The Masque of Blackness was an early Jacobean era masque, first performed at the Stuart Court in the Banqueting Hall of Whitehall Palace on Twelfth Night, 6 January 1605. It was written by Ben Jonson at the request of Anne of Denmark, the queen consort of King James I, who wished the masquers to be disguised as Africans. Anne was one of the performers in the masque along with her court ladies, all of whom appeared in black face makeup.
The plot of the masque follows the ladies arriving at the English Court talking amongst themselves of how black complexions used to be beautiful, "that in their black, the perfect'st beauty grows." Reflecting the historical context of the masque, the ladies go on to discuss how black skin is now deemed the least attractive, "now black, with black despair" in favor of skin that has been "blanch[ed]" meaning whitened or lightened. They also agree that while black skin is exotic, light-skinned people are ultimately the best. During the Jacobean era, dark skin was associated with corruption, while white or lighter skin was associated with purity. Whereas Ethiopians (then a general term for black Africans) were viewed as impatient and ill-tempered due to the hot, dry weather in their native country, the light-skinned English were seen as more in control of themselves because their climate was cool and wet. As a result of this trend, The Masque of Beauty was written as a sequel to The Masque of Blackness to convey a greater disdain for darker skin tones.
The Masque of Beauty, originally intended for the following holiday season, was displaced by Hymenaei, the masque for the wedding of the Earl of Essex and Frances Howard. Beauty was finally performed in 1608.
The sets, costumes, and stage effects were designed by Inigo Jones; Blackness was the first of many masques for the Stuart Court on which Jonson and Jones would collaborate. The music for Blackness was composed by Alfonso Ferrabosco.
Jones designed a raised and mobile stage for the masque, forty feet square and four feet off the floor; this was employed for many subsequent masques. The stage contained inner space for the machines that produced stage effects and the technicians who operated them. The King was often stilling on a stool, resembling the sun. Blackness introduced effects that Jones would repeat with variation throughout his career as a stage designer: it opened with a tempestuous seascape, simulated by flowing and billowing cloths.
The opening stormy sea was populated with six blue-haired merman-like tritons. The gods Oceanus ("blue") and Niger (black) entered, mounted upon giant seahorses. The twelve daughters of Niger, played by the Queen and her ladies in waiting, entered in the company of a dozen nymphs of Oceanus as torchbearers; the ladies of the Court were dressed in tones of silver and azure to contrast with the blackness of the makeup, with pearls and feathers in their hair, while the torchbearers, in green doublets with gold puffed sleeves, had their faces, hands, and hair dyed blue. The ladies rode in a great hollow seashell, which seemed to float upon and move with the waves, and was accompanied by six large sea monsters carrying more torchbearers. (With Blackness as with many subsequent masques designed by Jones, one of the aspects of the show most commented upon by witnesses was the dazzling intensity of light involved...which inevitably says something about the normal conditions of life in the Jacobean era.)
The text begins with Niger talking to his father Oceanus. Oceanus asks him why he has left his usual eastward course and flowed westward, into the Atlantic. Niger tells him that he has come to request help. Niger's daughters are upset because they thought of themselves to be the most beautiful goddesses in the world, but they found out that paleness is more attractive and no longer feel beautiful. The moon goddess, Aethiopia, tells the daughters to find a country that ends in "tannia" and they will be beautiful once more.
The daughters desperately tried finding the country and even went to Mauritania (North Africa), Lusitania (Portugal), and Aquitania (France). They prayed once more to Aethiopia and she told them the country is Britannia. She told them that the king was sun-like and he would be able to bleach the black away. Aethiopia stated that once a month for the next year, the daughters should bathe in sea-dew and at the same time next year, they will appear before the king again, and his light will make them beautiful and white.
The principal cast of the masque:
The masque was controversial in its day, in part for the production's use of body paint instead of masks to simulate dark skin. One observer, Sir Dudley Carleton, expressed a view tinged with the prevailing social biases of an era which saw the growing prominent role of the British in the Atlantic slave trade:
...instead of Vizzards, their Faces and Arms up to the Elbows, were painted black, which was a Disguise sufficient, for they were hard to be known...and you cannot imagine a more ugly sight....
Controversy also stemmed from the predominant role of female actresses playing what were considered traditionally male roles.
The masque was expensive, costing £3000, and caused consternation among some English observers due to the perceived impropriety of the performance.
The texts of The Masque of Blackness and The Masque of Beauty were published together in quarto form in 1608, by the bookseller Thomas Thorpe; they were reprinted in the first folio collection of Jonson's works in 1616.