The Slighted Maid (staging)

by Robert Stapylton (February 1663; pub. 1663)

Dryden’s jibe – “there is no Scene in the first Act, which might not by as good reason be in the fifth” – is more witty than true, but it must be admitted The Slighted Maid is at times confusing to read.[1] Despite Dryden, however, and despite Pepys’s judgement – “not very excellent” – it probably played better than it reads.[2] The plot may be overly intricate, but at its best the play is theatrically diverting and makes intriguing use of stock romance devices; not the least being that the eponymous heroine (believed dead) should spend so much of the play in a position of some power disguised as her vengeful and apparently vicious brother. The text numbers acts but not scenes (my numbers below) and Stapylton provides little explicit scenic information; however, he consistently uses a cleared stage to mark scene divisions, there are ample stage directions, and for the majority of scenes the dialogue provides clear indication of locale. This clarity enables a fairly confident reconstruction of the scenery plot.

A notable feature of the play is the interjection of three, brief masque scenes. These generate most of the explicit scenic information in the play, though only the third is integral to the drama. The first in 3.1 is set probably in a garden or grove as the directions following the Act 3 heading indicate: “Enter Decio and Arviedo./ By a Lawrel-Tree is set a Shepheards Hook, a Pipe, and a Wreath of Lawrel”.[3] The tree is not practical and was likely painted on a wing; the props, though, are probably practical as a little later Decio – the heroine Ericina in disguise – refers to them in concrete terms. Decio is rehearsing a theatrical scene and has invited Arviedo to view “The sweetest Prospect Naples has”. Stage directions and dialogue merge at this point and are best given in full:

The Scene is discovered, over which in Capital Letters is writ CAMPI ELYSII.

Decio describes it thus.

Th’Elysian Fields my Hyacinthus sees,
Those Walks are Jessamine and Orange-trees,
Beneath, a Chrystal River cuts the Plain,
Wherein you see those fair Trees o’re again,
Close by the Flow’ry Bank, a Flock of Sheep
Feeds in a Mead; the Shepheards fast asleep;
The Shepheardesses lying arm in arm.[4]

As several commentators have noted, it is difficult to decide what exactly is being shown here: a painted shutter, a relieve scene, or a relieve scene with live actors?  Indeed, given the flickering, uncertain quality of the original lighting Arviedo probably speaks for the LIF audience when he asks, “Is’t Life? Or Art”.[5] The answer appears to be both, for two lines later Decio commands, “Rise, dull Sleepers” and the bucolic lovers, “dance and go off”.[6] Almost certainly then, the scene is a composite of painted relieve elements and reclining actors, exploiting, as in the Caroline masque, the discovery’s potential for charm. On cue the actors then arise, dance on the main scenic stage, and exit through the wings. More puzzling is the position of the scenic surtitle. It obviously cannot be painted on the backshutters, because the surtitle appears at the same time as the scene is discovered. There are four possibilities: it might have been painted on the backcloth, on a relieve element, on an upper backshutter, or on a border. Visibility is the limiting factor here. Although any legend painted on the backcloth probably could be illuminated by lights offstage or fixed to the closest relieve element, the text would perhaps be too distant to make the impact implied by the stage direction. The term ‘over which’ implies separation and this certainly could be achieved by changing the final border for one bearing the legend (at the same time as the discovery). However, visibility would again be an issue, as borders cannot be seen by all; as Richard Southern puts it, they exist “only for the benefit of the spectators in the lower and nearer parts of the house”.[7] In addition, there is no evidence for changeable borders in this period. The same difficulty arises with upper shutters, as the only LIF play where the use of upper shutters may be a possibility is the much later Cambyses (1671). Moreover, using upper shutters to reveal a surtitle smacks of the sledgehammer approach to a nut, which leaves the possibility of a sign in the relieve area. This seems the best solution as there would be plenty of time to get it into position and it could be attached to the top of the first relieve, or if, as seems likely here, that was not possible, it could simply hang from an attachment at or above the rear of the backshutter frame.

The second masque episode is non-scenic. It largely comprises a dance involving Jack-a-Lantern and a group of reapers and is discussed in my article  “Scaenes with four Doors”: Real and Virtual Doors on Early Restoration Stages. The third episode is the most interesting: it is dramatically integral and inverts the fatal consequences of the Jacobean masque-in-a-play trope. Scenically it begins with another surtitle, this time less puzzling as the legend can be painted on the backshutters: “The Scene Vulcan’s Court, over it is writ, Foro del Volcane”.[8] The discovery occurs several pages later: “Iberio and Pyramena discover’d lying on a Bed, at the Bed’s feet sits Cupid weeping”; again this is a carefully composed static, indeed emblematic, picture.[9] This is a tragicomedy, however, and the couple are merely drugged. They wake up, are unbound, and bidden to witness the final discovery, that of the Slighted Maid herself: “Decio puts of his Night-gown, & discovers himself to be a Woman”.[10] ‘Follow that!’ might be a contemporary response to such a direction, but there is one final scenic point to be made. In 3.2 occurs the following dialogue and stage direction: “Diacelia: Patience, Madam,/ I may mistake, believe your eyes,/ That Pillar will obscure you./ Menanthe: Good, good Girl./ Menanthe stands behind the Pillar and Peeps”.[11] As with the tree in the previous scene, a wing is almost certainly being used here. Unlike on some earlier stages, the Globe being the obvious example, there were no stage pillars supporting the heavens to hide behind at LIF. Again, there is no need here for a practical pillar to bear weight, and thrusting on scenic prop pillars in the brief interval of a cleared stage between 3.1 and 3.2 would be ludicrous. The setting is the con-woman Menanthe’s house, which seems unusual, as Menanthe is not of the social class habituated to pillars in its domestic arrangements; however, the point is explicitly made early in the play that Menanthe is not only vicious, she is a social climber. When asked by old Filomarini where his son met her, his friend Gioseppe replies, “At Church, with the Greek Cheater cursed Mother,/ That passes here for an illustrious Lady;/ The Vice-Roy heard she was a Grecian Princess”.[12] The pillar/wing not only furnishes a handy place from which to peep, it also signifies Menanthe’s would-be status; note also the use of the scenic stage for acting purposes. The quality of furniture and fittings in Menanthe’s house is emphasized by a stage direction whose import may escape modern readers: “Wax Lights on the Table”.[13] Wax lights offered the clearest and highest quality light and were considerably more expensive than other forms of lighting.[14]

[1] Preface to Troilus and Cressida (Swedenberg H. T., et al (eds.), The Works of John Dryden, (20 vols.), Berkeley: California UP, 1956-90, vol.13, p.230). [Hereafter, California Dryden.]
[2] Diary, Feb. 29, 1663. On July 28, 1668 Pepys saw it again and thought it “but a mean play”, but he was troubled with his eyes at this time and not disposed to much enjoyment.
[3]London: Thomas Dring, 1663, p.33.
[4] Ibid. p.34.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Changeable Scenery, London: Faber & Faber, 1952, p.155.
[8] Op cit p.80.
[9] Ibid. p.85.
[10] Ibid. p.88.
[11] Ibid. p.41.
[12] Ibid. p.2.
[13] Ibid. p.56.
[14] A little later in the play these wax lights (probably white wax, the highest quality) are used as an index of social status when one character compares them to the taper she holds: “The Taper better suits my Fortune, Sir” (Ibid. p.58). Eleanor Boswell reproduces a Lord Steward’s account (The Restoration Court Stage, New York: Benjamin Blom, 1965 [1932], p.97, n.3) that shows how lighting was apportioned in a Court theatre production. The King’s Presence and Privy chambers receive white wax lights, a privilege also accorded the branches and sconces in the auditorium, the ‘scenes’ and musicians receive yellow wax, while the Gentlemen Ushers, Yeomen of the Guard, grooms, and porters make do with torches and tallow.

4 thoughts on “The Slighted Maid (staging)

  1. Pingback: The Rivals | Restoration Theatre

  2. Pingback: The English Princess (staging) | Restoration Theatre

  3. Pingback: The Royal Shepherdess (staging) | Restoration Theatre

  4. Pingback: The Slighted Maid (scenery) | Restoration Theatre

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