At a workshop recently, I learnt an early 19th-century English dance with the name Morgiana in the title. The teacher (who is always finding new country dances and quadrilles from this period) mentioned that it was only one of several dances in which her name features. So, who was Morgiana and why was she so popular in the ballroom?
A quick search on the web revealed that she is a character in the Arabian Nights’ Entertainment and that she features in the tale of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. This collection of stories reached western Europe in a French translation early in the 18th century and was quickly translated into English in a version which went through many editions and remained popular well into the 19th century. In the modern edition I have, Morgiana is described as ‘a cunning artful slave, so fruitful in her inventions, that she would succeed in the most difficult undertaking’. In fact, she plays a central role in Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, saving her master from death several times – it is she who kills the forty thieves.
Morgiana’s last exploit comes as Ali Baba is, unwittingly, entertaining the captain of the thieves who intends to murder him. She employs a particularly interesting ‘invention’ to outwit the would-be killer. She ‘dressed herself like a dancer, girded her waist with a silver-gilt girdle, to which there hung a poniard of the same metal, and put a handsome mask on her face’. The story goes on:
‘Morgiana, who was an excellent dancer, danced after such a manner as would have created admiration …
After she had danced several dances with a great deal of justness, she drew the poniard, and holding it in her hand, danced a dance, which was very surprising for the many different figures and fine movements it required.’
At the end of her dance, Morgiana stabs and kills the captain, saving Ali Baba once again. She has already earned her freedom, so her final reward is to marry Ali Baba’s son.
Such a colourful and exciting tale was ripe for adaptation on the London stage, although it apparently had to wait until the early 19th century for its first production. On 8 April 1806, Drury Lane presented The Forty Thieves, a ‘New Grand Operatical Romance’ with a scenario by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, music by Michael Kelly and ‘Ballets and Action’ by James Harvey d’Egville. The playbill shows that it was a lavish production.
Other versions of The Forty Thieves soon followed in London’s minor theatres, including one as late as 1835 at the Lyceum. The Drury Lane ‘melo-dramatic romance’ was quickly published, as was its vocal score. Further versions of Ali Baba; or, The Forty Thieves destroyed by Morgiana were published around Britain into the mid-19th century, suggesting that many provincial theatres also gave performances of the piece.
Of course, Morgiana danced in The Forty Thieves. In a printed edition of the play, she is described in the penultimate scene as appearing ‘in a dancing dress, with gold pitcher, (splendid) and goblet’ (the original manuscript ignores the pitcher and goblet but says she has ‘a dagger in her girdle’). While the printed text says only that there is a ‘short dance by Figurantes, then by Morgiana with Tambourine’ the manuscript expands this:
‘Morgiana’s Dance in which imitating two or three of the Passions she prevents Hassarac’s [the captain] attempts to assassinate Ali Baba without her intention being discover’d by Hassarac or Ali Baba & Family – Hassarac has, at last, lifted up his dagger & is on the very point of stabbing Ali Baba when she seizes his arm and in a violent struggle she forces the Robber to plunge his weapon in his own breast.’
It was surely Morgiana’s tambourine dance (as much as her dramatic action) that caught the imagination of the public and encouraged dancing masters to use her name, and perhaps her music, to create new dances for the ballroom – some of which my 21st-century dancing master has re-discovered.
Here is Morgiana dressed to dance, and to kill!