Popular Culture Association
San Antonio TX
“All deformed Shapes”: Refiguring the Posture Master as Popular Performer in Early Eighteenth-Century England”
The early eighteenth-century entertainment economy can be characterized by its variety and its modernity. Host to pre-Restoration repertory plays and bawdy Restoration comedies, heroic tragedies and experimental work, emerging bourgeois dramas, farcical afterpieces, ballet, opera, and more, the eighteenth-century stage featured a rich and decidedly modern spectrum of entertainments calibrated for an increasingly cosmopolitan and middle-class audience. The participatory spaces of entertainment were newly shaped by public debate and the world of print, offering myriad opportunities for the consumption and production of objects, ideas, and experiences. One component of this modern entertainment economy that has received little attention is the posture master—or, in contemporary parlance, the contortionist. Who were these artists in flesh? What were their performances like, and how were they represented? To what discursive or disciplinary purposes were they put? There is much work to be done on this subject, and I can only begin to parse out some threads in a future discourse here.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a “posture-master” is one who is “expert in assuming artificial postures or attitudes of the body.”1 Early senses of the word “posture” emphasize relative positioning of parts to other parts or wholes, chiefly the disposition of bodies and objects in space. The term “posture-master,” however, dates only from the 1690s, specifically in reference to one particular performer, Joesph Clark; use of the term seems to disappear by the end of the nineteenth century. In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, with the influx of Continental tumblers and acrobats, the concept of the posture-master as one who places the human body into an artificially or unusually acquired corporeal shape for purposes of entertainment begins to acquire a more negative connotation, especially when used in reference to the many shapes of performance. The posture-master is not only associated with the deliberate disposition of the body and its parts, but also the suspicion of disingenuity or deception always possible when new forms of behavior and representation are adopted—hence, anxious about the increasing democratization of leisure and the production of leisure goods, the vigorous Augustan critiques of fraud, imposture, and affectation. Because of the posture-master’s unique medium, we can read him as a particularly ambiguous response to new anxieties about the performance of identity.
While there is little archival evidence of such performers or performances in the first person, there is a surprising quantity of information from essays and newspapers that helps us situate them in a larger discursive context. In fact, according to newspaper advertisements, a fad for contortionists emerged most visibly in 1709, continuing to grow during the next decades—as use of full-text searchable databases shows. With the modern—perhaps postmodern—advent of fulltext searchable databases of primary sources like Eighteenth-Century Collections Online and the 17th-18th Century Burney Collection Newspapers, scholars can see quickly and clearly an outline of major and minor trends in the historical public sphere; such resources are vital to the archaeology of less well-known subjects of inquiry, in part because very few, if any, bibliographic materials exist to help a researcher navigate the choppy waters of print, and in part because even were they to exist, the chances of them documenting a passing comment that gives shape to a discursive construct is minimal, at best.
The example of the posture-master offers one such example, with illuminating results. A search of the 17th-18th Burney Collection Newspapers for the phrase “po?ture ma?ter!”2 returns 150 results, most of which are advertisements. Strikingly, 125 of these references fall between 1711 and 1739. Between 1740 and 1772, only one reference is returned, and the remaining 24 occur in the last quarter century. All but a few of those 150 results were in fact in reference to posture-masters or contortionists, in a performative sense; this distribution gives us a fascinating look into real material and ideological conditions of existence in the eighteenth century. A small handful of records are duplicates, reflecting the poor legibility of the original scans, but these do not disrupt the larger pattern that emerges—a great upswing in references to performances of posture-mastery during the early eighteenth-century, and many fewer, later. More specific searches tailored3 to both language typical in advertisements for posture-masters and the names of the performers themselves returned additional results, all within the same pattern of a quick rise in the early part of the century followed by an equally swift decline. After mid-century, the interest in posture-mastery shifts toward equilibrists, acrobats, balancing acts; the deliberate deformation of the human body seems to have lost its appeal—or become commonplace, as the narrator of The Fool of Quality notes, much later in the century:“[s]uch wonders are now so common as to be scarce entertaining; but, at that time, they were received with bursts and roars of applause” (226). The discursive practices by which posture-mastery became a fad within which some practitioners approached celebrity status thus has a clear shape.
While one might expect contortionists to play, at best, marginal roles in the eighteenth-century entertainment economy, they in fact speak very much to the consolidation of the modern cultural landscape in which “entertainment” as a category—richly discussed by Simon During in Modern Enchantments and John O’Brien in Harlequin Britain—is becoming a viable, and even threateningly dominant, mode of consumption. For O’Brien, entertainments are distinctly modern points of intersection between performance and audience, producer and consumer, drawing significance from that intersection; entertainments are events understood as less “serious” than the main theatrical performances and designed for mass appeal (xiv-xv). The site of entertainment increasingly slips outside of the traditional boundaries of well-defined spaces, itself a sign of the proliferation and increasing accessibility of the public sphere. Throughout the eighteenth century, public shows like rarity exhibitions, legerdemain, waxworks, and ropedancing increased in number and visibility (Pender, “In the Bodyshop” 113), making the public show into a key site for the emerging concept of entertainment. During’s exploration of magic assemblage—“that motley of shows in the public spaces where magic was performed: theaters, fairs, streets, taverns, and so on”—speaks to the development of modern entertainment culture no less than the English pantomime investigated by O’Brien (66); given the peculiar salience of the posture-master to the image of embodied assemblage, the contortionist must firmly be situated in this modern entertainment economy. One posture-master, John Riner, for instance, deliberately characterized his art as, variously, an “Entertainment of Postures” (“The Famous John Riner”) and an “Entertainment in Metamorphoses” (“In the Little Piazza in Covent Garden”).
Four of the most famous posture-masters of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries—Joseph Clarke, (d. c. 1696), Mr. Higgins (d. c. 1710), John Riner (fl. 1721-1726), and William Philips (fl. 1720s-1730s)—gained renown through their marvelous bodily manipulations. Yet, these are only a handful of the working entertainers of the period; many more are nameless, having been lost to the victors of history as well as the victors’ ways of seeing, and only the wealthiest of performers could afford to purchase newspaper space on a daily basis. The ephemera of print—advertisements, anonymous pamphlets, cheap engravings, and so on—in addition to the clearly authored and subsistent documents readers are more familiar with reference a whole host of experiences to which we have less access. There seem to be no references to Clarke’s performances, for instance, in any of the public newspapers of his day; yet, not only did he become a significant reference point for later posture-masters, who are often described as representing “the whole Performance of Posture Clarke,” but he was also the subject of both a scientific observation published in the Transactions of the Royal Society and an engraving in Laroon’s iconic Cries of London, the visual rhetoric of which was passed down through the years to appear in advertisement woodcuts as well as descriptions of later artists. Isaac Fawkes, the noted sleight-of-hand artist whose performances in legerdemain mark the inauguration of During’s “secular magic,” gained visibility not primarily through his skill at conjuring; in fact, his first performances occurred under the sign of an unnamed posture-master to whom Fawkes was yet an unnamed “English Artist” (“At the Duke of Marlborough’s Head”).
Amidst the urban entertainment economy, posture-masters performed in many venues telling in their variety. As we see in Hogarth’s Southwark Fair, and as numerous advertisements document, they performed in fairgrounds, both as stand-alone artists and as pre-show entertainment, where their antics served, like those of tumblers, ropedancers, and jugglers, to draw crowds into booths both for summer drolls and glasses of beer alike.4 Displays of posture-mastery appeared on legitimate stages as entr’acte entertainment, and in the fore- or great-rooms of legitimate stages. Like waxworks, automata, and strange creatures from around the world, posture-masters displayed their extraordinary bodies in taverns and coffeehouses; they appeared in piazzas, in semi-permanent booths throughout the year, and we can infer from Clark’s inclusion in Laroon’s London Cries of London that they may have appeared on street corners and other undocumented public spaces. Indeed, there seem to be no advertisements at all for formal performances by “Posture Clark,” though he is referenced in a variety of literary, anecdotal, and scientific materials in addition to being a founding father of sorts for similar artists. Fawkes even advertised private performances of his young posture-boys for the more well-heeled of his clientèle, and posture-mistresses were, as Randolph Trumbach has noted (cite), fixtures in the sexual underworld of the Enlightenment.
These performers were frequented by audiences of all classes, and they could be seen across the city throughout the year. Advertised prices ranged from 2s. 6d., the cost of prime seating at a benefit on April 17, 1727, for William Philips, one of Fawkes’ erstwhile young posture-boys (Daily Post, Friday, April 12, 1728), and 3d., the cost of the “Upper Places” at Yeates’ booth near Tottenham Court Road (Daily Post, Tuesday, August 5, 1729). In many cases, the cost of seeing a posture-master perform was comparable to seeing Betterton tread the boards at common prices for pit seating. Some performers, depending on the venue they were working, charged flat rates, and others, tiered, and a posture-master who performed for limited engagements sometimes lowered their prices as they neared the end. At the Rummer tavern, Higgins charged 1s. 6d. for front seats and 1s. for rear seats (Daily Courant, February 15, 1710), though the more elegant Duke of Marlborough’s Head tavern in 1712, the “famous posture-master of Europe” who performed with the as-yet-unkown Fawkes, could command 2s. for side boxes and 1s. for the pit (Daily Courant, Monday May 5, 1711). A decade later, when Fawkes began performing under his own name and a his own booth, he charged 12d and 6d, little enough, but—like all of these performers—he showed almost every day and often throughout the day: “Their Hours, every Day, from 9 in the Morning till 9 at Night, the last Shows beginning at 3, 5, and 7 in the Evening” (Daily Post, Saturday, March 3, 1722). These must have been grueling schedules indeed; yet, they were sustained by audiences who returned day after day. When Fawkes’ young “Apprentice” posture-master Philips ran away from his “Master” in April of 1724—an astonishingly detailed account of which is given in The Daily Post—the reward for his return was 2 guineas, suggesting just how integral a part of the show he was.
While there are a few notices given in papers based outside of London of provincial performances, posture-masters incarnate a striking cosmopolitanism. These performers, especially those who were known by their own names and asserted more control over their financial affairs and image, spent much time on the Continent—there seems to have been at least a few “European” posture-masters. Higgins had performed in Holland; Riner, in both France and Germany; one or two of Fawkes’ posture-boys were French, and if they stayed with him as “Apprentice[s]” (Daily Post, Saturday, April 18, 1724;), they may have been orphans handed over to the entrepreneur during one of his own trips abroad—a number of advertisements take special care to mention successful performances before foreign courts. Such cosmopolitanism was a sign of status and rank. Performers capitalized on the outlandishness of their postures, suggesting an active association between posture-mastery and the unhome-like, the uncanny. In December of 1721, for instance, John Riner was performing, for 2 shillings a place, his daily series of “Entertainments in Metamorphosis” that included, in addition to “the whole Performance of Posture Clarke,” an entirely novel collection of postures “Never Perform’d in this Kingdom before.” He goes on to elaborate: “First, a Pigmy Dance, he appearing to be but two Foot and a half high […] and a pleasant Entertainment of an Italian Scaramouch, with two Heads and four Legs.” (cite). Not only does this advertisement capitalize on the kind of outlandishness often associated with exhibited curiosities—“pigmies” were notorious staples in such exhibitions—but it also maps the new fad for harlequinade and pantomime onto the allure of posture-mastery.5
But what distinguishes the posture master’s art, as perhaps is to be expected, is the centrality of the performer’s body. Advertisements for contortionists describe in minute detail the bodily permutations and deformities paying audiences can expect. One 1712 advertisement in The Spectator for an unnamed contortionist is in many ways typical of such paratheatrical entertainments, and is therefore worth citing at length. Performing at
the New Tunbridge Wells by the New River Head, in the Dancing Room, is to be seen the famous Posture-Master of Europe, who far exceeds the deceased Posture-Master Clarke and Higgins: He extends his Body into all deformed Shapes, makes his Hip and Shoulder Bones meet together, lays his Head upon the Ground, and turns his Body round twice or thrice, without stirring his Face from the Place; stands upon one Leg, and extends the other in a perpendicular Line half a Yard above his Head, and extends this Body from a Table, with his Head a Foot below his Heels, having nothing to balance his Body but his Feet: With several other Postures too tedious to mention. Likwise a Child about 9 Years of Age, that shews such Postures as never was seen performed by one of his Age. Perform’d from 6 till 10 every Morning, and from 4 till 8 every Evening, except Mondays and Thursdays, when it will be performed only in the Morning. Note, Tuesday next will be the first Day of performing at this Place. (“At the New Tunbridge Wells by the New River”)
This is a “famous” posture-master who hails, ostensibly, from Europe; his performance is aligned through the venue with dancing as well as an existing tradition—he “far exceeds the deceased Posture-Masters Clarke and Higgins.” In this paradigmatic advertisement, the variety of corporeal dislocations that we can expect to see are detailed extravagantly, with an almost scientific attention to angles and lengths and units of measurement. This level of detail emphasizes the wondrous and surprising quality of the performance, as posture after posture is pictured in language. There is a notable but indefinable sense of excess about this advertisement; we are getting more—the posture master “far exceeds” what earlier artists were able to do, though the description calls to mind Laroon’s image of Clarke. He “extends his Body into all deformed Shapes” (my emphasis); he performs not only those described, but “several other Postures, too tedious to mention” here. The advertisement actively creates a visual rubric of the performer’s body, suggesting at once an existing image repertoire on which readers can draw to imagine the performance, and a need to contour the performance anew with a precise set of individual postures occurring in a specific order. This is not a random rary-show, but a routinized performance. It presents us with a set of still images that, in being linked together, create an almost cinematic quality of motion—and suggest the presence of the awestruck gaze of the audience, as well. In this sequence of hip and shoulder, head and leg, heel and foot, the whole gives way to the arrangement of parts, as well as how we see them, what we do with them and what we cannot do with them. Indeed, the identity of the posture master is in some ways a function of his fragmented body shaped into a whole only as performance. The architectural imagery of the contortionist’s postures finally emphasizes his ability, the extent to which he is indeed a master of postures, building an edifice of flesh. We encounter his agency, here, his active ability to shape his body; he “extends,” he “makes,” he “lays” and “turns” and “stands” and “extends” again. In advertisements, the posture master is clearly depicted as a master of postures, inviting the audience to partake in the pleasures of the stare, to wonder, to situate these bodies in a tradition of interpretation that features the limits of the human body and our experience of it.
In addition to performing their postures in fairgrounds, taverns, and other spaces of buying and selling, contortionists also worked on the regular or patent stages, often in the capacity of entr’acte entertainment—this is where Addison’s Bickerstaff problematically encountered a posture master, an experience he describes in horrified terms in a Tatler essay from December 17, 1709.6 In December 1709, Higgins was the posture-master du jour, and from the run of his advertisements, we learn that he began performing at Congreve and Vanbrugh’s Queen’s Theatre in the Haymarket, where he continued throughout the holiday season, performing at least eleven times. While in the Queen’s Theatre, Higgins performed his postures between the acts of a variety of plays starring Betterton and Barry, including Macbeth. It is therefore likely that Higgins is the posture master to whom Addison refers in The Tatler 108 when he writes of an abomination that has infiltrated the heart of the tragic stage, a “monster with a face between his feet” who “raised himself on one leg in such a perpendicular posture, that the other grew in a direct line above his head. It afterwards twisted itself into the motions and wreathings of several different animals, and after a great variety of shapes and transformations, went off the stage in the figure of a human creature” (2: 389). After his tour at the Queen’s, Higgins moved across London to the Rummer tavern in Cheapside; his performance ran until March of 1710, just before his death; there, he was able to charge 1s 6d for front seats, and 1s for rear—astonishingly, the common prices for gallery and upper gallery seating in the regular theaters (“The Surprizing Mr. Higgins,” Thursday Feb. 7, 1710). At the Rummer, Higgins participated in at least fifteen performances, though possibly many more were unadvertised given the claim in each that his performance would begin “at Six every Evening during his short Stay in the City” (“The Surprizing Mr. Higgins,” February 9, 1710). Many other performers appeared on legitimate patent stages, to the chagrin of arbiters like Addison and Steele. John Riner performed in the Opera House, Fawkes at the French Theatre and the James Street playhouse, and, years earlier, in 1702, an anonymous Black contortionist performed “a Variety of Postures to Admiration” in an entr’acte during Wycherly’s Country Wife at Lincoln’s Inn Fields (“At the New Theatre in Little-Lincolns-Inn-Fields”). This “infiltration” of the popular7 was denigrated by many as indicative of the bad taste of the town; a letter to Pasquin dated January 21, 1724, proclaims that “if Affairs go on at this Rate, the Poet and the Player will become useless Things, while the Joiner, the Dragon-maker and Posture-Master run away with all the Credit and Profit.” Not only compromising any hard-and-fast distinction between legitimate and illegitimate performance, however, such perceived infiltration also emphasizes the promises and threats of a mobile, urban public sphere—a commercial site of exchange, debate, and diversion.
In early eighteenth-century print culture, then, we can see an outline of the contortionist’s significance. Advertisements of the day suggest the centrality of these performers to the London entertainment economy, despite remaining largely nameless and unheralded, and the prices they could command both on and near legitimate theatrical venues illustrate their popularity for a variegated audience. With other paratheatrical entertainers, like tumblers, rope dancers, ladder dancers, jugglers and conjurers, the contortionist participates in the production of what Simon During has called “secular magic.” His feats of agency render him a fitting Proteus, and he can become virtually anyone or thing. The posture-master is, fittingly, a master of postures, a master of shapes and appearances who can slip easily from insider to outsider. He can confound the tailor’s codes of measurement and bodily coherence (described anecdotally in The Guardian 102, 8 July 1713), the highwayman’s Robin-hood act, and the spectator’s sense of the limits the human form. The contortionist steps easily from the street to the fairground, from the tavern to the legitimate stage, the public world of print to the private world of secret desires. A dexterous wonder, whose ability to reshape the human body is surprising, he capitalizes on the physicality and exhibitionism central to modern entertainment. His “distorted” form becomes a metaphor for the chaotic range of voices, desires, and modes of consumption available to an increasingly mobile, modern world. The posture-master circulates as easily as money, slipping from subject to object, curiosity to monster, outlandish to English, human to inhuman, fairground and streetcorner to patent theater, criminal to trickster, of the marketplace, mechanistic automata to living sign of the ghost in the machine.
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1These references are drawn from the New Edition; as of the 2010 draft revision, the word “unusual” replaces “artificial.”
2A search for “po?ture! N10 ma?ter!” yeilded 198 results, only slightly more than the more targeted phrase, “po?ture ma?ter!”; this is in part because “ma?ter!” hit words like “matter” and therefore many news articles about the posture of political or military affairs.
3Though this language will be examined more fully, below, it may be helpful to note here that ECCO and 17th 18th Century Burney Collection databases support fairly complex proximity, wildcard, nested, and boolean searches. For instance, one can search for “variety” within fifty words of “shape!” (in which search the exclamation point signifies one or no characters, hence returning results for “shape,” “shapes,” or “shaped”). Because of the persistence of the long S, it is also helpful to conduct multiple searches both replacing “s” with “f” and using the question-mark wildcard, which signifies any one letter. Fuzzy searches are also useful, because they can compensate for the variant spellings and approximations common when older materials are scanned and read with OCR software. The differences in returns between a search for “po?ture ma?ter!” with no fuzzy searching and low fuzzy searching is minimal. For more information on these searches, see the online Gale help documents on “Fuzzy Searching” and “Search Tips.”
4According to A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, posture-master is virtually synonymous with tumbler, which is described as “a sharper employed to draw in pigeons to game; likewise a posture master, or rope-dancer” (Ff2). Here, the pigeons drawn into game are customers attracted by the spectacle of the fairground hawker. Some taverns where posture masters performed include The Rummer, The Queen’s Arms, and the Duke of Marlborough’s Head. There are numerous advertisements for posture master performances during Bartholomew and Southwark Fairs, though not all are specific as to the nature of their performances. There is also evidence that posture masters performed in the Covent Garden Piazza (“At the Little Piazza in Covent Garden”) and “The New Tunbridge Wells by the New River Head, in the Dancing Room”)
5It is likely that performers toured widely across Europe, including Italy. Goldsmith’s narrator in Citizen of the World notes his regret that “none of our Eastern posture-masters or showmen have ever ventured to England,” for he “should be pleased to see that money circulate in Asia, which is now sent to Italy and France, in order to bring their vagabonds hither” (cite). This may suggest that there were few Asian posture performers in the eighteenth century, though it is, of course, difficult to prove a negative. In the early nineteenth century, Chinese performers were noted in the papers, and given the resemblance between the illustrations that have survived and several yogic poses, in addition to the extent of Continental travel, it is plausible that some Eastern knowledge had likely been acquired.
Worth pursuing: fawkes’ elision of the posture master from his image—branding himself the famous “english artist”–is this symptomatic of a larger “Englishing” of the entertainment economy?
6In The Daily Courant of February 9, 1710, for instance, we learn that Higgins is performing his whole show, including “several other wonderful Postures that he had not Time to perform between the Acts” at the Queen’s Theatre (“The Surprizing Mr. Higgins”).
7There has been a richly documented tradition of cross-fertilization between the fairground and the patent theatres, as well—in the late seventeenth century and throughout the eighteenth, actors from the patent theatres typically set up booths in Bartholomew and Southwark to earn income during the summer closures. Pinkethman may have been the first to, as Rosenfeld puts it, “exploit the resources of the fair” (9), but Bullock, Spiller, Hippisley, and many more soon followed suit. Not only did actors and actresses from the patent stages support their income with fairground performances in the summer, but many popular plays on the legitimate stages were redacted and altered for the meridian of Bartholomew or Southwark. Indeed, newspaper advertisements for fairground performances including posture masters begin to look quite a bit like advertisements for regular season theatrical performances by the 1730s. Theatrical advertisements for contortionists in the eighteenth century, like advertisements for other dramatic forms, indicate the venue of performance, sometimes the prices of attendance and the length of the run, whether the performance was a special request, and any additional entertainments to be had at the event.