- John Dryden, Court Theatricals, and the “Epilogue to the faithfull Shepheardess”
John Crowne’s court masque Calisto (1675), in which Princess Mary played the title role, has attracted much attention from modern scholars, thanks in part to the survival of a complete text, fragmentary music, and detailed financial records.1 But Calisto was but one of a series of plays acted by young ladies at court after the Restoration. Although she does not name a specific drama, Elizabeth Livingston, a Maid of Honour in the 1660s, complains that her “time was waisted in dressing, in dancing, in se[e]ing and in acting of play’s. acting play’s.”2 As a Maid of the Privy Chamber to Queen Catharine, Livingston served in the court of Charles II, but most of the fragmentary evidence pointing to performances by court ladies comes from the court of James, Duke of York, both of whose duchesses encouraged drama, and both of whose daughters enjoyed acting. In addition to Calisto, which Crowne wrote specifically for an all-female cast, the young ladies at the court of York also performed such popular plays as Nathaniel Lee’s Mithridates, George Etherege’s The Man of Mode, and Dryden’s Aureng-Zebe.3 As our evidence for these performances is often a single letter, there is every reason to suspect that this list is incomplete.
The earliest such performance to leave a record took place on 6 April 1670. “Last evening,” says the writer of a newsletter for 7 April, “their Majesties were diverted with a comedy acted at St. James’s by the little young ladies of the Court, who appeared extraordinarily glorious and covered with jewels.”4 St. James’s palace was the home of the Duke and Duchess of York and the birthplace of their daughters Mary and Anne; thanks to the manuscript diary of Richard Boyle, Earl of Burlington, we know that Mary was among the performers, and that the play was John Fletcher’s The Faithful Shepherdess, a pastoral [End Page 45] drama first published in 1609. “I saw Lady Mary, daughter of the Duke of York, and many young ladies act The Faithful Shepherdess very finely,”5 writes Burlington. A precocious performer, Princess Mary had charmed the diarist Samuel Pepys by dancing “most finely” a year before this event.6 Despite her youth (she was not quite eight), she appears to have taken a major role as the shepherdess Clorin, who enters mourning her dead swain and retains her chastity through five acts of high-minded Spenserian poetry.7
Those who organized this performance might have chosen The Faithful Shepherdess for its celebration of purity, though Clorin does have to fend off the rude advances of shepherds and satyrs in order to keep her vow of chastity. A new epilogue written specifically for the court performance, however, deliberately undermines any emphasis on purity by asking one of the youthful performers to acknowledge that even “little young ladies” might be the objects of erotic ogling. As Pierre Danchin points out, the commercial theatres had often used very young girls to speak suggestive prologues and epilogues,8 and this “Epilogue, spoken by the Lady Mary Mordont, before the King and Queen, at Court, to the faithfull Shepheardess” 9 connects what must have seemed a very old-fashioned play to the urbane world of the Restoration stage. It survives because it was printed in Covent Garden Drolery (1672), advertised on its title-page as “A COLLECTION Of all the Choice Songs, Poems, Prologues, and Epilogues, (Sung and Spoken at Courts and Theaters) … Written by the refined’st Witts of the Age. And Collected by A. B.”10 Aphra Behn may have been the editor of this collection, which includes five of her works and no less than eight works known or long believed to be the work of John Dryden. Four of Behn’s five contributions appear together, and most of Dryden’s contributions appear in groups,11 so it may be significant that his prologue to Albumazar begins on page 87, while the epilogue to The Faithful Shepherdess is printed on page 86.
Dryden’s campaign to secure the attention...