The Step-mother (staging)

by Robert Stapylton (October 1663; p.1664)

Stapylton’s fascination with the scenic possibilities of the masque continues in this play, which like The Slighted Maid features three such episodes. Again, however, his fascination does not extend to a fully scenic dramaturgy and these episodes are largely superfluous dramatically. Stapylton also continues in his use of the whole stage space and even more action is placed within the scenic area. This is most readily seen in the discovery and masque scenes, but there are also strong implications that characters both advance from and retreat into scenes set in the relieve area. An example of this is the Act 5 scene set “In the Bards Cave”. This scene description is not stated to be a discovery and could be a complete setting – shutters and wings – but it would be more economical to reuse the Bard’s cave relieve scene called for in Act 2. Economy aside, this interpretation also makes best sense of the text. On the opening stage direction, “Enter Tetrick as the Conjurer; and Fromund with the Bard’s Beard in his hand”, the specified actors enter in the relieve area, advance onto the main scenic stage, share 20 lines of dialogue, and when another character appears Tetrick retreats into the relieve space (“within”) and Fromund hides behind a bush wing:[1]

As I live,                [Enter Brianella.
Thy Mistris, coming hither, do thou slip
Behind these Bushes; as I promis’d thee,
I’l dispatch thy love business, if w’have time.
[Exit Fromund.

Within there?

Who’s without there?[2]

Although Stapylton provides more explicit scenic information in this play – nine descriptions compared to four in The Slighted Maid – locations are harder to discern (there are also several textual oddities[3]). Settings are largely exterior, mostly set in various woods and groves. A minimal scenic staging using just one wooded setting might be feasible, though this would likely affect dramatic clarity. Such a minimal staging would employ three shutter scenes, two wing settings, and two relieves. However, it would require several large setting props to be thrust on: a possible solution, but ponderous in this case. The number of sylvan locations allows one set of wings to be used for all such exteriors, thus radically reducing scenery costs.[4] This saving allows scenic variety – more shutters – to be achieved relatively cheaply. The scenery plot thus employs five shutter scenes (garden, woods/cave, woods, grove, palace), three relieves (arbour, cave, grove), and two wing settings (boscage, palace). The ‘extra’ shutters enable us to distinguish among three important locations specifically mentioned in the dialogue, namely the wood by the bard’s cave, the meeting place by the “Mark-Beech”, and the “Lime-tree Grove”; it would also be possible to use individual wing settings for these locations, but shutters are simpler.[5]

There are multiple references to the bard’s cave, which is clearly a relieve scene: “In the Bard’s cave is discovered a man with a grey beard”.[6] Yet this direction occurs in the middle of 2.1, a scene for which the location is also explicit: “Enter Sylvanus, Filamor, and Violinda in the Woods”.[7] The shutters that open to reveal the cave, therefore, cannot solely depict the entrance to that cave, they must also serve to represent the woods. A pair of shutters showing a cave entrance framed by trees is easily imagined and could serve all scenes set in the wood near the cave; they must certainly be used in scenes in which the bard’s cave is discovered. If we then were to limit a production of the play to a single wooded shutter scene, it would have to be the one just described which would look very odd in the other sylvan locations. Hence, the ‘extra’ wood shutters in the suggested scenery plot are not there just to provide scenic variety they also clarify the narrative. Accordingly, I propose one shutter pair to depict the wood/cave, one for the ‘lime grove’, and one for the specially noted “Mark-Beech” meeting place: “This is th’appointed place; there’s the Mark-Beech”.[8]

Only two relieve scenes are indicated in the text: the Bard’s cave discussed above and an arbour discovered in the garden scene (1.2). I have added a third for the two masque scenes set in a grove (3.2 & 4.2). This grove relieve setting is added to speed up the action by allowing large setting props (trees) to be discovered, rather than thrust on during performance. These prop trees are a distinctive feature of both masques. For the first, Stapylton specifies “Apollo’s Mask./ The Scene, a Grove, in which is a Lawrell Tree, and three Poplar Trees”.[9] The Poplar trees could be painted but an actress must appear ‘in’ the laurel: “The Laurell opens, and in it appears Daphne”.[10] The subsequent action rules out the use of a pair of ‘laurel’ backshutters, the tree is clearly a practical prop of the kind suggested for The Adventures of Five Hours, with the difference that this one had a built-in practical opening that revealed the actress, or at least her head. The poplar trees also hide actresses, but openings are not specified; in this case, I believe the actresses are simply expected to stand behind the trees, stepping out when required.[11] The trees with their attendant actresses would be pre-set behind the shutters of the earlier scene. The poplars could be painted relieve elements, but separate prop trees would permit reuse of this grove setting for the other woodland masque. The model’s (visible) relieve space dimensions of approximately 8ft x 8ft would allow the laurel tree to be set on one side and the three poplar trees to be staggered, say two feet apart, on the opposite side. The masque proper starts mid-scene (3.2) and, although there is no stated discovery, the onstage audience have been told to assemble at this fictional point in the woods to attend the masque. It would be perfectly feasible to reveal this setting after the cleared stage which precedes 3.2 (there is a marked exeunt 32 lines before the masque proper begins).

As noted, the same relieve setting may be reused for Diana’s masque later in the play. This masque also demands use of a practical tree – “Violinda, as Philomel, appears in the Hawthorn, & sings”[12] – but as the actress needs only appear in its branches, the type of tree discussed for use in The Adventures Of Five Hours would be suitable here, and perhaps it was the same one.

As well as large setting props, this play also demands a remarkable variety of hand props including miniature portraits, a harp, and a set of large compasses. It also makes use of a balcony for an overhearing scene (1.2), but doors are specified in stage directions only once: “Enter Brianella at one door: at another Fromond like a witch”.[13]

[1]London: F. Streater, 1664, p.79.
[2] Ibid. p.80.
[3] There are two significant errors: Caesarina is instructed to enter the balcony on p.7 when she must be onstage, and an important exeunt is omitted on p.82.
[4] The more wing positions the greater the cost; on a four-position perspective stage, as in the LIF model, the total area of the wings is more than double that of a shutter pair.
[5] There are two references to the ‘Mark-Beech’ (op cit p.21 & 36), and four to the lime grove (p.45, p.50 (twice), & p.51).
[6] Op cit, p.22.
[7] Ibid. p.17.
[8] Ibid. p.36.
[9] Ibid. p.42.
[10] Ibid. p.43.
[11] Dawn Lewcock suggests the use of a machina versatilis for these arborial revelations (Sir William Davenant, the Court Masque, and the English Seventeenth-Century Scenic Stage, c1605-c1700. Cambria Press. 2008. p.137)
[12] Ibid. p.60.
[13] Ibid. p.36.

5 thoughts on “The Step-mother (staging)

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