Eighteenth-Century Life 26.2 (2002) 23-44
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"Clamorous with War and Teeming with Empire":
Purcell and Tate's Dido and Aeneas
Deborah Payne Fisk
University of Denver
Two notorious problems have beset Dido and Aeneas: assessing its possible political allusions and possible political meanings, and assigning a date for its premiere performance. Early in the last century, W. Barclay Squire argued that the epilogue pointed to the revolution of 1688. 1 Other critics have since maintained that the prologue's stage directions for Phoebus' rising "Over the Sea," his remarks to Venus that her "lustre . . . half Eclipses mine" (I.14-15), and the Act I song "When Monarchs unite how happy their State / They Triumph at once on [or'e] their Foes and their Fate" (I.20-21) refer to the arrival of William III and to his joint monarchy with Mary. 2 Other political interpretations not only link the work's first performance date to the coronation of William and Mary in April 1689, but also argue that the Sorceress' machinations allude to new Catholic plots, while Aeneas' abandonment of Dido warns William III against neglecting England—although it should be noted that that would have deeply offended the new monarchs. 3 Many critics agree upon a première of 1689; 4 but others object that the opera's musical style pre-dates 1689 and that Purcell [End Page 23] would have been too busy with coronation music and birthday odes to have composed an opera in 1689. Instead, it is conjectured that, like Blow's Venus and Adonis, which was presented at court some time in 1681 or 1682 (London Stage, p. 301) and revived for performance at Josias Priest's girls boarding school at Chelsey, Dido and Aeneas may similarly have had its premiere at court, perhaps shortly after the performance of Blow's opera. However, until some firm evidence is unearthed, all of these conjectures about political meanings and dates remain tentative. A precise dating would be desirable, especially for those scholars who interpret the piece (largely the text) as politically allusive and commenting on, variously, Charles II, James II, or William and Mary. Such readings are fascinating; however, our approach differs: and we shall explore the issues the opera raises about gender and imperialism, the costs of conquest, and the emotional experience of loss. There is all but complete consensus that the opera premiered between 1684 and 1689; and we assume that it was written for a performance at Priest's school in 1689, possibly during the coronation month.
The earliest known libretto of Dido and Aeneas announces it was performed at Priest's school "By Young Gentlewomen. The Words Made by Mr. Nat. Tate. The Musick Compos'd by Mr. Purcell"; and that, alas undated libretto, is the earliest concrete evidence of a performance. 5 Josias Priest, a dancing master and choreographer frequently employed by the playhouses, had taken over the aristocratic girl's school in Gorges House, Cheyne Walk, in 1680, nine years before the first known performance of Dido and Aeneas. 6 The school had a tradition of performing musical dramas prior to Priest and under his management moved from half-spoken, half-sung dramas such as Thomas Duffett's and John Bannister's Beauties Triumph in 1676 (a rendering of the story of the Judgment of Paris) to fully-sung dramas—or operas—such as, on 17 April 1684, John Blow's Venus and Adonis, a miniature opera of the sort popularized by Marc-Antoine Charpentier in France. Dido and Aeneas, an opera, was part of the vogue for what Judith Milhous has aptly called "multimedia spectaculars" that flourished in the 1670s and then again in the 1690s. 7 Priest 's school was obviously unable to compete with the scenic glories available to the Dorset Garden Theatre, where those spectaculars were staged; but the stage directions in the libretto indicate that the school had the machinery to stage descents, as with the arrival of Phoebus and...