"The Hall Must Not Be Pestred": Embedded Masques, Space, and Dramatized Desire

Article excerpt

IN Philip Massinger's The City Madam, Anne, daughter of the prideful Lady Frugal, itemizes her conditions for marriage to her suitor Lacy. Among them is a "friend to place me at a masque" (2.2.115). (1) The play locates masques and their audiences within a nexus of fashion, emulation, self-display, social ambition, and theatergoing, pointing to the masque as an object of desire, especially for the upwardly mobile. (2) Yet while someone like Anne might be able simply to buy a box for herself and her retinue at the Blackfriars, she could not as easily attend a masque. Entrance to a masque could not be purchased, and the average Londoner had a much better chance of hearing the cry "A hall, a hall! Let no more citizens in there" at the door than of being admitted to the performance (3.2.81). (3) This line, spoken by a gentleman usher in George Chapman's The Widow's Tears (c. 1605?; printed 1612), neatly sketches the tensions surrounding masquing spaces. (4) Because access to spaces where masques were performed was so restricted, the embedded masques contained in a significant number of early modern English plays, most of them Jacobean and early Caroline, could sell a class-based voyeurism--with varying combinations of valorization and critique--to audiences in the commercial playhouses. Such voyeurism, which operates on the same principles as the more commonly discussed sexual voyeurism, lent an eroticism to the space of masque performance, whether actual or represented.

Between the 1590s and 1642, around ninety plays included some version of a masque. As a point of comparison, nearly eighty commercial early modern plays contained dumbshows. However, more than half of these appeared before 1611, after which dumbshows experienced a precipitous and permanent drop-off. Embedded masques, on the other hand, while somewhat less common in each of the two decades between 1611 and 1630, not only maintained consistent numbers following their initial popularity, but actually became more widespread again from 1631 onwards. Despite the enduring and pervasive presence of embedded masques, scholarship to date has dealt with them in almost wholly aesthetic terms and made almost no attempt to account for the social and economic factors underpinning their use. This essay begins to address that lack by outlining some of the mechanisms by which embedded masques and their productions of space both responded to and participated in the turbulent changes to ideas of social order in early modern London.

Many playgoers would never see a masque in the court or a great house. Admission to a court masque, for instance, depended upon having sufficient rank and connection to the court (for the most part, being an aristocrat or government official), and attendance was technically by invitation only. Even within Patricia Fumerton's picture of audiences growing increasingly large "as rich merchants and common gentry infiltrated the aristocratic elite," court officials enforced, to the best of their ability, restrictions on access. (5) Mere wealth did not guarantee entry, nor did rank, as Fumerton herself notes regarding James's "response to complaints from ambassadors when they were not invited: 'a Masque is not a public function,' grumblers were informed, and therefore 'his Majesty is quite entitled to any Ambassador he may choose.'" (6) Of course, court masques were always a mix of public and private. They were "private" by virtue of their restricted admission, but they were simultaneously "public" in the sense of participating in state matters and including persons of consequence in public life. Plays featuring masques stressed the former at the expense of the latter in a bid to increase their perceived exclusivity (along with the theater's perceived importance--it could provide access to the hidden practices of public persons), making masques "public" in the second sense: part of the market and available to anyone who could pay for them. …

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