Bacon's Essays: Of Masques and Triumphs

Masques were a very popular form of entertainment at court in the Jacobethan period (James + Elizabeth. Bacon pretends to think little of them, but he wrote several and must seen many. By our standards, they sound fairly static, pompous, heavy-handed on the morality front, although apparently often including half-naked noblewomen.

Wikipedia has a clear definition: “A masque involved music and dancing, singing and acting, within an elaborate stage design, in which the architectural framing and costumes might be designed by a renowned architect, to present a deferential allegory flattering to the patron.”

Great state and pleasure

oceania
Oceania, design by Inigo Jones, for Ben Jonson’s The Masque of Blackness, 1605.

Bacon begins by apologizing for including such a trivial topic in his collection of essays, which are generally about weightier matters. “But yet, since princes will have such things, it is better they should be graced with elegancy, than daubed with cost.” If you must do it, do it right.

Then he seems to contradict himself, and I can’t resolve it. Whately’s no help here. First Bacon says, “Dancing to song, is a thing of great state and pleasure.” Then, after specifying some features, like singing in quire (chorus), he says, “Acting in song, especially in dialogues, hath an extreme good grace; I say acting, not dancing (for that is a mean and vulgar thing).”

So which is it, Frank? State and pleasure, or mean and vulgar? We’re standing here with our foot lifted, ready to trip it feetly.

A little farther on, he says, “Turning dances into figure, is a childish curiosity.” Here I think he means pantomime, a widely-shared opinion.

Bit of a digression: Inigo Jones, whose lovely designs for costumes have survived, was mostly an architect. He was appointed Surveyor-General of the King’s Works (King James I) in 1615. This was an age of tremendous building of fantastically lavish prestige houses, as they’re called — many of which you can go and visit today. Jones participated in the design of masques because everyone who could contribute, did so, to gain the favour of King and court. Francis Bacon was a philosopher and a great legal scholar, for pity’s sake, and he wrote the silly things.

Petty wonderment

That’s almost an oxymoron for me, but not for Bacon. I think he means things that are flashy or too obvious. “[T]hose things which I here set down, are such as do naturally take the sense”; not things that force your attention.

daughterofniger“Let the scenes abound with light, specially colored and varied.” I think masques were usually performed indoors, at night, so light would indeed be a part of the spectacle that could be designed. I don’t know for sure, but colored light can be produced by putting a candle or torch behind a piece of thin colored silk. “The colors that show best by candle-light are white, carnation, and a kind of sea-water-green; and oes, or spangs, as they are of no great cost, so they are of most glory.” Os and spangs must be spangles – bits of reflective material.

“Let the gongs be loud and cheerful, and not chirpings or pulings. Let the music likewise be sharp and loud, and well placed.” We don’t want mealy-mouthed music. Let it ring out!

On the costume front: “As for rich embroidery, it is lost and not discerned.” That’s good cost-saving advice there. Don’t embellish to no effect! “Let the suits of the masquers be graceful, and such as become the person, when the vizors are off.” Vizor is a mask. Certainly your want your costumes to flatter the wearer, especially when the wearer is someone like Queen Anne.

He considers the olfactory sense as well – Jacobean sensurround. “Some sweet odors suddenly coming forth, without any drops falling, are, in such a company as there is steam and heat, things of great pleasure and refreshment.”

“But all is nothing except the room be kept clear and neat.” Yes, indeed.

The antimasque

An antimasque (also spelled antemasque) is a comic or grotesque dance presented before or Tempest-masque-1between the acts of a masque, a type of dramatic composition. It’s usually a spectacle of disorder, to contrast with the performance of divine order in the masque proper. You need to know that for Bacon’s advice to make sense.

“Let anti-masques not be long; they have been commonly of fools, satyrs, baboons, wild-men, antics, beasts, sprites, witches, Ethiops, pigmies, turquets, nymphs, rustics, Cupids, statuas moving, and the like. As for angels, it is not comical enough, to put them in anti-masques; and anything that is hideous, as devils, giants, is on the other side as unfit.”

Bacon was raised by a strict Calvinist, remember. He doesn’t approve of putting angels in a scene of discord.

A brief word about Triumphs

These are grand public displays, most likely processions of some kind. The Columbus Day Parade in New York is a sort of Triumph, with floats representing this organization or that tradition.

“For justs, and tourneys, and barriers; the glories of them are chiefly in the chariots, wherein the challengers make their entry; especially if they be drawn with strange beasts: as lions, bears, camels, and the like; or in the devices of their entrance; or in the bravery of their liveries; or in the goodly furniture of their horses and armor. But enough of these toys.”

This float with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations is so Jacobean, it’s absolutely perfect. No strange beasts, but it’s big and colorful and an expression of the government’s military might.

float

An example

A tiny taste of the sort of thing that went on in a masque, from Ben Jonson’s 1605 The Masque of Beauty, found at Luminarium. They’re usually mythological in nature, and might have a moral — or not so much. They will usually include a fair amount of thinly-veiled flattery for the monarch, his queen, and any other major patrons who might be around.

B O R E A S.

W

 Hich, among these is AlbionNeptunes Sonne? 
  
  I A N V A R I V S.

W

 Hat ignorance dares make that question? 
Would any aske, who Mars were in the wars? 
Or, which is Hesperus, among the starres? 
Of the bright Planets, which is Sol? Or can 
A doubt arise, ‘mong creatures, which is man? 
Behold, whose eyes do dart Promethian fire 
Throughout this all; whose precepts do inspire 
The rest with duty; yet commanding, cheare: 
And are obeyed, more with loue, then feare.

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