At what point does a change in the world find its way into the everyday fabric of everyday people?
I like to think – and have said as much many times – that humans are always humans. It matters little where you are or when you are. Were it not for the fact of the humanness of humans, we would not be able to understand why Sarah laughed in Genesis or why the women of Lysistrata do what they do. But we do understand them. And so it happens that we continue to join in the same ancient dance that the chorus started in the first orchestra all those centuries ago on an Athenian hillside.
And yet. . . . .
Imagine a world that has theatre. But it's a theatre that your papa did. And his papa did. And his papa did. Decade after decade. And it's basically once a year. As part of a festival – a civic festival.
You and your co-workers take some time to pull out the old wagon. You try on the old costume to make sure it fits again this year. And then all of the guilds in town get together and put on a parade that tells of the story of all creation from before the beginning to the end after the end. Mostly amateurs. As your papa did. And his papa. And your son and your grandson will do after you.
The idea of the medieval cycle play attracts me even as I realize that it belongs to a world that doesn't really exist.
Briefly, for those unfamiliar with the "mystery" plays ("mystery" comes from "master" – what you called a trained craftsman) . . . . .
Different towns in England had a group of short plays, each telling a Biblical or extra-Biblical story. The plays started with the creation story from Genesis (or earlier extra-Biblical stories like the fall of Lucifer from heavenly grace) and finishes with the life of the New Jerusalem at the end of time. Each play was performed by a guild – the bakers, the glovers, the smiths, etc. Each guild had a wagon on which their short play would be performed. The town likely had a parade route with planned stops at which the play would be performed for the people in that square. So the cycle would start early in the morning and go on through the day. Each wagon would stop several times through the town, and so each play would be performed multiple times during the day. And given that the plays were produced by guilds, and given that many times boys followed in the paternal profession – men probably maintained a multi-generational presence in the play produced by the guild. Your grandfather played Noah, and your grandson might play Noah decades hence.
The world of the medieval cycle play seems far removed from ours.
One, it seems almost impossible to believe that all the people of a town – the folks who actually do the work of the town – would get together every year to put on any play. These days in which are lives are more fractured and our communities splintered, I doubt we could muster the strength to put on one simple play – let alone a whole cycle of plays. And could you get a commitment for a whole day? I'd doubt it.
Secondly, the plays themselves are a glimpse into a medieval world that truly doesn't exist anymore. The medieval world encompasses a curious admixture of magic, religion, and science that we can barely recognize. These days we have far more faith in the sorcery of statistical analysis than we do in the possible presence of actual magic, angels, devils, and a God who pre-dates a Newtonian, Darwinian deity of tools and levers and processes.
Every now and again someone – usually an educated group – puts together a performance of a cycle play as a kind of esoteric experiment. Theatre history students read The Second Shepherd's Play as an artifact. But no one expects to see it in the same way one might expect to see Doll's House or Hamlet. We might understand the humanity of the medieval characters. But we don't easily understand that world.
And I wonder if we aren't the worse for it. . . . .