The Master of the Revels

Blogs

11.30.2017

This autumn, instead of rehearsing with the Christmas Revels Chorus, I’m in Europe researching my next book (I’m an alto by avocation, a novelist by trade).

By coincidence, part of this novel is concerned with the Master of the Revels. Nope, not Paddy Swanson. Not even Jack Langstaff. I came to London in search of Edmund Tilney, Master of the Revels to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth I.

In Renaissance England, the monarchs and their courts did not go out to be amused; the amusements came to them. Entertainment at court often consisted of a “masque” – an hours-long immersive pageant with a large cast, involving music, singing, dance, elaborate scenery, lavish costumes and “guest stars” – the monarch’s family and friends – performing a narrative that strung together all the other bits of entertainment. Sound maybe a little familiar?

These masques were known as revels.

They were expensive and extremely complex to produce. The Office of the Revels was established, and a Master was appointed, put in charge of “devising” these expensive theatrical delights.

Very expensive theatrical delights. The Office of the Revels was in desperate shape financially by the time Queen Elizabeth appointed a man named Edmund Tilney as Master of the Revels. Tilney immediately cut back on the masques to focus on a cheaper form of revelry: plays. A scripted performance that required only players (actors) – who required no sets and had their own costumes – cost a fraction of a masque, and required little effort from the Revels Office. In fact, the most demanding part of Tilney’s job was vetting the scripts to be performed, to suppress anything that might offend Elizabeth.

This made Tilney simultaneously both the promoter and the censor of William Shakespeare and his players (among others). Talk about state control of the arts!

I was tickled by the synchronicity of visiting the former Revels Office while the current Revels Office is abuzz preparing for the Christmas Show. But that is not the only synchronicity. This year’s show, like Tilney’s censoring, has a Renaissance setting. And this year’s show contains a character somewhat akin to the Master of the Revels: a government official who wants to suppress the talented, somewhat mischievous, company of Players.

I don’t want to give anything away, so I’ll let you witness it for yourselves when you come to the show. Personally, as a Shakespeare Geek who went to London in search of Edmund Tilney, I’m very excited to see how the Players match wits with their censor and Revel On.

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