Most of my research is concerned with dancing on the London stage during the period 1660 – 1760. I spend a lot of time delving into entr’acte dances (the solos, duets and group dances performed between the acts of plays) as well as danced afterpieces (mainly pantomimes but also the occasional ballet or even masque). One area I haven’t really explored, because it would take a great deal of work, is dancing in the mainpieces – those plays that were the principal attraction on each evening’s bill. Most have little more than a concluding country dance (if that), although some include dances that are more significant. Even though most of London’s theatres had a stock repertoire repeated each season, new plays were regularly introduced – there are just too many of them to make it practicable to read every single one in case it has something of interest.
However, I have found a partial solution to this problem. I’ve recently begun charting in detail the dancing in London’s theatres season by season and I’ve realised that there were several mainpieces for which dancing was an important part of the action. These were so popular that they were regularly revived and the dancing was almost always mentioned in advertisements, albeit with stock phrases. I was already familiar with some of them, for example The Tempest and The Island Princess, but there were others which I hardly knew at all. These seem worth some investigation within the context of Dance in History.
I decided to start with Thomas Shadwell’s The Lancashire Witches, first given at the Dorset Garden Theatre in 1681. It was described thus by John Downes in his Roscius Anglicanus of 1708:
‘… a kind of Opera, having several Machines of Flyings for the Witches, and other Diverting Contrivances in’t: All being well perform’d, it proved beyond Expectation; very Beneficial to the Poet and Actors.’
The Lancashire Witches was still being given at Drury Lane in most seasons into the 1720s. Its last recorded performance was on 2 December 1729.
Shadwell’s play has two distinct but intertwining plots. One concerns two pairs of young lovers who surmount various obstacles before their eventual marriages. The other follows the antics of a coven of witches led by Mother Demdike and of Teague O Divelly (who provides the play’s subtitle), an Irish priest described in the cast list as ‘an equal mixture of Fool and Knave’. The witches, of course, proved the excuse for ‘all the Risings, Sinkings, and Flyings’ emphasised in most of the advertisements for performances. ‘Dancing’ and ‘Dances’ were regularly advertised in The Lancashire Witches from the early 1700s, although the dancers are almost never named. Mother Demdike and her witches were never named in cast lists, suggesting that they were performed by supporting players, while Teague O Divelly was a plum part for one of the company’s leading comic actors.
We don’t know who provided the music for the original production, although John Eccles was the composer of some songs from it. The Drury Lane performance on 8 July 1712 seems to mark a fresh production, for it had ‘All the Musick both Vocal and Instrumental Compos’d by Mr. Barret’. He was John Barrett (c1676-1719), who regularly composed music for the theatres. His music must have been popular since it continued to be mentioned in later years. Unfortunately, none of it survives.
What of the witches dances? As usual, we have little to go on. The 1691 edition of The Lancashire Witches has witches’ scenes in each of the first three acts, the last of which is the most elaborate. The play text tells us that the witches ‘Dance with fantastick unusual postures’ and Shadwell’s footnotes (unusual in a published play) quote from one source that ‘says they Dance with Brooms’. The only mention of a choreographer was in the bill for 16 July 1714, which said ‘The Witches’ Dances Compos’d by Mr. Prince and perform’d by him and others’. Prince was advertised among the entr’acte dancers at other performances of The Lancashire Witches, so he may have continued to dance in the play over the next two to three years. (It isn’t always possible to be sure whether the dances and dancers advertised for the entr’actes alongside plays such as The Lancashire Witches actually appeared in them).
There was a far more famous and popular contemporary play which had singing, dancing and flying witches – Shakespeare’s Macbeth, as revised by Sir William Davenant. Macbeth’s trio of witches were always played by leading comic actors within the company. Despite the popularity of both Macbeth and The Lancashire Witches, dancing witches seem never to have made their way into the repertoire of entr’acte dances in London’s theatres. Although this image from Lambranzi’s Neue und curieuses theatrialisches Tantz-Schul of 1716 (Part II, Plate 50) suggests they may have turned up between the acts elsewhere, to dance with ‘crouched bodies’ and ‘droll jumps’.