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THE MASQUE AND ITS DRAMATIC ROOTS

by Guerdon of No Fixed Address, Ephraim ben Yitzhak

Dramatic entertainment declined from its strong classical roots with the rise of Christendom. Before a millenium’s hiatus, the last scripted performance chronicled was AD 467. From that date, secular performance is chiefly recorded in clerical condemnations, issued regularly from AD 701. Par exemplum: c. 1300, the Bishop of Salisbury, Thomas de Chabham, categorised jongleurs, or players, according to the following symptomatic behaviour:

“Some jongleurs change the shape and appearance of their bodies, gesticulate and leap about in a disgraceful fashion, go nude or wear terrifying masks. Others travel in the retinue of noblemen and tell wicked and shameful stories about people who are not there … The joculatores, finally, sing to enliven the company at table, or celebrate the mighty deeds of noblemen and saints.” (Molinari, Theatre Through the Ages)

Ceremonial performance was reserved for liturgical drama to clarify the increasingly-remote Latin Mass. Its most developed expression came in the mystery, miracle, and morality plays, frequently sponsored by guilds and performed in public streets and squares on moveable stages. Liturgical drama was the only form allowed to develop without interruption, and became increasingly abstracted and allegorical, until the cast of characters became a compendium of human qualities.

As a result of church disapproval and suppression of most classical texts, the subject of most early secular drama was simple human comedy, at public entertainments and feasts. Mimics flourished among the mummers, and groups of players were popular at fairs.

By the twelfth century, jongleurs’ guilds began to form, with a membership comprizing ballad singers, acrobats, conjurers, mountebanks, mimics, and mummers. A typical company was Les Enfants de la Basoche, who performed farces and sotties, and gave rise to sociétés des sot, local merry-making ‘societies of fools’. The jongleurs’ improvisational skills were further developed by their inheritors, the travelling commedia del l’arte players.

Literary drama began to see a revival in the fourteenth century. Among more learned players, such as goliards playing for their dinner, farces were liberally adapted from the works of the late Roman dramatists Seneca (rediscovered ca. 1300), Terence, and Plautus (rediscovered 1425). These, of the ilk of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, were the sole remnants of the great body of scripted classical drama, and were freely tailored to local conditions.

Further material for performance was provided by classical legend. Finally, the subjects of the great romans – Arthurian legend (the Matter of Britain), the battle at Roncevaux, Robin Hood, and the courtly love tradition – were infrequently performed as accompaniment to a singer. New subjects included domestic dramas like Gammer Gurton`s Needle.

As Renaissance scholars pursued their researches, classical theatrical traditions experienced a revival. Greek masks with megaphone-like protuberances enjoyed a vogue, as did the buskin (from the contemporary name for a half-boot), the name given to the high-heeled shoe worn by actors in Athenian tragedy, and the sock, the flat shoe of the comedian. Elaborate set-dressing and opera also resulted from this revival.

The word Mask first appears in English in the 8th century, meaning spectre, and later (ca. 1000, and perhaps from Norse roots), as a mesh in a net or web. Masque and the accompanying formal entertainment arrived in England from the continent during the first half of the 16th century. The lingering older meanings enrich the sense of the fashionable new Italianate variety show, so beloved of the Hampton Court of Henry VIII.

By 1650, Masque had become the chic word to use for:
• A face covering of leather, silk, etc.
• A full costume, intended for concealment
• A misleading costume, for impersonation
• An entertainment as mannered as a pavane, usually classic legend
• A variety show, with the noble participants doing their star turns on the stage
• A besotted and licentious revel
• A spectre
• A mesh of a net
• A maze or puzzle, often presented for round-robin competition

The great literary masques of Jonson and Milton came to be published in the 17th century, drawing on the rediscovered knowledge and traditions popularized in the preceding century.