John Dryden wrote the libretto for King Arthur as early as the 1680s, at the suggestion of Charles II. It was intended for performance with Albion & Albanius as its prologue. The latter was a glorification of King Charles and his brother James, while King Arthur was meant to emphasize the connection between Charles and the legendary British king. Dryden's subject was therefore not the Round Table, the Holy Grail or the sword Excalibur, but the exemplary king of the Britons who made peace with Oswald, king of the vanquished, heathen Saxons and thus laid the foundations for the glorious British empire.
As a result of the political unrest after the death of Charles II, Albion & Albanius was cancelled after the sixth performance and King Arthur was never produced at all. When it was finally printed and performed in 1691, the situation had changed drastically. Charles had converted to Catholicism on his deathbed. The successor, his openly Catholic brother James, had soon been deposed and the country was now ruled by James' Protestant daughter Mary II and her husband, the Dutch Protestant Stadholder William III of Orange. The “Glorious Revolution” (so called because no blood had been shed) was supported by the majority of the population. There was however still felt to be great danger of a Catholic coup.
Dryden, who had also converted to Catholicism in the year of Charles' death, was now in a difficult position. His services to the court were no longer in demand, so work for the theatre was very welcome but he was on thin ice. It was crucial for the theatre, particularly for the actor-manager Thomas Betterton, to maintain a good relationship with the court in order to insure the continued existence of his United Company. That had been clearly demonstrated the year before, when orange trees appeared on stage during the finale of the dramatic- or semi-opera Dioclesian in honour of William. Dryden however, mainly wanted to honour the late King Charles. How to reconcile the wishes of Dryden with those of the theatre company - not to mention the censor?
The solution to the problem tells us a lot about artistic adaptability in altered circumstances. Two birds were killed with one stone: honouring the Order of the Garter could be interpreted as a tribute to royalty both past and present. Another advantage lay in being able to reuse some of the Albion & Albanius scenery, specifically for the scene in St. George's Hall in Windsor, the headquarters of the order. St. George's Hall was splendid: redecorated in Louis XIV style by order of King Charles and with painted ceilings by Antonio Verrio. After only six performances, the
scenery was as good as new. Recycling was common practice in the 17th-century theatre, necessary to survive financially. The audience also enjoyed seeing successful designs again in a new story. Dryden's libretto refers to this complex scene in precisely one sentence. The Dioclesian libretto had a page and a half of description of the finale scenery, but anybody wanting more information about the King Arthur finale would have to look up the Albion & Albanius libretto. Just looking at the King Arthur stage directions, one might think that visual spectacle, which had proved so successful a year earlier, had been omitted, but the prompter, Downes, extols the scenes and machines of King Arthur in his memoirs and tells us that The Play and Musick pleased the Court and City and ... twas very Gainful to the Company. So there is good reason to assume that King Arthur was just as spectacular as the other semi-operas of the period.
At the beginning of this reconstruction, the fifth act finale, Arthur has just made peace with the vanquished Saxons. The scene is a wood. Merlin appears on the forestage, waves his magic wand and thus initiates the masque 1 terminating the opera. The scene changes within seconds and we see Aeolus and four winds suspended above a wild sea, bordered by the white cliffs of Dover. Aeolus commands the winds to retire so that the sea can be calm for the “queen of islands” to appear. The wave machine takes centre stage here. It was a well-loved piece of machinery, with several variants. For this animation, a relatively simple and and compact version has been used. It consists in a series of painted panels set one behind the other, each moving circularly, parallel to the proscenium arch. The waves subside and the Scene opens, and discovers a calm Sea to the end of the House. Proteus, who shepherds sea creatures, makes room for the island that now rises, bearing peasants, fisherfolk and Britannia on her throne; a scene exhibiting national pride, waving flags and all. The Queen's Theatre in Dorset Garden, equipped after the French model, had a trap through which huge objects could be raised and lowered. Pan and a Nereid 2 sing the praises of the island. Even the quality of the fish is called to mind. Then Comus 3 appears accompanied by a group of peasants, who have their own way of celebrating that the harvest is in. Venus descends in her traditional chariot pulled by doves and sings the famous Fairest Isle.4 Finally, Honour takes the stage, surrounded by heroes and heroines. It is clear from many stage directions of the period that the balconies on either side of the forestage were sometimes used by the audience
and sometimes by the actors, as a welcome extension of the relatively narrow stage, particularly during crowd scenes. So here comes Merlin onto the balcony. He advises us to look up, so we can witness the honour to befall these heroes of the future. In the meantime, an upper stage has opened, a construction very similar to the one in Dioclesian.5 The Garter Knights appear before the throne, not of Charles, as in Dryden's original concept for the final scene of Albion & Albanius, but of William and Mary.6 The animation is based on the paintings of Garter Knights alive in that year, portrayed in the Garter regalia.7
1. At the time, a masque was an allegorical piece inserted into an opera or play, commenting on the action through richly costumed music and dance.
2. In Greek mythology, Pan is the god of nature and of shepherds. A nereid is a sea nymph.
3. Comus, son of Bacchus, is the god of revellers.
4. It isn't in the stage directions, but is implied in the text: her son Cupid takes up residence on the island, “his favourite nation”.
5. More recycling here, of course, but compared to Dioclesian this upper stage is smaller, in order to leave room directly behind the proscenium arch for all the magical characters descending from above in this opera. Aside from Aeolus and Venus in the fifth act, Cupid and the airy spirit Philidel have already descended, as well as Merlin in his chariot pulled by dragons.
6. The text then sung by the chorus mentions “our sovereign high”, singular. Maybe a subtle way for Dryden to refer back to Charles? In his article on the problems related to the first performances of King Arthur, Andrew Pinnock suggests that the ode to St. George and the following chorus may have been omitted at the initial performances. His doubts are reinforced by the fact that several musicologists do not believe that Purcell wrote the music for it. (Andrew Pinnock, “A Double Vision of Albion” in Restoration, vol. 34, Nos. 1-2, U. of Tennessee, 2010/'11).
7. F.l.t.r: Charles Fitzroy, 1st Duke of Southampton; Aubrey de Vere, 20th Earl of Oxford; Charles Seymour, 6th Duke of Somerset; William Russell, Duke of Bedford; John Sheffield, Duke of Buckingham and Normanby; Thomas Osborne, Duke of Leeds; Henry Somerset, Duke of Beaufort and Charles Lennox, 1st Duke of Richmond.