Of masks & masquerades,alter egos & avatars . . .
- Masquerade at the King’s Theatre, Haymarket, by Giuseppé Grisoni, 1724, Victoria & Albert Museum
The ball is arrived. Long live the ball. With its laces and petticoates, and fans and bows, and powder and masks . . . no one knows who is who (or affects not to know) and as the evening progresses, no one much cares. Not to be outdone by the fine gentry of Vauxhall, the local gentry of Lichfield have chosen to compete even in this area of fashion.
Enter a large red Cabbage (Mrs Rotundity with trimmings), followed by a purple Pencil (Lord Withered) and a green Peacock (Lady Withered). A quadrille commences, and the Peacock is engaged by a grey Spider, (Mr Lucrative), while the Pencil makes do with the Cabbage.
The room is already half-full, with many coy guesses as to identity being tossed about; there are various innocent looking Turtles, a few Kittens and Puppies, a white Hen or two (probably Mrs Glass and Mrs Rawnsley) all jostling and slipping and capering. It is well past nine before another carriage of any significance arrives, producing one up-turned purple Tulip and one Beetroot (Lady and Lord Puffball respectively), who linger a while to adjust themselves in the court yard before joining the revellers within . . .”
From Tom Jones, Clarissa and Sir Charles Grandison to Faulkner’s Lost Stradivarius, the masked ball offered more than flirtatious subterfuge. The poor, the rich, risk-takers and gamblers could intermingle at leisure – although not always to their mutual benefit, for the same function also provided ample opportunity to thieves, thwarted suitors and assassins. Ladies’ pockets and ladies’ virtue were both besieged, warned of by writers and cartoonists alike; it was the place for seductions, elopements, kidnappings (as Fielding and Richardson illustrate) and even murder (as in Faulkner’s Lost Stradivarius).
Vauxhall, Ranelagh, the Pantheon and Carlisle House were among the most popular resorts for such unexpected excitement and pleasantries, ready for those bored with their lot in life to wander about, whispering invitations, offering, informing, discovering . . . agents and spies could benefit as much as anyone else at these gatherings : for about the time that Tom Jones was ploughing fields of petticoats and Clarissa and Grandison were verbally mortifying themselves, the ‘sbirri’ of Venice were going about their business very comfortably in their bauté and tricorni – because virtually everyone else was similarly disguised. For six months of the year the Carnival in Venice allowed the domino to throw a convenient veil not only over social distinction, allowing gamblers both poor and rich alike to scrabble for their coins on the ridotto tables, but over informers, intriguers and spies too. The same masks that sheltered their identities travelled as far as England where the idea of disguise appealed mainly for its piquancy. The loose behaviour at the public functions caused various condemnations, yet public demand saw to it that these licentious affairs continued well up nigh to the end of the 18th century.
The masquerade ball goes on all the time now, costumes have become avatars or profile pictures, offering the user an identity as mysterious as the domino ever was; covering up, transforming, offering total metamorphosis : ideal as ever for flirting, gossiping and sadly some not so innocent mischief-making. The bauté and tricorno sit hovering in the ether, their variations many and manifold, to be plucked at a moment’s notice . . . kittens and puppies, bears and baubles, wine bottles, corks, koalas with berets . . .
Aether user : “Well, what have you for me today ? Mind, I am to attend Lady HaHa’s forum this very evening, and wish to make a splash !”
Website costumier : “A splash? Why, I have the very thing – take this image of a great pool, with a fluorescent penguin adorned in grass skirt raising a cocktail in his left flipper !”
A : “ Yes, I think when I said ‘Splash’, I did in fact intend something a little less literal – have you not some fine picture of an antelope with feathers ?”
W : “But of course, I have many – look here – and here – and here : flamingo pink, with a pineapple, or celestial blue with a drunken dog, or what about a little sparkle, an explosion of fireworks with an apple peel judiciously displayed in the foreground ?
A : “Drat, I have no more time – I’ll take it ! No, wait, what is that drunken unicorn doing with those bananas ? Excellent ! I’ll have that one instead !”
(And another final vestige of sanity bites the dust . . .)
And yes, I have a kidnapping or two going on in Greenwood Tree as well . . .should I have mentioned that earlier ?
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