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Monday, 11 April 2016


The Masque was a spectacular kind of indoor performance combining poetic drama, music, dance, song, lavish costume, and costly stage effects. Originating in Italy, the entertainment flourished in England in the 16th and 17th centuries, with Ben Jonson as the most popular writer, aided by Inigo Jones, the famous designer.

The masque has its origins in a folk tradition where masked players would unexpectedly call on a nobleman in his hall, dancing and bringing gifts on certain nights of the year. At the end, the players would take off their masks to reveal their identities - hence the name.

The Masque was the first type of entertainment where music, dance and costumes were more important than plot and were the forerunner of ballet and opera.

Often, the masquers who did not speak or sing were courtiers. Members of the court would enter disguised, taking the parts of mythological characters, and enact a simple allegorical plot, concluding with a dance joined by members of the audience.

 King James 1st’s queen, Anne of Denmark, frequently danced with her ladies in masques between 1603 and 1611. Ben Jonson's first masque, The Masque of Blackness in 1605, was specifically written to accommodate the longing of Anne of Denmark, to appear in an African role.

Charles I of England's queen, Henrietta was obsessed with dramatic performances at Banquet House. Sometimes she dressed up and acted in the masques herself, joined by the king.

William Shakespeare wrote a masque-like interlude in The Tempest, understood by modern scholars to have been heavily influenced by the masque texts of Ben Jonson and the stagecraft of Inigo Jones.

Chloridia: Rites to Chloris and Her Nymphs was the final masque that Ben Jonson wrote for the Stuart Court. It was performed at Shrovetide, February 22, 1631. A French woman Madame Coniack had a strong vocal part in the masque marking the first appearance of a professional female singer on the English stage.

In 1632, Ben Jonson was replaced as royal masque writer by Aurelian Townshend, who, to add insult to injury, was paid £10 more by Queen Henrietta than was his predecessor.

John Milton's musical Masque, Comus, which was commissioned by the Earl of Bridgwater, had its premiere at Ludlow Castle in 1634. The English poet wrote the lyrics and Henry Lawes the music.

By the time of the English Restoration in 1660, the masque was considered passé, but the English semi-opera which developed in the latter part of the 17th century, borrows some elements from the entertainment.

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