The Indian Emperour (staging)

By John Dryden (March? 1665; pub.1667)

The following is best read in conjunction with the associated scenery plot and shutter diagram, and after reading my analysis of The Indian Queen.

There are no particular staging problems with the first three acts of The Indian Emperour (sic). Referring to the scenery plot the scenes follow in an expected order. Act 1 uses the ‘Indian Country’ (shutter) and ‘Temple’ (relieve) scenes discussed in the Indian Queen pages. Act 2 uses three shutter scenes: ‘The Magitian’s Cave’, a camp and the ‘Indian Country’ again. Of these only the camp setting is not specified in the play. There is no particular need for a camp here; the only need is to distinguish this locale from the battle scene (scene 3).

Cydaria (Montezuma’s daughter) is attempting to prevent a battle between her father’s forces and the Spanish invaders led by Cortez. Cortez is in love with Cydaria and has agreed to meet her in this unspecified locale. For obvious reasons it cannot be the Indian Country, the setting specified for the battle. The full camp setting – wings and backshutters – would also be odd for similar reasons, but a combination of the two settings would present an ideal solution. The camp shutters, therefore, can be used with the Indian Country wings to suggest a locale near both the Mexican camp and the battlefield. For the next scene, therefore, the wings will remain standing while the backshutters change.

The sequence in Act 3 is ‘Chamber Royal’ (relieve), ‘A Camp’ (shutter), Indian Country (shutter). As argued on another page, the chamber setting, while not specified in The Indian Queen, fits that play well where it would have to be a relieve. Dryden and Killigrew would have been seeking to reduce expenditure in the follow-up, so its use here is logical and causes no difficulties. I argue below that Dryden’s experimentation did demand some new scenery, including a shutter setting of the chamber that could alternatively be used here, but using a relieve setting in this act avoids the need for a mid-act backshutter replacement, which is the preferred option.

The passage involving Orbellan in Cortez’s tent (lines 21–46) demonstrates how stage action can be realistically integrated with the scenery, despite some commentators’ claims to the contrary. The wings represent tents, Cortez invites the fleeing Orbellan to hide in his tent – that is, to exit via a wing passageway and stand offstage – and when Orbellan’s pursuers have exited, Cortez invites him back on to the stage.

The last scene is an exterior setting somewhere in the city of Mexico. Taking a cue from The Adventures of Five Hours and other plays specifying urban exteriors, some kind of street setting would be a good fit here. If so, this would need to be a new scene as there is no similar setting used in The Indian Queen and a setting of a European street would be out of kilter with the evident production values. This is the fourth wing setting in the act, so the chamber wings would be replaced with street wings earlier, while the camp (and/or country) settings were in view, all that would be needed would be to ensure that one or both of those settings were in more forward positions in the grooves.

Act 4 is where difficulties arise. Initially scenic demand in the act seems moderate. It calls for three settings: a prison, a Royal chamber and a woodland grotto. On closer inspection, however, the demand is not so straightforward. The first scene is stated to be ‘A Prison’, but it is difficult to determine its nature. The first stage direction is for two characters to enter talking, but a few lines later directly after the line ‘See where he sleeps’ there is a second direction, ‘Cortez appears Chain’d and laid asleep.’[1] The fact that the actor playing Cortez both ‘appears’ and is ‘asleep’ strongly suggests that this is a discovery, similar in fact to the prison discovery in the earlier play involving Montezuma. The alternative of thrusting on a bed with the sleeping Cortez is not in keeping with the tenor of the scene and the level of technical accomplishment demonstrated elsewhere in the play.

If the discovery occurs on the relevant line, as would appear to be the case, what then was the scenery at the start of the act? There are two possibilities: either, unusually, the Mexico (street) shutters remain standing at the start of the act and open on the direction, or the act starts with a different set of shutters. Neither of these options is immediately attractive: the former involves disparity between fictional and theatrical locations; while the latter would involve a financial investment for a new shutter setting that would stand for five lines. [2] Cost, however, would be less of an issue if there were opportunities to reuse such a new prison shutter later in the play. We can return to this point after examining further scenic demand in the act.

The next piece of scenic information comes at the end of the prison scene. Cortez is alone on stage, downstage of the backshutter line. We know that because after a short soliloquy there is the stage direction, ‘Goes in and the Scene closes upon him.’ In other words, after his monologue he turns and walks upstage into the relieve area and the backshutters close over him. This seems straightforward enough, but the second scene in Act 4 is specified as ‘Chamber Royal’, which previously we determined was a relieve setting. Again, there are two possibilities: either a new shutter setting of a Royal chamber closes over Cortez, or something like a prison door shutter closes momentarily over the scene before the next scene starts. This latter solution is favoured by Holland who posits that at this juncture Cortez ‘literally and symbolically re-enters prison’.[3] While this is a nice point, Holland does not fully work through the mechanics of his suggested staging. However, were we to take up this suggestion by showing a prison door closing, we would have another instance of the momentary use of a shutter scene to perform a kind of scenic tidying-up. Again, however, we need to ask the question whether the extra expense would be justified in a production that is seeking to gain as much profit as possible from its reuse of scenery from another play. Already we have identified the need for an extra shutter setting of a Mexican street and what must be a shutter version of the chamber setting; would another shutter setting be justified? We cannot answer that question, so the best way to proceed is to offer two staging solutions for different budgets, with and without extra shutters.

The third scene of Act 4 is a dramatically superfluous discovery that nevertheless offers an opportunity for spectacle and a musical interlude: ‘A pleasant Grotto discover’d: in it a Fountain spouting; round about it Vasquez, Pizarro, and other Spaniards lying carelesly un-arm’d, and by them many Indian Women, one of which Sings the following Song.’[4] This tableau would fill the relieve area to its limit, depending on how one interprets the size of the fountain and the number of supernumeraries. Actually a packed relieve area works to the model’s advantage for I propose that the grotto scene would be another composite setting. This time the prison relieve setting plus the Indian Country wings, at least two of which represented trees, as explained at the start of the Indian Queen analysis.

The rationale for this choice attends both to theatrical contingencies and to a description of the grotto in the previous scene when a messenger reports that the Spaniards ‘securely lye’ about ‘cool Grottoes’ shaded by ‘Bowers’.[5] This solution presupposes that the prison relieve has no associated scenery, it is simply a gloomy recess whose character is determined by its partnering wings, properties and of course stage action: cave wings and chains in the prison scenes, and tree wings, fountain, singing and dancing in the grotto scene. The fountain, might have been a working prop using real water – the song draws attention to its ‘Murmuring sound’ – but if not the illusion could be created.6[6] Whether working or not this large property would be best flown in or rise and descend via a trapdoor mechanism. For reasons that will become clear later I am opting for the latter. The tableau containing the fountain and the actors must be prepared behind some covering scene. I have already suggested that the production would need a shutter setting of a Royal chamber and, in the LIF model at least, this discovery would seem to confirm its use in the second scene.

Now follows what appears to be the most problematic of any stage direction in either ‘Indian’ play. Directly following the grotto discovery is another that opens the fourth scene: ‘A Prison./ Cortez discovered, bound by one Foot, Almeria talking with him.’[7] This apparent successive discovery would indeed be insoluble had we not explored the act’s scenic structure sequentially and in detail in relation to the LIF model. By using the prison relieve for the grotto setting the prison in scene four is essentially already on stage and may be discovered by one of two means. If we suppose that the production budget ran to a separate prison shutter to be used momentarily for covering purposes then this is another ideal opportunity for its use. Alternatively, we could propose something radically different to anything so far encountered and suggest that the fountain itself acts as a screen that has concealed Cortez and Almeria all the way through the third scene. At the end of the grotto scene the stage is cleared (following the stage direction ‘Exeunt Omnes’), the wings change to the cave setting and the fountain descends via a trapdoor, discovering Cortez, Almeria and the prison setting as it does so.

This solution, together with the related options noted above – the Mexican Street remaining on stage at the start of the act and chamber shutters closing over Cortez – has a cost advantage and is highly efficient with theatrical resources, but it is nowhere hinted at in the text. The use of what we might call a cover shutter, however, has been hinted at on two occasions – the start of Act 4.1 with its delayed discovery and at the end of the same scene when the backshutters close over Cortez. In addition such a scenic cover would provide an excellent means of effecting the successive discoveries of the grotto and the prison, as I have noted. This is the solution recorded in the scenery plot, but the simpler alternative may also be viewed on this site (to be added).

All in all, while the proposed scenic operations for Act 4 are complicated, the actual scenic demand is less than might be expected. Following the above solution, the act needs only two shutter scenes (prison and chamber), three wing scenes (cave, chamber, country) and one relieve (prison). Act 5 demands only two settings, the ‘Chamber Royal’ shutters and the ‘Prison’ relieve, but it is not without difficulties. The first occurs at the start of the act and its scene heading: ‘The Chamber Royal, an Indian Hamock discover’d in it.’ Were this to be yet another relieve scene there would be a problem, because the next scene, set again in the prison, probably uses large properties in the relieve area. So far in this play, the Chamber Royal relieve setting from The Indian Queen has not been used, and I see no reason why it should be here. At the start of the act the chamber shutters close over the prison relieve, which has been left open during the act break, and a hammock is flown in quickly and easily from the flies. The hammock appears to be in the scene purely for aesthetic reasons, there is no further reference to it, nor is it involved in stage action.

The last scene in the play returns us to the prison and its instruments of torture. The wording of the scene heading may suggest a discovered tableau: ‘A Prison./ Montezuma, Indian High Priest bound, Pizarro, Spaniards with Swords drawn, a Christian Priest.’ What seems likely is that the racks used to torture Montezuma and the High Priest would be set prior to the start of the scene in the relieve space, but as the Spanish soldiers are commanded by Pizarro to tie the prisoners to the racks and they evidently move towards them, as is indicated by the stage direction, ‘They fasten them to the racks, and then pull them’, the heading may also mark a simple entrance, probably from a wing passageway.

The last spatio-scenic aspect of the play that needs to be discussed does not involve scenery, but rather the use of a balcony and a forestage wall. Montezuma has been freed from the rack and his daughter Cydaria has been removed to a nearby tower (in the castle) by Cortez for her protection. There is now much action involving a balcony, representing the tower, and its associated door. Fictionally the action has removed to the tower, its entrance and the area immediately around it; theatrically all that is required is for the actors to move downstage from the scenic area onto the forestage. The prison relieve, its racks and the cave wings remain standing and there is no need for any scene change.

[1] Indian Emperour, p. 37.

[2] In Act 1.1 Mexico is described as ‘The City on the Lake’ (p. 2) and in Act 3.4 the prison is described as being in ‘the Castle on the Lake’ (p. 36). Fictionally, then, the prison may be within the city and the street setting might not be as anomalous as it first appears. In any case, there is no doubt that what would be perceived nowadays as spatial disparity or anomaly was tolerated by Restoration audiences. There is a danger of dwelling on things in the study not readily noticed in performance and this solution remains a possibility.

[3] Peter Holland, Ornament of Action, p. 37.

[4] Indian Emperour, p. 45.

[5] Indian Emperour, p. 43.

[6] Indian Emperour, p. 45. For possible use of real water see Derek Forbes, “Water Drama” in Performance and Politics in Popular Drama: Aspects of Popular Entertainment in Theatre, Film and Television, 1800-1976, ed. David Bradby et al. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), p. 91. The theatre architect Nicolo Sabbatini shows a method for reproducing the effect of real water in his Pratica di fabricar scene e machine ne’ teatri (1638); see Barnard Hewitt, The Renaissance Stage: Documents of Serlio, Sabbattini and Furtenbach (Florida: University Of Miami Press, 1958), pp. 145-6.

[7] Indian Emperour, p. 47.


2 thoughts on “The Indian Emperour (staging)

  1. Pingback: The Indian Queen (staging) | Restoration Theatre

  2. Pingback: The Indian Emperor (scenery) | Restoration Theatre

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