York and The Flood in Medieval Drama

Living in York, one becomes accustomed to the rise and fall of the River Ouse, which can burst its banks and retreat several times in the course of a year. The degree to which it, and even more the Foss, rose over the recent Christmas period was horrifying, making a lake of much of the city. It seemed such a catastrophic thing, and yet many people had memories of similar events. This was not a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. 2000. 1982. 1968. 1947. Amidst the usual flood-talk (floods are spoken of as being “of biblical proportions”; people comment that “if it gets much higher, it’s time to start building an ark”), it made me think of the medieval plays about Noah. With York’s rivers doing this watery dance throughout history, what extra significance might plays about the most famous flood have held for the city’s people?

All four of the surviving medieval mystery play groups have plays about Noah; it’s one of the standard Old Testament stories. York is the only one to devote two plays to the subject, splitting the story between the Shipwrights’ “Building of the Ark” and the Fishers and Mariners’ “The Flood”. (The connections between these guilds’ daily work and their dramatic subject is somewhat obvious.) The Noah plays are framed in part as marital comedy, with Noah’s wife refusing to get on the boat. Their squabble, which eventually results in either her acquiescence or being bodily hauled aboard, still protesting, is meant to elicit laughs. After all, the audience knows that Noah is literally on a mission from God and in the right; his wife’s stubbornness, therefore, makes her seem both shrewish and foolish.

It strikes me as interesting that the two plays (York and Chester) which are decisively attributable to a specific city, and moreover cities which are river-side and prone to the experience of actual flooding, use Mrs. Noah not just as comedy, but as a way of showing the poignant side of the Flood. She wants to stay with her belongings, work on her spinning, and talk with her friends. Her ‘gossips’ actually appear in the Chester play, and she laments their loss in the York version. After all, the story of the flood is not just to give Noah a pat on the back for being virtuous; it is the story of the death of the entire world. Only Mrs. Noah seems to have a care for the family and friends who are lost, and her wish to stay on her own patch of land, literally come hell or high water, is one that can be seen enacted any time waters rise. Among the hyperbolic canvas of a worldwide flood, messages from God, and a miraculous boat of epic proportions, Mrs. Noah is a moment of absolute reality, and heart-breaking empathy. Is it possible that the writers of these plays created such a character from their observations of their cities’ own high-water traumas?

Although I don’t know of any occasion when the Corpus Christi festival was cancelled due to high water (as it was occasionally for plague), York’s floods are certainly not a 21st century phenomenon. 2000’s flood was the highest “since 1625”, and it was already known to be flood-prone by the fifth century A.D. It seems safe to assume, then, that audiences to the mystery plays would have had some experience of what happens when the Ouse and Foss get out of control; and, in an era before insurance or government disaster aid, there were probably some who could all too vividly relate to Mrs. Noah’s desperate attempts to try to save what she had. Among the many parables and miracles of the Bible being enacted on their streets, the people of York probably had a slightly more intimate empathy with the Noah family’s experience than with many of the other biblical tales.

“The Flood” didn’t make it into the large-scale 1951 production in St Mary’s Abbey, which cut almost all the Old Testament stories, but it was the first chosen to appear on a waggon in the 20th century, as an adjunct event to 1954’s revival. It was repeated in 1966, 1969, 1973, and 1980. I suspect that there are many reasons for why this should be one of the most repeated waggon plays – easily recognised iconography, near-universal familiarity with the story, and the obvious but dramatic waggon-as-boat set (these being chief among the reasons it was chosen for our 2012 production) – but one can’t help wonder if there isn’t at least a subliminal nod to York’s experiences as a frequently-flooded riverside city as well.

One of the biggest documentary gaps in our knowledge of medieval drama is that of eyewitness accounts. We have nothing to tell us if somebody watching the Noah plays suddenly recalled how his own wife scrambled to save a bit of spinning she had been working on, when the Ouse started to invade their plot of land. Perhaps our only clue of their experience will come the next time we see the play, whether in the Minster next summer or on the streets in years ahead. York is an incredibly resilient city, which has been drying itself off and getting on with life for over two thousand years. When we see the play, will we remember watching the rivers rise? Or will we simply have moved on, accepting that this is what happens sometimes in river towns, all the while knowing, a bit like Noah, that someday our streets will again be under water?

Performance for Christmastime: Victorian Pantomime

In the final entry of her seasonal strand, and following on from her previous post about the form viewed through foreign eyes, our Artistic Director contemplates the history of Pantomime.

Ah, pantomime! One of the traditions of a British Christmas! Pantomime is a truly British phenomenon – if you didn’t grow up there, making sense of it can be a challenge [something discussed in the earlier post An American at Pantomime]. But trying to “make sense” of pantomime is really missing the point. Performances of this genre have always been intended to amuse, entertain, and dazzle; they have never been created to edify.

And yet their history is edifying, a lesson in performative creativity. The pantomime was born in no small part out of the efforts of theatrical producers to circumvent the restrictions of the Theatre Licensing Act of 1737, which, amongst other things, meant that “speech” on stage was, for all but a small number of licensed theatres, verboten. This left opera, ballet, and silent but physically dynamic performances as the tools available from which to create entertainment for the vast majority of audiences. These were rolled together with the traditions of Italy’s commedia dell’arte, which were masked performances of specific characters (centred around the adventures of Harlequin and Columbine) within a formulaic plotline, reliant upon comedy, physicality, and the improvisational creativity of its performers. The result of this merger was pantomime: an evening’s entertainment, strung together on the most slender of plotlines (usually a fairy tale).

The form reached a sort of apogee among the Victorians. Their pantomimes began with an opening scene from the fairy tale, followed by a ‘transformation’, during which the characters were somewhat magically (and often inexplicably) transformed into the commedia characters. In those new guises, the evening would continue in much the same fashion, enacting the story of lovers trying to outwit the scheming of Columbine’s father so that they could be together. The performances were designed to capitalise on both the talents of the individual performer, and the most spectacular tricks the theatre could devise. The more over-the-top the spectacle, the happier the audience was.

Performances could include hundreds of actors, and require more than fifty stagehands. To achieve these casts, they would raid other theatrical forms, bringing in performers who usually spent their time in the worlds of ballet or the music hall; their specialist talents might then evolve the pantomime in a different direction. Today’s pantomime dame is perhaps owing to the participation of performers whose usual routines were performed in drag. That which proved popular was adopted; that which audiences found dull was excised. Pantomime was, and is, an evolutionary form, relying not only on timely, topical material as joke matter, but responding in constant (and often literal) dialogue with the audiences.

Victorian pantomimes were very much unique to each individual performance and as such are unsuited to modern replication as historic theatre. The scripts were a guideline rather than a rubric, the actual performance relying heavily on a performer’s own repertoire. The jokes and references, so specific to time and place, would probably not have worked even a few years later or in a different city, much less at the considerable remove of a century. Moreover, the elements which were particularly appealing to a nineteenth century audience, the jokes and spectacular tricks, were proprietary secrets, and while the results may be documented, the manner in which they were achieved was not. I often wish I could try to re-create a Victorian pantomime, but given the aforementioned specificities; a literal re-enactment would either be impossible or, at best, result in somewhat of a “shadow” of what original audiences experienced. Having said this, many of the basic elements from the Victorian performances, albeit updated and adapted, still remain in the essence of a number of modern pantomimes.

The twenty-first century pantomime has, however, in many ways moved away from the spectacular elements so prominent in the Victorian era (there were a great number of health and safety disasters) and emphasised comedy. It makes you laugh rather than dazzling you with clever tricks. This is not to suggest that pantomime has got rid of tricks – to the contrary, they’re still entirely present, but they’re rarely the central element around which the rest of the production is created. Unusually amongst twentieth century play forms, it harkens back to medieval traditions of audience interaction, encouraging participation across the fourth wall through conventions of cheering the hero, hissing the villain, or shouts of “it’s behind you!” So much of what is often thought of as “traditional” theatre refers to the Victorian traditions of proscenium stage, distance from the audience, and realism, yet pantomime, so much a child of the Victorians, is proof that there has always been far more variety in theatrical style than many people may realise.

In some respects, pantomime does not bear overthinking. It is a form of performance to be enjoyed rather than analysed. But for pantomime, the answer to “what’s that behind you” is a remarkable array of performing traditions, come together to create what remains one of the most unusual and unique of British traditions.

Performance for Christmastime: The Coventry Carol

This week, continuing her seasonal strand, our Artistic Director covers a Christmas Carol and a Medieval Play!

As I write, there are Christmas carollers standing outside my window. While I’m not a big fan of a lot of the modern Christmas songs – the Santa and Rudolph ditties – I do have a nostalgic fondness for what might be called the ‘traditional’ carols, most particularly the ones in minor key or with some sense of melancholy about them. Maybe it’s just a necessary antidote to an overdose of glad tidings and cheeriness, but songs like “What Child Is This” or the American “I Wonder As I Wander” have always had a unique appeal. One of the really dark ones has a secondary interest to me as well: the “Coventry Carol” is the only song still in regular circulation in the modern festive season which can claim its origin in a medieval play.

The city of Coventry, like its better known cycle-owning brethren, York and Chester, once had its own tradition of medieval plays, performed through the city on waggons. I often think of it as the ‘forgotten’ play cycle, because it is far less familiar than the other two cities’, or than the two region-ambiguous play groups, Towneley and N-Town; although Coventry has seen performances of these plays in the twentieth century. The fact that only two of Coventry’s plays survive in any form is no doubt responsible for its relative eclipse. Those two plays are, however, immensely interesting. They’re much longer than the plays belonging to other cycles, containing more biblical episodes per play. The Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors, from which the song comes, covers the entire Christmas story, from the Annunciation to the Slaughter of the Innocents.

It is this last incident- the Slaughter- on which the song focuses. In a way, the “Coventry Carol” is the anti-nativity song: these aren’t mothers singing about the joys of their newborns, but in fear and mourning for the fact that their infants are about to be killed by Herod’s soldiers. Joanna Dutka sums it up as “creat[ing] a mood of frightened tenderness”; clearly, this is a bit different from the Christmas plays of today. The Slaughter of the Innocents is, in fact, the way the play ends. While this probably seems incongruous to our modern notion of nativity plays and Christmas sentimentality, it’s worth remembering that the Coventry plays weren’t actually for the Christmas season at all; they were performed in the summer, for Corpus Christi day, and this nativity play would be followed by the story of the rest of Jesus’ life, rather than standing in isolation.

There is a second song from the Coventry cycle, “As I Out Rode This Enderes Night”, that is nearly forgotten. This song is about the shepherds and the angels, a far more cheerful theme. You can find it on the odd cathedral choir CD, but it’s certainly not a carol that has remained in frequent circulation (I’ve never actually heard a recording of it). On the surface this would seem the more obvious choice of the two for survival, at least in terms of its subject matter, and its potential usefulness in contemporary nativity plays. My suspicion is that it wasn’t really about the words at all, but the tune. “As I Out Rode” has a more challenging melody, and may not have been sufficiently ‘user friendly’ to make it into the general carolling repertoire. That archaic word “enderes” might have played a role as well. It’s terribly difficult to translate words when they’re set to note and rhythm; “The Coventry Carol” is not encumbered with any vocabulary more obscure than a few “thou”s.

The Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors’ manuscript was lost in a fire in 1879; it, along with its two songs, survives at all only because of an edition by antiquarian Thomas Sharp, printed in 1817. All of this is to suggest that cultural survival is the result of a cluster of random circumstances, making the results seem entirely arbitrary. Like the theme of the song itself, the line between life and death is a fine one. Whatever confluence of events meant that “The Coventry Carol” has stuck around, I’m glad it did. It’s a beautiful piece, and it’s nice to know that a moment of medieval theatre continues to live, breathe, and sing in the present day, whether its singers know that or not.

Performance for Christmastime: An American At Pantomime

Our Artistic Director continues her seasonal exploration of performance during times of traditional celebration – particularly those at Christmas – this week she reflects on Pantomime through her eyes as someone brought up outside the UK.

Every year, as the holidays roll in, so does one of the most uniquely British phenomena: the pantomime. And every year I think about what an interesting phenomenon it is, and wonder if, as an American, I will ever fully understand it.

America doesn’t have it. The word exists, but in America it means ‘miming a performance, without speech’, not a beloved Christmas tradition. In that sense it shares at least a root with the British version. But as a form of performance itself, “pantomime” simply doesn’t exist in America. So I didn’t see it until I was in my thirties, thereby probably missing out on a certain aspect of magic which is dependent upon the nostalgia of the childhood theatrical experiences.

The only pantomime I’ve seen is that of York Theatre Royal. I’m lead to understand (it was even mentioned in a recent lecture on Victorian Pantomime I attended, which took place in London) that this one is quite a unique thing unto itself, an especially remarkable version of the form. I’ll be honest: I went in a bit warily. My expectations included words like “zany”, “absurd” and “over the top”. I’m not sure those words were wrong, just that they were only a tiny part of the picture. As an American I’m still not sure I understand pantomime, but I’m also not convinced that my British friends and colleagues understand it either. It’s not about understanding. It’s about doing what comes hardest to me – giving up the need to analyse, and just entering into the spirit of the thing. And if you can do that, it’s really something quite special.

Like much British comedy, pantomime is a mixture of physical, slapstick comedy, and really intelligent humour. The topicality of it is remarkable, and possibly not more than a handful of the audience gets 100% of the jokes. In fact, trying to keep track of the variety of references can be a game in itself. If you want to “get” all of pantomime, you’d better be well up on your news-watching, pop culture, non-pop culture, theatre and music etc. It really does have something for everyone. If you want to see someone get dropped into a tank of water, you’ll get it (at least at York Theatre Royal); if you want to play “how many music theatre jokes can someone work into an evening”, you can do that, too. It’s that mixture that makes it different from a lot of American comedy, where things tend toward either “high” or “low” comedy, without the same mixing of the two; they play to different audiences, and there probably isn’t anything as universally appreciated as the pantomime.

I’m told that performers will test out their audiences at the opening of the night, and adjust the improvisational elements of their performance in accordance to whether the patrons seems engaged or “dead”, sleepy or excited. And they periodically talk to the audience, directly, while at certain points it is completely expected – almost scripted – that the audience will talk back. That kind of interaction within a “traditional” (as opposed to experimental or avant garde) production would be very uncommon in America – the only analogy I can think of is the way people go to screenings of Rocky Horror, which, being a film, isn’t the same thing at all.

This comparison brings me to the aspect of pantomime that probably makes it the hardest to translate to America: the Pantomime Dame. The notion that there’s just something inherently funny in a man dressing up as an elderly woman doesn’t translate across the Atlantic. Drag in America is almost always coded in terms of sexuality, which isn’t really the point in pantomime. I find it quite refreshing, actually, that it can be a simple exercise in the ludicrous, without mocking any particular group or lifestyle.

Ultimately, I’m not sure that pantomime is something I’ll ever fully appreciate. I think you have to grow up with it (and this may be especially true at York Theatre Royal, where people attend annually for years, even decades; it references previous years in the entirely reasonable assumption that much of the audience will remember). But what really sold me on it was the sheer joy of the performers. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen actors having so much unabashed fun in their work. You simply couldn’t watch it and not catch that kind of contagious enthusiasm. I was watching people break an awful lot of the rules of theatre that I was raised with, and they were selling it like hotcakes, and we were all buying. If letting go of any meanness or pettiness, if replacing them with joy and delight and laughter, is what the holidays are meant to be about, I can think of no greater example than the pantomime.

Performance for Christmastime: The Nativity Play

With the holiday season upon us, our Artistic Director has been thinking about the ways that performance is so often linked to our celebratory traditions. So for the next few weeks she’ll be musing on the history and continuation of those events. While they may not be the kind of theatre we tend to work on at HIDden, who knows how their influence may be felt upon our own projects!

Among the many traditions of the Christmas season, there is one to bring either joy or dismay into the hearts of all involved, largely dependent upon their age and relationship to the event. This is the Nativity Play, a staple of primary and Sunday schools throughout Britain and, to a lesser extent, America. Young children get excited at the prospect of putting on a play; the adults may heave a sigh at the prospect of the cat-herding that will be involved, and grin and bear it for the delight that their offspring have in the process. From a professional or commercial standpoint it is a stretch to consider this holiday phenomenon “theatre”, but it is inarguably one of the most common performative traditions associated with the holidays – and, one suspects, the first occasion when many professional performers trod the boards! There is also a fairly good likelihood that their existence owes something to the medieval drama traditions of so many centuries earlier, and their sudden revival at the turn of the twentieth century.

Christmas play-making has an extensive history. Performance has always been part of the holidays, particularly at the royal courts. Perhaps surprisingly, these were generally not the religious story of the Nativity. They were also performed for and by the adults, but we do well to remember that children were treated as mini-adults, without particularly special consideration, until the Victorians came along. One might therefore guess that it would be the nineteenth century which created the nativity play as we know it today, but thus far I’ve found no evidence of them until the early twentieth century. Possibly this is owing to the Victorian wariness about showing the deity on stage, an issue still effectively legally curtailed until the 1950s. The Victorians tended to hold sacred things as precisely that, and the idea of entrusting their performance to children would likely have been met with a cold reception, if the idea of performing holy things was even seriously considered.

The beginning of the twentieth century brought on a new interest in reviving medieval drama on the professional level (William Poel’s 1901 Everyman leading the way), and a general trend towards religious drama on the whole followed in its wake. Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the first modern religious plays to be performed after it was about the Nativity. Dramas of faith began to proliferate, and church groups had an advantage when it came to staging them: as private organisations, they were exempt from the censorship laws. Another factor which probably fed the development of nativity plays was the fashionable pageant, a large-scale community spectacle which was popular during precisely the same time. Both children and adults were frequently involved in these events, which usually presented episodes of local history in a chronological progression. In fact, performing as a serious hobby seems to have been very much a part of life in those pre-television years, with drama groups of all sorts springing up across Great Britain.

By the mid-1920s, scripts for Nativity plays which were not dependent upon a medieval antecedent were beginning to emerge. These weren’t necessarily for children – when they became the province of the young remains elusive, although it seems possible that the disruption of World War II, and the quickened pace of life which followed it, may be a turning point in that direction. Certainly it makes sense that Christmas should be the particular occasion for drama: its purely festive atmosphere lends itself to play making in a way that is not true of Easter (inevitably accompanied by the sombreness of Good Friday). Moreover, family members are more likely to turn out if one of their children is in the play, making it a good chance to re-engage with those who aren’t normally involved in the church community otherwise. And it’s a story which, even if somewhat anarchic due to the very young age of participants, will still be sufficiently familiar to the audience.

Given its ubiquity, it might be expected that the nativity play would be the product of a long and richly documented history, but one of the interesting aspects of considering its history is the way that it reflects a common problem among theatre history studies. By virtue of being a true “folk” play, something put together by ordinary people among their own, for their own small community, it remains largely undocumented. The folk plays of medieval England are almost entirely lost to us; so it seems likely to be with the nativity play in the future. There are innumerable events every winter, yet practically no trace of them after the fact. Seemingly eternal yet ultimately elusive – perhaps this renders them a good metaphor for both the childhood which is so much at their heart, and the truths of faith which are their theme.