Second Shepherds’ Play comments

December 17, 2007 at 4:20 am (wakefield master) (, )

I was hoping to have something intelligent to say about this play by now, but I guess I still don’t. This will have to do:

I enjoyed nearly every minute of it, and I think they did an incredible job of keepin’ it medieval while still making it accessible to the general public. (And who would want to go SEE a play that only academics would be able to understand, anyway?)

I should preface all of this by saying that I don’t have a Christian bone in my body, despite the amount of time I spend on books of the Bible, saints, Vatican-shifts-over-time, biographies of shady popes, and the works of St. Augustine. So I sort of expected to cringe a little at the end, the last few hundred lines where it becomes serious nativity. And I did cringe, a little.  JJ Cohen over at In The Middle said, at the workshop, that he was a little disturbed when the sheep (you know, the sheep that they’ve stolen, searched for, swaddled, sharpened knives over, rescued, and coddled) is made by the script additions to bow down to the infant Christ at the end. He said something to the effect of having his point of reference taken away, as the sheep had been resisting everyone else’s narrative and agenda throughout the play.* (The sheep in this production was played by a puppet.) Another participant said she was a little bothered by the coochy-cooing over the infant Christ (played in this production by a doll). There was something about this extra cuddle that Mary gave the child that seemed jarring to her. I mean, that’s GOD right there you’re cuddling, you know?

Over lunch, I was talking to a fellow play-and-workshop-goer about *senses* — just what senses are appropriate to use to appreciate the presence of the sacred, to participate in that kind of space? For Bishop Hugh of Lincoln, it was appropriate to use taste, and gnaw the bones of Mary Magdalene. For a Beguine whose name I’ve forgotten (stupid ILL wanting their books back), it was appropriate to imagine herself drinking the blood from the pierced side of the crucified Christ. For Roman Catholics, though Christ tastes like wine and unleavened bread, it’s still appropriate to use the sense of taste to approach the sacred. But that can easily be pushed over into the register of the horrific or obscene (and that’s always what interests me, of course!) And we lost a lot of medieval art due to the actions of fervent folks who thought representations of the sacred were too close to idolatry and destroyed them — seems even the sense of sight isn’t always ok. There’s something awfully — intimate? overfamiliar? uncouth? obscene? – about getting too close, maybe, about thinking of the Christ child drooling on you or wetting his nappie, about the way an archangel might smell, about hearing the voice of God. We don’t live in a world like that anymore. Affective piety is not cool, and hearing the voice of God will get you a one way ticket to the state hospital. (On the way home, in the rail station, I was accosted by a woman who smelled like urine, had an angelic and powerful singing voice, and told bystanders in an incredibly loud voice that they were going to hell, that God told her so, that God was telling her so RIGHT THEN. The transit security came to take her away.)

Anyway, I wasn’t as bothered by the sheep as I was by the uber-sweet cuddling at the end. There wasn’t any particular Marian cuddle that put me over the edge, and I really grokked the shepherds being all ga ga over the Agnus Dei – I thought they played that well, and it worked. I was prepared to follow them there. I didn’t deal so well with Mary and Joseph. Joseph smiled and looked proudly, though gently, paternal. Mary glowed, and played new motherhood very well. But, while I was prepared for and really got the humanity of the shepherds and their transformation at the end, I had more trouble with the humanity of the holy family – not so much the Christ child/doll, but Mary and Joseph. I think we just had to look at their faces for too long, doing that New Parent smile.

Maybe they looked a little too New Parent, too much like a commercial. If I had a new baby that was going to the savior of the world and all, I think I might be a little nervous. I guess newborn trumps divinity, and I’ve been spending too much time thinking about the Seven Sorrows of Mary, or about the way Mary pondered things in her heart a lot in Luke.

I’m making a bigger deal out of this than I should; you can’t very well have Mary and Joseph scowling in a Christmas play, and the divine-in-human flesh part of this story is what’s important. I suppose I just wasn’t expecting quite so much humanity. Beats me.

Here’s what I didn’t expect:

Thing one – the music. I was very curious to see what they would do about the music. I am a terrible musician who will never be anything more than a terrible musician, but I am truly passionate about stringed instruments, and when I clear some big hurdle I’ve been known to treat myself to an Eileen Ivers or Yo-Yo Ma CD. As the play has few stage directions, and we honestly have no idea how it was performed, the choice for music was really wide open, and they ran with that. They opened with music, there was music in between “acts,” there was music during the action, there was music throughout the entire thing. What was really cool, and what I think worked, is the way the musicians were on stage, dressed in character, and at times were the only characters on stage. The other characters occasionally interacted with them. They were fabulous, and I shudder to think what all of those reproduction instruments were worth. It was an embarrassment of musical riches. They essentially turned the Second Shepherds’ Play into a musical. And it mostly worked.

There was an ensemble/chorus bit at the end that was jarring to me, though, in its “everybody raise a glass” peasant merriment complete with Mary dancing — a sort of shift from “we’re characters” to “we’re a bunch of non-gentry getting our holiday spirit on at this special occasion,” and I thought I sensed some audience members getting restless once or twice during the parts when there were more than two songs back to back. I adore medieval music, though, and the Folger Consort is astounding, and I was glad to hear so much of them.

Thing two – the angel. If there was a moment in the play that took little old blackhearted, irreverent, slightly morbid me into “I’m along for the ride, Jesus and all” mode, it was the angel. *That* was the moment where the sacred overwrote the profane, not just in the narrative sequence of events, but in terms of affect. It’s almost as if the holy family in the stable seemed too human after the awe that was the angel. Part of it was her incredible voice, which we’d been treated to before as the actor was also in the ensemble and sang several times in peasant garb; part of it was the register of the music shifting from the hearthside mode to the cathedral mode; part of it was the costuming and lighting and blocking that made you believe the angel was larger than life, happy to be along for the ride; part of it was the reaction of the shepherds to the angel.

Maybe I’ve just spent too much time this semester thinking about angels, particularly the Miltonic variety, but that angel really blew me away. It was hard, after that, to go to the manger.

Maybe I just didn’t hang around enough live action nativity scenes in my misspent youth. I don’t have the context.

The workshop was almost a blur – I came to this knowing nothing about medieval drama nor the current scholarship surrounding the play, and I learned a lot. And I probably forgot a lot. I took some notes, and got some valuable handouts, and met some cool people, and ate some good food, and worked on my damned comp lit paper during coffee breaks. The Folger folks took good care of us.

In any case, it was a remarkable performance and production and you should catch it while you can if you’re able to. I’m off to finish my last paper of the semester and then maybe catch a live nativity scene. Maybe I can find one with a real sheep…

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*ETA: JJ Cohen at In The Middle has posted about the play in his own words, which are better than my attempt at recalling what he said, so you should go read them and let him speak for himself.

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1 Comment

  1. Cherries at Christmas – folk motifs (and the Second Shepherds’ Play) « Slouching Towards Extimacy said,

    [...] As I’ve ranted about before when writing about this play, it is often mispunctuated as Second Shepherd’s Play, but the manuscript reads Secunda [...]

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