The Restoration spectacular, or elaborately staged machine play, hit the London public stage in the late 17th-century Restoration period, enthralling audiences with action, music, dance, moveable scenery, baroque illusionistic painting, gorgeous costumes, and special effects such as trapdoor tricks, "flying" actors, and fireworks. These shows have always had a bad reputation as a vulgar and commercial threat to the witty, "legitimate" Restoration drama; however, they drew Londoners in unprecedented numbers and left them dazzled and delighted.
Basically home-grown and with roots in the early 17th-century court masque, though never ashamed of borrowing ideas and stage technology from French opera, the spectaculars are sometimes called "English opera". However, the variety of them is so untidy that most theatre historians despair of defining them as a genre at all. Only a handful of works of this period are usually accorded the term "opera", as the musical dimension of most of them is subordinate to the visual. It was spectacle and scenery that drew in the crowds, as shown by many comments in the diary of the theatre-lover Samuel Pepys. The expense of mounting ever more elaborate scenic productions drove the two competing theatre companies into a dangerous spiral of huge expenditure and correspondingly huge losses or profits. A fiasco such as John Dryden's Albion and Albanius would leave a company in serious debt, while blockbusters like Thomas Shadwell's Psyche or Dryden's King Arthur would put it comfortably in the black for a long time.
The distinction between "legitimate" Restoration drama and the Restoration spectacular, or "musical spectacular," or "Dorset Garden spectacular," or "machine play" is one of degree rather than kind. All plays of the period featured music and dancing and some scenery, most of them also songs. Restoration heroic drama, for all its literariness, relied on opulent scenery. However, the true spectacular, of which Milhous counts only eight over the entire 1660–1700 Restoration period, was produced on a whole different scale. The spectacular is defined by the large number of sets and performers required, the vast sums of money invested, the potential for great profits, and the long preparation time needed. Milhous calculates a likely requirement of at least four to six months of planning, contracting, building, and rehearsing, to be compared with the four to six weeks of rehearsal time a new "legitimate" play would get.
Previous generations of theatre historians have despised the operatic spectaculars, perhaps influenced by John Dryden's sour comments about expensive and tasteless "scenes, machines, and empty operas". However, audiences loved the scenes and machines and operas, as Samuel Pepys' diary shows. Dryden wrote several baroque machine plays himself. The first, The State of Innocence (1677), was never staged, as his designated company, the King's, had neither the capital nor the machinery for it: a dramatisation of John Milton's Paradise Lost, it called for "rebellious angels wheeling in the air, and seeming transfixed with thunderbolts" over "a lake of brimstone or rolling fire". The King's Company's Theatre Royal, Drury Lane was not up to lakes of rolling fire; only the "machine house" at Dorset Garden was, and that belonged to the competition, the Duke's Company. When the two companies had merged in the 1680s and Dryden had access to Dorset Garden, he wrote one of the most visual and special-effects-ridden machine plays of the entire Restoration period, Albion and Albanius (1684–85):
The Cave of PROTEUS rises out of the Sea; it consists of several arches of Rock-work adorned with mother-of-pearl, coral, and abundance of shells of various kinds. Through the arches is seen the Sea, and parts of Dover-pier; in the middle of the Cave is PROTEUS asleep on a rock adorned with shells, &c. like the Cave. ALBION and ACACIA seize on him; and while a symphony is playing, he sinks as they are bringing him forward, and changes himself into a Lion, a Crocodile, a Dragon, and then to his own shape again; he comes forward to the front of the stage, and sings."
How were such effects produced, and how did they look? The crocodile etc. obviously used the floor trap, but was it an illusionistically painted figure worked with sticks, or a man in a crocodile suit? There are no extant drawings or descriptions of machinery and sets for the Restoration theatre, although some documentation exists for court masques from the first half of the 17th century, notably the work of Inigo Jones and his pupil John Webb. One reason for the lack of information for the public theatres is that stage effects, and particularly machines, were trade secrets. Inventors of theatrical effects took great pains to hold on to their secrets, and the playhouses guarded their machine workings as zealously as a magician guards her or his tricks.
What the technology and the visual experiences were can only be tenuously inferred from stage directions. Milhous concludes from a review of Dorset Garden performances that "at a conservative estimate" the theatre was equipped to fly at least four people independently, and had some very complex floor traps for "transformations" such as that of Proteus. The plates printed in the first edition of Elkanah Settle's Empress of Morocco (1673) (see detail, top right) are the only pictures of actual Restoration stage sets. Pepys' mentions of stage effects in his diary, 1660–68, give the modern reader some help in visualising what audiences saw in the 1660s, and even more in entering into their enthusiasms, but the 1660s were still early days. There are scarcely any descriptions or reactions preserved from the heyday of the machine play in the 1670s–90s, although a general idea of its technology can be gathered from the better-documented French and Italian opera scenery which inspired Thomas Betterton at Dorset Garden Theatre.
In the early 17th century, moveable "scenes"—painted wings and backdrops—and technical "machines" or "devices" for flying and other special effects were used in the masques produced for and by the court of Charles I. In William Davenant's Salmacida Spolia (1640), for instance, the last of the court masques before the Civil War, Queen Henrietta Maria (pregnant at the time) makes her entrance "descending by a theatrical device from a cloud." As early as 1639, Davenant had obtained a royal patent authorising construction of a large new public theatre with technology that would allow such effects and accommodate music, scenery, and dancing. Such an invasion of court-drama technique in the public theatre met opposition from "legitimate" dramatists, and before the opposition could be overcome, the war had closed down the theatres in 1642.
The public stage ban 1642–60 imposed by the Puritan regime represents a long and sharp break in dramatic tradition, but was still never completely successful in suppressing the ideologically hateful make-believe of play-acting. Performances in grand private houses were not unusual, and could have quite elaborate sets, as can be seen from the extant drawings for the original performance of Davenant's opera The Siege of Rhodes (1656) at his home Rutland House. This was public theatre in all but name, as Davenant charged 5 shillings for admission. Some professional actors also managed to scrape a living and evade the authorities in stealth acting companies in London, such as that of Michael Mohun at the Red Bull Theatre. Professional writers from the previous era were growing middle-aged, biding their time, and hoping for the monarchy to be restored. By the later 1650s, it was becoming obvious that that time was at hand, and William Davenant, for example, stepped up his theatrical activities.
When the public performance ban was lifted at the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, Charles II immediately encouraged the drama and took a personal interest in the scramble for acting licences and performance rights which followed. Two middle-aged pre-Commonwealth playwrights notable for their loyalty during Charles' exile emerged from the struggle with royal Letters Patent for new, or refurbished, patent theatre companies: Thomas Killigrew and William Davenant. Killigrew was able to take over Michael Mohun's skilled veteran troupe for his "King's Company" and to start with "what was essentially a going concern" (Hume), with the added advantage of the traditional performance rights Mohun brought with him for practically the whole classic repertory of William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, and the Beaumont and Fletcher team. The competition, Davenant's "Duke's Company", seemed doomed to a secondary position with its young, scratched-together troupe and scarcely any performance rights. They were only allowed to put on abridged and modernized versions of Shakespeare plays, and a few that Davenant had written. However, Davenant, "a brilliant impresario" (Hume), was soon able to turn the tables on Killigrew by realising his old pre-Civil War dream of music, dance, and spectacular visual effects on the public stage.
During the autumn of 1660, while the Duke's Company was still getting financed (mostly by means of the actors buying company shares) and having temporary quarters set up, the King's Company offered a string of well-received productions. Their new albeit traditional theatre in Vere Street was already fully operational. The devoted playgoer Samuel Pepys called it "the finest playhouse... that ever was in England" in his diary, a sentiment he would need to revise many times over the coming decade, and recorded his awe at seeing Michael Mohun, "who is said to be the best actor in the world", act on its stage. Davenant was far behind, but daringly put all his capital into the outfitting of a new superior playhouse in Lincoln's Inn Fields (simultaneously, with great foresight, prying loose the rising young star Thomas Betterton from the King's Company), and perfectly hit public taste.
Lincoln's Inn Fields opened on 28 June 1661, with the first "moveable" or "changeable" scenery used on the British public stage, i.e. wings or shutters that ran in grooves and could be smoothly and mechanically changed between or even within acts. The production was a revamped version of Davenant's own five-year-old opera The Siege of Rhodes. It is not known who painted the scenes or shutters, or whether continental craftsmen were responsible for the technical construction, but the result was such a sensation that it brought Charles II to a public theatre for the first time. The competing King's Company suddenly found itself playing to empty houses, as Pepys notes on 4 July:
I went to the theatre [in Vere Street] and there I saw Claracilla (the first time I ever saw it), well acted. But strange to see this house, that use to be so thronged, now empty since the opera begun—and so will continue for a while I believe.
The Siege of Rhodes "continued acting 12 days without interruption with great applause" according to the prompter John Downes in his "historical review of the stage" Roscius Anglicanus (1708). This was a remarkable run for the limited potential audience of the time. As four more acclaimed Duke's Company productions "with scenes" followed at Lincoln's Inn Fields in the course of 1661 (including Hamlet), all highly admired by Pepys, the King's Company had no other recourse than to hastily commission a changeable-scenery playhouse of their own. Bowing to the inevitable just seven months after the opening of Lincoln's Inn Fields, Killigrew and his actors signed orders for a new, even more magnificent, theatre in Bridges Street. This theatre, the first step in the war of spectacle escalation of the 1660s, was so full when Pepys and his wife went to see an opera there that "they told us we could have no room". The large, yet compact, Restoration playhouses, with audience capacities from 700 (Bridges Street) to upwards of 2,000 (the next house on the same site, the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, finished in 1674), were enormous investments, financed through selling shares in the companies, which were thus bound to make more and more money from ticket sales. Not only the theatres and their technical equipment, but the flats painted for a single performance, the special effects, and the elaborate stage clothes, were extremely expensive. Audiences appreciated both luxury and appropriateness of décor and costume: Pepys was quite capable of going several times to see a play that, as such, he disliked, purely for the pleasure of viewing striking and innovative scenery like "a good scene of a town on fire". The companies struggled to outdo each other in catering to these expensive tastes, with precarious finances and the ever-present consciousness that the investments could literally burn to the ground in a few hours. When the theatre in Bridges Street did burn down in January 1672, with its entire stock of scenery and costumes, it was an economic blow from which the King's Company's never recovered.
The Duke's Company, operating smoothly under what soon became Davenant's and Thomas Betterton's joint management, consistently led the way while the King's lagged further and further behind, moving only in forced response and suffering from chronic management conflict between Killigrew and powerful actor shareholders like Michael Mohun and Charles Hart, who insisted on actor-centred "talk" drama. The difference can be traced in Pepys' regular preference for performances at the Duke's, and in his ever-renewed admiration for Betterton's acting. In December 1667, the King's Company even ceased acting for some days because of a quarrel between Mohun and Hart. With the escalation of expense, days with zero takings were a very serious matter. The crowning grand investment of the Duke's Company was totally beyond the King's means to respond to: the "machine house" at Dorset Garden.
An era came to an end in 1668 with two events: Davenant died suddenly, leaving a messy ownership situation for the Duke's Company, and Pepys' eyesight forced him to stop keeping a diary. Thomas Betterton, though formally a minority shareholder, continued to run the Duke's Company, and, in the spirit of Davenant, commissioned the most elaborate of the Restoration playhouses, the theatre at Dorset Garden (or Dorset Gardens), with a flat for himself on top. Although the Dorset Garden Theatre quickly became a famous and glamorous venue, very little is concretely known about the building and outfitting of it: a vague and undocumented tradition ascribes its design to Christopher Wren. The absence of Pepys' record means that performance data for the next decades are only patchily known.
The machines at Dorset Garden and several of the most flamboyant production concepts realised through them were strongly influenced by the French opera and tragédie en machines. Paris was home to the most elaborate visual and musical stage productions in Europe, and Betterton travelled to Paris in the summer of 1671 to learn from the sensation of the season, the comédie-ballet Psyché by Molière, Corneille, and Quinault, to music by Lully. "For several things concerning the decoration of the play, I am obliged to the French", acknowledged Thomas Shadwell in the introduction to his own Psyche in 1674. Even more directly influential were the French operatic visits to London, which sparked off a new interest in opera proper in London audiences. In a brilliant move, the King's Company, all but bankrupt after the crushing blow of the fire in Bridges Street, invited the French musician Robert Cambert to perform his opera Ariadne as one of the first productions at their new playhouse in Drury Lane. The Duke's Company responded to the visual gorgeousness of this guest appearance with a Shakespearean extravaganza at Dorset Garden: Shadwell's adaptation of Davenant's and Dryden's version of Shakespeare's Tempest, a piece designed to show off the new machinery:
The Front of the Stage is open'd, and the Band of 24 Violins, with the Harpsicals and Theorbo's which accompany the Voices, are plac'd between the Pit and the Stage. While the Overture is playing, the Curtain rises, and discovers a new Frontispiece, joyn'd to the great Pylasters, on each side of the Stage... Behind this is the Scene, which represents a thick Cloudy Sky, a very Rocky Coast, and a Tempestuous Sea in perpetual Agitation. This Tempest (suppos'd to be rais'd by Magick) has many dreadful Objects in it, as several Spirits in horrid shapes flying down amongst the Sailers, then rising and crossing in the Air. And when the Ship is sinking, the whole House is darken'd, and a shower of Fire falls upon 'em. This is accompanied with Lightning, and several Claps of Thunder, to the end of the Storm.
This multiplication of effects at the very outset of the play served as a shock and foretaste of what the audience would find farther along.
The technical capacities of Dorset Garden were little used for Restoration comedy, and, while most heroic drama included some scenes that showed off the perspective stage or used some of the simpler machines, spectacle on this limited scale could be just as well staged at Drury Lane. The plays for which Dorset Garden was built, the "machine plays" of the 1670s and 1680s and the operas of the 1690s, were a category to themselves, different from ordinary serious drama: more static, more mythological, much more gorgeous, infinitely more expensive. So elaborate was the scale of these productions, and so long each preparation time, that only five "machine plays" were produced during the 1670s; yet they were hugely important for the finances of the Duke's Company, mostly in a positive sense. They were Davenant's version of Macbeth (1672–73), Settle's Empress of Morocco (probably 1673), Shadwell/Dryden/Davenant's Tempest (1673–74), Thomas Shadwell's long-awaited Psyche (1674–75), and Charles Davenant's Circe (1676–77).
Psyche had not one, but two, extremely elaborate sets for each of five acts. This is the setting for the beginning of Act 3:
The Scene is the Palace of Cupid, compos'd of wreath'd Columns of the Corinthian Order; the Wreathing is adorn'd with Roses, and the Columns have several little Cupids flying about 'em, and a single Cupid standing upon every Capital. At a good distance are seen three Arches, which divide the first Court from the other part of the Building: The middle Arch is noble and high, beautified with Cupids and Festoons, and supported with Columns of the foresaid Order. Through these Arches is seen another Court, that leads to the main Building, which is at a mighty distance. All the Cupids, Capitals and Inrichments of the whole Palace are of Gold. Here the Cyclops are at work at a forge, forging great Vases of Silver. The Musick strikes up, they dance, hammering the Vases upon Anvils. After the Dance, Enter Vulcan.
(The gold cupids on the columns are due to come to life and jump off.) The use of perspective scenery and many arches is evident here, creating an illusion of the first court being "at a good distance" and the next "at a mighty distance". This creation of fake depth was a favourite device, repeated when the scene changed halfway through the act:
The scene changes to the principal street of the city, with vast numbers of people looking down from the tops of houses, and out of the windows and balconies, which are hung with tapestry. In this street is a large triumphal arch, with columns of the Doric order, adorned with the statues of Fame and Honour, &c. beautified with festoons of flowers; all the enrichments of gold. Through this arch, at a vast distance, in the middle of a piazza, is seen a stately obelisk.
The numbers of performers used, mainly dancers, is clearly staggering compared to the regular comedy or serious play, where the norm was something like 10–15 actors plus a few extras. Although actual numbers are generally vague in these mass scene stage directions, dance scenes like that of the cyclops, and all the cupids who will join them on the floor minutes later, rely on coordination, choreography, and generous collective effects. Of course the many highly paid dancers would be busy in many roles, returning as townspeople after the scene change of Act 3 with most of the gold paint hastily washed off, and entranced looking upwards to see "Mars and Venus meet in the air in their chariots, his drawn by horses, and hers by doves".
Each production was a gamble. The aspect of the machine plays that posterity knows most about is their economics, as this was what the old prompter Downes most vividly recalled when he wrote his Roscius Anglicanus in 1708. The scenery alone for Psyche cost more than £800, which can be related to the entire annual box office takings for the company of £10,000. Ticket prices for these performances would be raised to up to four times normal. Both Psyche and The Tempest actually complained of the production costs in their epilogues, hinting pointedly that the public ought to reward the "poor players" for their risk-taking and for offering splendours that had so far been reserved for royal masques:
The audience apparently agreed, transfixed by such sights as Venus ascending into the heavens and "being almost lost in the clouds", whereupon "Cupid flies up and gets into her chariot, and brings her back", followed by Jupiter appearing on a flying eagle. Psyche turned out highly profitable. It is altogether a pattern that the 1670s productions did make money, while those of the 1680s and 1690s barely broke even or were actual economic disasters.
Even after the King's Company got their new well-appointed playhouse in Drury Lane in 1674, they could not take full advantage of it, as they lacked the capital to mount competitive spectaculars. Instead, they attempted to simultaneously capitalise on and snipe at the Duke's most successful mid-1670s offerings by mounting several burlesques or parodies of them, written by Thomas Duffett. The records for the mid-1670s are particularly incomplete, and neither exact dates nor the public reaction to Duffett's pieces are known, but even the printed versions, pale shadows of Duffett's travesty spectacles, have proved highly amusing to modern critics. The first of them, The Empress of Morocco, caricatured simultaneously Settle's Empress of Morocco and the sumptuous new Dorset Garden production of Davenant's Macbeth adaptation, with Duffett's three witches flying in over the pit on brooms at the high point of the action, followed by the descent of Heccate over the Stage "in a glorious chariot, adorned with pictures of hell and devils, and made of a large wicker basket". The Mock Tempest improves on the shower of fire over the audience in the Dorset Garden pseudo-Shakespearean tempest scene with a rain of "fire, apples, nuts".
There was no investment in spectaculars during the political unrest of 1678–84 with the Popish Plot and the Exclusion Crisis, lean years for theatre. In 1682, the companies merged, making Dorset Garden's technical resources available to Dryden, who rapidly got over his principled objection to the superficiality of "spectacle" and "empty operas". The orgy of machinery and extravagant visuals that he went on to write, Albion and Albanius (1684–85), is quoted in the "Introductory" section, with the cave of Proteus rising out of the sea. Here is Juno in her flying peacock machine:
The Clouds divide, and JUNO appears in a Machine drawn by Peacocks; while a Symphony is playing, it moves gently forward, and as it descends, it opens and discovers the Tail of the Peacock, which is so large, that it almost fills the opening of the Stage between Scene and Scene.
Unusual visual allegory in this Tory panegyric of Charles II and the House of Stuart includes a figure representing the radical Whig leader Anthony Ashley-Cooper, 1st Earl of Shaftesbury "with fiend's wings, and snakes twisted round his body; he is encompassed by several fanatical rebellious heads, who suck poison from him, which runs out of a tap in his side." In an investor's nightmare, while Dryden's propaganda piece was in preparation, Charles II died, James II succeeded him, and the Monmouth Rebellion which Shaftesbury had fomented broke out. On the very day of the premiere, June 3, 1685, the Duke of Monmouth landed in the west. "The nation being in a great consternation", recollected Downes, "it was performed but six times, which not answering half the charge they were at, involved the company very much in debt." This traumatic fiasco ruled out all further operatic spectacle investment until the calmer times after the Glorious Revolution of 1689.
While the monopoly United Company's takings were being bled off by Davenant's shyster sons, one of whom, Alexander, was forced to flee the country in 1693 and other predatory investors, Thomas Betterton continued to act as de facto day-to-day manager and producer, enjoying a budget on the scale of Cecil B. DeMille. In the early 1690s, he staged the three real operas of the Restoration spectacular genre, or the shows usually so designated: Dioclesian (1689–90) by Massinger/Fletcher/Betterton; King Arthur (1690–91) by John Dryden; and The Fairy-Queen (1691–92), adapted from Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream by perhaps Elkanah Settle, all of them graced by music by Henry Purcell, and together perhaps a sign of the coming 18th-century vogue for Italian opera. The lavish variety entertainment Dioclesian, adapted by Betterton, with many monsters, dragons, and machines, from Massinger and Fletcher's History of Dioclesian, was very popular throughout the 1690s and made a lot of money for the United Company. So did Dryden's much more serious King Arthur, the first operatic entertainment that Hume is prepared to consider an artistic success, with Purcell's marvellous music a major part of the entertainment and the songs "for once well integrated into the play".
At the very end of its history, the economics of the Restoration spectacular spiralled out of control with the magnificent production of The Fairy Queen in the 1691–92 season. It was a great popular success, but so stuffed with special effects and so expensive that it nevertheless proved impossible to make money from it. As Downes recalls: "Though the court and town were wonderfully satisfied with it ... the expenses in setting it out being so great, the company got little by it." Its twelve-foot-high working fountain and six dancing real live monkeys have become notorious in theatre history.
The spectacular play died out with the Restoration period, but spectacle would continue on the English stage as the splendours of Italian grand opera hit London in the early 18th century. The dangerous Restoration economic spiral of the ever-more-expensive machine plays would teach 18th- and 19th-century theatrical entrepreneurs to dispense with playwrighting altogether and minimise the cast, utilising any number of surprising effects and scenes in the dumbshow of pantomime and Harlequin, without attendant costs in music, dramatists, and cast.
There have been a small number of attempts to resurrect the Restoration spectacular as a background to modern cinema: Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen features at its start perhaps the most accurate reconstruction, with painted scenery, mechanisms and lighting effects typical of the period.