Tuesday, 31 January 2017

'The Coming of Christ'


I've recently been thinking a bit about medieval drama, and in doing so came across a 'modern mystery play' which was new to me. The Coming of Christ, with words by John Masefield and music by Gustav Holst, was performed in Canterbury Cathedral in 1928. It was commissioned as part of the newly-instituted Canterbury Festival, and is said to have been the first attempt at reviving medieval mystery drama since the Middle Ages.

Apparently it was controversial at the time, attracting criticism both for representing sacred subjects on stage and for being performed inside the cathedral. It seems harmless enough now, and it's an interesting 1920s take on the medieval genre. The subject is the Nativity (though it was actually performed at Whitsun, on 28 May 1928), chiefly the adoration of the three kings and the shepherds. The kings are a capitalist, a tyrant and a mystical enthusiast, while the shepherds are cynical war veterans, who compare keeping watch over their sheep to their memories of night-watches in what sounds a lot like the trenches of the First World War. This was particularly controversial; for more on the context of the performance and its challenges, see this book.

Both Masefield and Holst worked with medieval texts and subjects on a number of occasions. I've written briefly about Masefield's poems on Anglo-Saxon saints before, as well as his Arthurian poetry. He was particularly fond of Chaucer, on whom he lectured and wrote frequently, so the Canterbury link here is apt; and I think there's a very faint whiff of the Pardoner's Tale in Masefield's shepherds. (On a tangent: do read Tolkien's brilliantly polite letter to Masefield, taking him to task for excessive praise of Chaucer as 'the first English poet'!) I don't know how much medieval drama Masefield might have read, but it seems relevant that he knew Piers Plowman; he drew a connection between the figure of Piers and the climactic scene in his most successful early poem, The Everlasting Mercy. (Both poems are set in the landscape of the Malvern Hills, near Masefield's native Ledbury).

For his part, Holst set a range of Middle English texts to music - most notable is probably 'Lullay my liking' (1916), but I also like this setting of four Middle English lyrics and his 'Four Old English Carols' (1907). I've so far only heard as much of the play's music as is available on Youtube, but there's a description of it from a contemporary review here and a fascinating account of the first performance here.


The play takes place in the Nave of Canterbury Cathedral, which has a ready-made stage in the form of steps up to the Quire. What particularly interests me is the scene at the beginning of the play, which is set before the Incarnation. This is a discussion between the figure of 'Anima Christi' and four spirits: The Power, The Sword, The Mercy and The Light. Anima Christi has not yet entered into the world, but 'stands here at the brink / Of life's red sea which stains and overwhelms'. The spirits try to dissuade him from choosing to be born into the world as a man, warning him of the suffering he and his followers will undergo, and arguing that the dark and violent world is already past saving:

Man will not change for one voice crying truth,
And dying, beautiful as fire, for wisdom.
Like a stone falling in a stagnant pond,
You will but make a ripple swiftly stilled
By the green weed...
Men are but animals, and you will fail.
This is the harvest you will reap on earth:
Your mother, broken-hearted at the cross;
Your brother put to death; your comrades scattered.

But Anima Christi, though momentarily hesitant, is not swayed:

O spirits, I am resolute.
I lay aside my glory and my power
To take up Manhood.

This debate is reminiscent of the 'Parliament of Heaven' type of scene found in medieval drama and other kinds of medieval texts, including Piers Plowman. In this scene, four allegorical figures debate whether Christ's coming into the world to redeem mankind can be reconciled with the demands of justice, which requires punishment for sin. Here's one version of the idea from a medieval mystery play, and below is a rare representation of a Parliament of Heaven scene on a 15th-century English alabaster panel:


(See the V&A's website for a full description of the scene.) Christ is descending head-first to Mary, and the surrounding figures are the Four Daughters of God - Mercy, Truth, Righteousness and Peace. The personification of these female figures as the four principles to be reconciled is an idea based on the verse from Psalm 85: 'Mercy and truth are met together, righteousness and peace have kissed each other'. These women are usually the figures who debate the apparently unresolvable question, and each can be roughly equated with one of Masefield's four (male) spirits. Apparently this scene was one of the most controversial aspects of the play, because of Christ's hesitation. I wonder what those who objected to the modern dialogue of Masefield's shepherds would have made of Langland's even more vigorous debate, in which Truth tells Mercy 'That thow tellest is but a tale of waltrot!', and Righteousness asks Peace 'What, ravestow? or thow art righty dronke?'!

In Piers Plowman the women appear from the four corners of the world: Righteousness 'out of the nyppe of the north', Mercy 'out of the west coste... walkynge in the wey', and so on. In a similar way, the figures in this play enter from the North and South Transepts of the cathedral, and through the Quire door from the east. When Anima Christi resolves to become incarnate in the world, he passes eastwards into the Quire as the four spirits strengthen him with their respective attributes.


As he does so the Host of Heaven sing:

O sing, as thrushes in the winter lift
Their ecstasy aloft among black boughs,
So that the doormouse stirs him in his drowse,
And by the melting drift
The newborn lamb bleats answer: sing, for swift
April the bride will enter this old house.

Awake, for in the darkness of the byre
Above the manger, clapping with his wings,
The cock of glory lifts his crest of fire:
Far, among slumbering men his trumpet rings:
Awake, the night is quick with coming things,
And hiding things that hurry into brake
Before the sun's arising: O awake.

Awake and sing: for in the stable-cave,
Man's heart, the sun has risen, Spring is here,
The withered bones are laughing in the grave,
Darkness and winter perish, Death and Fear;
A new Life enters Earth, who will make clear
The Beauty, within touch, of God the King;
O mortals, praise Him! O awake and sing!

Then the kings appear, discussing their quest, and the shepherds watching their sheep. Cold, tired, and resentful about their unappreciated service in the war, the shepherds are talking of revolution: 'let us have a turn at the fire, the rich have a turn at the fold... It's time the workers should command and have the wealth they make'. One of them speaks of his faith in God, though the others scoff ('I'm only a poor shepherd, but I've known Him', he says, Piers Plowman-like: Piers' very first line in the poem is 'I know him as kyndely as clerke doth his bokes'.)


Next 'the Angels appear at the Quire Door, on the Upper Stage and in the Gallery and Clerestory' of the cathedral, and sing:

Glory to God in the highest,
Peace on earth among men in whom God is well pleased.

Praise Him who brings into the dark
Of human life, this shining spark
Which will burn clear and be a mark
For wandering souls on earth and sea.
By his companionship and sign
The unlit souls of men will shine
And be a comfort and be divine,
And bring a glory to men to be.

Through Him who is born in stable here
Our heavenly host will come more near;
The presence of God, which drives out fear,
The glory of God, that makes all glow,
The comfort of God, that sings and swells
In the human heart like a peal of bells,
And the peace of God, that no tongue tells,
Are given to man to know.

Praise Him who shines in the bright sea,
In golden fruit, in the green tree,
In valleys clapping hands with glee,
In mountains that His witness are,
In heavens open like His hand,
In stars as many as the sand,
In planets doing His command,
And in His Son this star.

The child and his mother appear, framed by the door of the Quire. The angels sing:

You who have known the darkness slowly yield,
And in the twilight the first blackbird's cry
Come, with the dripping of the dew new-shaken
From twigs where yellowing leaves and reddening berries lie,
And seen the colour come upon the field,
And heard the cocks crow as the thorps awaken,

You know with what a holiness of light
The peace of morning comes, and how night goes -
Not goes, but, on a sudden, is not, even.
Now God Himself is Man and all the banded Night
Will perish and the Kingdom will unclose.
O man, praise God, praise Him, you host of heaven.


The kings and shepherds present their gifts to the child, and the shepherds carry him and his mother out on a litter as they sing:

By weary stages
The old world ages;
By blood, by rages,
By pain-sown seeds.
By fools and sages,
With death for wages,
Souls leave their cages
And Man does deeds.

In mire he trudges,
In grime he drudges,
In blindness judges,
In darkness gropes.
His bitter measure
Yields little pleasure;
For only treasure
He has his hopes.

The hope that sailing
When winds are failing
Above the railing
A coast may rise;
The thought that glory
Is not a story,
But Heaven o'er ye
And watching eyes.

Behold us bringing
With love and singing
And great joy ringing
And hearts new-made,
The prince, forespoken,
By seer and token,
By whom Sin's broken
And Death is stayed.

Now by his power
The world will flower,
And hour by hour
His realm increase;
Now men benighted
Will feel them righted
And love be lighted
To spirit's peace.

Our God is wearing
Man's flesh, and bearing
Man's cares, through caring
What men may be;
Our God is sharing
His light and daring
To help men's faring
And set men free.

All you in hearing
Assist our cheering
This soul unfearing
Who enters earth;
On God relying
And Death defying,
He puts on dying
That Life have birth.

This final hymn, 'By weary stages', was published in the 1931 edition of the hymnal Songs of Praise, with Holst's tune titled 'Hill Crest' (the name of Masefield's house near Oxford).

The four spirits reappear, and speak again:

The Mercy: By mercy, and by martyrdom,
And many ways, God leads us home:
And many darknesses there are.

The Light: By darkness and by light He leads,
He gives according to our needs,
And in His darkest is a star.

The Sword: The angry blood was once the guide,
But perisht boughs are thrust aside
In the green fever of the Spring.

The Power: Friends, Christ is come within this hall,
Bow down and worship one and all,
Our Father for this thing.

One by one the four spirits pass into the Quire (where two Anglo-Saxon monks once heard angels singing.)

Looking into Canterbury Cathedral from the door of the Quire

Thanne pipede Pees of poesie a note:
'Clarior est solito post maxima nebula phebus;
Post inimicicias clarior est et amor.
After sharpest shoures,' quod Pees, 'moost shene is the sonne;
Is no weder warmer than after watry cloudes;
Ne no love levere; ne lever frendes
Than after werre and wo, whan love and pees ben maistres.
Was nevere werre in this world, ne wikkednesse so kene,
That Love, and hym liste, to laughyng ne broughte,
And Pees, thorugh pacience, alle perils stoppede.'
'Trewes!' quod Truthe; 'thow tellest us sooth, by Jesus!
Clippe we in covenaunt, and ech of us kisse oother.'
'And lete no peple,' quod Pees, 'parceyve that we chidde;
For inpossible is no thyng to Hym that is almyghty.'
'Thow seist sooth,' seide Rightwisnesse, and reverentliche hire kiste,
Pees, and Pees hire, per secula seculorum.
Misericordia et Veritas obviaverunt sibi, justicia et Pax osculate sunt.

3 comments:

sensibilia said...

"Man will not change for one voice crying truth,
And dying, beautiful as fire, for wisdom.
Like a stone falling in a stagnant pond,
You will but make a ripple swiftly stilled
By the green weed...
Men are but animals, and you will fail."

Beautiful and thought-provoking.

Paul Andrews said...

When I was researching my doctoral survey of the music of Herbert Howells some twenty five years ago, I came across some numbers in manuscript for Masefield's The Trial of Jesus (1925). I didn't investigate the play, but might it be another example of the same tradition? The music remains unpublished and yet to be revived

floodmouse said...

This is very powerful. I wish I'd seen it!

Thank you for all your wonderful posts. This is a ray of sunshine on a horrible winter day.