J.C. Pepusch, Venus and Adonis, UQ Art Museum

VenusAdonis640x48026 November 2013

What a pleasure to hear for the first time in Brisbane last month the music of a popular early 18th-century English opera (or ‘masque’ to give it its contemporary name). Pepusch’s settings of Colley Cibber’s words gave them added wit and charm, exactly as Cibber had hoped – ‘An Attempt to give the Town a little good Musick in a Language they understand’, even though the musical idiom was that of the reigning Italian opera.

As an audience member at the performance at the UQ Art Museum I was entranced  – not by any illusion of dramatic realism in characters or sets, but simply by the pure delight of hearing a well-known story (from Ovid, not Shakespeare) deliciously and pacily told by the three expert singers and their wonderful ad hoc period orchestra. Such entertainments as afterpieces to the spoken theatre performed at Drury Lane or Lincoln’s Inn Fields must have opened up a world of pleasure to the audience – at just over an hour, such a change from the full-length evenings of serious (and incomprehensible) Italian opera.

As well as the witty musical settings of the libretto, I noticed that much of the music was in triple time, which automatically imparts a dance-like feeling to the aural experience: it cannot help but raise the spirits. The classical subject-matter of Venus’ hapless attempt to seduce the handsome (though naïve) hunter Adonis is always going to operate with the standard sit-com jokes concerning her frustration and his uninterest in anything but sport – in his case, hunting. It is all the more amusing that the character is sung by a soprano en travesti – there was no campiness about Vivien Hamilton’s very accomplished performance, but the evident artificiality of the character kept the audience comfortably enjoying the performance rather than being engaged by more intense emotions. The fact that (according to the inexorable plot) Adonis dies, gored by a boar organised by the jealous Mars, is productive only of gentle pathos in the music.

Venus (superbly sung and embodied by Lotte Betts-Dean) is the main character, with the majority of the virtuosic music – as a goddess enamoured of a mortal she can be seductive, pleading, uncomprehending, angry. Her two biggest pieces, ‘Chirping warblers, tune your voices’ (as an aid to seduction) and the violent invocation to storm and tempest after Adonis’ death, were superbly contrasted examples of the astonishing variety of her music. Mars (Stephen Grant) though limited emotionally to jealousy and anger, sang superbly, but he was not required to be anything other than the standard fuming cuckold of comedy.

Jane Davidson directed the three singers in appropriate movement and gesture to suit the music and the dramatic situation. Although she did not claim to be recreating original practices, for the modern audience she did something more valuable – she found the physical style that expressed without pedantry the essential charm and performative delight of this pioneering piece of English musical comedy.

Penny Gay, University of Sydney


Trouble with Pictures 2: the ‘Playhouse’ drawing

Section of a theatre, Codrington Library, AS, II.81

This sectional drawing of a theatre labelled simply ‘Play House’ has attracted much comment. Many theatre historians believe there is connection between it and Thomas Killigrew’s Drury Lane theatre of 1674, but surprisingly few have analysed it in detail. Among non-specialists there is widespread, uncritical acceptance of the drawing as being both of Drury Lane and representing a model for all Restoration theatres. Such misapprehensions are fostered by its ubiquitous reproduction in textbooks with often loose or even misleading attributions.[1] Since the drawing was rediscovered in 1913 among the papers of Sir Christopher Wren it has come to exert an influence beyond the bare facts of the primary evidence it represents. There are, however, some difficulties with the attribution to the 1674 Drury Lane theatre. First, the drawing has been torn through twice, which suggests it may be a rejected study. It is unsigned and undated and, aside from tradition, the only support for Wren as the architect of Drury Lane is Colley Cibber’s autobiography of 1740, which refers to an event 66 years in the past when Cibber was three years old.[2] The main difficulty, however, is that the scenic arrangement shown in the drawing is incomplete. One of the staples of Restoration dramaturgy was the backshutter discovery. Such a discovery was effected by withdrawing the backshutters to reveal or ‘discover’ upstage a farther part of the stage complete with its own scenic backing.[3] As the drawing does not show any scenic element upstage of what most commentators interpret as backshutters – the final three vertical lines upstage of the proscenium pilasters – a stage built to such a design would be incapable of staging many plays known to have been performed at Drury Lane. Most new plays written for Drury Lane demand at least one discovery, and several call for a discovery to be followed immediately by another.[4] Such successive discoveries imply a minimum of two farther scenic elements upstage of the shutters shown in Wren’s drawing: another pair of shutters and a final backscene.[5] The lack of scenic information in the drawing has led to many different interpretations of the layout and function of scenic elements at Drury Lane and Restoration theatres in general. The drawing is a vital piece of primary evidence and should not be dismissed; however, care needs to be exercised when citing it in support of conjectural reconstructions of Restoration staging.

[1] See for example, J. L. Styan, Restoration Comedy in Performance, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1986, pp.20-1.
[2] An Apology For The Life Of Mr. Colley Cibber, Comedian, London: John Watts, 1740, p.338.
[3] Early Restoration discoveries were also occasionally effected by means of the front curtain, or a curtain at the shutter line (see Lewcock, ‘Computer Analysis Of Restoration Staging, 1: 1661-1672’, Theatre Notebook, vol.47, no.1, 1993, p.26).
[4] The first successive or double discovery at Drury Lane was in Nathaniel Lee’s Sophonisba in 1675. In that year six new plays were performed at Drury Lane, of which only two do not demand a discovery. However, the other four demand 19 (Francis Fane’s Love in the Dark, calls for eight), and two plays demand successive discoveries (see Lewcock, ‘Computer Analysis, 2’, Theatre Notebook, vol.47, no.2, 1993, p.144).
[5] I use the term ‘backscene’ to refer to the final scenic element in view and to avoid defining at this stage whether it was a backcloth, a drop, or another shutter. However, in period usage the term applied to the backshutters. A stage direction in Boyle’s Guzman (1669), for example, reads “The Garden in Tryphon as a Back Scene”, where it is clear that the reference is to the shutters alone.

Trouble with pictures 1: Joe Haines’s Epilogue

Here are two prints of comedian Joe Haines delivering an epilogue on an ass (click on either to upscale). One is artistically superior to the other, but does this mean that it is superior historically? The print on the left prefaces a probably unperformed play A Fatal Mistake (published 1692) but has no other connection to it.[1] The other image of what appears to be the same performance is included in the 1720 edition of Thomas Brown’s Works, where it is entitled “Joe Haines Epilogue”.[2] The epilogue in question is for Thomas Scott’s tragedy The Unhappy Kindness, which was probably first performed at Drury Lane in 1696. Although printed in 1720, the ‘superior’ print cannot refer to the Drury Lane stage after 1700, because Haines’s last season at Drury Lane was in 1700 and he died in 1701.[3] (The difference between the women’s hairstyles in the prints suggests that the later artist was imagining a contemporary performance.)

If contrasted at all, the prints are usually reproduced as if the earlier was a crude version of the later, implying that play, stage, and date are the same. This may be the case, but it is not certain. If the theatre is Drury Lane, both prints show a square stage front, rather than the “Semi-oval Figure” described by Colley Cibber in his autobiography.[4] A curved stage is shown in the Ariadne print, and may be implied in the ‘Wren’ section (sectional drawing of a playhouse attributed to Sir Christopher Wren) by a dotted line just upstage of the solid line at the end of the forestage (under the third pilaster, but difficult to see in reproductions). Cibber is describing the original Drury Lane stage before the then manager Christopher Rich modified it. According to Cibber, Rich cut back and squared the forestage to increase seating capacity in the pit. Cibber’s is the only account of this modification and he does not provide a date. According to his recollection it occurred “about forty Years ago”.[5] Cibber is vague, but if we count back from the date of publication of Cibber’s autobiography (1740) and allow for him writing that passage a few years earlier, we arrive at a range bounded by Haines’s last season in 1700 and Rich’s takeover as manager of Drury Lane in December 1693. The editors of The London Stage argue that The Unhappy Kindness was performed at Drury Lane in the summer of 1696 or 1697, with the earlier date the more likely.[6] If we accept this, 1696 would seem to be the best date for Rich’s modification. If both prints show the Drury Lane stage, both must clearly date from after the alteration. However, as noted above, the earlier print prefaces A Fatal Mistake published in 1692. The online catalogue of the British Library provides the most likely answer to this discrepancy. It states that the print is a later insertion, though it is ambiguous about which editions contain it. It may be unique to the Library’s 1692 copy, as it is not in the Harvard Library copy of the same edition, nor does it appear in either of the two British Library copies of a 1696 edition.

[1] The play is ascribed to Haines on the title page, but Gildon (1710) states he is not the author (see Philip H. Highfill, Jr., Edward A. Langhans, and Kalman A. Burnim, eds., A Biographical Dictionary of Actors, Actresses, Musicians, Dancers, Managers, and Other Stage Personnel in London, 1660-1800, Illinois: Carbondale and Edwardsville, 1973, vol.7, p.16).
[2] See The Works of Mr Thomas Brown, (5 vols.) London: Sam Briscoe, 1719-20, vol.5, facing p.233.
[3] See Biographical Dictionary, op cit pp.7-17.
[4] Cibber, Apology, 338.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Van Lennep et alLondon Stage, 1: 463.