Academic journal article Folklore

The "Country Dancers" in the Cambridge Comus of 1908

Academic journal article Folklore

The "Country Dancers" in the Cambridge Comus of 1908

Article excerpt


In July 1908 a production of Comus was staged at the New Theatre in Cambridge, an occasion which has been chiefly remembered for the emergence of Rupert Brooke as a charismatic leader amongst his contemporaries (Marsh 1918, xxxiv-xxv; Hassall 1964, 139-41 and 158-66; Delany 1987, 39-47). This present article is concerned with a hitherto unnoticed aspect of the event, namely its introduction of revival morris dances. The reasons for this are examined, and the significance of the occasion is considered within the context of the early morris revival.

Milton Tercentenary Celebrations

It was reported of Francis Cornford, who was to take the role of Comus in the Cambridge production, that "in his eighteenth year he read Paradise Lost five times" (Sayle Diary 2 June 1908). Milton had heroic status for that generation, and in 1908 the tercentenary of his birthday on 9 December was marked by impressive national and local celebrations (The Times [7-10 December 1908]). In Cambridge, however, Christ's College paid its own tribute to its past student at a more convenient time earlier in the year, with an Exhibition of Miltoniana from 12-24 June and 5-11 July, a grand Miltonic Banquet in the College Hall on Friday 10 July, with invitations to the entire Cambridge establishment and everyone at all worth mentioning in the literary world, and finally, after the banquet, a performance of Comus.

The obvious group to produce Comus was the Marlowe Dramatic Society, recently formed after its production of Doctor Faustus in November 1907, and in which the leading figures were the two unrelated Brookes, Rupert and Justin. On 13 February they had already had a first reading in Francis Cornford's rooms in Trinity College (Marlowe Society Minutes), and two days before this Edward Dent had been playing possible music for Comus to Rupert Brooke and Charles Sayle (Sayle Diary). At that time the intention was to produce it "next winter," possibly to coincide with the Milton birthday celebrations in December (Bedales Chronicle [22 February 1908]:106-7; Cambridge Review [6 February 1908]: 208-9). It would seem that Arthur Shipley, a senior Fellow of Christ's, seized this opportunity by asking Justin to call on him (Hassall 1964, 139). Charles Sayle recorded this in his diary as being on 21 February: "today the settling of `Comus' with Justin and Shipley. Such a big scheme! It fairly took my breath away." Four days later on 25 February came the first note of the matter in the Minutes of Christ's College Meeting:

   It was proposed by Mr Shipley and agreed nem. con. that the tercentenary of
   Milton's birth will be celebrated by a performance of Comus in the Fellows'
   Garden, and by a dinner, provided the cost be not excessive; information on
   the latter point to be obtained before the next meeting. The date suggested
   for the celebration is in July.(1)

Shipley had suggested to Justin that Francis Darwin, a Fellow of Christ's, had an "artistic daughter," Frances, who "might be persuaded to help with the designs," and at some point the two Brookes visited her. Christopher Hassall, who gathered information from both Justin and Frances, described her reactions to the proposal.(2)

   "Oh, Mr Brooke! A production of Comus in the garden of Christ's" ... then,
   never entirely carried away, the note of down-to-earth detachment. "But
   suppose it rains!" She had a point there. It now struck the Brookes as
   unreasonable to suppose that the English climate would reform out of
   respect for Milton. They would persuade the Master to entertain his guests
   at the New Theatre after their Tercentenary banquet, then perhaps there
   could be a public matinee next day (Hassall 1964, 140).

There were still many details to be arranged, but the main outlines were established. Now the two young producers and their friends had to begin thinking how Comus might be put on the stage. …

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