Cambyses (staging)

By Elkanah Settle (January 1671; pub. 1671)

Of all the plays in the first period of LIF production this is the most complex in terms of its demand on theatre resources. In comparison with his rival, Killigrew, Davenant appears to have been reluctant to use stage machinery: there is little recourse to it before Cambyses (Davenant died in 1668).[1] Aside from some special effects, the scenery in Cambyses is varied without demanding anything other than stock settings. The play is notable, however, for its use of spectacle. Despite Settle’s apparent heavy reliance on scenes and machines there was a production of this fashionable new play at a scenically impoverished university venue at Oxford in July, 1671. Settle’s prologue for this occasion, “Spoken by Betterton in a riding habit”, wittily draws attention to the lack of theatrical resources:

But then our House wants ornament and Scene,
Which the chief grandeur of a Play maintain,
But to excuse this want, we must confess,
We are but Travellers in a riding dress.[2]

Despite the lack of ‘ornaments’ on this occasion, it would seem that the play was still the thing for a university audience.

Scenically the most distinctive feature of the play is the use of the relieve space. There are no less that six discoveries in the play, more than any production by either company until 1673 (one uses the front curtain).[3] Three of these are for special effect, revealing, in order, a dead body, a spectacular dream sequence (curtain), and the descent of flying spirits. This use of discoveries and special effects marks a change from standard LIF practice and points to future spectacle at Dorset Garden. Demanding as it is, however, the play does not require anything qualitatively different from resources demanded by other LIF plays.

Although calling for a minimum of seven different settings the scenery plot is relatively straightforward. Indeed, although Settle’s stage directions are ample and descriptive, they reveal an economy of means. Only Act 3 calls for more than three shutter settings. In the LIF model all this requires is for the palace of 3.1 to be replaced with the walk or garden of 3.3 while the camp shutters of 3.2 are in view. Similarly, the discovery in 2.2 moves the action swiftly on (like a film edit), allowing Settle to reveal a well populated stage without having to wait for the actors to get into position: “The Scene open’d appears Smerdis seated on a Throne, attended by Guards, and other Attendants”.[4]

Perhaps, though, the best example of this theatrical acumen has previously been misread. Settle directs the curtain to fall at the end of Act 3, but there is no corresponding direction for it to be raised at the start of Act 4. Langhans suggests that Settle made an error in including this curtain direction, but if we consider the disposition of the stage at this point a likely solution emerges. What the scenery plot makes very clear is that Act 3 ends with a discovery scene in view and Act 4 starts with another. The sequence of events is as follows. The 3.4 discovery reads, “The Scene opens, and on a Table appears the Body of Osiris, beheaded; & an Executioner with the suppos’d head in a vessel of blood”.[5] There then follows sixty or so lines of dialogue and the act ends with the direction, “The Curtain Falls”.[6]

Act 4 starts as follows. The Scene drawn, Cambyses is discover’d seated in a Chair sleeping: The Scene representing a steep Rock, from the top of which descends a large Cloud, which opening, appear various shapes of Spirits seated in form of a Councel, to whom a more glorious Spirit descends half way, seated on a Throne; at which, the former Spirits rise and Dance: In the midst of the Dance arises a Woman with a Dagger in her hand; at which the Scene shuts.[7]

If we follow Langhans and assume the curtain direction is erroneous, two sets of shutter grooves become necessary because the next stage direction evidently still has Cambyses onstage: “Cambyses rises from his Chair, as newly waking, and seems disorder’d”.[8] This solution (two shutter positions) is precisely Langhans’s thesis, so he does not seek alternative explanations. However, the whole sequence is explicable in the LIF model if we take the playwright at his word.

In this simpler interpretation, the curtain falls at the end of 3.4 on an exposed discovery scene with the shutters still open. During the Act music, Cambyses gets into position sitting in his chair on the scenic stage but, crucially, downstage of the shutters. Meanwhile, the stagehands set a backcloth scene picturing the steep rock described in the stage direction (obviously, this is the final scenic element) and clear the rest of the space behind the shutters to allow freedom of movement for the descending machines in the dream sequence. Thus, at the start of Act 4 the curtain rises on Cambyses who is sitting downstage of the shutter line with the steep rock scenery far upstage in the relieve area, and the dream scene begins. At the end of the dream, the shutters close leaving Cambyses alone on stage. While this fully explains the general sequence of events, there are still some details to clear up.

First, as noted, the opening direction of Act 4 does not state that the front curtain rises. However, it may be that because it is so obvious that the curtain needs to rise at the start of the act it was omitted. There are such omissions of obvious stage directions elsewhere in LIF plays. In The Adventures of Five Hours, for example, Tuke omits a direction for actors to exit a balcony, providing only a direction for them to re-enter. There is a slight suggestion that “The Scene drawn” may refer to the front curtain, because in four of the six discoveries Settle refers to the scene ‘opening’. However, this is not true of 5.1, which also uses ‘draws’, and is unlikely to refer to a curtain. Either way, then, some kind of textual slip is implied. However, as the scene works so well on the much simpler LIF model, I would argue that a direction is more likely to have been omitted, rather than added in error.

The second detail is the question of where the spirits and the armed woman dance. Langhans thinks on the stage, but as no exit is provided for the dancers, I imagine that what was witnessed at LIF was more likely to have been stately gyrations on the flying machine. Although this may seem a surprising suggestion, the use of flying machines both here and in Act 5 is remarkably similar to the flying sequences in Davenant and Jones’s Caroline masque Salmacida Spolia. In that production, it will be recalled, no less than ten masquers descended on a great cloud. There does not need to be so many in Cambyses, and it would be perfectly possible for the council members to rise and start some gentle movements to music before a crouching actor rises in their midst.

It is clear from both flying sequences that two lifting machines were used. Langhans finds evidence in Bridges Street plays for two types of machine, heavy and light, or as Dryden’s The Rival Ladies (BS, 1664) puts it: “Venus and Ceres descend in the slow Machines; Ceres drawn by Dragons, Venus by Swans. After them Phoebus and Mercury descend in swift Motion.” [9]

That LIF had a heavy/slow machine is evident from stage directions in The Humerous Lovers (1667), including, “Venus and Cupid descending while the Song is singing”.[10] Significantly, three verses are needed to cover this action and later four verses while they ascend. Langhans observes that Bridges Street was a step ahead of LIF in terms of machines. The only other possible uses of lifting/flying machines at LIF before The Humerous Lovers are not certain and could be scenic effects – a rising sun in The Play-house to be Let, and a rising moon in The Adventures of Five Hours – or might not have been performed as stated in the text: Venus speaking the prologue “from the Clouds” in Love’s Kingdom. Compared to Killigrew, Davenant seems to have eschewed spectacle and machines, and it is perhaps significant that Cambyses, the most spectacular of LIF plays, was not produced until three years after Davenant’s death. With Cambyses the new LIF management seems to have been determined to trounce Killigrew on his own ground.

Applying the heavy/light machine hypothesis to Cambyses it would make sense in Act 4 for the council members to be flown on a heavy lifting machine, and the glorious spirit on a lighter machine behind the plane of the first. A similar arrangement of heavy and light machines is indicated later. In Act 5 a solitary spirit first descends and speaks, there is passage of covering dialogue and music while the spirit ascends, then two more spirits appear: “Here two glorious Spirits descend in Clouds”. The interval between the appearances of these two sets of spirits may suggest that the same machine was used, but it would not allow much time for the new spirits to get into position, nor crucially for the clouds (presumably lacking in the first sequence) to be affixed. Instead, I suggest that the first spirit is flown in on the light machine. The covering dialogue is then for the heavy machine, which is presumably slower and takes time to descend. In a further display of spectacle, a bloody cloud is flown down to mask these two spirits, while actors representing two ghosts take their places:

The Song ended, the Musick turns into an Alarm, at which a bloody Cloud interposes between the Audience and the Spirits; and being immediately remov’d, the Ghosts of Cambyses, and the true Smerdis appear in the seats of the former Spirits.[11]

This play pushes LIF facilities to the limits and the space behind the shutters must have been quite cramped. The whole spirits sequence starts with a discovery scene (5.3): “The Scene open’d, appears a Temple of the Sun, uncover’d according to the Antient Custome, with an Altar in the middle, bearing two large burning Tapers; and on each side a Priest standing”. Some lines later we get the descending spirit sequence discussed above. This means that we may divide the relieve area into at least three planes: first, nearest the shutters, the altar and priests, next the plane of the light flying machine, then the heavy machine plane nearest the backcloth. The cloud is simply a scenic item and would be flown in using the light machine for it to interpose between altar and spirits. Alternatively, there is a possibility that it could have been a drop curtain, which would make this the first example of such on the public stage.

Two final points remain. It is likely that the ‘private walk’ called for at 3.3 also doubled as the garden in 4.3 and 4.4, there being no need to differentiate theatrically between the two settings. This play is notable for the number of times acting is specifically directed in the scenic area. This raises the probability of lights affixed to available positions within the scenic area, such as to sconces on the rear of wing frames.

[1] See Langhans, ‘Notes on the Reconstruction of the Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre’, Theatre Notebook, vol.10, no.4, 1956, p.114; and Lewcock, Computer Analysis 1, op cit pp.26-7.
[2] Ibid. pp.418-19.
[3] In 1673 Settle outdoes himself by offering no less than eight discoveries in his Dorset Garden play The Empress of Morocco. As this play includes one of the first examples of a double, or successive, discovery, one longs to know whether it was performed in its published state at its première at Court on the Hall stage. It was probably simplified as the Oxford prologue to the earlier play suggests.
[4] London: William Cademan, 1671, p.18.
[5] Ibid. p.47.
[6] Ibid. p.48.
[7] Ibid p.49.
[8] Ibid.
[9] See Langhans, Thesis, op cit pp.77-8; Rival Ladies, London: Herringman, 1664, p.34.
[10] London: Herringman, 1677, p.28.
[11] Ibid. p.75.


2 thoughts on “Cambyses (staging)

  1. Pingback: Cambyses (scenery) | Restoration Theatre

  2. Pingback: Henry the Third of France (staging) | Restoration Theatre

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