This article explores the relationship between Drury Lane’s most popular eighteenth-century masque, Comus (1738), and the contemporary fashions in politics, literature and recreation that informed it. On one level, the masque was a revival honouring Milton, the author of its libretto, in a manner consistent with his eighteenth-century reception: as a genius whose merit was just being recognized, and as a patriot hero whose incorruptibility mirrored the aspirations of those pledging allegiance to ‘British’ values.
On another level, however, the pastoral entertainment seems to have been mainly concerned with popular notions of female propriety and the challenges posed to those notions by the production’s star soprano, Kitty Clive. Titillation was assured by interpolated musical scenes which had little to do with the libretto but much to do with composer Thomas Arne’s mastery of the discursive techniques of ballad farce. The personality cult around Clive, the ‘Goddess of Mirth’, imposed upon the masque her most celebrated musical characterizations (both in the type of song and in the specific lyrics sung) to grant full voice to her flaunting of social codes.
The overwhelming success of Comus caused the masque to be reinvented as a public diversion at Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens by its owner, John Tyers. A Milton statue was erected in the gardens to preside over ‘musical downs’, where instrumentalists played hidden behind bushes to the north of ‘The Temple of Comus’. Recontextualizing Comus at Vauxhall, Tyers created a site (nicknamed the ‘Rendezvous of Cupid’) in which lovers could further explore the transgressions of Mrs Clive’s musical scenes within a simulated pastoral myth.