CYCLOPS ‘BY THE COMEDIANS’

Neither Weaver’s scenario nor the advertisements for the first performances of The Loves of Mars and Venus tell us who played the Cyclops, Vulcan’s Workmen. It was only on 12 March and the fourth performance of the ballet that the bills announced ‘4 Cyclops by the Comedians’ (Weaver’s scenario calls for seven Cyclops in all). Weaver does not give the Cyclops individual names, although these were used elsewhere including the masque by Motteux that was his main source.

The billing ‘the Comedians’ suggests that audiences would have known which players would take the roles. The Drury Lane company had 25 actors for the 1716-1717 season, including a number who specialised in comedy – several of whom occasionally danced. The cast for Weaver’s ‘Entertainment of Dancing in Grotesque Characters’ The Shipwreck; or, Perseus and Andromeda included ‘Four Sailors and Wives by the Comedians’. This tells us that there were four (and perhaps, if the ‘Wives’ were played by men, eight) players who might have appeared as Cyclops in Weaver’s ballet. The billing also suggests that the Comedians had been popular enough in The Loves of Mars and Venus for Weaver to be happy to use the idea in a fresh context. Who could these ‘Comedians’ have been?

Most obvious among them is William Pinkethman, who was probably the leading low comedian at Drury Lane during this period. Primarily an actor, Pinkethman sometimes sang and danced. He regularly ran a booth at London’s summer fairs and also managed a theatre during the summer months, first at Greenwich and then at Richmond. His repertoire included Harlequin in Aphra Behn’s The Emperor of the Moon, a role he took early in the 18th century. This indicates that he had physical skills that were akin to dancing. He often appeared with the comic actor William Bullock (who was a member of John Rich’s troupe at Lincoln’s Inn Fields in 1716-1717). Their respective talents were described in 1709 in an issue of the Tatler.

‘Mr. William Bullock and Mr. William Penkethman are of the same age, profession, and sex. They both distinguish themselves in a very particular manner … Mr. Bullock has the more agreeable sqwal, and Mr. Penkethman the more graceful shrug. Penkethman devours a cold chicken with great applause. Bullock’s talent lies chiefly in asparagus. Penkethman is very dexterous at conveying himself under a table. Bullock is no less active at jumping over a stick.’

The description gives us an idea of the stock in trade of the London stage’s low comedians and suggests something of the physical comedy Pinkethman might have brought to the role of a Cyclops. He is one of the few actors of the period for whom we have a portrait.

Pinkethman 1709

William Pinkethman, mezzotint by John Smith after a portrait by Johann Rudolf Schmutz, 1709. © British Museum

Another comedian at Drury Lane in 1716-1717 was Henry Norris, who often worked with Pinkethman at the fairs and in the latter’s summer theatres. Norris had begun his career by the mid-1690s, perhaps in Dublin. He had arrived in London for the 1699-1700 season, when he played at Drury Lane. Like Pinkethman, he was a comic actor who occasionally sang and danced and quite often managed a booth at the fairs. He, too, was noted for his expressive skills, as a discussion of his appearance in the afterpiece The Country Wake in the Tatler in 1712 reveals:

‘I am confident, were there a scene written wherein Penkethman should break his leg by wrestling with Bullock, and Dicky [i.e. Henry Norris] come in to set it, without one word said but what should be according to the exact rules of surgery in making this extension, and binding up the leg, the whole house should be in a roar of applause at the dissembled anguish of the patient, the help given by him who threw him down, and the handy address and arch looks of the surgeon.’

Such skills and such interplay must surely have been put to good use in the scenes involving the Cyclops.

Also at Drury Lane at this period was the comedian Francis Leigh, who had begun his career in the early 1700s. He later worked with Pinkethman at Greenwich as well as running a fair booth with Norris during the summer. Leigh occasionally danced, although the only piece in which he was explicitly billed was a Miller’s Dance (in which he apparently sometimes appeared as the Miller’s Wife – I will take a closer look at the various versions of this entr’acte dance in due course). Sadly, there is no known portrait of Leigh and no description of him in performance. However, his close association with both Pinkethman and Norris suggests compatible skills.

The fourth comedian at Drury Lane who may have played one of the Cyclops was Josias Miller, who had begun his career around 1704. Like the others I have mentioned, he was a comic actor who occasionally sang and danced (he later took non-speaking roles in some of Drury Lane’s most successful pantomimes). There are a couple of depictions of Miller as different characters, but no description of him in performance.

Miller Josias

Josias Miller, as Teague in Sir Robert Howard’s The Committee. Mezzotint by Andrew Miller after a painting by Charles Stoppelaer, 1739. © British Museum

More research may uncover further information about the performance styles of these four comedians, perhaps shedding light on how they may have played the Cyclops in The Loves of Mars and Venus. Dancing skills were obviously not the point of their appearances in the ballet. They were surely there to make the audience laugh at their antics as they mimed their way through their actions as blacksmiths and responded to the orders of their master, Vulcan.

Cyclops Psyche 1671

Henry Gissey, Design for a Cyclops in the tragédie-ballet Psyché , 1671

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2 thoughts on “CYCLOPS ‘BY THE COMEDIANS’

  1. kethuprofumo

    Dear Moira,
    I’ve found some interesting Italian sources upon dance in history. Here they’re. I hope you will find them useful:

    1. Il Ballerino di Fabrizio di Caroso 1577.
    2. Thoinot Arbeau Orchesographie 1588.
    3. Clode-François Menestier Des ballets anciens et modernes selon le regles du theatre 1682.
    4. Gregorio Lambranzi Nuova e curiosa scuola di danza teatrale 1716.

    Good luck with your research!

    Best wishes,
    Maria

    Reply
    1. moiragoff Post author

      Dear Maria,
      Many thanks for these too. I make quite a lot of use of Lambranzi. He is so close to the dancing on the London stage that it is uncanny.
      Best wishes
      Moira

      Reply

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