Some  thoughts on pageantry, this week, from our Artistic Director.

As I travel, I often find myself trying to define what it is that makes each place unique and individual. I suspect that my answer would have been radically different fifty, or a couple of hundred, years ago. But today, with our mobile society, our global village, and corporate culture, pinning down the differences can be tricky. Most high-streets of a town of reasonable size will have not just the same type of shops, but the exact same brands. There are relatively familiar architectural and city-layout plans. Cities have, of course, attracted different industries, and topography can distinguish one from another plainly. But what really sets places apart are their individual pasts, of place and people. Each one has evolved differently. Disparate groups of people have come and gone, particular businesses and industries have left their marks, and events have transpired which give a fixed geographic space a distinct character unlike the others.

Without getting too far into the vortex of where exactly community and performance meet up, or where one creates the other, this self-definition through the past was manifesting itself across both England and America in the first half of the twentieth century through a unique performance medium: the pageant. Today that word tends to bring up the rather repellent image of Miss America-type competitions, but it used to have another connotation that would have been equally resonant to those who heard it. Pageants were large-scale performances that almost invariably focused on the history of a town or organisation. Louis Napoleon Parker, who is credited with their creation in 1905, defined them thus: “A Pageant is the history of a town from its remotest origins down to a date not too near the present; expressed in dramatic form; that is to say, in spoken dialogue: in action: in song and in dance…. It is divided into episodes corresponding with periods in the town’s history. Each episode is complete in itself, and is performed by a separate and independent cast.” (Several of My Lives, L.N. Parker)

Pageants served to show off the locale’s story to any visitors, and also to reinforce its cohesion through participation by nearly the entire community – some pageants had casts in the hundreds (in rare cases, the thousands), not to mention the work that must have gone on behind the scenes to create such massive events. (In fact, I’ve often wondered who was left in town to be the audience! One suspects that on occasion there may have been more people on the stage.)

What is comical about pageants – unintentionally – is that not every village had the most exciting history to show off, and pageants end up as a hodge-podge of the truly momentous and the absurdly mundane, elevated to “important” status in lieu of any other available anecdotes. Over the past few years, I have somewhat accidentally accumulated a collection of pageant programmes, and they make charming reading. For example, to pull one off the shelf: The Guildford Pageant of 1957 (which is quite late; pageants didn’t survive much longer in popularity or production) includes the following episodes among the 19 it offered up: a ballet of the War of the Roses, “The Grammar Schoolboys play at cricket while a bear-baiting entertains their elders”, and a commemoration of the first time a train arrived in town. Royal visits – even of the most minor scions or limited duration –  are heavily represented. None of the moments included in it would be considered of national importance – some cities obviously had richer mines of history from which to plumb than others – but they were the high-watermark of the 700 years that the town was celebrating that year. And these were the moments that made their town special, different from the one down the road, cementing its civic identity as unique throughout the country. Small differences were their specialness.

And the fact that it was a performance mattered. It wasn’t just a more palatable way to teach the past than in a classroom. It made the past seem real.

The fashion for pageants came and went, and it could be argued that their last hurrah was during the Festival of Britain, when every municipality, trying to find a way to be commemorative, civic, and festive all at the same time, seems to have hit upon them as the perfect solution. Pageants are profuse throughout the Festival’s national catalogue of events, and other cities, like York, started with the idea of a pageant before moving on to other things. Even as you can look through that catalogue and see them all over the place, I have found several news articles discussing what an utter bore pageants are; pageants were starting to be looked on as a massive expenditure of both time and money, which were delighting no one. Cinema was exciting, television was right around the corner for individual homes, and the magic of seeing half the city dressed up in doublet and hose was gone. And these were changes that were coming to the entire nation, bringing places closer together, in character as well as communication.

I doubt that pageants stand any chance of making a true comeback. They’ve left a legacy, in large-scale community theatre, such as the Mystery Plays in York or a handful of other cities in England, but the days when a town celebrated its heritage by getting everyone dressed up for another century are gone. In a way it’s a shame. What better way to build the spirit of the community than through performing its own history together? Without such events, it’s easier to forget what makes our communities individual and special… even if all that’s ever happened is that the Queen slept there one night, six hundred years ago.