A SHORT HISTORY OF THE FIRST MASONIC OPERA
BY RICHARD NORTHCOTT|
Fellow of the Royal Philharmonic Society.1
THE first Freemason to write the libretto of an opera was Brother William Rufus Chetwood, who, in 1722, was appointed Prompter at Drury Lane Theatre, a position he vacated, after eighteen years' service, to assist in the management of the Smock Alley Theatre, Dublin. Previous to his association with the stage he had been a publisher, and this early interest in literature developed with increasing years, for he devoted his leisure hours to writing plays and books. Two volumes by him are much prized by students of the drama : "The General History of the Stage, more particularly the Irish Theatre, from its Origin in Greece down to the Present Time" (Dublin, 1749), and "Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Ben Jonson, Esq." (Dublin, 1756).
Brother Chetwood was not fortunate in money matters, and he was often imprisoned for debt, on one occasion for ten years, during which period he wrote several novels! On January 12th, 1741, a performance of Congreves comedy, "The Old Bachelor," at Covent Garden, was advertised as being "for the benefit of Chetwood, late Prompter at Drury Lane, and now a prisoner in the Kings Bench," and in 1760 another benefit was organised on his behalf in Dublin, where he was again in prison. He was twice married, his second wife being a grand-daughter of Colley Cibber, and he died on March 3rd, 1766.
Of his many comedies, the best known to present-day antiquaries is "The Generous Freemason."
It was in the autumn of 1730sixty-one years before Brother Mozart2 composed "The Magic Flute"that "The Generous Freemason" was first performed in public. An advertisement in the Daily Post for Thursday, August 20th, of that year, runs as follows :
At Oates and Fieldings Great Theatrical Booth at the George Inn Yard in Smithfield, during the time of Bartholomew Fair, will be presented an entire new opera call'd "The Generous Freemason, or the Constant Lady, with the comical humours of Squire Noodle and his man Doodle," by Persons from both Theatres. The part of the King of Tunis by Mr. Barcock; Mirza, Mr. Paget; Sebastian, Mr. Oates; Clermont, Mr. Fielding; Sir Jasper, Mr. Burnett ; Squire Noodle, Mr. Berry; Doodle, Mr. Smith; Davy, Mr. Excell; Captain, Mr. Brogden; the Queen, Mrs. Kilby; Maria, Miss Oates; Celia, Mrs. Grace; Jacinta, Miss Williams; Jenny, the chambermaid, Mrs. Stevens; Lettice, Mrs. Roberts.
All the characters newly dress'd. With several entertainments of dancing by Monsieur de St. Luce, Mlle. de Lorme, and others, particularly the Wooden Shoe Dance, the Pierrot and Pierrette, and the Dance of the Black Joke.
Beginning every day at 2 o'clock.
This advertisement ran in the Daily Post until the end of September, but I can find no criticisms or particulars of the opera published in that or any contemporary journal.
It must not be supposed that Bartholomew Fair was a congregation of only rowdy catchpenny shows. Certainly this particular booth must have been an elegant place, for it was described in the advertisements as being " very commodious, and the innyard has all the conveniences of coachroom, lights, &c., for Quality and Others." Moreover, there was provided a "good band of instruments accompany'd by a chamber organ . . . play'd upon by the best hand in England." The members of the company, the "Persons from both Theatres," came from Drury Lane and Covent Garden, and the proprietors of the entertainment were rising actors at the first-named house. The junior partner in the enterprise, Timothy Fielding, must have been a successful and thrifty man, because in 1732 he became the owner, to quote another advertisement, "of that commodious tavern at the corner of Bloomsbury Square known by the sign of the Buffler, and has provided good wines to entertain all gentlemen that please to favour him with their company."
In 1731 "The Generous Freemason," then announced as "a tragicomi-farcical ballad opera," was published by "J. Roberts in Warwick Lane, and sold by the Booksellers of London and Westminster." On the third page is the dedication : "To the Right Worshipful the Grand Master, Deputy Grand Master, Grand Wardens, and the rest of the Brethren of the Ancient and Honourable Society of Free and Accepted Masons, this opera is humbly inscribed by Your most obedient and devoted Servant, The Author, a Free-Mason."
The principal characters in the play are Maria and Sebastian, respectively described as "an English lady " and "an English gentleman." Maria is secretly engaged to him, and when it is proposed that she should marry someone else, she agrees to run away with him to Spain, where lives his wealthy uncle. Sebastian is delighted at the prospect of not losing his sweetheart, though he somewhat regrets leaving England :
But yet one pang I feel thro' all my joy,
That from my noble Brethren I must part;
Those men whose lustre spreads from Pole to Pole,
Possessing every virtue of the Soul.
But yet all climes the Brotherhood adorn,
As smiling Phoebus gilds the rosie morn !
Let Love and Friendship then our cares confound,
And halcyon days be one eternal round.
On their way to Spain, Maria and Sebastian are chased by a vessel commanded by the High Admiral of King Amuranth of Tunis, Mirza, "the bravest Moor that ploughs the sea." The captain of the lovers' ship is nervous, and suggests the advisability of giving in to the enemy, but Sebastian encourages him in this noble, inspiring couplet:
We will for battle instantly prepare
A Briton and a Mason cannot fear.
But the ship is captured, the lovers are arrested and thrown into prison, and orders are given for their execution; the death sentence, however, is delayed, because King Amuranth takes a fancy to Maria, and his wife, Queen Zelmana, falls in love with Sebastian !
In the dungeon Sebastian gives a signal of distress to Mirza, who (by a theatrical coincidence) happens to be a Freemason, and who, recognising it, promptly releases the couple. Says the Moor :
Come to my arms, thou unexpected Joy,
And find in me a Brother and a friend.
Mirza then rushes them off on a vessel to England, and accompanies them.
On board, Sebastian remarks :
Now, my Maria, let us jointly bless
The generous author of our happiness,
To whom both life and liberty we owe,
The friend that drew us from a world of woe.
To which Mirza, the generous Freemason, modestly replies:
What I have done was in firm Virtues cause,
Thou art my Brother by the strictest laws
A chain unseen fast binds thee to my heart,
A tie that never can from Virtue part.
After this, "Neptune rises to a symphony of soft musick, attended by Tritons," and the play closes with a song from him in praise of Freemasonry, the song printed herewith.
Squire Noodle is a country bumpkin in love with Celia, the daughter of Sir Jasper Moody. She, however, is secretly engaged to Clermont, also a Freemason. Celia, in order to gain time, says to the Squire that she will only marry a Freemason, and Noodle consequently arranges to go through the ceremony of initiation, which of course is a farcical proceeding, and at the end he is left alone on the stage firmly tied up in a sack. Eventually Clermont marries Celia, and Noodle has to be satisfied with her maid as his wife.
"The Generous Freemason," soon after its production at Bartholomew Fair, was revived at the Haymarket Theatre; an advertisement relating to the performance there on January ist, 1731, announced that the piece was being given "for the third time." The comic scenes were subsequently arranged by Brother Chetwood as a one-act operetta, entitled "The Mock Mason," and this was played on April 13th, 1733, at the theatre in Goodmans Fields.
Some years later, "The Generous Freemason," in its entirety, was again revivedstrong proof of its popularity as an entertainment in those days. In an advertisement in the Daily Post and General Advertiser for August 7th, 1741, one can read :
At Lee and Woodwards Great Theatrical Tiled Booth, near the Turnpike, during the time of Tottenham Court Fair, will be presented "The Generous Freemason, or the Constant Lady, with the comical humours of Squire Noodle and his man Doodle"; the part of Squire Noodle by Mr. Woodward; Clermont, Mr. Cross; Doodle, Mr. Vaughan ; the rest of the characters from both Theatres.
To which will be added a new pantomime entertainment in grotesque characters call'd "Harlequin Sorcerer," the character of Harlequin by Mr. Woodward; Squire Fatacre, Mr. Cross ; Witches, by Mr. Collins, Mr. Cushion, Mr. Carr, Mr. Wallis, Mr. Jones; Father to Colombine, Mr. Collins; Colombine, by Miss Robinson (who has never appeared on any stage before); and the character of Slouch the clown by Mr. Warner.
N.B.During the time of the Fair we shall begin at ten in the morning and end at nine at night.
The music for "The Generous Freemason was furnished by three composersHenry Carey, who was responsible for the melody of the "Ode" given overleaf, and who today is only remembered by his "Sally in our Alley," of which he wrote both words and music3 ; Richard Charke, a singing member of the Drury Lane company, and a clever violinist, who became the husband of the notorious Charlotte Cibber, the youngest daughter of Colley Cibber, and therefore was a relative by marriage of Brother Chetwood; and John Sheeles, a distinguished teacher of the harpsichord, and one of the chief contributors to the collection of songs called "The Musical Miscellany," published by Edward Jones, the "bard to the Prince of Wales."
In the two copies of the opera in the British Museum, the airs of some of the songs are printed, without, however, any accompaniment; this was the custom in the days of King George III, when music was regarded as part of the education of every gentleman.
1. Reproduced from an eight page booklet published without citation in 1914, found in the Grand Lodge of British Columbia and Yukon Library.
2. Brother Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who was born in 1756, was a member of the "Zur gekrönten Hoffnung" Lodge in Vienna, having been initiated in 1784. He composed several choral works for the meetings of the Brethren. Indeed, his last completed composition was the "Kleine Freimaurercantate," written for the consecration of that Lodges new Temple on November 15th, 1791. "The Magie Flute," in which there are many suggestive allusions to Freemasonry, was his last opera, and was produced in Vienna, September 30th, 1791, two months before he died of malignant typhus.
3. The melody to which "Sally in our Alley" is usually sung nowadays is not Careys composition.