To celebrate the winter holiday of Twelfth Night in 1605, the playwright Ben Jonson staged a show called The Masque of Blackness
for the court of King James I and his queen consort Anne of Denmark,. It was traditional in Jacobean England to honor the king and his court with masques – short but very elaborate plays that praised the monarchy through song, poetry, and spectacle. In The Masque of Blackness
, the king is compared to the sun, shining brightly enough to bleach the skin of African goddesses who are dismayed by their skin color. In order to preserve some memory of the one-time performance, after the show Ben Johnson wrote down its script, including stage directions. Inigo Jones, the famous architect who designed the sets, special effects, and costumes, made detailed drawings of his work, as well.
The masque opens with an ocean storm that brings together the riding sea chariots of the ocean god Oceanus and his son Niger, the god of the Niger River. Oceanus is accompanied by twelve torch-bearers, all of whom have skin and hair dyed blue and are wearing costumes that resemble water. Niger comes on stage with his twelve nymph daughters, all with black makeup on their arms and faces. The nymphs are dressed in silver clothes to offset the dark makeup on their bodies. The idea of using makeup makes this play rather unusual, for its type. Typically, the performers would be costumed in disguises, or masks, which is how these shows got their name.
Oceanus is surprised that Niger has reversed his normal current and wonders what could be wrong. Niger confesses that although his daughters used to be considered quite beautiful long ago, nowadays it is white skin that is the height of beauty. The moon goddess Aethiopia has hinted to the twelve goddesses that they must find a country whose name ends in “tania.” There, the sun shines brightly all day long, and in its light their skin will turn pale. Having tried their luck with no success in Mauritania, Lusitania (another name for Portugal), and Aquitania (another name for France), they are about to give up.
At this point, the moon goddess enters again and solves her own riddle. The country they are looking for is Britannia, the best place in the world that is “ruled by a sun” whose light is like magic and medicine all in one. The nymphs celebrate with a dance.
Typically, masques would end with the unmasking of the performers, revealing who in the court had acted which role. But because this masque used makeup rather than masks, the end is more of a “to be continued…” The masque ends with a teaser for its sequel. The moon goddess announces that if the twelve goddesses swim in the king’s light once a month for a year, then next year their skin will turn white and they can appear more beautiful before the court. And Ben Johnson did write a follow-up play, The Masque of Beauty
, which was performed a few years later and which revealed the same goddesses as newly white-skinned.
The masque was commissioned by Anne of Denmark so that she and her ladies-in-waiting could be costumed as the African goddesses – what we would today call performing in blackface. For modern readers, this play may be a difficult piece to read because of the deeply offensive nature of blackface performance. At the same time, its basic premise – that blackness is inherently worse than whiteness – is straightforwardly racist and difficult to confront.
Interestingly, the play was quite controversial when it was performed, although for different reasons. It is clear that Anne commissioned the play to subvert the gender norms of the time. It was considered deeply improper for women to appear on the stage, even in non-speaking roles, and she received some criticism for daring to act in public. Others were upset that the queen consort would transgress her own whiteness by appearing in blackface. The criticism wasn’t that the black makeup was offensive to African people, but that the queen was damaging her own image by making herself look impure. Finally, the extravagant show was wildly expensive, causing some grumbling about the king’s spending habits.
Today, the play is taught infrequently, partly because of its controversial subject matter, partly because it’s not very representative of Ben Jonson’s best work, and partly because the script doesn’t give the reader a full sense of exactly what actual the performance was like. However, some modern scholars like Kristin McDermot argue that with enough biographical and historical context, it’s possible to tease out some of the masque’s more nuanced engagement with and representation of Jacobean England’s attitudes towards race. For example, although the play stresses that black is inferior, the problem and solution are peaceful and benign – which aligns perfectly with James I’s political policies towards Africa.