- A form of court entertainment, especially popular in Englandin the early 17th century, that greatly influenced the developmentof theater, opera, and ballet. The amateur performances, often featuringcourtiers, were held at banquets and receptions. Characters oftenincluded gods and goddesses and other supernatural beings as wellas such pastoral figures as shepherds, fishermen, milkmaids,etc. The masque generally combined songs, dances, and short spokenscenes, all of which involved elaborate praise of the host, patron,or monarch. Since the performances were private, women were allowedto take part; even Charles I and his queen, Henrietta Maria, becameperformers and dancers.
The genre, which originated in the processions of masked figuresin medieval Mummers' Plays, developed mainly in 16th-centuryItaly. In France it became known as the Mascarade and in Englandas the mask or masque, displacing the older term, disguising.
The greatest master of the form was Inigo Jones,England's first scenic designer, who produced at least nine masquesbetween 1605 and 1613. His most important collaborator was Ben Jonson.Their first joint production, presented in 1605 at Whitehall, wasthe Masque of Blackness, for which Jones designed an artificialsea, with the masquers performing in a large shell. Their formal innovationsincluded the anti-masque, a brief interlude of a contrastingcharacter to the main piece (introduced in 1609), and the doublemasque, in which each performer played two roles. Some of Jones'stechnical innovations became a permanent part of the English stage.His decorative frame at Whitehall was the forerunner of the prosceniumand, from his travels in Italy, he imported the idea of a paintedbackcloth with movable side wings set in grooves (see groovessystem). The overall effect was called a 'set scene', theorigin of the modern term 'set'. Jonson became increasingly unhappywith the collaboration from about 1612 onwards, complaining that hispoetry was being swamped by Jones's ornate scenery and costumes (seeLeatherhead Lanthorn). When the Puritans closed the theatersin 1642, the masque was doomed by its royal associations. The formwas not revived after the Restoration. see also Caroline drama;Jacobean drama.