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   Chapter 26 PART III. No.26

The History of London By Walter Besant Characters: 4887

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


Between the Pageant and the Play stands the Masque, a form of entertainment which achieved its greatest splendour both in stage mounting and in the words and songs in the reigns of Elizabeth and James I. Nowhere was the Masque more carefully studied and more magnificently presented than in London. The scenic display which in the early theatre was so meagre was carried in the Masque to a height never surpassed until the splendid shows of the present day. Nor did the greatest poets disdain to write words for the Masque. The most beautiful of those which remain are to be found in Ben Jonson's works. Every great man's house had a hall which was used for the Masque. Bacon, who gives directions for building a house, orders that there must be a room built on purpose for these performances. Under it is to be another room for the actors to dress and for the 'properties'-i.e. the things requisite for the presentation of the Masque, such as scenery, the woods, fountains, rocks, palaces, &c.-that might be required. Let us show what a Masque was like by describing one of Ben Jonson's. It is called the Masque of Oberon, and was performed before Prince Henry, the eldest son of James I., who died in youth.

The scene presents a rock with trees beyond it and 'all the wildness that can be presented.' All is dark. Presently the moon rising shows a Satyr, one of the beings with whom the ancients peopled the forests and wild places. They were drawn with the feet and legs of goats, short horns on the head, and the body covered with thick hair. This Satyr lifts his head and calls his companions. There is no answer. He blows his cornet. Echo answers him. He blows again, and is again mocked by the Echo. A third time he blows, and other Satyrs come leaping and dancing upon the stage. Silenus, their leader, bids them prepare to see the young Prince Oberon.

The scene opens: the rocks and forests disappear: there is shown a glorious palace whose walls and gates are transparent. Before the gates lie asleep two 'Sylvans'-i.e. men of the woods. The Satyrs gather round these sleeping sentinels and wake them up with singing:

Buzz, quoth the blue fly:

Hum, quoth the bee:

Buzz and hum they cry

And so do we.

In his ear, in his nose,

Thus do you see? [They tickle them.]

He ate the dormouse

Else it was he.

The Sylvans wake: they explain that it is yet too early for the gates to open. Meantime let them sing a

nd dance to while away the time. One of them sings therefore. After the song they fall into an 'antick dance full of gesture and swift motion' and thus continue till the crowing of a cock gives the signal for the whole palace to open. It is like a transformation scene at a pantomime. There is the palace with all its occupants-the 'whole nation of Fays' or Fairies. Some are playing instruments of music; some are singing: some are bearing lights: at the back of the stage sit the 'Knights masquers.' With them Oberon in his chariot. And then, drawn by two white bears, guarded by three Sylvans on each side, the chariot moves down the stage. Observe that to produce all these effects the stage must have been very deep. The song they sing is in praise of the King:

Melt earth to sea, sea flow to air,

And air fly into fire,

Whilst we in tunes to Arthur's chair

Bear Oberon's desire:

Than which there's nothing can be higher

Save James to whom it flies:

But he the wonder is of tongues and ears and eyes-

The Satyrs leap and dance again for joy at so splendid a sight.

Then Silenus speaks in praise of Prince Oberon, who is, of course, Prince Henry, the elder son of James, who died young. The flattery is no worse than was usual in Masques. Silenus says that the Prince-

Stays the time from turning old,

And keeps the age up in a head of gold.

He makes it ever day and ever spring

When he doth shine, and quickens everything.

Then two Fays sing a song and all the Fays together dance, after which all together sing. Then Oberon and his knights dance. Another song follows. Then they all together dance 'measures, corantos, and galliards,' till Phosphorus the day star appears and calls them away-

To rest! To rest! The herald of the day,

Bright Phosphorus commands you hence. Obey.

They quickly dance their last dance, one by one getting into the Palace. Then the Star vanishes, the day breaks, and while the last song is sung the 'machine closes'-i.e. the Palace becomes a wall of the room and the show is over. This is the pretty song which ends the Masque:

O yet how early and before her time,

The envious morning up doth climb,

Though she not love her bed!

What haste the jealous sun doth make

His fiery horses up to take

And once more show his head!

Lest, taken with the brightness of this night,

The world should wish it last and never miss his light.

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