Previous Olympic opening ceremonies bear scant comparison with Danny Boyle’s droll attempt to distil the British spirit. It certainly didn’t look back to London 1948, where the occasion was marked by the release of 2500 pigeons (a pestilent legacy still raining over London’s landmarks). Neither did it take any cues from Beijing where the opener was more evocative of the awe striking and disturbing spectaculars managed by Leni Riefenstahl for Hitler’s Third Reich. No, if the extravaganza of 28 July, 2012, in London has any echoes, they rumble from centuries before the Olympics were reinvented.
Recent opening ceremonies have set out to make a statement to the world about the host country and have usually done it passably well. Boyle went a step further. His was not a mesmerising snapshot of the present or desired state of things, his was a cultural discourse, a compelling argument not for how Britain is, but for why Britain is. He sought to engage and instruct where others have tried only to impress.
The political purpose was entirely different but this style of cultural manipulation reached similar heights in the Jacobean court of the newly united kingdom. For Danny Boyle and his writer, Frank Cottrell Boyce, read Inigo Jones and Ben Jonson.Jones and Jonson turned a sycophantic and frankly lascivious type of court entertainment into a theatrical art form infused with political persuasion. The masque was an amateur dramatic entertainment, popular among the nobility of England as the 16th turned into the 17th century, which consisted of dancing and acting performed by highly costumed players representing mythological or allegorical figures. Since the players were usually drawn from the highest echelons of the audience they tended to wear masks to enable them to slip into character more easily. In the reign of Elizabeth, the noble amateurs drew on the minor literary talents of men like Gabriel Harvey to provide the framework for some highly elaborate dressing (or undressing) up. Under the Stuart kings, the masque became a diversion in more senses than one. They seized on culture as a way to overcome obstacles to royal policies. A way to imply a more tractable reality and to divert the minds of courtiers from the distastefulness of the true political situation.
It is arguable whether it was Jonson or Jones who was most instrumental in transforming the masque into an artistic event of considerable worth and effect. Jonson was a highly learned and moralistic playwright who in his time cast a broader shadow than Shakespeare. He could be hired but he couldn’t be bought. Seizing on the court masque as an unfettered vehicle for his dramatic imagination, Jonson penned serious literary works which moved beyond the heavy satire of his plays to instruct as well as applaud his courtly audience. He didn’t do it without help, however. Jonson did not share limelight easily and It irked him that his powerful audience were wowed more by the form than the substance of the great masques presented to the court of King James. The form belonged to Inigo Jones and the jealous Jonson ridiculed him in a series of his works, written over a span of two decades.
Inigo Jones not only brought great Renaissance architecture to Britain, he brought the breathtaking theatrical design of Palladio and the Parigis to British entertainment. Jones was an apprentice joiner who rose to fame (and the office of Surveyor-General of the King’s Works) by devising costumes and scenery for masques, plays and other court entertainment. Before he built magnificent buildings, Jones brought unity to the diverse elements of the masque, allowing Jonson’s moral and poetic message to seep through. In much the same way, Danny Boyle and his Technical Director, Piers Shepperd, gave coherence and impact to the ideas of Boyce, the designs of Suttirat Anne Larlarb and Mark Tildesley, and the music of Rick Smith.
The reach of the Jacobean court masque and that of the 2012 opening ceremony is markedly different. Hundreds of English and Scottish courtiers versus global billions. Their political and cultural impacts are less far apart. Neither court masques nor Olympic opening ceremonies are created in a vacuum. They are not individual or idiosyncratic artistic creations. They have a political job to do and their creators must answer to at least part of the agenda of those who pay them. The governments of England during the opening decades of the 17th and 21st centuries were both vulnerable, the first to political instability, and the other to economic vulnerability. They needed masques and Olympic ceremonies to disguise dissatisfactions.
There’s no implication that Prime Ministers, any more than Kings, input heavily into these bombastic entertainments. The results bear no relation to propaganda. It would be easier to teach a grizzly to samba than to get Boyle or Jonson to work to order. Surprisingly, the Department of Media, Culture and Sport (and their Jacobean counterparts, Queen Anne and the Countess of Bedford) understood that sheer entertainment could be more persuasive than instruction. With the chokingly awful Millennium Dome a not too distant reminder of any British government’s inability to package culture, creative genius was allowed to flower unwatered at the London Opening Ceremony. Of course there were political undercurrents in both ceremony and masque but these stemmed from Boyle and Jonson, not their political paymasters. That’s why a Conservative MP, as loud of mouth as low of intellect, could fume about “The most leftie opening ceremony I have ever seen…”. Yet the overall effect was as uplifting, or diverting if you prefer, as any royal or politician could hope. Britons, unsure of their identity in a new world order, revelled in Boyle’s exposition of a tattered but still proud nation who gave much to the world but kept its effortless sense of humour very much to itself. Just as English courtiers, for a time, learned to tolerate a vain, corrupted and uncouthly Scottish king when they took part in the lavishly staged and costumed dramas with highly moralistic messages put together annually, if the Plague allowed, with no regard to cost by Jonson and Jones.