Scenery for Dancing on the Early 18th-Century London Stage

Visiting the theatre in early eighteenth-century London was a very different experience from that of the theatre-goer in the twenty-first century. There were very few theatres and all were small and intimate by modern standards. The entertainment offered was likely to include a variety of genres, which today we would expect to be rigidly separated by venue. On a single evening in any one theatre, the playgoer might see a mainpiece tragedy or comedy, followed by an afterpiece which could be a farce, a masque with singing or a pantomime with dancing. Between the acts of the first as well as before and sometimes after the second there would be music, dancing and occasional speciality acts. There was a great deal of dancing on the London stage during the early eighteenth century. What was the scenic context for this dancing? Were the danced afterpieces provided with new scenery, suitable to their action, or could and did they draw on the theatre’s stock scenery? Were the entr’acte dances performed against whatever scenery was in place for the play they interrupted? How might the scenery have affected playgoers’ perceptions of the choreographies they saw?

Afterpieces

The first wholly danced afterpiece on the London stage was John Weaver’s The Loves of Mars and Venus, performed at Drury Lane on 2 March 1717. Weaver published a detailed scenario to accompany performances which tells us that The Loves of Mars and Venus has six scenes, most of which have a specific location. Scene one, which introduces Mars, is set in ‘A Camp’. In scene two, ‘the Scene opens and discovers Venus in her Dressing-Room at her Toilet’, while scene three ‘opens to Vulcan’s Shop’. Mars and Venus meet for a love tryst in scene four in ‘A Garden’, after which scene five returns to Vulcan’s shop. The setting for scene six is unspecified, but it may return to the garden of scene three, or perhaps an interior as Mars and Venus are described as ‘sitting on a Couch’. The subsequent descent of several gods and goddesses to resolve the quarrel between Vulcan, his wife and her lover, would not have looked any less surprising in either an interior or exterior location.

All of these scenes, with the exception of Vulcan’s shop, are recognisably from Drury Lane’s stock. The shop may have used a generic interior with suitable freestanding props, including Vulcan’s anvil, a forge and a ‘Grindlestone’. Colley Cibber, in his Apology published in 1740, indicated the use of existing scenery when he wrote of Weaver’s The Loves of Mars and Venus that ‘from our Distrust of its Reception, we durst not venture to decorate it, with an extraordinary Expence of Scenes, or Habits’. The familiarity of the scenery may have helped with the success of the ballet, countering its ‘Design so entirely novel and foreign’ as Weaver himself put it.

A few years later, the pantomime Harlequin Doctor Faustus was advertised with the enticement ‘All the Scenes, Machines, Habits and other Decorations being entirely New’ when it was first performed at Drury Lane on 26 November 1723. The afterpiece, which had a great deal of serious as well as grotesque dancing, included such locations as ‘The Doctor’s Study’, ‘The Street’ and ‘A Room in the Doctor’s House’, all of which sound suspiciously like stock scenery which must have domesticated the action for audiences who would have recognised the scenes from use in mainpiece plays. However, the concluding ‘Grand Masque of the Heathen Deities’ (a divertissement of serious dancing) was provided with ‘A Poetical Heaven. The Prospect terminating in plain Clouds’. Finally ‘the Cloud that finishes the Prospect flies up’ to reveal ‘Diana standing in a fix’d Posture on an Altitude form’d by Clouds, the Moon transparent over her Head in an Azure Sky, tinctur’d with little Stars’. The scene must have surprised and charmed, perhaps even awed, audiences before Hester Booth as Diana danced a step.

Entr’acte Dances

The scenic context for entr’acte dances must have been quite different. On 11 April 1728, The Provok’d Husband was performed at Drury Lane for the benefit of Theophilus Cibber and his wife. The play, adapted and completed by the actor’s father Colley Cibber from Sir John Vanbrugh’s unfinished A Journey to London, had proved extremely successful following its first performance on 10 January 1728. Its initial run of 28 performances was cut short only by the overwhelming popularity of The Beggar’s Opera, which opened at Lincoln’s Inn Fields on 29 January. The 11 April performance of The Provok’d Husband was the first for which entr’acte dances were billed in detail. Here is the advertisement in the Daily Post for 11 April 1728:

The information about the dancing allows us to explore the scenes the dances may have been performed against.

Much of the action in The Provok’d Husband is set in either ‘Lord Townly’s House’ or ‘Mrs Motherly’s House’, that is in rooms within their houses, they being two of the principal characters. Presumably these locations were distinguished from one another by differences in the wings and shutters (which may have been minimal) and by onstage props placed within the scenic stage area. So, the Harlequins duet could have been performed either in front of the scene representing ‘Lord Townly’s Apartment’ (for act one) or before ‘Mrs Motherly’s House’ (the scene for act two). Either scene would have placed a grotesque dance against an interior scene which was intended to remind audiences of a room familiar to them from either their own town houses or those of their family, friends or neighbours. The dance given in this performance against such a backdrop might have suggested the idea of an entertainment, more specifically a masquerade ball, thus anticipating a later scene in the play.

The use of scenes behind dances, and the relationship between the two, is shown by the engravings in Gregorio Lambranzi’s Neue und curieuse Theatralische Tantz-Schul published in Nuremberg in 1716. Although it was printed in one of the German states and was the work of a Venetian dancing master, Lambranzi’s book shows many parallels with what we know of entr’acte dancing in London at this period, including the titles and themes of many of the dances he illustrates. The stage sets in the engravings are formed of wings and shutters with a variety of interior and exterior scenes. The backdrop to the duet of male and female Harlequins, seems to be decorative rather than realistic although it could represent an interior hung with tapestries.

Other engravings apparently show rooms in houses, and not all of these are associated with the serious dances portrayed by Lambranzi.

Of course, it may have been standard practice in London’s theatres to close the downstage set of shutters behind the entr’acte dancers, providing them with a neutral backdrop against which to perform. Such an effect can be seen in a painting by Marcellus Laroon the younger.

The scene has many fanciful touches and, although it does seem to show dancers on stage, it cannot be securely linked to any of London’s theatres. Nevertheless, it provides a glimpse of how entr’acte dances may have been presented. Decorative but otherwise neutral scenes can also be seen in some of Lambranzi’s engravings.

The effect is to present the dancers in their own space, focussing attention directly on them and distancing them and their choreography from the action of the play which they interrupt.

The dances ‘In the Masquerade Scene’ within The Provok’d Husband as well as that given at the ‘End of the Play’ on 11 April 1728 raise some more questions. The masquerade, a key part of the play’s dénouement, takes place in act five. The scene is ‘another Apartment’ in Lord Townly’s house and several stock masquerade characters are mentioned, including a ‘Shepherdess’, a ‘Nun’ and a ‘running Footman’. The action calls for ‘A Dance of Masks … in various Characters’ and it is here that the Polonese, probably a Polonaise by dancers who perhaps wore recognisably ‘Polish’ costumes, must have been performed as part of the play, against the wings and shutters in place for this scene. The other performers in the ‘Dance of Masks’ may have been actors rather than the company’s dancers. The Coquette Shepherdess, performed at the end of play, may have been a tiny scene as well as a dance. Could it also have been a mute commentary on the play’s moral as demonstrated by Lady Townly ‘Immoderate in her Pursuit of Pleasures’ at the beginning who has become a ‘Wife Reform’d’ by the end?

Later in the season, for a performance on 3 May 1728, the entr’acte dances were again billed in detail for a benefit with The Provok’d Husband as the mainpiece, this time for Mrs Brett and Miss Lindar. The differences between the two bills are interesting. Here is the advertisement from the Daily Post for 3 May 1728.

They were almost all inserted in different places from those of 11 April, and there was no mention of dancing in the ‘Masquerade Scene’. Acts three and four of The Provok’d Husband were also both set in interiors. The omission of any mention of the dance in the masquerade scene suggests that this was either left out or, perhaps, performed by the actors. This would have favoured the entr’acte dances performed elsewhere on the bill. The fact that any of them could plausibly have formed part of a ‘Dance of Masks … in various Characters’ may have affected its staging at this performance.

The differences between the bills of 11 April and 3 May make it obvious that entr’acte dances were not usually meant to relate to the action of the play. The performance histories of the respective dances given at the end of act one in each performance underline this. On 11 April, there was a Harlequins duet by two of Drury Lane’s youngest dancers, Master Lally and Miss Brett, whereas on 3 May Miss Brett danced a solo Saraband. Apart from the fact that the Harlequins duet was a comic (if not a grotesque) dance and the solo Saraband belonged to the serious genre, the former probably had its origin in a very different context. It may well have come from the pantomime Harlequin Happy and Poor Pierrot Married, which had been first performed at Drury Lane on 11 March ‘With new Scenes and proper Decorations’. Master Lally and Miss Brett had been billed as ‘Children of Love representing two Harlequins’ and their duet seems to have been so popular that it quickly became an entr’acte dance to allow for more frequent performances. During the 1727-28 season, the two youngsters also danced Harlequins at the end of act three of Farquhar’s  The Recruiting Officer (7 May 1728) and on the same bill as both Vanbrugh’s The Relapse (8 April 1728) and Macbeth (Davenant’s version, 8 May 1728). Miss Brett performed her Saraband once in 1727-28.

Conclusion

The advertisements for danced afterpieces, as well as other evidence, show that these made use of stock scenery but could also be provided with new and lavish individual scenes when such expense could be justified. There is insufficient evidence to allow a definitive answer to the question about the background scenery for entr’acte dances. Were they danced before the scenes in place for the mainpiece play or before decorative but neutral shutters? We don’t know. Entr’acte dances were such an integral part of the theatrical bill, and audiences were so familiar with the conventions surrounding them, that the backdrops must rarely have attracted notice. Audiences undoubtedly picked up the subtext provided by choreography and the dancers, quite independently of the scenes that framed them. Given that dancing in London’s theatres mostly took place on the forestage, whatever was behind them dancers had in any case stepped out of the frame provided by the proscenium arch into a space shared with their audience.

This post was originally a conference paper, given several years ago but never published, which I have both revised and amended.

Reading List

John Weaver, The Loves of Mars and Venus (London, 1717)

Colley Cibber, An Apology for the Life of Colley Cibber, ed. B. R. S. Fone (Mineola, NY, 2000)

An Exact Description of the Two Fam’d Entertainments of Harlequin Doctor Faustus (London: [1724])

Colley Cibber, The Provok’d Husband (London, 1728)

Gregorio Lambranzi, Neue und curieuse Theatralische Tantz-Schul (Nurnberg: Johan Jacob Wolrab, [1716]). I use the modern English translation of this work, New and Curious School of Theatrical Dancing, transl. Derra de Moroda (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2002)

The Music Party. Paintings, Drawings & Prints by Marcellus Laroon (1679-1772), comp. James Miller [London?, 2011]

Moira Goff, The Incomparable Hester Santlow (Aldershot, 2007)

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