Introduction to The Merry Masque of Our Lady in London Town, by Charles A. Claye
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562 ] Introduction to The Merry Masque of Our Lady in London Town, by Charles A. Claye London: Printed at the Curwen Press for the Society of SS. Peter & Paul, Ltd. [1928].1 The Oxford Dictionary definition of a “masque” is, in brief, “an amateur histrionic entertainment, originally in dumb show, later including dialogue , etc.; dramatic composition for this.”2 The definition, which we have taken purposely from the “concise” Oxford Dictionary, omits much that the word suggests, but is enough for my present need; for it shows that Mr. Claye’s Merry Masque is rightly called a masque.3 We are apt to think of masques, if for instance we have read any of the beautiful masques of Ben Jonson, as distinctly secular productions:4 a “show,” often of heathen deities and their marvellous activities, played, as they first were, for the celebration of some festival at a petty Italian court of the Renaissance, or, in England, for the festive delight of sovereigns; James I and Charles I took great pleasure in them. At an earlier date, Marlowe makes one of his personages declare, in Edward II: I must have wanton poets, pleasant wits, Musicians, that with touching of a string May draw the pliant king which way I please. Music and poetry is his delight; Therefore I’ll have Italian masks by night. . . .5 The literary associations of the word “masque,” accordingly, are frivolous if not necessarily irreligious. But Mr. Claye’s Masque, while perfectly correctly named according to the definition given above, is a religious masque. We mention this point to avoid a misconception at the start. When we think of religious plays, we are apt to think of the English “Mystery” or “Miracle” plays, like Everyman and other popular mediaeval plays which are put on at the Old Vic at Christmas time.6 Mr. Claye, we think, has striven to present such religious feeling as we find in those old plays, not in the same form, but in the form of the masque. You must not expect to find a “mystery” play, like the Second Shepherds’ Play; you must expect something in a seventeenth-century form but with a fourteenth-century spirit.7 [ 563 Introduction to The Merry Masque of Our Lady in London Town The play is, as a masque should be, partly in “dumb show” and partly in lyrical dialogue. The importance of the distinction which we have just made is simply this – that the reader or spectator will not find it to be merely an imitation of an antique form of literature like a modern reproduction of some fine old piece of furniture. What the author is doing is new. It is directed, certainly, that the costumes and scenery should “suggest the miniatures in a Book of Hours of the fifteenth century.”8 But the author’s purpose in giving these directions is not to produce something which might have been written and performed in the fifteenth century; it is merely to arouse in the audience the kind of feeling towards the divine story which a fifteenth-century audience might have enjoyed. Such an audience would have been innocent of “historical accuracy” of place or time; a modern audience is far too aware of these things. Nowadays every “historical” film is staged in the original setting, when possible: if religious films become popular, the Holy Land will be over-run with film studios. On the other hand, we have already had Shakespeare in modern dress, with Macbeth’s soldiery accoutered like Scottish regiments. Both of these methods are mistaken, because they both make the audience more conscious of what they should forget, the differences of place and time. We have only mentioned them in order to point out what seems to be rightly Mr. Claye’s method. He wishes to revive something of the mediaeval popular attitude towards the divine story, but not to imitate any mediaeval type of performance. Having distinguished this masque from the Renaissance masque in spirit and material, and from the mediaeval mystery or morality plays in form, we must point out also that it is not an archaeological study, though the costume is of course all of one period, which was a period of beautiful dress. He has set the scene in Pimlico, not to amuse us by the quaintness of mediaeval fancy; but to remind us, on the contrary, of a drama which might have been at any place and at any time.9 What happened in Bethlehem should...