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It’s a mad world (but it wouldn’t be nothing without a woman or her song)

Mrs. Bracegirdle Folger Shakespeare Library/CC BY-SA 4.0

On June 13, as part of the Boston Early Music Festival, soprano Amanda Forsythe and baritone Christian Immler perform some of the biggest hits of Restoration England, namely, mad songs. Displays of madness, violent explosions of irrational emotion, were a staple of the Restoration stage — concentrations, perhaps, of the heady decadence following the dissolution of Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan administration. The songs themselves reveal complicated negotiations among drama, performance, and propriety.

The era’s most notable mad-song singer was Anne Bracegirdle, a star with a chaste but eager stage persona; actor and poet Colley Cibber noted the “Fashion among the Gay and Young to have a Taste or Tendre for Mrs. Bracegirdle.” Stardom was not without its perils. In 1692, a Captain Richard Hill attempted to kidnap Bracegirdle, killing her fellow actor and rumored paramour William Mountfort in the process. The following year, Bracegirdle enchanted audiences in Thomas D’Urfey’s “The Richmond Heiress,” playing a character who pretends to be insane to avoid marrying any of her disreputable suitors. Her mad song in that play, a duet composed by John Eccles, was played for laughs, but fit a pattern. As one disgruntled critic wrote, onstage women acted “Silly, and sometimes Mad, to enlarge their liberty, and screen their Impudence from Censure.” Bracegirdle’s embodiment of such behavior carried extra frisson, seeming to submit to the roiling emotions and desires that seemed to follow her in real life. As theater historian Elizabeth Howe put it, Bracegirdle “actually specialized in having her virgin innocence taken from her.”


D’Urfey’s subsequent adaptation of Miguel de Cervantes’s “Don Quixote,” with music by Eccles and the eminent Henry Purcell, had no fewer than three mad songs. Purcell provided numbers for the characters Cardenio (“Let the dreadful engines”) and Altisidora (“From rosy bow’rs”) — the latter, again, a female character deviously feigning madness. But Bracegirdle, as Marcella, stole the show with her own mad number, Eccles’s “I burn, I burn.” The song was a sensation. D’Urfey himself was moved to record his reaction to Bracegirdle’s singing in poetry: “Whilst I with grief did on you look/When Love had turn’d your brain,/From you I the contagion took.” Purcell then set the poem, illustrating Bracegirdle’s acting and D’Urfey’s enthrallment with just the sorts of jerky, dotted rhythms and tumbling melismatic roulades that characterized the Restoration mad song. Bracegirdle’s performed insanity and D’Urfey’s performed response, via Purcell’s music, became another opportunity to perform dangerous emotion.

Bracegirdle’s career, and the songs that buoyed it, record something of the flagrant contradictions of Restoration society. It was rumored that a group of English lords, many of them notorious rakes, took up a collection among themselves and sent Bracegirdle 800 guineas, accompanied, according to actor Anthony Aston, with “Encomiums on her Virtue.” There was definite method to Bracegirdle’s imitated madness.


Amanda Forsythe, Christian Immler, and Friends perform “Delirium: Mad Songs of English Composers,” June 13,
11 p.m., Jordan Hall. Tickets $25. 617-661-1812; www.bemf.org

Matthew Guerrieri

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.