In November 2009, The Times newspaper offered a free copy of a selection of short stories by Edgar Allan Poe, as part of its ‘chiller’ theme in the run-up to Halloe’en. The edition included the short story called “Hop-frog; Or, the Eight Chained Ourangoutangs”, published in 1849, in which an ill-treated Court dwarf takes revenge on the King and his seven ministers by organizing a masque. The King and his ministers disguise themselves as apes, covered in tar and flax and are chained together. At the height of their dance Hop-frog pulls them tightly together by the chain and sets fire to them.
The idea for Poe’s story came from a true event which took place in 1393 at the Court of Charles VI of France. The King and five of his friends put on a masque dressed as wild men (le bal des sauvages), also covered in pitch and strips of flax and tied by a chain. They were accidentally set alight and only the King and one other survived. The masque came to be known as Le Bal des ardents.
The idea of the ostensibly celebratory masque which turns into a bloodbath was appropriated by writers of Jacobean revenge tragedy as a powerful dramatic effect of ironic reversal and retribution. In John Marston’s Antonio’s Revenge (1602), for example, the villain Piero, celebrates his rise to power by putting on a masque, but the masquers reveal themselves as revengers who torture and kill him.
Poe drew on both the Bal des Ardents and revenge tragedy for his story, recreating and adapting the masque to his own ends.