On the evening of October 9, 1773, the Drury Lane theater in the West End of London staged a farce called Miss in Her Teens, a “medley of lovers” already performed more than a hundred times, and a revival of a Alfred, a masque based on the life of the Saxon king Alfred the Great, first produced in 1741 but “not acted these sixteen years.” The bill was hardly unmissable, but when the doors opened that afternoon, a crowd rushed into the pit in a steeplechase of knees and elbows and shouts of watch your pockets!, happy to sit jammed on backless benches for two and a half hours before the show began.
Without even room enough to turn the pages of a book, they entertained themselves however they could, watching the orchestra tune, or in the case of James Boswell, Samuel Johnson’s biographer, “lowing like a cow.” Outside, carriages lined up, depositing ladies and gentlemen whose servants were saving their seats, their silks and jewels attracting a circling horde from the slum behind the theater—fruit sellers and salep men, Irish prostitutes, and “freshwater sailors,” beggars who had never been near a naval battle in their lives but used sham wounds to solicit alms.
At six o’clock the bell sounded and the cast of Alfred took the stage. The piece was a musical burletta set in the year 896, when King Alfred defeated the Danes at sea in a battle popularly believed to mark the birth of the British navy. Its mixture of patriotic songs, interspersed with cod-Shakespearean speeches and a mud-hut romance between a shepherd and his love, was deemed “heavy and dragging” by the Morning Chronicle, and little improved in the sixteen years it had been off the stage.
Yet the production turned a corner in the final scene, in which Alfred encounters a hermit, who reveals to him a vision of military might, set to a now familiar tune:
When Britain first, at heaven’s command,
Arose from out the azure main;
This was the charter of the land,
And guardian angels sang this strain:
“Rule, Britannia, rule the waves:
Britons never will be slaves.”
“As by the power of enchantment,” reported the Whitehall Evening Post, the hermit summoned a minutely detailed recreation of King George III ’s inspection of the navy the previous summer, a perfectly proportioned, three-dimensional moving image of the entire fleet at sea which filled the stage as the chorus soared.
The audience was without words; they greeted the vision with rapturous applause. This “transformation scene” was essentially a complex piece of scenic choreography, mixing hundreds of moving parts to convert one view into another through the skillful movement of lights, flats, props, and transparencies. It was a theatrical sight equivalent to a cinematic dissolve. At the heart of Alfred’s transformation was a flotilla of model ships built to exacting detail, right down to the intricate rigging and number of guns. The fleet was in relative proportion to the horizon, each ship on its own course, or at anchor, rising and falling on a mechanically heaving ocean, pennants billowing in an imaginary wind as silk clouds tracked above. It was, said the St. James’s Chronicle “an incontestable proof of the rapid progress of the British arts,” an assertion of theater at the beginning of the industrial age—ambitious, spectacular, and driven by technology. But the artistic impulses behind this kind of transformation were born of a mind driven by something more esoteric than scientific: dark impulses, occult even.
The magician behind Alfred was a thirty-three year old painter named Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg. He had arrived in London only two years before in the company of a pyrotechnician friend. The pair was on a Grand Tour of Europe, and neither man had envisaged a lengthy stay. Both were keen “mystagogues,” sharing a passion for the mysteries of mesmerism, Kabbala, and astrology, and both were on the hunt for money, hoping to use their contacts in the worlds of art and drama to try and generate some income.
Canadian subscribers add $10; All other international subscribers add $40.