Dance in Court Spectacle

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Dance in Court Spectacle

Intermedi and the Ballets de Cour.

Besides dance's role as a cultivated social pastime, the art had long played a role in the theatrical spectacles staged by kings and princes as well. In Italy, elaborately choreographed dances formed the heart of the many intermedi, or short interludes, that were staged between the acts of dramas and operas. In France, dance played a central role in royal fêtes and spectacles, and in the staging of ballets de cours. This form of courtly entertainment had appeared at the end of the sixteenth century, and it differed from the royal fêtes still popular at the time by virtue of its adoption of a more unified plot line. The ballet de cour made use of a printed libretto that was circulated among the audience, and its long performances included songs, musical interludes, dances, and poetry that treated a mythological theme or story. Its primary purpose was to glorify the figure of the monarch, but at the same time, the ballets de cour also made use of the knowledge recently unearthed by Renaissance humanism concerning ancient dance, music, and poetry. Like the Italian opera with its accompanying intermedi, these French productions mixed dance, music, and poetry in an attempt to recreate the theater of the ancient world, but most particularly of the Greeks. In both the Italian and French forms popular at the time, however, spectacle predominated, and productions made use of lavish costumes and sets as well as the most sophisticated stage machinery available in the period. In 1600 at Florence, for example, an opera was staged to mark the wedding of King Henri IV of France to Marie de Medici. In between the staging of the musical drama, a series of impressive intermedi or interludes diverted the attention of the audience while scene and costume changes were being made in the central drama. More than 100 dancers were required to produce these diversions, but a force of 1,000 stagehands was necessary to run the elaborate stage machinery necessary to raise and lower the stage, position the scenery, and man the many illusionary devices used in the productions. In France, the massive staging of the ballets de cours relied on similarly vast quantities of dancers, stagehands, and machinery to present spectacles that glorified the monarch.


The English equivalent of the French ballet de cour or the Italian intermedi was the masque. The origins of the masques stretched back to the time of Henry VIII, who, in 1512, had staged the first of these productions at court in imitation of continental entertainments popular at the time. Native traditions of wearing masks and of mumming, an early form of pantomime, also merged into English masques as well. Throughout the Tudor period masques increased in popularity and complexity at court, and they were usually staged with their disguised participants presenting a series of dances and pantomimes in the banqueting hall of royal palaces. The Stuart king, James I, who ascended to England's throne in 1603, was a great admirer of the masques, and he stepped up the support the royal court gave to these productions. Inigo Jones's famous Banqueting House, which still stands in London's Whitehall section today, was constructed in part to provide a suitably grand venue in which to perform the masques. While in the earlier Tudor period masques had been performed with scenery that was wheeled into these halls atop carts, the Stuart masque came to be staged more and more on a fixed stage. The most lavish productions were presented as royal entertainments, although the Inns of Court in London, the guild of lawyers active in the capital, also staged their own masques in the first half of the seventeenth century.


introduction: Steadily increasing complexity and rising costs characterized the masques staged at the Elizabethan and Stuart courts. Under James I and Charles I, the theatrical partnership of Ben Jonson and Inigo Jones produced almost thirty of these productions. The third in this fruitful collaboration, The Masque of Queenes, was staged for the court in 1609. It included an anti-masque, a kind of bizarre or grotesque theatrical that preceded the masque proper. This custom of staging anti-masques had recently come to England from the Continent. Jonson's prologue to the printed version of the masque suggests some of the sumptuousness of the staging and costuming. Productions like this typically were augmented with several hours of dancing as well, making the event a long and imposing affair.

It increasing, now, to the third time of my being used in these Services to her Majesty's personal Presentations, with the Ladies whom she pleases to honor; it was my first and special regard, to see that the nobility of the Invention should be answerable to the dignity of their Persons. For which reason I chose the Argument to be, A celebration of honorable and true Fame, bred out of Virtue: observing that Rule (a) of the best Artist, to suffer no object of delight to pass without his mixture of Profit and Example. And because her Majesty (best knowing, that a principal part of life, in these Spectacles, lay in their variety) had commanded me to think on some Dance, or Show, that might precede hers, and have the place of a foil or false Masque: I was careful to decline, not only from others, but mine own Steps in that kind, since the (b) last Year, I had an Anti-masque of Boys: and therefore now, devised, that twelve Women, in the habit of Hags, or Witches, sustaining the Persons of Ignorance, Suspicion, Credulity, &c. the Opposites to good Fame, should fill that part; not as a Masque, but a Spectacle of strangeness, producing multiplicity of Gesture, and not unaptly sorting with the current, and whole fall of the Device.

His Majesty, then, being set, and the whole Company in full expectation, the part of the Scene which first presented itself, was an ugly Hell: which flaming beneath, smoked unto the top of the Roof. And in respect all evils are, Morally, said to come from Hell; as also from that observation of Torrentius upon Horace his Canidia, … These Witches, with a kind of hollow and infernal Music, came forth from thence. First one, then two, and three, and more, till their number increased to Eleven; all differently attired: some with Rats on their Head; some on their Shoulders; others with Ointment Pots at their Girdles; all with Spindles, Timbrels, Rattles, or other beneficial Instruments, making a confused noise, with strange Gestures. The Device of their Attire was Master Jones his, with the Invention, and Architecture of the whole Scene, and Machine. Only, I prescribed them their Properties of Vipers, Snakes, Bones, Herbs, Roots, and other Ensigns of their Magic, out of the Authority of ancient and late Writers, wherein the Faults are mine, if there be any found; and for that cause I confessed them.

source: Ben Jonson, The Masque of Queenes. (London: n.p., 1609). Text modernized by Philip M. Soergel.

Masques of Jonson and Jones.

The most refined of all seventeenth-century English masques were those produced by the theatrical team of Ben Jonson and the stage designer and architect Inigo Jones. Jones's and Jonson's partnership lasted almost 25 years, during which they produced almost thirty productions. Eventually, though, the two fell out, and while Jones continued to produce masques for the Stuart court, Jonson no longer lent his hand to the staging of these productions. While their co-operation lasted, the two provided a steady stream of entertainment for King James I (r. 1603–1625) and Charles I (r. 1625–1648). The Jonson-Jones masques did a great deal to develop the tastes in England for continental patterns of staging and production. The architect Jones, for example, adopted the elaborate style of staging typical of French and Italian spectacles of the time, while Jonson eventually adopted the continental custom of interspersing scenes of anti-masques—that is, scenes of grotesque humor and ribaldry—alongside the more elevated themes of the masque proper. The heart of the masque was, as in the Italian intermedi or the French ballet de cour, the series of dances that either loosely or more forcefully conveyed the theatrical's chosen text or story line. In Ben Jonson's hands, the masque's poetic underpinnings may have been elevated to a point of high art, but in most of these spectacles the high point was always the series of dances that were generally peppered throughout the productions. Sometimes these series of dances lasted more than four or five hours. In contrast to the couple's dances that were popular in court society, the dances of the masques—as those of the French fêtes or ballets de cour—were figure dances. In the complex choreographies they created for these productions dancing masters created geometric figures, letters, and other symbols by skillfully arranging dancers, and these figured creations helped to convey some of the underlying themes and messages of the masque proper. Sophisticated amateur dancers within the court performed most of these dances, a fact that frequently elicited criticisms from English Puritan divines of the day. At the same time as masques grew more sophisticated, and as the comedy and ribaldry of anti-masques became ever more fixed within the masque structure itself, professional athletes, gymnasts, comedians, and dancers participated in these productions. The use of professional performers was just one factor that caused an enormous increase in the cost of masques in early seventeenth-century England. The importation of elaborate stage machinery and the steadily rising costs of costuming the many participants in these productions were two other factors that contributed to these increases as well. By the mid-century these costs were often enormous and produced a growing chorus of criticism. At that time William Prynne, a Puritan lawyer, published his Histriomatrix, a work condemning the licentiousness and sumptuous display of Charles I's court entertainments. Charles responded quickly and fiercely. He required the Inns of Court, the association of lawyers in London, to stage a production of the masque The Triumph of Peace to demonstrate their allegiance to the crown. The production lasted for hours and was preceded by an equally long procession through London's streets. More than 100 musicians and an almost equal number of dancers performed in the spectacle, which cost the prodigious sum of £21,000, the equivalent of more than several million pounds today. These costs had to be borne by the Inns of Court. In this way Charles used the masques as a political tool to quash opposition, but it was a policy that soon backfired on him.

Puritan Suppression of the Masques.

There can be little doubt that the princely sums expended on the masques was one factor that aided in their suppression during England's Puritan Commonwealth (1649–1660). Yet Puritan distaste for these productions ran deeper than just a mere distaste for sumptuous display and profligate waste. The Puritans opposed dancing and the theater as well, and so the masque stood condemned on multiple grounds. With the execution of King Charles I in 1649, the court masque ceased to exist, although during the period of the Commonwealth masque-like productions continued to be mounted throughout England, most notably in the country's secondary schools where the masque was still considered a suitable vehicle for teaching knowledge of classical mythology and literature. In London and other towns, some of the techniques of staging masques survived in new plays that were termed "moral representations." With the Restoration of the monarchy that occurred in 1660, the court masque was not revived, and the techniques of staging and dance that these theatricals had once nourished came increasingly to be accommodated as dramatic interludes within plays and operas.


Joan Cass, Dancing Through History (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1993).

Mark Franko, Dance as Text: Ideologies of the Baroque Body (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

Skiles Howard, The Politics of Courtly Dancing in Early Modern England (Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988).

Karl Heinz Taubert, Höfische Tänze: ihre Geschichte und Choreographie (Mainz, Germany: Schott, 1968).

see also Theater: Court Spectacle in Stuart England