The Indian Queen (staging)

By Robert Howard and John Dryden (January 1664; pub. 1665)

The following is best read in conjunction with the associated scenery plot and shutter diagram. It is also closely related to my staging analysis of The Indian Emperour (sic).

For all its relative scenic innovation The Indian Queen is still a very early new play, only the fourth such in Killigrew’s new scenic theatre at Bridges Street. Nevertheless, the play offers fresh dramaturgical thinking and shows the effects of commercial competition, even under a duopoly. Killigrew’s company had undoubtedly been getting used to technical aspects of the new stage, playing catch up with their rivals at Lincoln’s Inn Fields who had been using scenery since 1661, but The Indian Queen raises the stakes by offering scenic spectacle on a new scale. Both Pepys and Evelyn were impressed. Pepys thought it ‘a most pleasant show, and beyond my expectation’, while the meticulous Evelyn declared it to be ‘so beautiful with rich scenes as the like has never been seen here, or haply (except rarely) elsewhere on a mercenary theatre.’[1]

Innovation in the play is present from the very start when the prologue is delivered from the scenic stage by actors wholly in character, rather than by the usual practice of actors speaking from the forestage in front of a dropped curtain as themselves, or as a character at least partly divorced from the role they are about to play: ‘As the Musick plays a soft Air, the Curtain rises softly, and discovers an Indian Boy and Girl sleeping under two Plantain-Trees; and when the Curtain is almost up, the Musick turns into a Tune expressing an Alarm, at which the Boy wakes and speaks.’[2]

The Indian Queen is also the first new Restoration play to fly in actors, or indeed to use a trapdoor.[3] More significantly, however, it features no less than four discovery scenes. The first two present spectacular tableaux, the third reveals a character in a prison, while the last, which opens Act 5, is a striking coup de theatre: ‘The Scene opens, and discovers the Temple of the Sun all of Gold, and four Priests in habits of white, and red Feathers attending by a bloody Altar, as ready for sacrifice.’ Aside from these discoveries the staging of the play is straightforward and is easily accommodated in the LIF model, as I will show.

By reading the scene headings and stage directions of The Indian Queen in the light of those from The Indian Emperour, which was specifically written to reuse the earlier play’s scenery, we are in a position to decide probable shutter and relieve settings. Discussing the scenery in the order in which it appears, the curtain probably rose to disclose open country backshutters matched with tree wings. The open country setting is named ‘Indian Country’ in the later play and we can make an opening assumption that it is a backshutter pair by reference to its use in both plays where it precedes a known discovery scene at least once in each play; moreover, in The Indian Queen it likely separates the prison and temple relieve settings used in Acts 4 and 5.

The next scene though not marked would seem to be set in the Mexican camp from its martial atmosphere and its references in dialogue and a stage direction to soldiers shouting; such a setting is also demanded in The Indian Emperour. Period camp settings are shown in Webb’s designs for Mustapha. The relieve setting and its variant (scenes 1a and 1b) would be matched by wings depicting tents of the same design, so forming a composite and symmetrical picture with the relieve design. In the Indian plays the format would have been similar (of course the design of the tents would have reflected the American setting), but in this case the stage picture would likely have been terminated by backshutters because the camp setting follows a known discovery scene in each play, and in The Indian Queen it also precedes the discovery that opens Act 3.

Following the return of the Indian Country setting for the start of Act 2 – not stated, but a logical choice – the next scenic setting is the scene 2 discovery in which, ‘Zempoalla appears seated upon a Throne’. This must be a relieve setting, but of what? There are no clues in the dialogue, though the spectacle of this and the later discovery (Act 3.1) perhaps suggests that Zempoalla is in her palace, rather than the Mexican camp as the California editors propose.[4] More helpful are scene headings in The Indian Emperour which stipulate a Chamber Royal setting for three scenes in the city of Mexico. The structural and diegetic similarities between the plays and the fact that we know that the later play reused scenery from the earlier combine to suggest that Zempoalla’s appearances must also have been made within a relieve setting depicting a Chamber Royal. Although a locale is not stated for the last scene in Act 2, the reference to Montezuma’s prisoners being forced from his tent (lines 42-3) suggests the Camp setting was reused here.

So far, the staging of the play has followed a sequence we would expect using the LIF model: Indian country (shutters), Camp (shutters), Indian country (shutters), Chamber Royal (relieve) and Camp (shutters). Shutter scenes have followed successively, but not relieve scenes. This sequence is continued by the spectacular discovery which opens Act 3: ‘Zempoalla appears seated upon her Slaves in Triumph, and the Indians as to celebrate the Victory, advance in a warlike Dance; in the midst of which Triumph, Acacis and Montezuma falls in upon them’.[5] The intruders are overpowered and brought before Zempoalla who ‘descends from her triumphant Throne.’

Although stage action is dramatic there are no indications of any scene change until we come to the direction ‘Ismeron asleep in the Scene’.[6] This direction and the ensuing dialogue with its reference to Ismeron’s ‘dismal cell’ leave no doubt that, although unmarked, this is both a new scene and a new scenic setting (unmarked scenes are a regular occurrence in Restoration plays). Ismeron is described by the character list as ‘a Conjuror’ and his role in this scene is to raise a spirit to interpret Zempoalla’s dreams. Structurally and scenically there is a direct comparison here with Act 2.1 in The Indian Emperour where a high priest summons several spirits for Montezuma. In that play a scene change is stated by a heading that reads ‘SCENE, The Magitians Cave’, so, reading back, a cave setting is the logical choice for the parallel scene in The Indian Queen.

Confirmation is unnecessary in this case, but it is interesting to note that an eighteenth-century edition of Purcell’s semi-operatic version of the play includes the following stage direction, ‘Zempoalla at the Cave of Ismeron’, which indicates a stage tradition for the opera at least.[7] There is no indication in The Indian Emperor that the cave needs to be anything other than a shutter setting. In that play, Montezuma and the High Priest are directed to enter the scene and the action is focussed on the priest’s conjurations of no less than five spirits using probably three trapdoors on the main scenic stage. A relieve setting of a cave in The Indian Emperor would be possible, its single appearance follows an act break, but it is not specifically indicated. In The Indian Queen, however, the direction for a character to be ‘asleep in the Scene’ and the lack of a stated entrance for him suggest, on first view, a disclosure brought about by a shutter discovery; a possibility that needs to be examined in some detail.

The simplest solution to this first difficulty with the LIF model’s operation is to suggest that Ismeron is offstage behind the wings when Zempoalla enters at the start of the scene. She gestures to his ‘dismal cell’ offstage and summons him with her calls and stamps, as directed, and Ismeron enters sleepily on his first line. This solution, while perfectly practicable does, however, work on the assumption that there is a missing entrance for Ismeron. Ordinarily I would be loath to make such an assumption; while exits go astray fairly regularly in early modern playbooks, missing entrances are rarer.[8] The published text of The Indian Queen is, however, not free from some surprising omissions and other oddities in its stage directions.

One very pertinent omission is a missing entrance (or rather omission from a stated tableau) that occurs at the very start of the scene in question. Zempoalla’s general, Traxalla, and her captives the Ynca and his daughter Orazia are not included in the stage direction that heads Act 3.1, yet they must be present because they all have lines in the ensuing dialogue. Moreover, in Act 4.2 a stage direction ‘Orazia comes back’ is repeated on the same page, once in its correct position according to the action and 15 lines earlier. This may be a simple error, or it may be that the typesetter confused a promptbook ‘ready’ call for Orazia with her subsequent entrance and repeated the stage direction.[9]

This raises the possibility that ‘Ismeron asleep’ is promptbook connected (a reminder to the prompter perhaps, rather than a ready call) certainly it does not follow the usual wording for a discovery usually indicated by ‘discovers’, ‘appears’, ‘draws off’, ‘scene opens’ or their variants, as seen elsewhere in this play and many others. There is perhaps, though, a better reason why the conjuration scene might not have started with a discovery. As noted above, the focus in this scene is on action downstage of the shutter line with Ismeron’s conjuration of the God of Dreams and singing spirits. Opening the scene with a discovery provides no dramaturgical advantage; in fact its effect would be precisely the opposite. In the very next scene a backshutter discovery of a sleeping figure is specifically called for when at the start of Act 4 ‘The Scene opens and discovers Montezuma sleeping in Prison.’ This is the first use of a prison setting and the dramatic effect of seeing the play’s hero incarcerated could only be lessened by the clumsy repetition of a scenic effect seen a short while before. For these reasons I am unwilling to accept that the stage direction at the start of Act 3.2 offers firm evidence for successive discovery scenes.[10]

Whatever the nature of the cave setting, the interval at the end of Act 3 permits any necessary scenic reshuffling and Act 4 begins with the prison relieve. It would not be necessary, though, to go to the expense of a complete setting. Instead of specially made prison wings (costlier than a backscene), the cave wings from the previous scene could remain standing. The combination of rocky wings and gloomy recess would furnish a more than sufficient representation of a prison in a non-European, hence savage, country.

The prison relieve is now followed by the Indian Country shutters and Act 4 ends. The interval permits the prison relieve to be struck and replaced with the final and most spectacular setting of the whole play and Act 5 duly opens with a discovery of ‘the Temple of the Sun all of Gold.’ In sum, there are no further difficulties after Ismeron’s entrance and the play ends with a sequence easily handled by the LIF model: two relieve scenes separated by a shutter scene.

The associated shutter change diagram provides a visual representation of the staging solution discussed. (The purpose of this diagram is to show how the play could be staged using the LIF model; neither this nor similar diagrams are proffered as recoveries of original stagings.) The table is structured according to scenic demand per act and scene; thus the first column shows the two scenes in Act 1, the second the three scenes in Act 2 and so on; note that the last column shows the last two acts. The arrangement of backshutters and relieve settings are shown for each scene.

In this simplified diagram the audience is to be imagined south looking north towards the backscene area, which comprises three backshutter grooves downstage of a relieve/discovery space. Dashed lines represent individual shutter settings; these are either closed over the scene (continuous line) or withdrawn to each side (broken lines). Wavy lines represent the potentially more complex relieve settings.[11] To make it easier to read, in each scene the scenery currently in view is shown in red. This and other similar diagrams show only backscene changes. Here and elsewhere I argue for the use of generic wings on grounds of cost and practical stage management. Nevertheless, similar operations are to be imagined for the management of wing changes.

[1] Pepys, Diary, 1 Feb 1664; Evelyn, Diary and Correspondence (1620-1704), ed. William Bray, 1 vol. (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1948) [1818], p. X  (5 Feb 1664 )

[2] Robert Howard, Four New Plays (London: H. Herringman, 1665), p. 140.

[3] Flecknoe’s Love’s Kingdom has a prologue ‘Spoken by Venus from the Clouds’ (sig. A4v). This does not necessarily demand flying but the point is perhaps moot as the 1664 edition bears a title page defiantly declaring the play to be “Not as it was Acted at the Theatre near Lincoln’s-Inn, but as it was written and since corrected”. Certain pre-Restoration plays, notably Hamlet, which received Restoration revivals demand trapdoors. Flying was probably not seen at LIF until November 1664 (ten months after The Indian Queen) when the prompter John Downes records that Davenant’s adaptation of Macbeth was staged complete with ‘flyings for the Witches’ (Roscius Anglicanus, p. 71).

[4] California Dryden, vol. 8, p. 315.

[5] Indian Queen, p. 153.

[6] Indian Queen, p. 157.

[7] Henry Purcell, The Indian Queen (London: B. Goodison, 1790), p. 28.

[8] Getting actors onstage at the appropriate time is theatrically more important than getting them off; once on, actors will know when they must exit. Missing entrances are rare, but there are three for instance in the first edition of James Shirley’s The Maid’s Revenge (London: W. Cooke, 1639, sigs. C4r, D4v, G1r).

[9] This would be short warning, but the promptbook for Edward Howard’s The Change of Crowns (BS 1667) has a similar 15 line warning (see Langhans, Restoration Promptbooks, p. 122).

[10] Or to propose an unmarked closure of suitable shutters mid-way through Act 3.1, e.g. after the exeunt of all but the Queen and her son after line 57.

[11] In practice this could also be a simple discovery of actors with no additional scenery downstage of the backcloth.


One thought on “The Indian Queen (staging)

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

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