Research Paper: English French Theatre Similarities and Differences

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¶ … English French Theatre

Similarities and Differences in Spectacle

It is difficult to define the differences between French and English theatre in the seventeenth century. In both cases, Italian set design and technology had a great impact. Both French and English took over the new Italian developments at different times. Campbell writes, "The foreigners who visited the English theatres in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries made no comment as to differences in structure between English and Continental theatres" (Campbell 208). However, there were some small differences between the English and French theatre of the seventeenth century. Spectacle was emphasized in England first with the masque plays, and the French followed it with machine plays. In terms of scenic elements and special effects, both showed a different development, but the end result in the middle of the century was close. By the end of the century, France had returned to a more sparse neo-classical style and was in the process of emphasizing opera and ballet, while English continued on the trajectory of spectacle in which opera and ballet were downplayed. This paper will illustrate these differences of spectacle between the English and French theatre in the 17th Century, especially the different development of the masque and the machine play, the different uses of music and dancing, and the difference in style shown by neo-classical simplicity vs. Restoration showiness.

Hartnoll and Found review the history of the English masque. It was "spectacular entertainment which combined music and poetry with scenery and elaborate costumes" (Hartnoll and Found 304). Apparently, it was derived from a folk ritual where guests arrive in disguise with gifts for king, and then it ends with a ceremonial dance. Disguise was more important here than in French plays. They go on to say, "The presentation of the gifts soon became an excuse for flattering speeches, while the wearing of outlandish or beautiful costumes and masks, or visors, led to miming and dancing as a prelude to the final dance" (Hartnoll and Found 304). In the early 17th century, Ben Jonson and Inigo Jones were the key authors and designers of masques. Usually they took place in ballrooms or great halls with seating on the sides, and on sets separated by a curtain. It was more of a royal art than a public art, and focused on dancing.

There were developments in the masque as well. Jones came to use machines to create effects. His most impressive was a huge "globe" with no visible axle that revolved with eight dancers inside it. Thomson says, "Wings, grooves and painted backcloths, augmented by machinery on demand, would become the stock-in-trade of the English stage before the 17th century ended." (Thomson 334). Simultaneously, Jonson wrote ante-masques that incorporated antics and grotesque dancing -- perhaps the English dance version of the French farce. The English civil war ended the popularity of the masque spectacle, but "it had provided the means of introducing into England the new Italian scenery, and the Restoration theatre was to take over many of its spectacular effects" (Hartnoll and Found 304). Before its demise, the decorative frame (ballroom) had been replaced with the proscenium arch with movable shutters or wings behind it, running in grooves to open or close in front of a painted backcloth. In addition, Jones replaced the angled wings with flat wings. These were the important take-overs from Italian design. The important thing was that the masque was an allegorical or symbolic theatre that conveyed its story through mainly visual means. There was emphasis on scenery, costumes, properties, pantomime, and dance (Brockett and Hildy 132). There were elaborate set pieces, an increase in flying effects, pyrotechnic displays, magic tricks, and swordsmanship displays (Brockett and Hildy 129-30). Any narrative or dialogue was used only to clarify what was unclear in the visual presentation.

In France, the role of the masque was assumed by the machine play. This was one of the prominent inventions in the French theatre of the seventeenth century. Hartnoll and Found describe this as a "type of 17th-century French spectacle which made excessive use of the mechanical contrivances and scene-changes developed in connection with the evolution of opera" (Hartnoll and Found 290). French theatre had inherited the simultaneous settings from Renaissance theatre. However, it evolved with its introduction of sequences of sets influence by Italian stage-machinery. Machinery… [END OF PREVIEW]

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English French Theatre Similarities and Differences.  (2010, April 23).  Retrieved May 20, 2019, from https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/english-french-theatre-similarities/50502

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"English French Theatre Similarities and Differences."  Essaytown.com.  April 23, 2010.  Accessed May 20, 2019.
https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/english-french-theatre-similarities/50502.