Purcell and the Theatre

London in the 1690’s was the largest city in Europe, with about 300,000 inhabitants. There were technically two cities (as there still are, of course): the City of London (extending from Blackfriars to the Tower and northwards to Moorgate, just about here and the City of Westminster (between Charing Cross and Millbank). The fields between the two, however, commemorated in the name of St Martin’s, had long disappeared. The City of Westminster consisted mainly of the Palace of Whitehall, the King’s residence, the Palace of Westminster, an ancient royal residence, now the seat of Parliament, and the Abbey, with all their associated buildings, markets and gardens. Along the river below the Strand were great houses with gardens down to the river, such as Somerset House and the palace of the Savoy (where the hotel now stands). And northwards above the Strand the old convent-garden, developed as a piazza with church by Inigo Jones before the Commonwealth, was already surrounded by closely built houses. Rebuilding in the City of London since the Great Fire in 1666 had been fast, (though not to the visionary plan of Wren, with its Palladian vistas) and had been accompanied by extensive residential development to the west, around St James’s, and along Piccadilly - St James’s Square and the foundations of Burlington House, for example, date from this time. But it was still a manageable size. Both Pepys and later Purcell lived in Westminster.

The London theatre-going public, though enthusiastic, was consequently by present day standards, tiny. It supported, in the great days after the Restoration in 1660 (you remember that the theatres, like Christmas, had been suppressed under Cromwell and the Commonwealth), two licenced theatre companies, named for the King and for his brother the Duke of York. They played, after a couple of stopgaps, at two new theatres fitted out with the latest in changeable scenery, at Drury Lane, where a theatre still stands, and at Dorset Garden, between the river and Fleet Street, behind St Brides’ - built on a site formerly devasted by the Great Fire. (Incidentally these two royal patents are still in force in 2000 - they are held by the Opera House Covent Garden, after a few changes of venue; and by the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. Killigrew’s Patent is exhibited in the Theatre Museum). There were also a small number of semi-legal fairground companies, touring troupes, and puppet-shows, with occasional licences. These performed for example at the summer Bartholomew Fair, a licence to riot.

But in fact even only two companies had quite a hard time of it, and they were amalgamated in 1682, under the management of the greatest actor of his time, Thomas Betterton. Betterton had been in the theatre since the Restoration, under Davenant. Davenant was Shakespeare’s godson, and the tradition from the Elizabethan/Jacobean theatre was unbroken, though perhaps adapted during the exile - there are Continental influences discernable particularly in the staging practices. This influence was not all one-way: the passionate love of the Germans for Shakespeare dates from the influx of English actors and their plays into Germany in the 1640’s.

Theatre politics could prove vicious and fatal. (Mrs Bracegirdle, Betterton’s leading lady and the most famous virgin of her time, had already been the subject of one fatal encounter between a jealous admirer and an actor, where the actor was killed - not to mention the odd fracas in the auditorium: Tuesday night happened a quarrel at the playhouse between one captain Leinster and another; many swords were drawn in the pit but no harm done. There was likewise a quarrel amongst the footmen, where the Earl of Oxford’s footman was run through the body.)

During the nineties Betterton lost all his money in a merchant venture to the East Indies, and the amalgamated mega-company - the United Patentees - was taken over financially by one Christopher Rich, a lawyer - a waspish, ignorant, pettifogger in Law and Poetry; one who understood Poetry no more than Algebra - who proceeded to rationalise the company, trying to make the older actors redundant and pay the younger ones less, and who spent the money on blockbusting musicals, much to the disgust of the straight actors... In 1695 it split up in deep acrimony - Betterton took all the best actors off to another theatre leaving poor Purcell with the official rump. Rich promised to finance a new company of picked musicians, no expense spared on the productions; whereas Betterton went to a theatre without extensive machinery - some scholars say poor Henry simply died of overwork...

What were these theatres like? They were very different from their long-demolished predecessors, such as the Globe on the South Bank, though not so far removed from the temporary court theatres built for masques. These had had some machines, but were not permanent. The founders of the new theatres had been living in France with the exiled Charles II, and had been deeply impressed with French and Italian theatre practice, especially as regards scenery, with movable wings and flying machines. However, as actors they were not prepared to forgo the intimate contact with the audience that the thrust stages of the Elizabethan theatres had given. And indeed English theatres featured a forestage as deep as the scenic stage behind right into the nineteenth century, when the auditorium darkened, and the stage retreated behind the proscenium arch to create the perfect illusion (only of course to come straight out again in the twentieth century when the cinema provided an even more convincing illusion...) The London Coliseum dates from the highpoint of the proscenium-arch theatre - its stage is wide, and makes a closed picture: the proportions are the exact opposite of DG.

Of the two major theatres in the 1690’s, the Dorset Garden theatre was a little larger than Drury Lane, its acoustics better for music, and its machinery more extensive and sophisticated.

What was it like? We don’t have actual plans for any of the theatres for precisely this period. There’s a sketch, possibly by Wren, for a theatre, possibly Drury Lane; there are some play illustrations that show the stage. We know the theories and models they were working from. There are anecdotes, and there are stage directions. For Dorset Garden we have the overall ground dimensions, from a very accurate map of 1676; we have two pictures of the front elevation, from a panorama of the Thames in 1681 and from a series of engravings illustrating the play called The Empress of Morocco by Settle- these also provide views of the stage. There is also a very precise description of scenery for another Settle play The World in the Moon (1697):

Oct 1676: description of Dorset Garden by Francois Brunet: The auditorium is infinitely more beautiful and well-kept than those in the playhouses of our French actors. The pit, arranged in the form of an amphitheatre, has seats, and one never hears any noise. There are only seven boxes, holding twenty persons each. There are the same number of boxes up above, and higher still there is the paradise. Other reporters speak of the best places being reserved for the Crown - ie continental Royal box position, not present day.

Although there was a gallery above the stage called the music room, it is highly unlikely that the substantial bands required for the Purcell shows sat up there. It was an architectural relic of the trumpeters’ gallery in the old theatres, and was probably indeed used for fanfares and the like. But to perform successfully the kind of music heard in the extravaganzas needs proper contact between stage and band - even more so as they, of course, usually performed without a conductor. The orchestra was almost certainly where it is now, across the front of the stage, on the level of the stalls. In 1674 a musical version of The Tempest had the band of 24 violins, with the harpsichords and theoboes which accompany the voices, are placed between the pit and the stage. Purcell’s orchestra also uses oboes and flutes, but no double basses - the necessary bass loudness was provided by the theorboes - the large guitars... Music was required even in plays without any operatic input: Before the play begins, to render the waiting less annoying and inconvenient, there are very graceful instrumental pieces to be heard, with the result that many go early just to enjoy this part of the entertainment. After each act was played an act tune: in the case of those we know from Purcell’s suites of theatre music, they often refer back to songs sung in the act, but this was perhaps not always expected.

We know about the capabilities of the machinery from the directions in The Prophetess, Purcell’s first great hit in 1690. The machinery used for The Prophetess was astonishing. In There was also the capability to fly at least four people simultaneously and independently, and the capacity to produce some sophisticated lighting effects. The change of scenes could be effected - at the sound of a little bell - in a surprisingly short time, about 10 seconds, by means of sliding wings and borders all attached to a great barrel or drum. The system was simple and effective, and endured for about two centuries - you can see it still functioning in the late eighteenth century theatre at Drottningholm in Sweden.

This is an example of what they might have expected to see in the Prophetess: She waves her wand thrice. Soft Musick is heard. Then the Curtain rises and shews a stately tomb... she stamps and it vanishes: behind it is seen a large cupola, supported by Termes on pedestalls. She waves her wand, the termes leap from their pedestalls, the building falls, and the termes and cupola are turn’d into a Dance of Butterflies.

And here is the direction to the Masque of the Seasons in The Fairy Queen:

The scene changes to a Garden of Fountains. A Sonata plays while the Sun rises, it appears red through the mists, as it ascends it dissipates the Vapours, and is seen in its full lustre; then the Scene is perfectly discovered, the Fountains enriched with gilding, and adorned with Statues: the view is terminated by a walk of Cypress trees which lead to a delightful bower. Before the Trees stand rows of marble columns, which support many walks which rise to the top of the House; the stairs are adorned with Figures on pedestals, and rails; and Balusters on each side of ‘em. Near the top, vast Quantities of water break out of the hills, and fall in mighty Cascades to the bottom of the scene, to feed the fountains which are on each side. In the middle of the stage is a very large fountain, where the water rises about twelve foot... A Machine appears, the clouds break from before it, and Phoebus appears in a chariot drawn by four horses, and the four Seasons enter and praise him....

The Dorset Garden theatre, where The Fairy Queen, as all Purcell’s semi-operas, was first performed, was the brainchild of Thomas Betterton. He had been Davenant’s protege, and Davenant had been Shakespeare’s godson... He always maintained that his style of playing Shakespeare derived in a direct line from the poet himself. Though, when one looks closely at what evidence there is, it is clear that styles changed (much as one might trace the inheritance of Irving through Ellen Terry to John Gielgud). However, he must have had something very powerful - he held the stage well into the next century, playing Hamlet, one of his most famous parts, even at the age of seventy... Here is an account of his playing of the role:

... I have been lately been told by a Gentleman who has frequently seen Mr Betterton perform this part of Hamlet, that he has observ’d his Countenance (which was naturally ruddy and sanguin) in this scene of the fourth Act, where his Father’s Ghost appears, thro’ the violent and sudden emotions of Amazement and Horror, turn instantly on the sight of his Father’s spirit, as pale as his Neckcloath, when every article of his Body seemed to be affected with a Tremor inexpressible; so that, had his Father’s Ghost actually risen before him; he could not have been seized with more real agonies; and this was felt so strongly by the Audience, that the Blood seemed to shudder in their Veins likewise, and they in some measure partook of the Astonishment and Horror, with which they saw this excellent Actor affected. And when Hamlet utters this line, upon the Ghost’s leaving the Stage, (in answer to his Mother’s impatient enquiry into the Occasion of his Disorder, and what he sees) See-- where he goes-- ev’n now-- out at the Portal: the whole Audience hath remained in a dead silence for near a minute, and then - as if recovering all at once from their astonishment, have joined as one man, in a Thunder of universal applause...

After Davenant’s death in 1668 Betterton took over the running of the Duke’s, and later the amalgamated United company, very efficently, while continuing to act in new plays and classics, and planning and building his new theatre. Davenant had also bequeathed Betterton his passion for music theatre - when drama was banned during the Commonwealth, Davenant had got round the decree by presenting opera - a play called The Siege of Rhodes was performed in recitative music in 1656. Now lost, sadly.

Betterton’s particular desire was to develop a British form of opera - he’d seen French and Italian pieces, and thought them in essence unsuited to the British genius. The scenes and machines were wonderful, and well worth pinching, but the nature of the entertainment had to be different. In short, the English public would not wear ‘continual singing’, though it adored incidental music - an English ‘opera’, therefore, was (up until this century, more or less, when the American Musical took over the form) a spoken play with large quantities of music, songs, choruses, dances, atmospheric symphonies, more or less fitted to the play. The diarist Roger North, who loved his music but was very picky about how it was performed, was famously sniffy about British opera: semi-opera, or ambigues, he called them (exotic and irrational entertainments, as Johnson was to call them later), where those who enjoyed the music were impatient at the words and vice versa. However, their popularity does not bear this out as a widely held opinion. The combination of a grand sensational play, containing scenes suitable for spectacle and for song and dance, remained popular up until the advent of Handel’s Italian opera - and took over again in The Beggars Opera when Handel lost favour. Indeed, it’s never really gone out of fashion, as witness its later forms of pantomime and musical, not to mention Gilbert and Sullivan.

Purcell actually first wrote for the theatre in 1680 -Theodosius - it should have established him, but it inexplicably didn’t - he was practically ignored by the establishment (extraordinary - in 1684 Dryden and Betterton were thrashing round to find a composer for their British opera of Albion and Albanius, and all they could find was a Portuguese Frenchman called Louis Grabu, who had already tried his luck in England and failed.. Apparently they knew he could write an extended piece of vocal music, and didn’t think that Purcell was capable of it. However, in 1688, an actor called William Montfort (the same who was to die protecting Mrs Bracegirdle in the winter of 1692) commissioned a series of mad songs for a play called A Fool’s Preferment by Tom Durfey, a famously drunk Irish poet and dramatist: these included I’ll sail upon the Dogstar and were a great hit. The next year saw a couple more commissions, and also the performance at Josiah Priest’s school in Chelsea of Dido and Aeneas. Tom Durfey wrote the topical prologue and epilogue for this, and it’s reasonable to think that he might have influenced Betterton to give Purcell the big commission for The Prophetess.

The history of Dido and Aeneas is complicated and obscure. We have the libretto from the 1689 school performance, but the version of the music that we have dates from the early 18th century, well after Purcell’s death. We know, however, that it was never performed in the public theatre as the intact, self sufficient opera that we know today. The earliest reference to it apart from the school performance comes in 1700 - Betterton cut it into four masques, to be performed within Measure for Measure (it functions as a warning for Isabella). Oddly enough, this reads rather effectively, though it’s unlikely that anybody would perform it so today. The version of the music that we have probably dates from this arrangement. As to when it was first performed, a new theory suggests that it was conceived (and possibly performed - there are some curious financial records that would fit) in 1684 or 85 as a court opera, on the lines of the very successful Venus and Adonis by John Blow. However, Charles II died, James was not interested in English opera, and it was shelved for a future occasion.

The theatre season ran from September to May or so and Betterton liked to end the season with something extravagant. In 1692, Rich’s secret buying-up of the company has not yet come to light, and Betterton rules supreme - his ship may even now be overrun by the French in the Indian Ocean, but he will not know it for some months - and he is anxious to continue with the run of Spring spectaculars at the Dorset Garden Theatre. These had started in 1690 with The Prophetess or Dioclesian, Betterton’s own adaptation of a Jacobean blood-and-thunder number by Fletcher. As the company prompter John Downes described it, it was... Set out with Coastly Scenes, Machines and Cloaths: The vocal and instrumental Musick, done by Mr Purcel; and Dances by Mr Priest; it gratify’d the Expectation of Court and City; and got the Author great Reputation. It was revived constantly, a real banker, whenever foreign potentates needed entertaining and impressing. The original play had been written about 1622 by Fletcher and perhaps Massinger, adapted to modern tastes by Betterton. Julie Muller times it as running for a little under 4 hours, each of 5 acts running between 35 & 45 minutes, the last for about an hour. Frankly, it is a difficult piece to stage - there’s a real conflict between the music, jolly, sweet, and very occasionally sublime; and the play, meaty, heroic, loud and occasionally very silly. It’s typical of the gap between modern sensibilities and late 17th century ones, in a way that The Indian Queen isn’t.

The Prophetess made Purcell’s name. From having been a well respected composer of church music and court odes, he became the theatrical flavour of the next five years. The success of this show led to King Arthur, Betterton’s manifesto for an opera peculiarly British, with its patriotic libretto by the Laureate Dryden and its musical score by the now-discovered Purcell. That was first performed in May of 1691.

In January 1692 the Gentleman’s Journal promised that we shall have speedily a new opera, wherein something very surprising is promised us; Mr Purcell who joins to the Delicacy and Beauty of the Italian way, the Grace and Gaiety of the French, composes the Music, as he hath done for the Prophetess, and the last opera called King Arthur, which hath been played several times the last Month. So what could follow that? The answer was clearly to go back to a piece by the playwright still acknowledged as England’s greatest, Shakespeare. They wanted something English - in spite of the Athenian setting, what more English than Robin Goodfellow and Bottom? However, A Midsummer Night’s Dream was a hundred years old and clearly needed modernising - Pepys went to see it in 1665 and found it horribly oldfashioned and boring - so somebody, perhaps Betterton, adapted it for late seventeenth century sensibilities (This was as prevalent a practice then as it is now, though perhaps we pay more lipservice to the ideas of Authenticity) Certain rawnesses of rhyme and metre were smoothed over (lots more couplets added), and witty topical allusions built in - the drunken poet in the first musical interlude is almost certainly a caricature of Tom Durfey. Most importantly, the structure was altered to provide place for music at the end of each act, and the story subtly changed to reflect new priorities. The balanced anarchy of the Elizabethan wood becomes the controlled ceremony of the late seventeenth century court.

The Fairy Queen was a great success, but expensive. It cost about £3000, which no-one seriously thought could be recouped. Later that year Betterton’s personal financial losses became apparent, and Christopher Rich began to buy everyone out. There were still Spring spectaculars: entertainments called operas, but the control had slipped. In 1693 they could not afford a new piece, and revived The Prophetess, with some new songs. In 1694 they produced Don Quixote, an adaptation of the novel by Tom Durfey, with music not only by Purcell but by Eccles, a jolly piece very much the direct ancestor of the English panto.

For 1695 the plan was to adapt an old play by Robert Howard and John Dryden, called The Indian queen. Betterton was given £50 (a year’s salary) to gett it up as an opera but apart from commissioning Purcell to write the music, it is not clear what was done, by whom, or when. For the festering quarrels between Betterton and Rich broke out into open rebellion, and then Queen Mary died. During the three months’ mourning period, Betterton succeeded in getting a licence to play in another theatre, and when the theatres reopened in March 1695 he had left Rich, and Purcell, to fend for themselves. The Indian Queen was eventually put on in a botched together form, possibly even after Purcell’s death in November.

The Prophetess and King Arthur continued to draw crowds well into the eighteenth century, and The Indian Queen was also occasionally played, but the score of The Fairy Queen was lost - probably even before Purcell’s death, perhaps stolen in the actors’rebellion. The managers of the Theatre Royal advertised for it in 1701, but nothing more was heard of it until it turned up at the Royal Academy of Music in 1903.

As for Dido: the score did not remain with the rest of Purcell’s stage pieces at Drury Lane, but turned up at the rival concern in 1700: Betterton chopped it up into four separate masques as interludes in a production of Measure for Measure. The school performance libretto and the music, which exists only in the version of 1700 or after, do not tally. There are a lot of words in the libretto for which there is no music, and there are discrepancies in the vocal allocations. For example, there is some reason to think that the Sorceress was sung by a bass in 1700. Was it first written for a school? There is a lot of controversy currently over the date of composition. Perhaps it was written for the Court, as its predecessor Venus and Adonis by John Blow (1683) had been. Certainly the story of a native queen seduced and abandoned by a foreign prince is not the obvious choice for a production premiered one year after the accession of William and Mary. Personally I like the idea that it might have been written for James II, as a counterblast by the younger generation to the old fogies Dryden and Grabu, who had written for Charles II. But through-composed opera in English was not a crowdpuller - it was only acceptable to specialised audiences such as a school or a court. Betterton however clearly recognised its merit, though, when he adapted it for the remarkably well judged interludes in Measure for Measure. One wonders how long he’d been sitting on it. Since the split? Did one of Purcell’s singer friends bring it to him? No-one knows, as no-one can guess what English opera might have become, had he lived. He could easily have lived long enough to meet Handel, who took London by storm in 1712 and effectively stopped the development of opera in English for nearly two centuries. How would English opera have fared against the Italians had Purcell lived, one wonders...



lebrun