Posted by: Harold Knight | 12/13/2010

The Puritans: Cupid, Death, and Christmas in Drag

(It’s finally happened. The PhD  in Musicology showed up to write—an esoteric rant if ever there was one.)

On January 30, 1649, King Charles I of England could have benefitted from a slight mix-up of the purposes and effects of Cupid and Death. The Puritans beheaded him that day for their amusement. You know, those Puritans who loved religious freedom, the same crowd that decided in 1642 to shut down all the theaters in London for being too licentious. You know, the Puritans who loved freedom of religion so they beheaded Charles I because his wife was a Catholic (the culmination of his evils).

Gotta love those Puritans. The same bunch that founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony and made it illegal, among other things, to celebrate Christmas.

For preventing disorders, arising in several places within this jurisdiction by reason of some still observing such festivals as were superstitiously kept in other communities. . is therefore ordered by this court and the authority thereof that whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way. . . every such person so offending shall pay for every such offence five shilling as a fine to the county. ––Records of the General Court, Massachusetts Bay Colony, May 11, 1659 (1)

I guess this is the religious freedom America was founded upon.

This ban lasted only twenty-two years, but its effect dragged on into the nineteenth century. For example, the Salem Mozart Association gave a concert in Marblehead on December 25, 1825. They rode in sleighs the seven miles from the First Church in Salem (no longer Puritan, but Unitarian—the oldest Protestant church in North America) to perform at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church (founded in 1714 and still using the building the Salem men sang in). The personal journal of the director of the Mozart Association, Henry Kemble Oliver (a Harvard-educated Unitarian), does not mention it was Christmas Day, and the group sang no Christmas music. (2)

St. Michael’s building was built in 1728, shortly after the Massachusetts Bay Colony Puritans ended the complete ban on non-Puritan churches. (3) The Town of Marblehead had been established on December 12, 1648, when the Town of Salem granted Marblehead its complete independence from Salem. (4) But the Episcopalians in Salem were somewhat behind those in Marblehead. Their first church, St. Peter’s, was founded in 1733. (5)

The complete ban on non-Puritan church organization and worship was lifted with the revocation of the original colonial charter by Charles I’s second son, King James VII, and the establishment of the Commonwealth in 1686; however, the taxation of citizens of Salem and Marblehead for the support of the Puritan churches lasted until 1833.

Back to poor old beheaded Charles I.

During the theater ban in London, the insidious human desire for entertainment did not disappear. It came out sideways in private entertainments (in which the Puritans themselves performed), many of them in schools and other organizations where groups of (mostly) men could be found to mount productions. There are records of women performers also, but the lion’s share of the entertainments were by men—half of them in drag. One form of entertainments was the “Masque.”

Masques were dance extravaganzas given their raison d’être through organization around loosely-constructed stories, often from sources such as Aesop’s Fables. Masques comprised several “entrances” consisting of:  instrumental introduction, solo music by the main characters telling the story, dances (courtly formal Renaissance figure dances), more dialogic story-telling (usually of some bizarre nature) either sung in elaborate recitative style or spoken, the “entrance” ending with a concerted musical piece for all the characters, chorus, and orchestra.

The name “Masque” indicates the shows were performed in masks. When the cast was men, the masks helped disguise the drag. Over the years the costumes became more and more extravagant and outlandish, and the shows eventually became—one might say—fantastical drag shows. At the end of a performance, the theatrical dancers would mingle with the audience, and the production became an excuse for dancing the night away.

One of the most successful Masques was Cupid and Death, music composed by Matthew Locke and Christopher Gibbons, first performed in 1653. The show was so successful that the book and score for Cupid and Death was published twice, once 1653 and again in 1659.

The story is mindlessly simple: Cupid and Death get their arrows mixed up; Cupid goes around killing people, and Death goes around making people that should be dead fall in love. Finally Mother Nature appeals to Jove to put an end to it, and Mercury arrives deus ex machina to put things right.

The unfortunate Charles I obviously could have benefitted from a performance of Cupid and Death. Too bad for him it came four years too late. I know, I know, this is degenerating into absurdity. But there is a connection to all of the history of Salem—and even to the hapless King Charles I.

I own two copies of the Royal Musical Association’s modern Edition of Cupid and Death, Edited by Edward J. Dent, published in 1974. In 1981 I was director and producer of a three-performance run of Cupid and Death at Grace Episcopal Church in Salem, Massachusetts, founded 1851. I was parish music director at Grace Church. (Note: the link is to a very strange production, but the music performance is excellent.)

And this is connected to Charles I or Christmas in drag just how? It’s not, except by free association.

Last night, exhausted from grading papers, I wanted to watch TV. All I could find was Christmas nonsense—bad music (Celtic Thunder), bad drama (Miracle on 34th Street)—and so on. Looking for a book, I came across my copies of Cupid and Death. Why, I wondered, can I not find anything as entertaining as that to get lost in. And I lost myself in reminiscences.

The history of Salem churches is so intertwined with the history of Massachusetts and with the Puritan Civil Wars in England that it seemed in 1981 we were somehow following a tradition that had never been broken. The Puritan influence (dominance) of Salem. The lives of Salem musicians. In 1981 I was beginning my dissertation research and knew that the subject of my work, Henry Kemble Oliver, attended the dedication of the first building of Grace Church in 1858.

St. Michael's

St. Michael's

This is all about awareness—my awareness—of traditions, of history, of the things that matter to me and the things that don’t. Churches matter in some way I can’t explain. Puritanism in any form does not matter. Music (both old and new) matters more than almost anything else. Christmas does not matter.

Perhaps more than anything else, trying to understand how things came to be the way they are (myself included) matters.

Cupid and Death probably wouldn’t have helped Charles I.

When arrows are returned to their rightful owners, Mercury sings,

Death, thou mayest still
Exercise the power to kill
With this limit, that thy rage
Presume not henceforth to engage
On persons in whose breast divine
Marks of Art or honor shine;
Upon these, if thy malice lay,
They may bleed, but never die
. (6)

Puritans and kings need not apply.

(1) Danko, C. “When Christmas Was Banned in Boston.”  Massachusetts Travel Journal., July 4, 2009. Web. 12 Dec. 2010.
(2) Knight, Harold. The Life and Musical Influence of Henry Kemble Oliver, 100-1885. Unpublished Dissertation. University of Iowa. 1988.
(3) “Our History.” St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, Marblehead., 03/06/2010. Web. 12 Dec. 2010.
(4) “Visiting and Town History.” Town of Marblehead, Massachusetts., 2006-2010. Web. 12 Dec. 2010.
(5) “History of St. Peter’s.” St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Salem, Massachusetts., 2008. Web. 12 Dec. 2010.
(6) Locke, Matthew and Christopher Gibbons. Cupid and Death. Ed. Edward J. Dent. For the Royal Musical Association. London: Stainer and Bell Ltd.: 1974, 64-65.


Salem, founded 1626, incorporated 1629
First Church (Puritan) in Salem founded 1629
Puritan closing of all theaters in London, 1642
Official end to theater ban, de facto continuation 1649
Marblehead founded 1648
Charles I beheaded 1649
Cupid and Death first performed 1653
Christmas banned in Massachusetts 1659
Restoration of English monarchy, Charles II 1660
Colonial Charter revoked ending Puritan oligarchy, 1686
Salem Witch Trials 1692
St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, Marblehead built 1728
St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Salem, founded 1733
United States Constitution, First Amendment, 1787
Henry Kemble Oliver born 1800
Salem Mozart Association Concert in Marblehead 1825
End of taxation for Massachusetts Puritan Church, 1833
Grace Church (Episcopal) in Salem founded 1851
Cupid and Death performed at Grace Church 1981


  1. The substantive hatred for all things Roman Catholic endures. Only the form has changed.



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