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What is a Masque?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 15 November 2016
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Masques were a form of artistic performance in the 16th and 17th centuries. They were designed to privately entertain a court, such as the courts of King Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I, with the public version of a masque being a pageant. The art form actually has its roots in earlier traditions, and various forms of the masque endure in modern culture; many historians believe that the tradition of opera, for example, evolved from Italian masques.

In a masque, the players typically wore lavish costumes and various masks, accented by rich sets and accompanied by music. The players acted out a brief story, often drawing from mythology and popular allegory, and accompanied with social or political commentary which would have been favorable to the host. The masque included dancing, singing, and poetry, and when the masque ended, dancing would open to all.

The earliest masques appear to have been held in Italy, and they quickly spread to France. Henry VIII was instrumental in bringing the masque to England and elevating it to an art form, although previous entertainments such as mummeries were quite similar. A mummery is a parade and performance which may be public or private, in which the players also wear masks. Mummers used to travel through the English countryside, putting on performances in towns and in the homes of lords.

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Elaborate entertainment was very popular in the Tudor court, although masques were also performed in later years. The masque often alluded to ongoing political events, usually complementing the sovereign's wisdom, justice, and kindness. The players would also interact with the audience, declaiming poetry to attractive women or drawing spectators into the dances between acts. At the end of the masque, the players removed their masks to reveal their faces; it was not unusual to see high ranking courtiers among the players, and sometimes higher members of state. Henry VIII and Charles I, for example, both participated in court masques.

Generally, a masque would have been put on as part of a festive occasion such as a wedding or christening. When monarchs and lords traveled, they might be greeted by masques at various locations along the way, celebrating the visit and the monarch. The event would have accompanied with dinner, dancing, and other celebratory activities, with choice members of society and lucky members of the community being invited to participate or watch. As often happens in stratified societies, the concept of the masque filtered out into the general community, with masques becoming a part of celebration for all classes.

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KoiwiGal
Post 4

@pleonasm - Actually I think that could be the future of masques if people want. Not advertising, but short films, played on the internet.

If you come up with the right kind of story, something relevant and funny, and you keep it to a few minutes long, you could do something similar. One of the big components of a masque is interacting with the audience, so an internet video, or series would be perfect since people can comment and respond.

I actually think that would be a really fun project, trying to come up with a masque that fit with modern technology.

pleonasm
Post 3

@browncoat - That's tough though, because the masques with the really extravagant sets and costumes were done during a time where the gentry could afford to do that. The poor might have had plays that involved masks and involved the local people, but they wouldn't have had an elaborate set. They might not have had anything for a set at all.

These days we can afford sets, but most theaters wouldn't be able to afford a huge one. They often barely break even on their shows, so they need to spend as little money as possible.

Broadway shows are your best bet, as they can have gorgeous costumes, but even they will try to make do with as little set as

possible.

To be honest, I don't think modern audiences would enjoy a typical masque all that much though. From what I understand they could be very simple and tailors specifically for laughs or political points. There is something like that you can watch today, and it will even have celebrities in it. It's called advertising.

browncoat
Post 2

I actually think it's a shame that we don't still have the tradition of putting on a masque for special occasions. I've read about similar traditions that range from all levels of society, where people put on masks and act out something that's relevant to the celebration.

I guess the equivalent of having well known courtiers or political figures do it would be to have celebrities do it now.

I feel like most of the time when I go to see a play, it's considered fashionable to strip back the set as much as possible and really focus on the characters rather than the story.

Even the opera I went to see last year seemed to follow that kind of

minimalism.

And I wouldn't want to lose that, because there are some wonderful plays out there that work to that formula. But wouldn't it be nice to go and see something where all you can do is stare at the extravagance, the actors are all wearing masque costumes and the story is all important? It would definitely be nice for a change.

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