Engraving by Le Pautre of the performance of Lully’s Alceste in the cour de marbre, the first of six fêtes, Les Divertissments de Versailles, held in 1674 to celebrate one of Louis XIV’s military conquests. “I have loved war too much”, confessed the dying king, forty two years later, when his mania for glory had bankrupted the state and devastated large swathes of the European mainland.
In the second half of the 17th century, court ballet, inspired by Louis XIV‘s example, continued to be a ritualized, exquisitely designed declaration of political agenda and ideology, occasions prickling with controversy, just as much as the Jacobean court masques and the dumb-show of Hamlet’s play within the play.
Contemporary princes were expected to use theatrical performance to make a political point, even if by nature they were not talented dancers or actors. A serious vocational soldier-statesman like the young William of Orange, who preferred architecture and gardening to any of the performing arts, appeared in a ballet at his court in 1668 as a codified message to the Dutch Republic and the foreign states that he intended to restore the authority of his family as a major European power, just as King Louis had done in France.
Like today’s royal family, there were plenty of monarchs by the 18th century who restricted their performance art to official ceremonial functions, weddings and funerals, reviewing the troops and dining in state, but earlier there had been natural actors and star personalities like Elizabeth I and Louis XIV (who made his debut as a ballet dancer in 1651 and first appeared as le Roi Soleil two years later) or queen consorts….. like Anne of Denmark and Henrietta Maria, who enjoyed performing in masques. Henry VIII and Charles I were the only reigning monarchs who played parts.
It didn’t even matter if, as in the case of James I, the royal client lacked star quality, so long as an international art star like Rubens was available to apotheose the Stuart brand on the ceiling of Indigo Jones’ Banqueting House, a stage set itself, designed as much as a symbol of monarchical power as a dining and entertainments venue, and later chosen by the regicides as the fitting location for Charles I’s execution.
Even governments opposed to public playhouses could not resist using theatrical forms as part of their own communications strategy. Whenever a modern government minister tries to run down public investment in drama and music, never let him forget that Britain’s most successful Parliamentarian, Oliver Cromwell, ordered a masque at his own quasi-regal court as part of the celebrations of his daughters’ weddings, the text supplied by Andrew Marvell.
In the English royal court, the masque which had reached perfection as an art form under Inigo Jones and Ben Jonson, lapsed out of use in the reign of Charles II, the last big-budget production (£5000 – nearly two thirds of a million in today’s terms) being Calisto in 1675, in which courtiers and young Stuart princesses were joined by professional actors, singers and dancers at the Hall theatre in Whitehall, built by Webb for Charles II.
Masques was no longer a crucial element to government propaganda: Calisto was just a bit of fun, beautifully designed and lit, with an erotic lesbian theme to keep the blasé Restoration courtiers awake. Away from the court in London, the commercially run public theatres’ use of changeable, illusionist palatial scenery, inspired by Parisian ballet and opera productions, became increasingly competitive.
The theatre at Dorset Gardens was built in 1671 to house elaborate stage machinery for extravagant spectacle – ‘French machines have ne’r done England good’ complained Dryden’s prologue to the audience at the opening of the new Drury Lane theatre in 1674.
In 1688 the monarchy’s prerogatives were effectively shrunk for ever, Parliament recapturing ground lost since the Restoration. With the abolition of the divine right of kings, the transfer of magical illusionism from royal court to the professional public theatres and popular entertainment was complete. After Charles II, royalty was seen less at the playhouses, with the exception of Mary II, who enjoyed the performing arts, and the once vital link of patronage between monarchy and professional theatre became insignificant. Theatrical power and initiative, along with the stage machines of absolutism, belonged to the producers and a new, monied audience.
After that, the British state neglected and undervalued theatre.
© Pippa Rathborne 2014
Adapted from an article published as Exhibition Review | STAGES AND SCENES on Rogues and Vagabonds Theatre Website in 2008, with permission of Sarah Vernon and with many thanks to The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London for permission to use images from their collection.