assailed them. At the far end stood the King’s canopied throne, flanked by the noblest gentlemen and ladies of the court. Lapdogs scampered about at will. Other courtiers, decorated with pockmarks and great pearls, lined the two side aisles, where splendid tapestries covered the tall window niches, pegged back on the street side to allow a view outside. Above, lesser spectators hung over the balcony which ran around the upper storey, including members of the Inns of Court who had fought the Lord Chamberlain for permission to see their own masque. The room, already warm from so many jostling bodies, was ablaze with lights, the glister of silver and gold tissue, and the sparkle of jewels. Only its ceiling was bare. Painted panels had been commissioned from Peter Paul Rubens, but they would not arrive from Holland until the following year.
The King and Queen, diminutive figures enthroned like dolls on their state dais, faced a specially constructed raised stage. During the masque, this would represent variously arbours, streets, a tavern, open countryside and clouds, with all the scene changes and spectacles wrought by cunning machinery.
Gideon was allowed to remove the head of his costume temporarily, and listen to the first scenes. Emerging red-faced, he found the proceedings hard to follow. To a grocer’s son, it seemed completely alien. The script was tedious: anodyne exchanges which punctuated a strange mixture of clowning and dance. Presentations came and went, in a drama more remarkable for its ingenuity than its content. Moments of burlesque led into banal songs that would never be picked up and hummed on the streets; there were many dances and then a curiously stilted musical drama for
Lacking the vigour of the old Ben Jonson masques which had once been played here, James Shirley’s text was unworthy of the fine poet who wrote ‘Death the Leveller’. His low-life comedy scenes were more spirited than his solemn allegories, but not much more. Wenches and wanton gamesters went into taverns and emerged drunk; thieves were apprehended by a constable; romping beggars and cripples attempted to cheat gentry, then threw away their crutches and danced. Shirley touched on controversy only with great care:
‘Are these the effects of Peace?’
It was the only scathing comment. The King and Queen, who were still laughing at the cripples dancing, must have missed it.
Peace, according to this masque, did have the benefit of encouraging English inventiveness. Characters lined up to astonish the audience with fabulous ideas: a jockey brought a bridle that would cool overheated horses; a country fellow had devised a wondrous new threshing machine; a bearded philosopher with a furnace on his head could boil beef in a versatile steamer. There was an underwater chamber which allowed submariners to recover lost treasure from riverbeds, a physician with a hat full of carrots and a rooster on his fist had worked out how to fatten poultry with scraps, and a fortress to be built on Goodwin Sands would melt rocks. In a century where science was to make dramatic advances, this was the crazy side of science.
The three dotterels, Gideon presumed, were intended to illustrate country pleasures during times of plenty. Now they had their moment. Hastily donning his costume head again, Gideon scampered onto the stage. He hardly had time to be nervous. The trio of birds were chased around by three dotterel-catchers, who duly caught them with wires and cages, before they all scampered off to make room for the windmill and its jousting knight. Gideon experienced the gloom of an entertainer who knows the next act is bound to be more popular.
Soon afterwards, accompanied by solemn music,
descended in gold chariots from stage clouds in the upper flats, three statuesque female deities wearing classical robes of green, purple and white