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  • Purcell’s King Arthur in the 1730s
  • Michael Burden

The staging of Purcell’s and Dryden’s King Arthur that opened on 17 December 1735 at the theatre in Goodman’s Fields was a spectacle for those who managed to attend. Thomas Gray, writing to Horace Walpole in January 1736, conveys some of the details that would have been seen:

I went to King Arthur last night, which is exceeding fine; they have a new man to [suppl]y Delane’s place, one Johnson, with ye finest person & face in the world to all appearance; but as awkward, as a Button-maker; in short, if he knew how to manage his Beauties to advantage, I should not wonder, if all the women run mad for him; the inchanted part of the play, is not machinery but actual Magick….[T]he First Scene is excessive fine; the Frost Scene of it is only a Cascade, that seems frozen; with the Genius of Winter asleep & wrapt in furs, when upon the approach of Cupid, after much quivering, & shaking sings the finest song in the Play: just after, the Scene opens, & shows a view of arched rocks covered with Ice and Snow to ye end of ye Stage; between the arches are upon pedestals of Snow eight Images of old men & women, that seem frozen into Statues, with Icicles hanging about them & almost hid in frost, & from ye end come Singers, viz: Mrs Chambers, &c: & Dancers all rubbing their hands & chattering with cold with fur gowns & worseted gloves in abundance; there are several more Beautiful Scene.

(Toynbee 57–9)

Titled King Arthur; or, Merlin, the British Enchanter, the new staging was advertised as being complete with “new Scenes, Machines, and other Decorations,” although given that the piece had not been staged for forty [End Page 117] years, it would be surprising if any of the opera-specific scenery was otherwise (Scouten 357).1 The designs were the work of the inventive John Devoto (fl. 1708–1752), who was employed as scene painter from about 1719 at Drury Lane, and had come to Goodman’s Fields in 1734. His surviving scene designs appear to be early ones and suggest a heavy Baroque style unlikely to have been used at Goodman’s Fields, but which nevertheless indicate a mastery of perspective and decorative effects.2 As in the case of other reports, it is the Frost Scene, “Mr Purcell’s Freezing Music,” that captures the commentator’s attention. The performances themselves do not, however, seem to have been without their problems:

Mrs Giffard is by way of Emmeline, & should be blind, but heaven knows! I would not wish to see better than she does, & seems to do; for when Philidel restores her to sight, her eyes are not all better than before; she is led in at first, by a Creature, yt was more like the Devil himself; she took herself for Madame le Confidante, but every body else took her to be in the Circumstance of Damnation: when Emmeline comes into her sight, she beholds this Mrs Matilda first, & cries out

Are Women all like thee? Such glorious Creatures!

Which set the people into such a laugh, as lasted the whole Act.

(Toynbee 57–9)

In an age when verisimilitude was not always high on a London theatregoer’s list of desiderata, it is encouraging to find such absurdities the subject of ridicule. This did not affect the work’s popularity and it ran for an astonishing 35 nights, not just as the usual main piece—that is, the main work on a program that included a short afterpiece—but as the only piece on the program. Further, these nights were consecutive; the work was too popular on its initial run to be “in repertory.” There were five later performances that season, five the next, and a group of four in the 1740–41 season; these are listed in Table 1.

In the 1736 editions of the opera, Dryden’s text remains virtually unaltered; in fact, so close are they in their typesetting to 1691, that it seems certain that the text was set directly from an original playbook. One or two of...


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