Behind the Masquerade

by Anne Wallen

Ph.D. Candidate Anne Wallen Examines the Role of Masked Balls in 18th-Century GERMANY AND Scandinavia

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Within a few days of arriving in Copenhagen for my year here as a visiting researcher, I attended a family theater performance of Ludvig Holberg's comedy Masquerade (1724). In the play, two young people fall in love at a masked ball and subsequently inform their fathers that they want to back out of their respective arranged marriages. The comedic "happy ending" is the revelation that the lovers unwittingly made the same match for themselves that their fathers had made. Throughout this production, colorfully costumed masquerade-goers reappeared to dance past--and annoy--the shamed and aggrieved fathers, disrupting the script and the fathers' planning with their unregulated pleasure. It seems fortuitous that this particular play was finishing its run just as I came here to work on my dissertation on masked balls in 18th-century Danish and German literature and culture. The fact that this production was staged with children in mind confirms what I have already discovered: that even as masquerade's disruptive power can be a point of conflict, it also holds a broad, cross-generational appeal.

Dressing up is an experience associated with fond memories for many of us, whether we recall playing in our parents' clothes as children, trick-or-treating at Halloween, or playing a part in a play. The idiom that "clothes make the man" (or woman!) is common to many languages and is evidence of the fact that clothes do much more than simply protect us from our environment. As a student of literature, I have long been interested in the attention writers give to the clothing of their characters. The rules about how and by whom certain types of clothing are worn tell a lot about a person and his or her place in society.

In my dissertation, I look at how 18th-century masked balls encouraged, however briefly, radical alterations in appearance in the name of pleasure and entertainment. What captures my interest are the moments when historical figures and literary characters aren't simply wearing clothes to show gender, status, or membership in some other group, but are really "dressing up"--cross-dressing, dressing down, dressing against the norm, and putting on physical, not just social, masks. These moments show that clothes make events, too. Holberg's lovers get carried away by the excitement of the masquerade, and their costumed intrigue sets the entire plot in motion. Things do not always turn out so well, though, and in many texts the masked ball is followed by a disguise scene in which the sartorial freedom permitted at the party gives way to a more obviously sinister kind of metaphoric masquerading. In Sophie von La Roche's novel The History of Lady Sophia Sternheim (1771), for example, the heroine escapes the licentious behavior at a masked ball by dramatically casting off her mask and costume, only to be tricked into a sham marriage by a man who has his servant dress up as a priest. These different perspectives show that masquerade is characterized by an ambiguity that can be exciting--and potentially dangerous.

As a recipient of Fulbright and American-Scandinavian Foundation grants for 2008-2009, I will be spending a lot of my time here in Copenhagen at the Royal Archives, looking at rare costume catalogues, masquerade tickets, and other documents. These historical materials will help me form a picture of the different kinds of masked balls, who came to them, what they wore, and how they acted. My reading of the historical and literary materials leads me to ask questions about why masked balls were so extraordinarily popular in the 18th century, and why they continue to fascinate us today. As many differences as there are between our costume parties and the elaborate masquerades more than two centuries ago, I think that the participants engage in the same sorts of fantasies in dressing up. Through masquerade we get a chance to play with and challenge the roles we inhabit in everyday life and evaluate our commitment to them.

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This page contains a single entry by cla published on November 25, 2008 1:23 PM.

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