THE PROBLEM IN THE MIDDLE

Liminality in the Jonsonian Masque

by
Gregory A. Wilson*

In his description of the set at the beginning of The Masque of Beauty, Ben Jonson. s detailed report of the Throne of Beauty is notable both for its exactness and for what it reveals about that masque. s central structure:

This throne, as the whole island moved forward on the water, had a circular motion of its own, imitating that which we call motum mundi, from the east to west, or the right to the left side. The steps whereon the Cupids sat had a motion contrary, with analogy ad motum planetarum, from the west to the east; both which turned with their several lights. And with these three varied motions at once, the whole scene shot itself to land. (Beauty 70, my emphasis)

In his book The Anthropology of Performance, Victor Turner comments on the term liminality, which he defines as . ...a betwixt-and-between condition,. a space between two positions or spaces--eras, phases of life, conditions of existence, and so on. (101). He further suggests, relating the term to the field of performative genres, that . ...the very word . entertainment. means the liminal in English, for it means literally, from the Latin, . to hold between,. to be neither this nor that, but the problem in the middle.... (41) Perhaps, in my juxtaposition of these two excerpts, I might rightly be accused of taking refuge in this liminal space, . the problem in the middle,. myself. How are these two passages, separated by three and a half centuries, related? Where does their intersection lie? The answer comes, appropriately, from that middle realm itself. Theater criticism has traditionally been founded on the assumption of separation, of a disconnection between actor and audience, stage and seats; but as I wish to suggest in this article, such an assumption is at least in part invalid. I intend to argue that actual theatrical performance is in a perpetual state of liminality, belonging wholly to neither the stage nor the audience that observes it--it exists in the margin between them. In support of this idea I will be looking in particular at the court masques of Ben Jonson, some of the most strongly performative pieces available to us in their grandeur, scope, and spectacle (particularly in their assertion of royal power), and exploring the ways in which the Jonsonian masque continually violates spaces thought to be areas of separation between masquer and observer (and, for us, readers)1. Against the backdrop of the masque, I will extend my argument along three lines: first, the continual shifting and undercutting of physical space which the masque represents in its staging and performance; second, the dislocation of class space, between the royal classes which participate in the masque. s initial performance and the non-royal classes who take part in its effects and aftereffects through the figure of the monarch; and third, the indeterminacy of the art itself, existing somewhere between the text of the masque and its staging (the former position held by Jonson, the latter by his eventually estranged collaborator and set designer Inigo Jones). Filtered through Turner. s concept of liminality, these three areas of the Jonsonian masque represent a shift from traditional theatrical practice to that highlighted by Stephen Orgel and others, in which the boundaries of aesthetics and performance are increasingly stretched, weakened and finally made illusory at best. It is the ways in which this change is conducted to which I now turn.

Jonson. s masques were certainly not the first to play with the idea of reducing, or at least altering, the space between the stage and audience. First of all, the proscenium stage we generally think of as being the theatrical norm is a relatively recent creation; from the very foundations of Western drama in Ancient Greece, the audience was generally seated in a large amphitheater surrounding the performance area in a half-circle shape, so that one might have varying perspectives and spatial relationships to the actors depending on the seat he/she was in. In later incarnations, the term of theater at first did not refer to a physical space at all, as Orgel notes:

James Burbage built his theater outside London in 1576; this was either the first or second permanent theater in Europe after Roman times, and both its priority and its uniqueness were asserted in its very name: The Theater...Before this moment, the concept of theater had included no sense of place. A theater was not a building, it was a group of actors and an audience; the theater was any place in which they chose to perform. When the play was over, the hall or courtyard or banqueting room ceased to be a theater. (The Illusion of Power 1-2)

The theater that Orgel outlines here is one in which physical boundaries were of necessity tenuously obeyed at best. But in the context of open space, before more rigid theatrical conventions began to be followed, this is not particularly notable. In fact, as the above passage implies, theater began to gain ground as a respectable art form when it was given permanence, a space of operation. But to maintain that space--especially in light of the financial considerations that led to its construction in the first place (Orgel, Illusion 2)--it had to establish certain norms which would make attending theater performances different from other possible entertainments, yet familiar enough to encourage repeat visits. Physically, then, stages were fixed; even in the case of the Globe, where vertical space through the trapdoors of . Heaven. and . Hell. was used as well as in any theater for nearly a century following its construction (Tuan 98), the stage itself maintained some degree of separation between audience and performer. In France, the distinctions were made even more clear, as Yi-Fu Tuan points out:

The public theaters of France...were elongated in shape...[which] tended to discourage audience empathy with the actors on stage; spectators all had to look in the same direction and those who stood at the back of the hall could hardly see over the heads of the people before them...Those who sat in the back galleries...saw...essentially a distant picture...When the proscenium arch and the curtain were installed in the public theaters, the separation of actors from spectators would seem to be complete. (102-103)

Although Tuan comments that the English round theater helped reduce this separation somewhat (102), it seems clear that both English and French models created clear physical boundaries that were not to be violated. In both models the stage was elevated, set apart from its audience; and regardless of how chaotic the performances might be with the Renaissance. s much looser interpretation of . respectful silence,. the point remains that by virtue of a fixed stage alone, physical parameters were defined and generally adhered to by both actors and onlookers. Such boundaries helped solidify the impression of the theater as its own space, with permanence and lasting economic and artistic value; but they also served to increase the distance between player and watcher, reducing the sense of festival in the process.

But if the trend in public theater was towards increasing physical space between stage and seating, fixed areas of performance, the trend set by the masque--reserved for the court, though not unproblematically as I will discuss later--was in the opposite direction. Like the plays in public theaters, the majority of masques took place in one established space, that of the royal court (many in the Great Hall of Whitehall Palace, though there is some critical controversy on this point); like them as well, they took place on a somewhat elevated stage. But there the physical similarities, and restrictions, largely end. As Orgel points out, although the stage where the actors did much of the performance was fixed, a double stair set in front of the stage provided immediate access to the audience--access which performers used towards the end of the masque, but I will elaborate on this point somewhat later. Behind the dramatic action, clearly visible to the audience, Inigo Jones. multi-tiered scenic design, consisting of two pairs of shutters, three changeable scene cutouts, and a set backdrop completed the illusion of great depth. As Orgel goes on to say, . The back part...was an enormously versatile scenic machine; it underwent a complete transformation seven times, and an eighth change took place in the heavens above the rear stage...The...proscenium arch is not a barrier between the audience and the scene: the stage projects beyond it, and a double stair runs to the floor of the hall.. (Illusion 27-30) Given the amount of changes that took place in any given performance, the constant impression was of motion and alteration, but not randomly so. The scene drops were set further in as they were set further back on that stage, increasing the impression of scenic depth and perspective; further, even props and items on stage were often set to move, almost always forward towards the audience. Now we may more profitably consider the quote with which I opened this essay, Jonson. s description of the Throne of Beauty from The Masque of Beauty (Jonson. s second masque, produced in 1608). Here the island is said to move forward on the water, presumably towards the front of the stage, while the giant throne on it moves in a circular motion from right to left; simultaneously, the steps on which the Cupids sit, leading to the throne, move in the opposite circular motion; and as these movements continue, the scene itself shoots forward towards the land. No longer fixed as in the other versions, the motion of the drama was increasingly towards the audience.

But the scene is also designed so that the attention of the audience was drawn towards and into the scene; first, as Orgel demonstrates, the royal seats were placed directly in the center of the viewing area, with other seats against the three walls--both the masque and the royalty watching the masque were on display for the rest of the audience members, all directed towards the stage. Second, observers were able to look past the actors, towards the movement and visual variety beyond them at the back of the stage, and with its raked, progressively offset scene drops, it is clear that they were encouraged to do so. Indeed, according to Orgel, they might have been even more interested in that scenery than the dialogue of the masque itself; for example, the plot of the anonymous French pastoral Florimene, staged by Inigo Jones for a royal performance in ways very similar (if somewhat more simply conceived) to a standard Jonsonian masque, would have been so familiar to the audience that . ...the only surprises...would have been those provided by Inigo Jones. machinery.. (Illusion 34). No wonder Jonson grew angry at what he must have seen as the gradual degradation of the masque by its machines, saying in his bitter Expostulation with Inigo Jones, . ...O Showes! Showes! Mighty Showes! / The Eloquence of Masques! What need of prose / Or Verse, or Sense t. express Immortall you? / ...Oh, to make Boardes to speak! There is a taske / Painting and Carpentry are the Soule of Masque.. (Gordon 79) Gordon goes on to comment rather sourly that Jonson. s satire is fairly heavy-handed here, but its purpose and origins are clear. If the audience of this entertainment felt the sense of any distance between them and the performers, it certainly appears that it would not have been because of the fixity of the stage. Nor were the masquers themselves idle; the audience members, all members of the court, were with their costumes and jewelry part of the show as well (Orgel, Illusion 30). And the conclusion of nearly every masque involved the egress of the masquers into the audience itself, to lead the entire court in a series of dances that often lasted into early the next morning. Both areas of the performance looked towards each other.

Ultimately, it is this reciprocal gaze that brings us back to Turner. s concept of liminality. Nowhere else in drama to this point, since the creation of the theatrical conventions and norms I outlined earlier, were standard physical boundaries rendered as impotent and illusory as they are here. The stage. s action directed itself outward, through the external motions of set, scene and action; some of these motions were circular, representing the movement of the heavenly bodies, but the overall effect was one of forward, outward movement. When the masquers descended the stairs into the audience, making physical contact with those who previously could only see and hear them, the masque itself moved into the space occupied by those watching it. Much of the action of the masque took place, in fact, not on the stage itself but . ...immediately in front of it, on the narrow proscenium and on the dancing floor, which was a large rectangular area in the middle of the hall, surrounded on three sides by spectators and backed with the stage picture. (Limon 60); in other words, the area nearest the king and queen and between stage and spectator. One might object that this was simply another stage, with the same physical separation; but besides the fact that the stage picture which . backed it. was a visual backdrop, not an actual one that restricted physical space, the floor itself was danced on by masquers and spectators alike; on its surface, any distinctions between performer and observer became largely irrelevant. Furthermore, the fact that this . dancing floor. was separate from the carefully established stage setting, where the performance might traditionally have taken place, implies a further collapse of boundaries--the focus of the audience, through the movement of the masquers, would follow the actors, through the barrier of the stage front, into the audience. s midst.

And this movement away from the performance towards those it is performed for was accompanied by an equally powerful and compelling motion from the audience inward, its gaze focused on the disappearing perspective represented by the scene drops, the movement of the scenic machinery at the back of the stage, and the attention of the royalty which was focused on the action in front of it. In this format, the performance belonged neither to the stage or the audience; it was found where the two movements met, in the liminal space between the two conventionally established spaces. As Limon puts it:

To a certain extent [the set, raised proscenium stage] was predominantly . mute. and basically pictorial in character, providing an illusionistic space from which mythological and allegorical characters descended to . earth.. ...In this sense, the hall floor, between the . state. and the raised stage picture, forms an open stage that is familiar to all frequenters of public theaters. This means that the stage picture and frame do not mark the boundary between the fictitious, or artistic, and . real. worlds: they mark instead the inner division of the created world, which is composed of two visible spheres linked visibly by the magical powers of the stage box. (61)

In this conception, the performance took place in the area . between. the . state,. represented by the royal box, and the traditional stage itself. Although Limon does not extend his analysis to this point, I would further suggest that if the two spheres were linked by . the magical powers of the stage box,. it was precisely in the area of linkage--the area of the . problem,. as Turner puts it--that their intersection was observed, understood, and participated in by all those present at the masque event. If such an intersection exists, it implies a series of interesting speculations that will lead us to the second area of the masque I wish to consider: the dislocation of class boundaries within the masque. s liminal space. Turner suggests that in a liminal state, . Ambiguity reigns; people and public policies may be judged sceptically in relation to deep values; the vices, follies, stupidities, and abuses of contemporary holders of high political, economic, or religious status may be satirized, ridiculed...or rebuked for gross failures in common sense.. (102) But he also suggests that it is a place where a society. s deepest values may be expressed and glorified; and it seems to me that if both of these suggestions are true, and there is a violation of physical boundaries incumbent within the masque that leads to the creation of liminal space, then we may be able to distinguish a pattern of both support and undercutting of class boundaries within that space. In fact, we may find that the masque, supposedly a symbol of royal power, created a liminal space of intersection and interaction among classes similar to that between actor and observer. Having established the breakdown of physical boundaries within the masque context, then, we must now turn to that second question: the breakdown of class 2 boundaries, through the masque. s creation of liminality.

The Jonsonian masque was, of course, an art form designed exclusively for the court; through its enactment, royal power and magnificence was mirrored, echoed, and enhanced. As Orgel points out, . Illusionistic theaters made of their audiences living emblems of the aristocratic hierarchy, and their costly scenic wonders constituted a prime instance of royal liberality, exemplifying the princely virtue of magnificence.. (Illusion 37) Costly indeed; productions cost hundreds, sometimes thousands of pounds to produce, and neither Jonson. s creations nor Jones. machinery was designed with economy in mind. On a basic level, then, the court masque in the time of James I was in part the ultimate spectacle, an extravagant event of pomp and circumstance that might reflect the glory of the monarch more fully. But this is only a partial answer for the masque. s popularity at court. Critically, this was a limited performance, restricted to aristocratic lines; Jonson only produced masques for the court, and only members of the court were allowed to see it.3 Indeed, public theaters could not put on even a poor imitation of the Jonsonian masque,4 if only for lack of means; Tuan comments that . ...public theaters...lacked the financial and technical resources to put on spectacles.. (106) So the general public, those who might have been most moved by such a presentation of royal power, seem to have been shut out of the process--if the public theater was a fundamentally democratizing institution (though even this suggestion is problematic), the masque was a decidedly authoritative one, founded along lines of state power and control.

Still, even this statement is not without complexities. First, the common people were certainly aware that the masques took place; various letters and reports about the court incidents were fairly widely circulated, and given the voluminous amount of correspondence regarding the various performances of Jonson. s works still available to us, cited by Welsford and others, it seems unlikely that such spectacular events could have passed without a great deal of comment and attention from the lower classes (and there is some suggestion, though I think a problematic one, that the general public, hearing the stories of the masques. grandeur, wished for something similar in the plays they could attend--see Footnote Three.) Moreover, there is some evidence that the masque sets themselves were allowed to be broken down and parts taken by commoners after the masque had concluded, though I can find no specific reference to this practice (it would, however, have been entirely consistent with the aims of magnificent excess for the court to have allowed this to take place). Perhaps the most important idea in relation to the separation of the public from the masques. performance, though, is that ensuring public knowledge of such an event would have been a virtual necessity for the royal house, if it were to accomplish its goal of creating wonder and respect within its citizens through the masque. s breathtaking cost and spectacular production. The report of the masque would be, in this sense, a critical component of its successful execution. Unquestionably this was Jonson. s view, who had the masques published during his lifetime and whose bitter public feud with Jones would only have made sense if combined with some public understanding of the masques. function. So it seems likely that the general public was not entirely excluded from the process of creation, display, and reification of royal power through the masque. s performance, since they themselves played an important part in that reification.

Even if the general public. s role in the masques was limited, however, it would still have been in the court. s interest for them to be presented as spectacularly and heedless of cost as possible--for if the public was not allowed to see them, the members of the court were, and in many ways it was to them that the masques were specifically directed. It had been a fundamental tenet of Renaissance thought well before Jonson and James I that courtiers needed to be both virtuous and supportive of state power; Castiglione. s Book of the Courtier (published in 1528), which served as the model for court behavior for several centuries after its publication, was in particular concerned with the teaching of virtue to members of the court so that they might discern the virtue of their lord. s actions and advise him as to the proper course of action in a given situation. Of course the monarch possessed the greatest power at court, but a set of loyal courtiers could help extend his/her power considerably more than he/she would be able to manage on his/her own, especially in England with a chaotic Parliament that continued to increase its control over government. Thus it was in the best interest of the court to remind itself continually of its nobility, virtue, and power, and how acting virtuously would allow it to maintain these qualities; as Orgel puts it, . What the noble spectator watched he ultimately became.. (Illusion 39)

The masques, then, served as a mirror of royal power and prestige, reflecting the characteristics of royalty back to the audience from which such characteristics were derived. Consider, for example, this passage from Jonson. s masque Oberon:

Silenus. And may they well. For this indeed is he,
My boys, whom you must quake at when you see.
He is above your reach...
Before his presence you must fall or fly.
He is the matter of virtue, and placed high...
He is a god o. er kings, yet stoops he then
Nearest a man when he doth govern men,
To teach them by the sweetness of his sway,
And not by force...
Tis he that stays the time from turning old,
And keeps the age up in a head of gold;
That in his own true circle still doth run,
And holds his course as certain as the sun.
He makes it ever day and ever spring.
Where he doth shine, and quickens everything
Like a new nature; so that true to call
Him by his title is to say, he. s all. (170)

Here, Silenus speaks at length of the king. s virtue and mildness (as many critics have pointed out, James I was known as a pacifist king), willing to . stoop...nearest a man when he doth govern men,. yet still . a god o. er kings,. . placed high. and out of reach. Continual references are made to images of heaven and the movement of the celestial bodies, in accordance with Renaissance thought on the holiness of the planets. spherical motion (. That in his own true circle still doth run, / And holds his course as certain as the sun.. ) The spectators are told that he has power over time, the heavens, and England. s prosperity, and finally, that he represents . all. things; . he is the matter of virtue.. And the chief of those who will praise the king (though in accordance with masque tradition he will never actually speak 5) is none other than, in true mirror fashion, King James. s son Prince Henry, in the title role of Oberon. And the son. s reflection of the father is a public one; through the vehicle of the masque, both current state power and the process of succession is upheld. There are numerous other examples of this support of royal authority in Jonson. s masques: in The Masque of Queens, the opening antimasque of twelve witches, representing a host of vices (Ignorance, Suspicion, Credulity, etc.) is banished by a mirror masque of twelve virtuous queens, Queen Anne at their head.6 As before, they do not speak; but clearly, introduced by Fame and Virtue, are the center of the masque. s structure and mirror idealized courtly virtue to the members of the court watching them. In The Vision of Delight, the character of Fant. sy lists the king. s divine virtues, making reference to his generative powers and presence which . ...maketh this perpetual spring.. (253) In Neptune. s Triumph, King James is put in the position of Neptune, and praised for his constancy and ability to . ...keep the earth in firm estate. by the masquers. (424) In all these examples, royal power was upheld, mirrored, and explicated for the watching court audience, asserting the importance of the virtuous court and the divine qualities of the monarch around which it revolved.

And yet, if the masques did represent a mirror of royal power, then again the movement of each performance was twofold: the monarch and court. s gaze (and tacit approval) was directed inward, literally into the performance of the masque, while the virtues of the audience were reflected by the masque back outward towards the audience. This was enhanced by methods of perspective, as Limon points out:

...characteristically the second general movement in the masque-in-performance went outwards from the stage picture towards the court. s center--the king...The central position of the monarch was also marked by the laws of perspective...the king. s eye is directly opposite the vanishing point and on the same level as the illusionary horizon. Thus the space between the king and the stage picture was the main acting area, surrounded on three sides by spectators. (68)

This . main acting area. included within it the dancing floor I have already discussed earlier; in the context of physical space, I suggested that this floor was one of the things that violated standard theatrical conventions and allowed for the creation of a liminal space, where the performance actually took place. I now wish to suggest that the fact this acting area existed in the middle of the king. s perspectival field is critical to understanding its liminal status. For much of the actual staging of the masque, the performance during which the monarch. s virtues were elucidated in the ways I have outlined, did not take place at the extremity of the monarch. s vision (directly in front of the vanishing point, on the set proscenium stage itself), but rather below his line of sight, between the raised royal box and the raised proscenium stage. In fact, the king would be forced to lower his gaze to bring the action taking place in the . acting area. within his field of vision; and in so doing would be looking at an in-between spot--Turner. s liminal space again. One. s vision turned inward, reflected back on itself outward, would meet at about this spot as well--and thus the performance of royal power took place in the space between the actual court and its reflection in the masque.

This is further supported by the actions taken by the court to ensure the monarch. s visibility by the audience. It has long been understood by critics of the masque, initially Orgel and Roy Strong, that the masque-in-performance--in fact, any performance at which the sovereign was in attendance-- involved two lines-of-sight, two perspectives: the first, the King. s vision of the action on stage, and the second, the audience. s vision of the King as he watched the performance. So important to royal interests was this raised royal box at the center of the audience. s perspective that when King James visited Oxford in 1605, his original seating place was moved out of its better perspectival position, at the court. s order, to a higher one so that he might be more easily seen by the audience. (Orgel, Illusion 14) But though this is an interesting principle, it is I think an incomplete one; for if the audience. s perspective was directed towards the stage through the monarch, where did he actually fall in their line of sight? Again the middle, the space between the audience member and the performance on stage. This was even more explicit in the masque, where the audience would surround the royal box and yet still have their unique perspectives on the ongoing performance. For them, the box existed within the liminal space as well, and not simply a physical one; in the place between aristocrat and monarch, a kind of class liminality was created as well.

I have already established that in the space between aristocrat and monarch, and even ruler and ruled (the taking of pieces of the royal masque sets by commoners, the monarch. s forced shift in vision to a space between royal box and stage during the masque. s performance, the audience member. s view of the stage through the royal figure in the middle of the former. s perspectival field), another liminal space was created. But what were the political implications of this class liminality? If Turner. s hypothesis is to be borne out within the context of the theater--if . ambiguity reigns. within liminality, and both support and criticism of figures of authority is possible in its parameters, we would expect that the masque must have had subversive elements in addition to its well-documented royalist ones. A close examination bears this principle out; consider that one of the stated aims of the masque, as of Castiglione. s Courtier, was instructive, designed to exhort members of the court to engage in virtuous actions. In this context, criticism was possible, if seldom used directly. In 1634, the Inns of Court, objecting to Charles I. s increasingly autocratic rule, hired Inigo Jones and James Shirley to produce such a critical masque: . The lawyers presented a masque that was, for all its courtly splendor, diplomatically but unequivocally critical of the royal policies, and undertook, through the power of poetry and the marvels of spectacle, to persuade the royal spectator to return to the rule of law.. (Orgel, Illusion 79) The masque evidently failed to produce its purpose--Charles I was well pleased with what he saw (and what he didn. t, it seems), and ordered the masque repeated.

But rarely did masques even have the stated purpose of criticizing royal power; hardly surprising given the form. s royal origins and obligations. The critical assumption over the years, though, has been that Jonson. s masques were unfailingly full of praise for the monarch, even to the point of shameless flattery. One might respond that earning a living as a playwright in Renaissance England might have required a radical rethinking of moral integrity along financial lines, but I think there is an even better answer: though Jonson was clearly a master of adaptation, and understood perfectly the role of masque as a symbol of royal power, he was far too subtle a writer to entirely ignore the possibilities of undercutting some of the monarchial state. s more egregious excesses. I am thinking here of Jonson. s fascination with the antimasque. Welsford. s rather sloppy broadside attack on the antimasque does a disservice to its actual function, particularly for Jonson: . All these masques written at this time by writers other than Ben Jonson show the increasing popularity of the antimasque and the tendency to multiply the grotesque dances and to emulate the bizarre inconsequence of the French ballet-masquerade; they help us to realise how strenuously [he] was resisting popular pressure in his attempt to keep the antimasque in a subordinate position.. (198) All the other masques may help us to . realise. is the inferiority of the other masque writers to Jonson, who it seems clear was far from . strenuously resisting. efforts to make the antimasque of paramount importance. In part this may have stemmed from the same motivations that made Milton. s Satan dangerously attractive to his author, from a Christian perspective; if the masque was about order, unity and virtue, it also represented a form of stasis, of a stagnation that concerned more than one creative mind in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The antimasque was in part a response to this; typically involving a riotous group of creatures committed to folly or vice (often representing those vices), the antimasque would often dominate the action of a performance before the virtuous appeared in the masque and banished their vice counterparts. In The Masque of Queens, for example, the antimasque lasts for eleven pages, the masque itself barely eight, including the rather extensive descriptions of each of the twelve queens. One might argue that the dancing of the masque always took the majority of the night. s time in any case, but the question is to what Jonson devoted his artistic time. In this and many other masques, the answer is decidedly in favor of the contrasting antimasque.

This is a telling point, for if the antimasque increasingly came to dominate or at least significantly influence Jonson. s thinking in his masque writing, than the characteristics it represented--chaos, change, confusion, vice--must correspondingly have been given more weight. All these characteristics were fundamentally anti-monarchial; if nothing else, they represented the decentering of traditionally royalist power, and in a format that was supposed to unquestioningly uphold such power, their prominence at times must have seemed almost subversive. One famous response to The Masque of Blackness, in many ways an antimasque (and as the first masque produced by Jonson for James I. s court, in odd juxtaposition to the masques that followed it), makes this uneasiness clear:

Apparell was rich, but too light and Curtizan-like for such great ones. Instead of Vizzards, their Faces, and Arms up to the Elbows, were painted black, which was Disguise sufficient, for they were hard to be known; but it became them nothing so well as their red and white, and you cannot imagine a more ugly Sight, then a Troop of lean-cheek. d Moors...Theyr black faces, and hands which were painted and bare up to the elbowes, was a very loathsome sight, and I am sorry that strangers should see owr court so strangely disguised. (Carleton, quoted in Orgel, Introduction to Yale B.J. 4)

It is difficult to blame Carleton entirely for his reaction; to a Renaissance court, this first collaboration between Jonson and Jones must have seemed close to being defamatory. What is interesting about the work, though, is that it was commissioned by Queen Anne herself, in precisely the way Jonson presented it. This either implies that the Queen was herself being subversive--unlikely, to say the least--or that she did not realize the power that such an antimasque-masque might have because of the conditions under which the performance was rendered. Again, we return to Turner. s liminality; within the confines of the masque, criticism and subversion became possible so long as they stayed at the intersection of royalist and aristocrat, of playwright and patron, and in the above case, of masque and antimasque, white and black. The blurring of traditional theatrical boundaries on both the physical and class levels ensured that subversion would not be identified as such, nor overwhelm the masque. s functions of royal support. Clearly, opportunities for such criticism within this format were few. But the masque. s very condition of liminality allowed it to fulfill both of the characteristics of Turner. s definition: it both supported the deepest values of a

society founded on generations of royal rule, and simultaneously undercut those values either directly, or, more often, through the vehicle of the antimasque.

I have outlined the breakdown of both physical and class boundaries within the context of the masque, and how the collapse of traditional barriers in both circumstances implies a condition of liminality, in-betweeness, within which the masque actually operates. I wish to conclude by a look at the third area of potential intersection, that which exists between the masque-as-text, as literature, and the masque-as-performance. To begin this examination, we need go no further than the most famous dispute that revolved around the masque: the conflict between Ben Jonson, the masque writer, and Inigo Jones, the masque designer. In some ways, their dispute was brewing from the beginning. Jones grew increasingly angry at Jonson. s admittedly terse commentary regarding his sets and machinery; Jonson grew progressively irritated at the way in which set and spectacle were overwhelming the plot and dialogue of the masques themselves. As his Expostulation proved, Jonson was as unwilling as ever to exercise caution when he felt himself on the defensive (see page six), and in this instance, it seemed particularly unwise--as Gordon points out, Jones had already gained the upper hand at court: . Jones...had stronger weapons than...lines. For after 1631 Jonson composed no more court masques, and when he wanted to bring Jones on the stage in A Tale of a Tub, two years later, the passages attacking him were cut out by order of the Lord Chamberlain.. (77-78) But as Gordon goes on to argue, the rift was along not so much personal but artistic lines. In part this is not surprising: for Jonson, the poet-playwright, the masque was fundamentally about the verse, character and dialogue; for Jones, the architect-designer, it was about set, scenery, and the masque. s performance. This last word is important to understanding the difference between the two

men, for both undoubtedly would have argued that their portion was more critical to the work. s production.

Jonson. s argument in supporting the supremacy of the masque-writer essentially ran along standard lines of poetic theory. The masque, he argued, is composed of two basic parts: the soul, or words of the piece, compose the essence of a thing; the body composes the vehicle, the visual image, by which it is to be displayed. Gordon traces this logic to Paolo Giovio. s work on symbols and emblems, published in 1555 (80). He goes on to suggest that Jonson. s use of the terms invention and device in referring to Jones. s sets were actually terms of praise, as Jonson would have figured it (80-82), and that he grew tired of giving such credit to Jones in later masques. For the first part, supporting evidence is readily available; consider his opening notes of The Masque of Blackness, which conclude their description of the giant sea-shell with .So much for the bodily part, which was of Master Inigo Jones his design and act.. (Yale B.J. 123) The term body, here and elsewhere in the masques, acquires a negative connotation; the body, simply a visual image of the soul, is unquestionably inferior to the latter part. The same deep suspicion of illusion as being less credible than essence was common throughout Jonson; the antimasque in the opening of The Masque of Queens involved twelve witches, many of whom openly glorified the power of illusion or deception. Jonson. s fairly terse dismissal of Jones. s contribution to the work continued even more strongly as the collaboration continued; after the notes for The Masque of Queens, Jones. s name within the body of Jonson. s notes disappeared almost completely. So it seems clear that Jonson did indeed privilege the soul, the poetry, over the body, its performance largely managed by Jones.

The second contention, though, is more difficult. I can find only one reference of Jonson to Jones, in the body of his notes for the masques, in which he made use of the terms invention and architecture, at the beginning of his notes for The Masque of Queens: . The device of their attire was Master Jones his, with the invention and architecture of the whole scene and machine. Only I prescribed them their properties of vipers, snakes, bones, herbs, roots and other ensigns of their magic, out of the authority of ancient and late writers, wherein the faults are mine, if there be any found, and for that cause I confess them.. (Yale B.J. 123) Granted, Jonson gave Jones credit for the . invention. of the scene and machinery (those things capable of producing the body, not the soul, of the work); but simultaneously, he took credit for things that were all fundamentally related to essence, . vipers, snakes, bones, herbs, roots.... which made up the substance of the witches themselves and were supported by the authority of . ancient and late writers. --supported by the purveyors of the written word, fundamental to poetry. He went further, saying that he should be blamed if any . fault. is found with them--implicitly suggesting that they were the things to which readers should pay most close attention. It might be objected here that this would not have been noticeable to viewers of the masque, but in some ways that is precisely the point. Jonson was crucially concerned with what his readers would think of his work, in part because they were working with the text, in his conception the essence or soul of the pieces; to Jones was left the performance, the body of the work, which Jonson would never openly admit--and finally openly defied by placing his name ahead of Jones on the title page of Love. s Triumph Through Callipolis--was the equal of his verse. I think it likely, then, that contrary to Gordon. s suggestion, Jonson was not tired of giving credit to Jones for his inventions, but rather was happy to refer to him--when he did at all--as the one who handled the invention and architecture of the work (read its body, its visual illusion), not its founding essence of character and plot.

But at the heart of their debate lies a deeper issue, I think: where does the masque lie, in its text or its performance? For Jonson, clearly the answer was the former; the soul and essence of the masque was its poetry. As I have already implied earlier, this is a compelling view given Jonson. s role in raising the masque to a form worthy of serious criticism; it seems unlikely that later serious authors like Milton would have bothered with the masque at all had it not been for Jonson. s work. But Jones. s argument seems reasonable too: . ...Jonson well knew that the architect. s claims to competence in all the arts had a long history and classical sanction...the architect is master of all the arts and employs them for his purposes...Parallel to the ideal figure of the learned poet who draws on all human knowledge for his inventions was the figure of the learned artist who requires the same basis for his.. (85-93) Gordon again suggests that Jones. s later use of the term invention in describing his own work left him open to Jonson. s negative charges, but again I think this is overstated; Jones certainly used invention, but would have seen it in a much different way from Jonson--perhaps in the way of creating, not just representing, the images of the written masque. Jones in this sense might have felt he had recaptured the soul, the essence back from Jonson by implicitly arguing he was responsible for creating it in the first place. But regardless of this, I think Gordon. s emphasis is on the semantic qualities of the debate rather than the fundamental issues themselves. In the latter category, we might simply say that both men had a point.

Yet this has clearly been an unacceptable answer for critics and readers of Jonson. s masques since the collaboration ended, in part because we seem to feel the need to resolve the argument in favor of one side or the other. Welsford, Gordon, and Orgel all come down implicitly or explicitly on the side of Jonson; Graham Parry is cited by Limon as basically standing in support of Jones. (27-28). Limon notes that many critics fail to make . ...a distinction between the literary masque and the masque-in performance,. but then goes on to suggest that . It is impossible to speak about the . Jonsonian. masque when one has the actual production in mind,. claiming that the literary masque and the masque-in-performance belong to two entirely different systems. (27-28) If this article has demonstrated anything to this point, it is that such a conclusion is completely wrong--in fact, that Limon and the critics he cites have failed to consider the possibility that the masque existed neither in its text nor in its performance, but in the liminal space between the two. By himself, Jonson was an abject failure as a masque-writer; by himself, Jones. s work became increasingly more strained, each progressive work trying to outdo the last one in more and more costly and gaudy expenditures. This is not to say that Jones enjoyed no future success; indeed, from a financial standpoint he seems to have fared better than Jonson did after the collaboration was over. But his best work remained forever linked with Jonson, precisely because he was incapable of finding another collaborator who could strike the delicate balance between the specters of masque and antimasque, who could produce a work that would function properly within liminal space. As I have already suggested, it is my belief that all performances exist in Turner. s state of in-betweeness, but Jonson. s masques remain one of the best examples of how one could take advantage of that condition. s ambiguity and potential. As Orgel comments, . The grandiloquence of the masque. s conception lay as much in its engineering as its poetry.. (Orgel, Illusion 85) Grandiloquence has many negative words associated with it--pomposity, bombast, nonsense. But its other synonym--rhetoric--might, differently conceived, express its fullest meaning; that of soul and body, essence and illusion, text and staging united together. It is at the point of that union, the place where written word and physical performance intersect, that the masque exists.

In the chapter . Rokujo. s Jealousy: Liminality and the Performative Genres. within his book The Anthropology of Performance, Victor Turner makes the statement that . ...within the liminal frame, new subjunctive...structures are then generated, with their own grammars and lexica of roles and relationships. These are imaginative creations, whether attributed to individuals or . traditions.. . (107) I began this article with another quote from Turner, in which he suggested that liminality and entertainment were inextricably linked. In a way, I have tried throughout this essay to connect the two quotes, making the claim that the structure of entertainment that is created within the liminal frame is the theatrical performance itself. I have looked particularly at the Jonsonian masque to draw this connection, but the argument is I think valid for all theatrical work: in the breakdown of physical barriers, where the performers both physically and visually moved outwards while the audience. s attention moved inward, a liminal space was created where the performance took place between both conditions; the breakdown of class barriers, between aristocrat and lord, created a liminal space of class wherein both the deep aspirations of all the society. s classes could be affirmed and criticism and subversion might be safely attempted, springing from the condition of ambiguity; and finally the breakdown of Jonson and Jones. s old conflict, between the masque. s text and the masque. s staging, created a liminal space where, in tandem with both other liminalities, the masque actually existed in a perpetual margin. This state makes the masque both complex and frustrating to study, but it also provides it with an astonishing degree of freedom, granted to it by its in-between status; and both Ben Jonson and Inigo Jones were responsible for creating a form that would shift theater to a space where further growth might be possible. As Orgel concludes The Jonsonian Masque: . If the drama is approaching its audience again after three hundred years, it must have something to say that cannot be expressed from behind a proscenium wall. No longer confronted by an illusion of reality, we may find, like the courtly spectator at the moment of the revels, that the world of theater is one in which we play a new kind of part.. (202)

 

Notes

1 Other forms of theater have engaged in this kind of blurring of the lines of separation between spaces, particularly experimental theaters of the twentieth century; moreover, the violations of space I am about to explore were as readily evident in the seasonal festivals and carnivals which preceded the masque's rise to court prominence (Welsford 3). Nor was Jonson the only masque writer working at this time. But he was the first one to take the masque seriously as an art form, not simply something to look spectacular and pass the time of a bored royal court; and after Jonson, the masque, with the brief exception of Milton's Comus, quickly disappeared as a viable form. His masques, then, represent perhaps the most unified and consistent example of the collapse of traditional theatrical boundaries, and I think are worth focusing on for that reason.

2 Here I am referring to class in a broad sense, not so much in terms of rich and poor, but rather of royal and non-royal, an intersection which I will show functions along several lines.

3This did not stop Jonson from producing public plays, though; but as Orgel points out in The Jonsonian Masque, . There are, perhaps, enough purely material reasons for Jonson to have written for the court...for a masque King James gave him five times what his producers paid for a new play. (4) Jonson was clearly drawn to the masque for other artistic reasons as well, but the practical considerations of money and royal favor could not help but have weighed significantly.

4 There were a very few exceptions to this rule; Welsford cites the insertion of "...elaborate masques into their plays, and sometimes actors would reproduce on the public stage antimasques which they themselves had already performed at great Court functions." (284) In particular Welsford cites Shakespeare's "borrowing" of such antimasques from Ben Jonson for The Winter's Tale and The Tempest (284), but her evidence is shaky and in any case there is no real proof that Shakespeare had himself seen any such entertainments, even if the public "wanted" such from him.

5 Not much has been written about this interesting fact concerning the masques; clearly, members of royalty were meant to be seen and worshiped without sinking to the social level of the actor, but one wonders if there may not have been other more practical concerns as well; given the unfortunate forays of the monarchy into the field of writing masques, is it possible that discretion became the better part of valor when it came to trying to act in them? Whatever the case, there are almost no accounts of a royal figure speaking during a masque's performance.

6 In his notes to this masque, Jonson sourly comments that he avoided introducing each hag one by one when they first entered because to do so . ...had been a most piteous hearing, and utterly unworthy any quality of a poem, wherein a writer should always trust somewhat to the capacity of the spectator, especially at these spectacles, where men, beside inquiring eyes, are understood to bring quick ears, and not those sluggish ones of porters and mechanics that must be bored through at every act with narrations..  (125) Perhaps this comment is more from praise of the former than criticism of the latter, but Jonson. s echo of Hamlet is eerie none the less: . ...the groundlings, who, for the most part, are capable of nothing but inexplicable dumb-shows and noise.... (III.ii)

 

WORKS CITED

Gordon, D.J. The Renaissance Imagination. Ed. Stephen Orgel. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1980.

Jonson, Ben. Ben Jonson: The Complete Masques. Ed. Stephen Orgel. New Haven: Yale UP, 1969.

Limon, Jerzy. The Masque of Stuart Culture. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1990.

Orgel, Stephen. Introduction. Ben Jonson: The Complete Masques. Ed. Orgel. New Haven: Yale UP, 1969. 1-39.

---. The Illusion of Power: Political Theater in the English Renaissance. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1975.

---. The Jonsonian Masque. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1965.

Tuan, Yi-Fu. Segmented Worlds and Self: Group Life and Individual Consciousness. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982.

Turner, Victor. The Anthropology of Performance. New York: PAJ Publications, 1986.

Welsford, Enid. The Court Masque: A Study in the Relationship Between Poetry & the Revels. London: Cambridge UP, 1927.

* Gregory A. Wilson, Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts, U.S.A. Email: gregawil@yahoo.com

Back to contents

Back to homepage