Marius Petipa and The Dance of Death. Historical footnote to Marius Petipa I: Marius’s peripatetic lifestyle reminds me of early artistic life

“Travelling Players visit a manor house.”

An illustration: The Artist as Vagabond and Opportunist in early England: [For any Japanese devotees, English Theatre in this period was entirely male, with young boys impersonating women. Such was not the case in France and Italy.]

The English Poor Law system can be traced to late Medieval statutes dealing with beggars and vagrancy. The poor laws after the Black Death, 1348-1350 [recent medical research suggests this was not the plague] were concerned with making the able-bodied work as between 30-40% of the population had been lost.

During the Tudor period, the poor law system became codified.

Vagabonds and Beggars Act 1495:

[…] ‘[a]ll such vagabonds, idle and suspected persons living suspiciously and then so taken [to be] set in the stocks there to remain by the space of three days and three nights to have none other sustenance but bread and water, and there after the said three days and three nights, to be had out and set at large and then to be commanded to avoid the town.’.

By 1530, Henry VIII was describing ‘idleness’ as  ‘the mother and root of all vices’.

In 1572 under Elizabeth I, offenders were to be bored through the ear for a first offense. Vagrants and the jobless and PLAYERS [actors or performers] were all classified as ‘sturdy beggars’.

Players who had patronage, like ‘The Lord Chamberlain’s Men’ or ‘The Admiral’s Men’ or ‘Lord Strange’s Men’ were protected. Often when patronage was granted by a lord for protection of players, money would not be attached to it.  The other device for protection of players was to be a member of a guild. For example, Ben Jonson (1572-1637) playwright, whose stepfather was a master bricklayer and a member of the Bricklayers Guild later joined this Guild through the skill he had gained in the building trade by working as a teenager for his stepfather.

Ben Jonson in 1532.

Robert Armin

Robert Armin (1563-1615) trained goldsmith, player, writer, musician, dancer and a member of Shakespeare’s company, belonged to the Guild of Goldsmiths.

The Elizabethan Sumptuary Clothing Laws: These were used to control behaviour and maintain class structure. Clothes were to provide information about the person wearing them. Clothes were a message about both wealth and social standing. Only royalty were allowed to wear garments trimmed in ermine. Lesser nobles were allowed to trim their wardrobe with fox and otter. The Laws dictated what colours, fabrics and type of clothing individuals were allowed to own and to wear.

Players and Companies bought clothes (to become costumes) from the likes of impoverished nobility or from servants, left clothes by their masters, which were inconsistent with the rank of servant and thus, could not be worn. Players also had clothes made for roles. Edward Alleyn had a flowing black velvet cloak for his role of Dr. Faustus, which is said to have cost 50 pounds or as much as Shakespeare’s New Place in Stratford. Velvet was made from silk, and to obtain a true black took multiple dyeings of the fabric.

The Puritan fathers accused players of personation, that is, of a kind of falsehood and deceit because they portrayed characters whom they were not. Part of this must have included the false wearing of costumes. Players were not supposed to walk out of the theatres in their ‘costumes’ (partly because of their expense). To many attending the public theatres like the ‘groundlings’ who stood, the players must have ‘strut’ quite a fashion show. Of course, costumes worn in the street were considered a cause of social anarchy. Stephen Greenblatt wrote a  book on Elizabethan self-fashioning and the awakening of the idea that one could take charge of his own image and its message.

Hans Holbein, the younger, did a series on another kind of dance which expressed a theme all too prevalent in everyday life, from The Black Death in 1348 through the plagues of the Tudor and Stuart years: death the leveller.

1538 Holbein Danse Macabre. 

The Dance of Death (which became an actual early dance) was originally a kind of morality play. In these plays, Death was the messenger of God summoning men to the world beyond. The dancing movement of the characters was a later development, as at first, Death and his victims moved at a slow, dignified gait. But Death began to take up the attitude and music (instrumentation) of the day and the Dance of Death was the result. Specimens of the dramatic Dance of Death are still extant in the Altsfeld passion plays, the French morality ‘Charite’ and in the Neumarkt passion play.

Suggested reading:

Authors: David Bevington, Tiffany Stern and Germaine Greer’s ‘Shakespeare’s Wife’ (for a view of women’s lives)

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