How We Used to Put on a Right Royal Show; BOOKS Richard Edmonds Takes a Closer Look at the Fantastic Theatrical Extravaganzas Staged in Georgian England
NOW you see it - now you don't! The temporary nature of expensive entertainments in Britain has a long history, with its finest hour shown in Regency England. In earlier centuries, marvellous theatrical structures were erected for both Queen Elizabeth the First and her successor, the profligate, oversexed, shambling, bitchy, spendthrift, James, who almost bankrupted England in the early 17th century with his overspending on boys and court entertainments.
The Queen was notoriously tight-fisted - she got her nobles to pay for entertainments whether at court or on her shatteringly expensive Progresses, which carted several hundred courtiers and servants from one country seat to another, carefully bankrupting the English nobility in the process, thus ensuring no one had sufficient funds to raise an army against her. Kenilworth was the most ambitious, with fireworks, huge water displays, masquers dancing and singing, while actors recited verse in the Queen's honour from pleasure boats on a temporary lake. James followed much the same pattern although the Progresses were far fewer.
James went in for magnificent court masques, many presented at Whitehall using the courtiers as actors in order to impress European princes. But as discussed in Melanie Doderer-Winkler's beautifully illustrated book, Magnificent Entertainments - Temporary Architecture for Georgian Festivals, the Jacobean court masques were basically displays of prodigious spending used by the wily monarch to underline Britain's fiscal strength and dependability. She uses as illustrations many 18th century prints showing the temporary and highly theatrical architecture which captured so successfully the imagination of the public in the Regency period.
Chinese pagodas, elaborate facades, miniature palaces, grand avenues, beautifully painted and exquisitely elaborate interior panels were created for the wealthier patrons, lasting sometimes for no more than 24 hours before being destroyed. These finely staged pieces of court theatre (the public were not welcome - you needed a title to get in) had scenery designed by the great Inigo Jones with words by playwright Ben Jonson (who once had his cheek branded with a hot iron for literary impertinence towards his betters). A week or so after the masques ended, the costumes were re-made or given away and Inigo Jones' wonderful, theatrically groundbreaking sets were burned for lack of storage space. Although, thank Heavens, his original drawings for costumes and set have survived, with a shed load at Chatsworth still there for viewing.
The same fate was suffered by many of the public entertainments given in London in the Regency. The Jacobean court masques were spectacular displays for the few. By the time the Regency rolled in during the late 18th century, the social world had changed. Wealth was becoming re-distributed, the wealthy merchant class and their pushy wives and daughters overturned social restrictions and the middle-classes gained access to the Prince Regent's pleasure haunts at Ranelagh Gardens and Vauxhall, in certain cases to the English court itself, and to the exclusive London gaming clubs. …