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An anti-masque is an exaggerated, disorderly performance that occurs as part of the pageantry in the presentation of a masque, a formal performance including dancing, elaborate costumes, and ornate sets. Masques were a popular form of entertainment at court in 16th and 17th century England. The anti-masque was introduced in the early 1600s. Playwright Ben Jonson is generally credited with adding this innovation to the performance to increase dramatic tension and interest.
Masques flattered their patrons, usually monarchs or high-ranking lords, and had their origins in formal pageants. At the height of this form of entertainment, some courtiers joined in, executing elaborate and complex dances, sometimes with their identities concealed behind masks. Performance of an anti-masque usually took place at the beginning or as an interlude, and typically involved professional actors rather than courtiers because of the subject matter.
In this segment of the performance, the players would be crude and raucous, allowing the main masque to provide a form of resolution. This was usually designed to flatter the patron of the performance; the anti-masque might feature popular political enemies, for example, while the masque would be an allegory for the monarch, who could restore order and grace. Introducing an element of conflict to the performance through the anti-masque added to the sense of pageantry, as well as increasing the chances that the patron would be pleased with the flattering resolution.
Actors in the anti-masque would wear dramatic, grotesque costumes and masks along with heavy makeup. Some were designed to be frightening, while in other cases an element of comedy was introduced to mock the subjects of the anti-masque. A performer dressed as a politician, for example, might participate in crude jokes based on bodily humor, and performers might deliberately trip, fall, and move in ungainly and awkward ways. The level of dramatization depended on the performance and the directions from the creator, who was always careful to adjust to the taste of the patron.
Performances of this nature continued beyond the height of their popularity, but became much less common. As late as the 20th century, playwrights were still producing masques, though usually as formal performances for the public rather than private events in court. These events retained the pomp and pageantry, but were less heavily reliant on allegory in their narratives. The goal was not to flatter a viewer, but to tell a story and retain a traditional art form.