Henry Gissey’s costume designs for the tragédie-ballet Psyché (1671)

On the eve of the creation of French opera, the court of Louis XIV witnessed Psyché (1671)—a tragicomédie et ballet that combined spoken tragedy (verses by Molière and Pierre Corneille), songs and choruses (lyrics by Molière and Philippe Quinault), music (by Jean-Baptiste Lully), ballet (choreography by Pierre Beauchamps), stage machines (by Vigarani) and costumes (designed by Henry Gissey, created by Jean Baraillon tailleur du Roy and Claude Fortier).  We are fortunate to have nearly all of Gissey’s drawings with his marginal comments, as well as the 'État officiel de la dépense faite pour représenter Psyché en 1671', which enumerates the expenses of this production. Psyché featured an unprecedented number and variety of characters onstage—the identity of which had to be made immediately evident to the audience through music, dance, costumes, and stage properties.  Jupiter, Mars, Bacchus were easily discerned by means of props: thunderbolt and eagle, shield, and wine goblet.  The minor gods and (Momus, Silenus, Flora, Palaemon, Urania), demigods (dryads, nymphs, bacchantes, satyrs, and cupids), and supernatural characters (cyclops, goblins, furies, zephyrs) required more imaginative costumes and props to establish their identity.  But perhaps the most fantastical episode was Psyche’s sacrificial cortège, performed as a musical interlude between the first and second acts. After the fashion of funerals in antiquity, this cortège featured a chorus of hommes affligés and femmes affligées accompanied by flutes.  Here, costume and scenic design were coordinated to depict the bleakness of the desert wasteland that, in turn, serves as a metaphor for the dejected mood of the cortège.

John Powell
Symposium Title: 
Dancing in the theatre of Europe in the long 18th century 2012
Author affiliation: 
University of Tulsa, Oklahoma