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The Early Stuart Masque: Dance, Costume, and Music.

Barbara Ravelhofer. The Early Stuart Masque: Dance, Costume, and Music.

Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. xvi + 318 pp. + 3 color pls. index. illus. tbls. bibl. $99. ISBN: 0-19-928659-0.

Interdisciplinarity has become something of a catchword in academia, especially in literary studies: hiring committees are looking for it, course syllabi and book blurbs boast it, and most of us are confident enough in claiming it for ourselves. Yet it is relatively rare that a piece of scholarship comes along that is truly interdisciplinary, one that genuinely displays its author's competencies across a broad range of fields. The Early Stuart Masque is just such a study. Drawing on art history, practical and historical knowledge of dance and music, and lavishing both literary and political analysis on material written in a number of different languages and drawn from archives as diversely located as Cambridge, Paris, Stockholm, Munich, Princeton, and Bologna, The Early Stuart Masque reminds us what it really means to be interdisciplinary.

The masque--a form of dramatic entertainment combining performance, song and dance, and illusionistic spectacle--has attracted increasing critical attention over the last fifteen years. Once a relatively marginal domain of scholarship, appealing primarily to academics of an antiquarian or iconographical bent, the court masque reemerged in the 1980s and '90s as a significant forum for the intersection of politics and literature in early Stuart England. In recent years, critics have pinpointed the crucial role played by the early Stuart queens, Anna and Henrietta Maria, in the development of masque culture. Ravelhofer's book is part of this general upsurge in interest, but it also stands apart from it in two major respects. First, Ravelhofer takes a far more European approach to the early Stuart masque than has typically been the case in Anglophone scholarship. Performed for international audiences and drawing on the talents of choreographers and musicians from France, Italy, and Germany, Ravelhofer consistently emphasizes that the English masque was a fusion of local and Continental artistic traditions. Second, as the subtitle of the book suggests, Ravelhofer shifts attention away from the printed masque texts that have so fascinated scholars, the majority of whom have literary backgrounds, to focus instead on those aspects of the masques that would have most interested seventeenth-century observers: the dances and the costumes.

Appropriately, then, The Early Stuart Masque is divided into three sections: "Dance," "Costume," and, finally, "Case Studies," which presents in-depth readings of a selection of particularly significant entertainments, including two Jonsonian masques (The Masque of Queens and Oberon) and a fascinating wedding masque intended for performance in the Ottoman Empire in the 1650s. In the "Dance" section, Ravelhofer's primary concern is to challenge post-Foucauldian accounts of elite dance as rigidly codified and, therefore, repressive of the individual. She argues that the ritualized uniformity of dance served a reassuring function in an age characterized by division and upheaval. Moreover, through careful attention to actual dancing practice (as opposed to dance culture) in England, France, and Italy, Ravelhofer shows that individual variation was something both valued and expected. Part 2, "Costume," takes up a critically more heavily trafficked aspect of early Stuart masquing. Here, Ravelhofer seeks to qualify broad cultural-studies approaches to masque costume by attending more closely to the specifics of material practice. As well as presenting a revealing series of insights into how masque costumes were produced, circulated, and stored, Ravelhofer persuasively calls into question the received view of masques as quintessential instances of early Stuart conspicuous consumption. As she explains, a careful analysis of extant financial documents shows that expenditure at masque events was usually in proportion to other opulent occasions in the life of the court (such as the presentation of New Year's gifts).

What is perhaps most striking about The Early Stuart Masque is the painstaking archival labor that informs all parts of the book--the thoroughness of documentation, the generous and rigorous provision of historical evidence. Indeed, if there is a criticism to be made of the study it is, perhaps, that there is too much detail, too much documentation. Some readers will no doubt be disoriented by the copious footnotes and the dizzying array of evidentiary minutiae that clamors around every point made in the book. I did at times find myself wishing that Ravelhofer would push beyond the local details and gesture more regularly toward the larger issues at stake in her study. The big argument never quite materializes in The Early Stuart Masque and this will, regrettably, make the book seem of less widespread significance to early modernists than it really is. But I do not think that this was an oversight on Ravelhofer's part. It seems to me more like a decision. Ravelhofer concludes her study by reminding readers, "This [the masque] was once a living spectacle, and we must not lose our sense that it was beautiful" (269). The gesture being made here is toward the long absence in masque studies of an appropriate level of appreciation for kinetic and visual experience. The great achievement of Ravelhofer's book is that it provides (in astounding measure) the archival resources and practical knowledge necessary to address this problem. True, The Early Stuart Masque does not deliver a paradigm-shifting argument about the politics, social function, or cultural significance of court masquing; but it does fundamentally reshape our understanding of what a court masque was, and for this reason alone The Early Stuart Masque sets itself out as a book of rare importance.


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Author:Curran, Kevin
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2007
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