramatic entertainment, performed not without prodigious expense in machinery and decoration, to which humour we certainly owe the entertainment of ‘Arcades,’ and the inimitable Mask of ‘Comus.’” Comus, however, is only a fine dramatic poem, retaining scarcely any features of the Masque. The only modern critic who had written with some research on this departed elegance of the English drama was Warton, whose fancy responded to the fascination of the fairy-like magnificence and lyrical spirit of the Masque. Warton had the taste to give a specimen from “The Inner Temple Mask by William Browne,” the pastoral poet, whose Address to Sleep, he observed, “reminds us of some favourite touches in Milton’s Comus, to which it perhaps gave birth.” Yet even Warton was deficient in that sort of research which only can discover the true nature of these singular dramas.

Such was the state in which, some years ago, I found all our knowledge of this once favourite amusement of our court, our nobility, and our learned bodies of the four inns of court. Some extensive researches, pursued among contemporary manuscripts, cast a new light over this obscure child of fancy and magnificence. I could not think lightly of what Ben Jonson has called “The Eloquence of Masques;” entertainments on which from three to five thousand pounds were expended, and on more public occasions ten and twenty thousand. To the aid of the poetry, composed by the finest poets, came the most skilful musicians and the most elaborate machinists; Ben Jonson, and Inigo Jones,4 and Lawes blended into one piece their respective genius; and Lord Bacon, and Whitelocke, and Selden, who sat in committees for the last grand Masque presented to Charles the First, invented the devices; composed the procession of the Masquers and the Anti-Masquers; while one took the care of the dancing or the brawlers, and Whitelocke the music — the sage Whitelocke! who has chronicled his self-complacency on this occasion, by claiming the invention of a Coranto, which for thirty years afterwards was the delight of the nation, and was blessed by the name of “Whitelocke’s Coranto,” and which was always called for, two or three times over, whenever that great statesman “came to see a play!”5 So much personal honour was considered to be involved in the conduct of a Masque, that even this committee of illustrious men was on the point of being broken up by too serious a discussion concerning precedence; and the Masque had nearly not taken place, till they hit on the expedient of throwing dice to decide on their rank in the procession! On this jealousy of honour in the composition of a Masque, I discovered, what hitherto had escaped the knowledge, although not the curiosity, of literary inquirers — the occasion of the memorable enmity between Ben Jonson and Inigo Jones, who had hitherto acted together with brotherly affection; “a circumstance,” says Gifford, to whom I communicated it, “not a little important in the history of our calumniated poet.” The trivial cause, but not so in its consequences, was the poet prefixing his own name before that of the architect on the title-page of a Masque, which hitherto had only been annexed;6 so jealous was the great architect of his part of the Masque, and so predominant his power and name at court, that he considered his rights invaded by the inferior claims of the poet! Jonson has poured out the whole bitterness of his soul in two short satires: still more unfortunately for the subject of these satires, they provoked Inigo to sharpen his pen on rhyme; but it is edgeless, and the blunt composition still lies in its manuscript state.

While these researches had engaged my attention, appeared Gifford’s Memoirs of Ben Jonson. The characteristics of Masques are there, for the first time, elaborately opened with the clear and penetrating spirit of that ablest of our dramatic critics. I feel it like presumption to add to what has received the finishing hand of a master; but his jewel is locked up in a chest, which I fear is too rarely opened, and he will allow me to borrow something from its splendour. “The Masque, as it attained its highest degree of excellence, admitted of dialogue, singing, and dancing; these were not independent of one another, but combined, by the introduction of some ingenious fable, into an harmonious whole. When the plan was formed, the aid of the sister-arts was called in; for the essence of the Masque was pomp and glory. Moveable scenery of the most costly and splendid kind was lavished on the Masque; the most celebrated masters were employed on the songs and dances; and all that the kingdom afforded of vocal and instrumental excellence was employed to embellish the exhibition.7 Thus magnificently constructed, the Masque was not committed to ordinary performers. It was composed, as Lord Bacon says, for princes, and by princes it was played.8 Of these Masques, the skill with which their ornaments were designed, and the inexpressible grace with which they were executed, appear to have left a vivid impression on the mind of Jonson. His genius awakes at once, and all his faculties attune to sprightliness and pleasure. He makes his appearance, like his own Delight, ‘accompanied with Grace, Love, Harmony, Revel, Sport, and Laughter.’

“In curious knot and mazes so

The Spring at first was taught to go;

And Zephyr, when he came to woo

His Flora, had his motions9 too;

And thus did Venus learn to lead

The Idalian brawls, and so to tread,

As if the wind, not she, did walk,

Nor press’d a flower, nor bow’d a stalk.

“But in what,” says Gifford, “was the taste of the times wretched? In poetry, painting, architecture, they have not since been equalled; and it ill becomes us to arraign the taste of a period which possessed a cluster of writers of whom the meanest would now be esteemed a prodigy.” Malone did not live to read this denouncement of his objection to these Masques, as “bungling shows;” and which Warburton treats as “fooleries;” Granger as “wretched performances;” while Mr. Todd regards them merely as “the humour of the times!”

Masques were often the private theatricals of the families of our nobility, performed by the ladies and gentlemen at their seats; and were splendidly got up on certain occasions: such as the celebration of a nuptial, or in compliment to some great visitor. The Masque of Comus was composed by Milton to celebrate the creation of Charles the First as Prince of Wales; a scene in this Masque presented both the castle and the town of Ludlow, which proves, that although our small public theatres had not yet displayed any of the scenical illusions which long afterwards Davenant introduced, these scenical effects existed in great perfection in the Masques. The minute descriptions introduced by Thomas Campion, in his “Memorable Masque,” as it is called, will convince us that the scenery must have been exquisite and fanciful, and that the poet was always a watchful and anxious partner with the machinist, with whom sometimes, however, he had a quarrel.

The subject of this very rare Masque was “The Night and the Hours.” It would be tedious to describe the first scene with the fondness with which the poet has dwelt on it. It was a double valley; one side, with dark clouds hanging before it; on the other, a green vale, with trees, and nine golden ones of fifteen feet high; from which grove, towards “the State,” or the seat of the king, was a broad descent to the dancing-place: the bower of Flora was on the right, the house of Night on the left; between them a hill, hanging like a cliff over the grove. The bower of Flora was spacious, garnished with flowers and flowery branches, with lights among them; the house of Night ample and stately, with black columns studded with golden stars; within, nothing but clouds and twinkling stars; while about it were placed, on wire, artificial bats and owls, continually moving. As soon as the king entered the great hall, the hautboys, out of the wood on the top of the hill, entertained the time, till Flora and Zephyr were seen busily gathering flowers from the bower, throwing them into baskets which two silvans held, attired in changeable taffeta. The song is light as their fingers, but the burden is charming:—

Now hath Flora robb’d her bowers

To befriend this place with flowers;

Strow about! strow about!

Divers, divers flowers affect

For some private dear respect;

Strow about! strow about!

But he’s none of Flora’s friend

That will not the rose commend;

Strow about! strow about!

I cannot quit this Masque, of which, collectors know the rarity, without preserving one of those Doric delicacies, of which, perhaps, we have outlived the taste! It is a playful dialogue between a Silvan and an Hour, while Night appears in her house, with her long black hair spangled with gold, amidst her Hours; their faces black, and each bearing a lighted black torch.

Tell me, gentle Hour of Night,
Wherein dost thou most delight?

Not in sleep!

Wherein then?

In the frolic view of men!

Lov’st thou music?

Oh! ’tis sweet!

What’s dancing?

E’en the mirth of feet.

Joy you in fairies and in elves?

We are of that sort ourselves!
But, Silvan! say, why do you love
Only to frequent the grove?

Life is fullest of content
When delight is innocent.

Pleasure must vary, not be long!
Come then, let’s close, and end the song!

That the moveable scenery of these Masques formed as perfect a scenical illusion as any that our own age, with all its perfection of decoration, has attained to, will not be denied by those who have read the few Masques which have been printed. They usually contrived a double division of the scene; one part was for some time concealed from the spectator, which produced surprise and variety. Thus in the Lord’s Masque, at the marriage of the Palatine, the scene was divided into two parts, from the roof to the floor; the lower part being first discovered, there appeared a wood in perspective, the innermost part being of “releeve or whole round,” the rest painted. On the left a cave, and on the right a thicket, from which issued Orpheus. At the back part of the scene, at the sudden fall of a curtain, the upper part broke on the spectators, a heaven of clouds of all hues; the stars suddenly vanished, the clouds dispersed; an element of artificial fire played about the house of Prometheus — a bright and transparent cloud, reaching from the heavens to the earth, whence the eight masquers descending with the music of a full song; and at the end of their descent the cloud broke in twain, and one part of it, as with a wind, was blown athwart the scene. While this cloud was vanishing, the wood, being the under part of the scene, was insensibly changing; a perspective view opened, with porticoes on each side, and female statues of silver, accompanied with ornaments of architecture, filling the end of the house of Prometheus, and seemed all of goldsmiths’ work. The women of Prometheus descended from their niches, till the anger of Jupiter turned them again into statues. It is evident, too, that the size of the proscenium, or stage, accorded with the magnificence of the scene; for I find choruses described, “and changeable conveyances of the song,” in manner of an echo, performed by more than forty different voices and instruments in various parts of the scene. The architectural decorations were the pride of Inigo Jones; such could not be trivial.

“I suppose,” says the writer of this Masque, “few have ever seen more neat artifice than Master Inigo Jones showed in contriving their motion; who, as all the rest of the workmanship which belonged to the whole invention, showed extraordinary industry and skill, which if it be not as lively expressed in writing as it appeared in view, rob not him of his due, but lay the blame on my want of right apprehending his instructions, for the adoring of his art.” Whether this strong expression should be only adorning does not appear in any errata; but the feeling of admiration was fervent among the spectators of that day, who were at least as much astonished as they were delighted. Ben Jonson’s prose descriptions of scenes in his own exquisite Masques, as Gifford observes, “are singularly bold and beautiful.” In a letter which I discovered, the writer of which had been present at one of these Masques, and which Gifford has preserved,10 the reader may see the great poet anxiously united with Inigo Jones in working the machinery. Jonson, before “a sacrifice could be performed, turned the globe of the earth, standing behind the altar.” In this globe “the sea was expressed heightened with silver waves, which stood, or rather hung (for no axle was seen to support it), and turning softly, discovered the first Masque,”11 &c. This “turning softly” producing a very magical effect, the great poet would trust to no other hand but his own!

It seems, however, that as no Masque-writer equalled Jonson, so no machinist rivalled Inigo Jones. I have sometimes caught a groan from some unfortunate poet, whose beautiful fancies were spoilt by the bungling machinist. One says, “The order of this scene was carefully and ingeniously disposed, and as happily put in act (for the motions) by the king’s master carpenter;” but he adds, “the painters, I must needs say (not to belie them), lent small colour to any, to attribute much of the spirit of these things to their pencil.” Campion, in one of his Masques, describing where the trees were gently to sink, &c., by an engine placed under the stage, and in sinking were to open, and the masquers appear out at their tops, &c., adds this vindictive marginal note: “Either by the simplicity, negligence, or conspiracy of the painter, the passing away of the trees was somewhat hazarded, though the same day they had been shown with much admiration, and were left together to the same night;” that is, they were worked right at the rehearsal, and failed in the representation, which must have perplexed the nine masquers on the tops of these nine trees. But such accidents were only vexations crossing the fancies of the poet: they did not essentially injure the magnificence, the pomp, and the fairy world opened to the spectators. So little was the character of these Masques known, that all our critics seemed to have fallen into repeated blunders, and used the Masques as Campion suspected his painters to have done, “either by simplicity, negligence, or conspiracy.” Hurd, a cold systematic critic, thought he might safely prefer the Masque in the Tempest, as “putting to shame all the Masques of Jonson, not only in its construction, but in the splendour of its show;”—“which,” adds Gifford, “was danced and sung by the ordinary performers to a couple of fiddles, perhaps in the balcony of the stage.” Such is the fate of criticism without knowledge! And now, to close our Masques, let me apply the forcible style of Ben Jonson himself: “The glory of all these solemnities had perished like a blaze, and gone out in the beholder’s eyes; so short-lived are the bodies of all things in comparison of their souls!”12

1 Sir Philip Sidney, in his “Defence of Poesy,” 1595, alludes to the custom of writing the supposed locality of each scene over the stage, and asks, “What child is there that coming to a play, and seeing Thebes written in great letters on an old door, doth believe that it is Thebes.” As late as the production of Davenant’s Siege of Rhodes (circa 1656), this custom was continued, and is thus described in the printed edition of the play:—“In the middle of the frieze was a compartment wherein was written Rhodes.” In many instances the spectator was left to infer the locality of the scene from the dialogue. —“Now,” says Sidney, “you shall have three ladies walke to gather flowers, and then we must believe the stage to be a garden. By and by we heare newes of shipwracke in the same place; then we are to blame if we accept it not for a rock.” In Middleton’s Chaste Maid, 1630, when the scene changes to a bed-room, “a bed is thrust out upon the stage, Alwit’s wife in it;” which simple process was effected by pushing it through the curtains that hung across the entrance to the stage, which at that time projected into the pit.

2 The play of Pyramus and Thisbe, performed by the clowns in Shakspeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, is certainly constructed in burlesque of characters in court Masques, which sometimes were as difficult to be made comprehensible to an audience as “the clowns of Athens” found Wall and Moonshine to be.

3 It is due to a great poet like Ben Jonson, that, without troubling the reader to turn to his works, we should give his own description of these characters, to show that they were not the “perplexed allegories” they are asserted to be by Granger; nor inappropriate to the Masque of Christmas, for which they were designed. Minced-Pie was habited “like a fine cook’s wife, drest neat, her man carrying a pie, dish, and spoon.” Baby-Cake was “drest like a boy, in a fine long coat, biggin-bib, muckender (or handkerchief), and a little dagger; his usher bearing a great cake, with a bean and a pease;” the latter being indicative of those generally inserted in a Christmas cake, which, when cut into slices and distributed, indicated by the presence of the bean the person who should be king; the slice with the pea doing the same for the queen. Neither of these characters speak, but make part of the show to be described by Father Christmas. Jonson’s inventive talent was never more conspicuous than in the concoction of court Masques.

4 The first employment of these two great men was upon The Masque of Blackness, performed at Whitehall on Twelfth-Night, 1603; and which cost nearly 10,000l., of our present money.

5 The music of Whitelocke’s Coranto is preserved in Hawkins’s “History of Music.” Might it be restored for the ladies as a waltz?

6 This was Chloridia, a Masque performed by the queen and her ladies at court, on Shrovetide, 1630; upon the title-page of which is printed “the inventors — Ben Jonson, Inigo Jones.” Jonson was, by reason of the influence of Inigo, deprived of employ at court ever after, supplanted by other poets named by the architect, and among them Heywood, Shirley, and Davenant.

7 George Chapman’s Memorable Maske, performed at Whitehall, 1630, by the gentlemen of the Middle Temple and Lincoln’s Inn, cost the latter society nearly 2000l. for their share of the expenses.

8 Ben Jonson records the names of the noble ladies and gentlemen who enacted his inventions at court.

9 The figures and actions of dancers in Masques were called motions.

10 Memoirs of Jonson, p. 88.

11 See Gifford’s Jonson, vol. vii. p. 78. This performance was in the Masque of Hymen, enacted at court in 1605, on the occasion of the marriage of the Earl of Essex to the daughter of the Earl of Suffolk.

12 Splendour ultimately ruined these works; they ended in gaudy dresses and expensive machinery, but poetry was not associated with them. The youthful days of Louis XIV. raised them to a height of costly luxuriance to sink them ever after in oblivion.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:53