Comus, Dance and Gesture

On 4 March 1738, Comus was performed at Drury Lane. The advertisements declared that the piece was ‘Never Acted before. Alter’d from Milton’s Masque perform’d (upwards of a Hundred Years since) at Ludlow-Castle and now adapted to the Stage’. The production was lavish, as the advertisement for the third performance on 7 March (a benefit) indicates, ‘To prevent any Interruption in the Musick, Dancing, Machinery or other Parts of the Performance, Side Boxes only will be form’d on the Stage, for the Accommodation of the Ladies’. Comus, an adaptation from Milton by the poet John Dalton with music by Thomas Arne, quickly became a staple of the London stage.

Although the advertisement for the first performance lists only four dancers, there were very likely more. When Comus was revived on 28 November 1738, there were two principal dancers (George Desnoyer and Marie Chateauneuf) supported by six men and six women.

The text published to accompany the first performances includes three dances, all in act three. These are performed as part of Comus’s attempt to seduce ‘the Lady’. There is a ‘slow Dance … expressive of the Passion of Love’ by naiads, then a ‘Dance Tambourin’ by fauns and dryads and finally a song by Euphrosyne which, according to the score, was interrupted by several instrumental passages with varying time signatures. Euphrosyne calls for the dancers to represent different moods:

‘Now cold and denying,

Now kind and complying,

Disdaining, complaining,

Consenting, repenting,

Indifference now feigning.’

They seem to have responded as the music changed. It is tempting to draw a parallel with Les Caractères de la Dance (sometimes titled Les Caractères de l’Amour). It is worth noting that Mlle Chateauneuf had danced this choreography during her first visit to London during the 1734-1735 season and would revive it during the season following the first performances of Comus, in 1738-1739.

Could the final sequence of dances in Comus have made use of gesture? In particular, might any of the gestures described by John Weaver more than twenty years earlier, for his The Loves of Mars and Venus, fit the passions called for by Euphrosyne?

The ‘cold and denying’ lover might have used Weaver’s ‘Distaste. The left Hand thrust forth with the Palm turn’d backward; the left Shoulder rais’d, and the Head bearing towards the Right’. When she turns ‘kind and complying’ perhaps this was merely ‘Coquetry … seen in affected Airs’. Could ‘disdaining’ have been Weaver’s ‘Contempt … express’d by scornful Smiles; forbidding Looks; tossing of the head; filliping of the Fingers’? While ‘complaining’ might have been expressed by ‘Upbraiding. The Arms thrown forwards; the Palm of the Hands turn’d outwards; the Fingers open, and the Elbows turn’d inward to the Breast’. Weaver has no gestures for ‘Consenting, repenting’ but perhaps ‘Reconciliation’, with its shaking of hands or an embrace, might convey the former, while ‘Shame. The covering the Face with the Hand’ could represent the latter. While ‘Indifference’ suggests Weaver’s ‘Neglect’ with its ‘scornful turning the Neck; the flirting outward the back of the right Hand, with a turn of the wrist’, ‘feigning’ calls for additional movements which contradict the gesture’s overall effect. As this is, after all, a dance, the gestures would need to accompany steps either simultaneously or sequentially.

Could Weaver’s use of dance and gesture to convey ‘Actions, Manners, and Passions’ have been a regular feature of danced entertainments on the London stage, and not an isolated phenomenon (as it is so often described by modern researchers)? There are hints here and there that such expressive dancing was seen in London’s theatres, both before and after John Weaver’s dramatic entertainments of dancing. The 1738 production of Comus is only one such example.

This later depiction of Comus comes from A Collection of the Dresses of Different Nations, published in four volumes in London between 1757 and 1772. Comus can be found at the end of volume 2.

Comus Costume NYPL

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