Robert P. Ellis
From December 23, 1972
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The late medieval religious drama, like that of Sophoclean Greece and Shakespearean England, was a truly popular drama. English towns of only a few thousand people, such as York and Chester, supported annually and enthusiastically cycles containing as many as 48 separate plays on subjects from Creation to the Final Judgment. Surviving records indicate that the sponsoring craft guilds lavished on them quantities of time, money and energy that today we reserve for the Olympic Games, the Tournament of Roses and Miss America contests. Until late in the 16th century, the towns continued to put on their pageants in defiance of authorities who sought to repress them or modify them out of all resemblance to the traditional models.

By way of contrast the drama in our day is likely to go begging, and in none of its forms does it compel the sort of public allegiance that kept the medieval mystery plays going after the culture that generated them had been transformed into something quite different. The past year or two, however, have brought an upsurge in popular religious drama; thousands of people, not only in New York, but in cities across the country, have flocked to see productions with names like "Godspell" and "Jesus Christ Superstar." So unaccustomed are we to such large-scale enthusiasm for religion on stage that those who still take their religion seriously are sometimes reluctant to see in such developments valid signs of religious awakening or spiritual invigoration. But few who have answered the call of duty or curiosity and taken in a performance of "Godspell" have been able to resist the infectious charm and youthful energy of this contemporary restyling of the Gospel according to St. Matthew.

In a number of respects the appeal of the medieval drama has been created anew some 400 years after its demise in England. It occurred to me, while watching the Boston company perform "Godspell," that one way to help my students of medieval drama see what these quaint texts really meant to those who made them come to life, or watched them come to life, might be to recommend a pilgrimage to Boston or New York and an evening of "Godspell." Not only would they be plugging in to what was happening—a successful show written by a graduate student not much older than they. They also stood a chance of realizing what a few patient scholars, editors and even modern directors have come to realize in the last few decades: that drama founded on Biblical texts can be lively and exciting. Certainly a performance of "Godspell" could open their eyes to dramatic possibilities that dutiful study of the texts often does not uncover.

Naturally, there are important differences between the medieval and modern religious plays. "Godspell" focuses on Christ's public ministry—a rather minor portion of the mystery cycles. "Godspell," like "Superstar," stresses the humanity of Jesus, crucifying but not resurrecting its hero. Nor does the modern play encourage us to view its subject in the perspective of a divinely appointed history. Then there are formal differences. "Godspell" is usually (though somewhat misleadingly, I think) described as a "rock musical." The medieval drama did employ music. The cycles contain Latin and, later, vernacular songs. Anyone who has seen the New York Pro Musica's production of the French "Play of Daniel" knows how redolent with music that magnificent work is. But "Godspell" is a "musical" in the modern sense, as is no medieval play with which I am familiar. There are other significant differences.

But I was more struck by the likenesses, especially by both medieval and modern playwrights' resourcefulness at adapting familiar texts, forms and styles to create something essentially new. Most readers do not find plays very interesting reading, and even the text of a poetical play pales beside its enactment. Anthologies of medieval drama—several of which are available in paperback—are liable to seem drab at first, though an imaginative introduction like E. Martin Browne's to the Meridian Books selection of Mystery and Morality Plays can help a good deal. On the page the mysteries do not impress us as poetical, despite their verse form. On the stage, action, color, spectacle, the living human voice complement "unpoetical" language. Like the best of their medieval predecessors, John-Michael Tebelak, who wrote "Godspell," and lyricist Stephen Schwartz manifest the same knack for bringing a familiar message home to an audience whose receptiveness has been dulled by repetition or, as in the modern case, by doubts of its "relevance" to an altered world.

The ultimate source of most medieval mystery plays is the Bible, from whose language many plays never deviate far. The range of sources for these plays, though, includes hymns, homiletic verse and the liturgy—from which, according to the generally accepted theory, these works arose as far back as the tenth century or possibly earlier. But the mysteries also owe much to popular verse forms and to the strategies of the medieval preacher. G. R. Owst, in a book called Literature and the Pulpit in Medieval England, demonstrated convincingly that many of the elements often branded "secular" in late medieval drama derive in fact from sermons. The medieval playwright was not at all averse to the idea of appropriating "profane" or "secular" elements that served his religious purpose. The Chester plays, for instance, feature a stanza into which many romances had already been poured. The unknown playwright, credited with the best of the Wakefield plays and hence called "the Wakefield Master," may have adapted his favorite stanza from a satire on chivalry called The Turnament of Totenham. If more of the ephemeral verse and song of medieval England had survived, we would certainly find therein more seeds of the religious drama.

We can see analogous tendencies in "Godspell." On the one hand, Tebelak is notably faithful to his principal source, St. Matthew's Gospel. For those of us who remember the old Baltimore Catechism (always more fondly in retrospect, it seems), the show's favorite tune, "Day by Day," turns out to be a precise lyrical cognate of the answer to that fundamental question: why did God make me?

Yet, despite its faithfulness to traditional materials, this "rock musical" in fact accumulates a number of familiar, even hackneyed musical styles: hoary song-and-dance routines, the formula comedy of vaudeville ("I don't know, what must a man do to attain eternal life?"), the sentimental lyrics of pre-rock days. One of the principals, a temptress in the best smoky saloon tradition, slinks off the stage and up the aisle seducing men—for the Lord, of course. The performers are or create the illusion of being ordinary people sublimating their erstwhile secular talents. One is reminded of the calling of the first disciples: mere fishermen, they could nonetheless become "fishers of men." The songs often require only small twists to spring them clear of their old, trivial contexts. The titles—"All for the Best." "Day by Day," "Light of the World"—are platitudes, but they are cleansed of cloying sentimentality by wry puns and saucy ambiguities. The newly-called disciples do familiar "double takes" when Jesus poses for them the paradoxes of faith, thus disarming as well as engaging the audience. The result is that though everyone recognizes the materials of "Godspell," everyone is surprised by the life that is left in them after all.

Both medieval and modern playwrights have other similar techniques for bringing their subject matter close to us. A favorite medieval device is the anachronism. The actors were made to dress in contemporary garb, swear oaths by saints yet unborn at the time of the action, and garnish their venerable texts with their own rough and ready idiom. The Wakefield Master brings on his shepherds (men who, later on, will follow the star to the stable in Bethlehem) complaining about taxes, unjust employers and shrewish wives. In short, they are much more like the people watching them than they are like ancient Palestinian shepherds. The playwright does not so much modernize as universalize his theme. When he succeeds, he obliterates the time and distance between Jesus and the 15th-century peasant.

Clearly, "Godspell" also closes the cultural gap between subject and audience. For the first number the company dons sweatshirts, each branded with a name like "Socrates," "Nietzsche" or "Buckminster Fuller." Then all these disparate geniuses sing and consort together, after which they all array themselves in the most universal of all costumes—that of the clown. Jaques, in "As You Like It," is right: "Motley's the only wear." But each costume also suggests a different ethnic origin. The show that ensues, punctuated as it is by mugging, double takes and homely slang, convinces us that we are not watching an enactment of an old story but one happening in front of us, the homage of the moment. Because we are much more addicted to historical perspective than medieval man was, we moderns are much more easily diverted by the factual minutiae of history from the important things: the quality of a life, the value of an idea, the intensity of a relationship. But "Godspell" encourages us to stop labeling and pigeonholing and get back to basics. For two hours our minds are rendered unhistorical.

The medieval drama at its best and "Godspell" both do more than obliterate temporal and spatial distance and reorder our perspective on their subject matter. They foster an intimacy, a sense of community with the audience. The mysteries contain numerous asides and even fairly lengthy speeches directed to the audience, as well as many other opportunities for confidential gestures and emphases. It seems likely that this nearness of players and audience conditioned the playwrights and theatergoers of Shakespeare's England. Can it be mere coincidence that the popular Elizabethan stage arose almost immediately upon the termination of the mysteries? Both possessed the intimacy between entertainer and entertained that afterwards largely disappeared from the English-speaking theater until the 20th century's experimental inclinations prepared the way for a show like "Godspell," which carries communal feeling even further by the bold stroke of passing out wine to the audience and inviting its members on stage for a "wine break" during the intermission. This gesture also does something to restore the sense of festivity, so strong in primitive drama where plays are acted in conjunction with religious celebration.

The Feast of Corpus Christi provided the occasion for most of the mystery cycles. As late as Shakespeare's time, a title like "Twelfth Night" attests to the continuing association of plays with religious feasts. But many a modern man must wonder why such occasions are called "feasts" or "festivals" at all. Except for Christmas they are no more festive than any other day. Yet even though the neighborhood of the typical modern theater does little to enhance festivity, every performance of "Godspell" creates a recognizable feast day for its audience inside.

If the modern world fails to approximate the medieval kind of religious festivity, it shares to a considerable extent the late medieval sense of suffering. The chain-link fence that serves as the backdrop for "Godspell" at first looks like something enclosing the modern urban playground—poor excuse that it is for a meadow or a village green. Still, the energetic young actors romp within it, climb on it and generally teach elders how to enjoy themselves while they are learning or relearning the basic truths. After intermission, though, the mood of "Godspell" changes, and the unpleasantness of that fence forces itself on the audience, for it is in the shape of an ugly cage enclosing the playing area and, by imaginative extension, the audience.

Our times resemble the latter Middle Ages in stressing the humanity and suffering of Christ in its religious art. The Church has taken steps in recent years to deemphasize the Stations of the Cross, for instance, or at least their agony, but modern man is prepared to agonize, and "Godspell" does not shirk or flinch any more than the 14th- and 15th-century depictors of the Crucifixion. It is possible to argue that both eras are ones of moral and spiritual decadence, that the medieval and modern penchant for torture, for grisly detail, is at best a desperate shock tactic and at worst the despair of a spiritually moribund society. There is no denying that even the reading of the York plays of the Scourging and Crucifixion is a wrenching experience. Those of us who have not had the opportunity to see these plays performed (the York cycle has been staged triennialiy in that city since 1960) can call to mind some of the details of late medieval painting and sculpture and imagine the impact of their faithful representation on the stage.

But the other side of the late medieval and modern weakness for violence and brutality is an intensified awareness of suffering. Our art beckons us to participate, but is the invitation directed to the vicarious infliction of pain or to the perhaps not so vicarious act of suffering? Our perfection of the engines of destruction—biological, chemical, nuclear—has led us to see the self-destruction inherent in warfare. Television has brought home to us the reality and scope of suffering in the world today. As is often feared, such awareness can perhaps anaesthetize us, but perhaps it can galvanize us, too. We rise to question whether this physical and mental anguish is necessary and inevitable, and perhaps we decide to reject force and violence.

In "Godspell" Christ is one of us. That playground fence we have all scaled becomes His cross. We are invited, in late medieval fashion, to participate in the agony. "We hung up our lives," the last line of the last song, is, like many of the earlier lyrics, ambiguous. If it suggests to the traditionally minded the fact of man's sinfulness, it also points to the common bond of suffering. We do not know what to do about this death or even what to make of it, but we are together in our feeling, and we do not come away overwhelmed by the futility of the death. The festal freshness of the first act has passed into an extended sobriety. "Godspell," lacking the Resurrection which would soon follow in the medieval cycle, cannot end comically or joyously. Within its limits it is too honest. Modern man's difficulty in believing in salvation shows up in a series of unredemptive Christ-figures and symbolical Crucifixions in our literature, going as far back as Herman Melville's Billy Budd. But even a Christ who does not rise from the dead affirms, where characters like O'Neill's Anna Christie and Faulkner's Joe Christmas merely exploit, a religious mystery. "Godspell" may illustrate the limits of belief in our society, but it does proclaim anew for our generation some measure of the Good News.

When a modern theatergoer takes in "Godspell," he is seeing the closest approximation our times have made to the medieval religious drama. He is also seeing one of the most popular pieces of theater to emerge in decades. I cannot help but sec the conjunction of these two truths as a hopeful sign.

Robert P. Ellis is an assistant professor of English at Worcester (Massachusetts) State College.