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Chaste bodies and poisonous desires in Milton's Mask

Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900Spring, 2006   by Catherine Thomas


Milton's Mask (1634) has long been acknowledged by critics as an argument that virginity may serve women as a protective shield from the dangers of seduction. But just as the characters use disguises to make themselves more appealing to their audiences, so too does the masque conceal a more troubling, yet nonetheless alluring, portrayal of desire's intimate and material workings in seventeenth-century England. At the Seventh International Milton Symposium (2002), Tour de Force UK Limited and the Beaufort Troupe performed a rendition of A Mask set in the Carolina Low Country. (1) The drama delightfully engaged the sensual underpinnings of the story and brought them into contemporary context, highlighting the ubiquity of desire and its relationship to power and dominance.

This production demonstrated that the masque's happy ending and glorification of virtue are haunted by the specter of an erotic desire that cannot be so easily dismissed. This point is not merely a contemporary one, however. The text's thematic and performative complexity demands further critical consideration of the ways in which bodies become political sites for the exchange of sexual desires and not simply voices of morality. Milton's Mask, often read as a paean to the power of chastity, still has something to teach us about the necessity of desire.

In the production, the representation of Comus and his crew illustrated A Mask's potential to stage alternative desires and sexualities. Comus's world was constructed as a rave--that is, an infamous all-night, urban dance party. Often kept secret and attended by invitation only, raves produce a dark, throbbing sensuality based on pounding techno music, closely packed and intertwined bodies, and shadowy rooms lit by colored spotlights and glow-in-the-dark sticks twirled by the dancers. These gatherings are also notorious for the mood-enhancing drugs bought and sold there. Ecstasy bonds the participants in a euphoric suspension of reality that, while allegedly pleasurable, is potentially dangerous to both body and mind. Invoking the rave setting for this production convincingly expressed the transgression of Comus's invitation to the Lady to taste of his poisoned cup amidst the dark music and pulsing dance of his followers.

The program cast Comus as a "a lounge lizard from the degenerate club scene." He did not appear to be a stereotypical lizard, however: wearing a tight, black vinyl suit, sporting elf locks on his head, and swirling his dark, scarlet-lined trench coat, Comus strutted and slithered around the stage with his knobby, three-foot-long wand. His costume evoked the gothic style of dress often seen at raves, a style supported by the figuration of his wand as a giant green glow-stick. His mixed-gender Crewe of followers dressed even more sinisterly, in silver, scarlet, and black vinyl miniskirts and spandex shorts, revealing sequined halter and tank tops, and, for many, leather masks of the style worn by executioners or sadistic dominatrixes. They waved their arms, rolled upon the floor, and crawled against the walls and each other, setting a dark, sexual tone whenever they were onstage.

Alternately, the actor playing the Attendant Spirit wore a tight, black T-shirt and orange flightsuit and arrived on the scene via rainbow-striped parachute. Given the flamboyance of the suit and chute as well as the tightness of the black shirt, one could not help wondering whether this clothing was meant not only to suggest his clean-cut mentorship of the two younger men but also to lend a possibly homoerotic and campy dimension to the character. The Bridgewater brothers, on the other hand, donned conservative khaki slacks and button-down shirts with tied sweaters across their shoulders. The Lady wore sensible shoes and a floral, strapless, knee-length dress; this garb clearly registered her purity and chastity. However, she also wore a scarlet shawl over her shoulders, knotted at the breast. While modestly covering her bare skin, the scarlet aligned her with the dark, sensual, and sexually charged Crewe and also suggested latent sexual desires more visibly associated with Comus himself. The contrast between the "vicious" and "virtuous" characters was provocative in its invocation of aberrant and normative social groups and sexualities. The costuming placed the Lady at the juncture of these two groups, figuring her as a battleground between desire and its containment.

The music, too, worked to establish this dichotomy. The Mask's theme song played in bits throughout the production; however, it had several variations to clue the audience into the characterizations. When Comus and the Crewe were onstage, the beat was fast and pulsing like the techno music often played on the urban club scene. In fact, immediately before the Lady encountered Comus in the woods, the Crewe held their own devilish dance, stomping, crawling, and running to ominous, synthesized organ song, wolf howls, and a driving bass line. Meanwhile, Comus pointed his long wand at each of them in turn, directing their movements and demonstrating his power. When the brothers and Lady were onstage, the beat diminished and the banjos and fiddles of the Carolina Low Country held sway. This musical association played up the notion of Comus as an experienced drug dealer and orgiastic rave master and the Lady and her brothers as rather bland, conservative, and naive young adults.

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