The Mystery of Pub Crawls

One of the delights of my new job is this: my students are forever surprising me.   When they can get a word in edgewise amidst my constant chatter.  This (the surprising, not the getting-in-of-an-edgewise-word) never used to happen; I knew where my students' thinking was heading, and on a good day they would head that direction with sophistication and enthusiasm.  But I always felt that the lack of surprise in the classroom was a sign that I was holding them on too tight a rein.  Teaching is often as much a process of letting go as it is of asserting control.

This week, we are deep into medieval theatre in my Intro to Drama class.  First we had the nun Hrosvitha, the first woman playwright of Europe, and her rollickingly comic saint's play about miraculous rape-escapes.  Then we had the "Crucifixion", a single pageant from the longer York cycle of mystery plays, which are an account of the history of the world (in biblical terms, from the Creation of the universe to the Final Judgement) in a series of small "pageants" performed by various trade guilds in a procession around the city.  The guilds would often be assigned pageants that were appropriate to their craft (or "mystery"): the shipwrights were quite likely to get the Noah stories, and the goldsmiths the Adoration of the Magi.  The pageant we read this past week, the Crucifixion, was performed by the pinners, a guild who crafted pins to hold together pieces of wood, and anything you might, say, want to attach to pieces of wood.

Eurggh, right?

In the "Crucifixion," we see a group of soldiers who have been instructed to nail Christ to the Cross.  They think he is a wizard, and taunt him extensively while going about their task, which they anticipate will bring them great "worship" (or esteem - they are confused, you see, about what sort of worship they should be pursuing) in the community.  

But there is a problem.  They are not, actually, very good at the job of pinning.  Whenever they managed to get one limb pinned to the cross, they find that another is a good foot away from where it is supposed to be.  And they are always squabbling amongst themselves in a manner so contemporary and human that it (along with the incredible gruesome detail of the play) has led the anonymous author to be called "the York Realist."  

So they get out the rope and begin stretching Jesus's body to make it fit the cross.  A lot of technical discussion ensues about the details of the pinners' work, amidst the gory slapstick of what is, essentially, a torture session.  Finally they are done, and they lever the cross off the ground (where Christ has been largely invisible to us) and into a hole in the ground.  

And suddenly we are in a different play completely.

Gone is the slapstick.  Gone is our attention to the everyday banter of the pinners/soldiers.  Instead we (the medieval, Christian audience) are looking at the most holy of holy images, and we aren't laughing at all.  In fact, the very idea that we laughed before makes us somehow complicit in the torment of Christ.  

Forgive them, Father, Christ says at this (literally) crucial moment.  They know not what they do.

And that, in a nutshell, is medieval dramatic irony.

So before we moved on to the bleak pilgrimage of Everyman, and because they had just turned in a paper (and were probably a little hazy on the reading), we embarked on a mini-project to dispel the mid-semester glaze from their eyes.

What, I asked them, would the modern equivalent of a medieval mystery cycle look like in Halifax, NS?  This involves answering three questions:

  1. What does the history of the universe look like, from our particular perspective?  The medieval communities composing and performing these plays had a easy map to the history of the world: the Bible.  It told them everything vital that had happened in the past, and everything that would happen in the ultimate future (a period of time in which demon-filled Hell Mouths loomed large, just as in Buffy.) The present day was largely made up of a series of echoes of Biblical history.  Our cycle, I told them, didn't have to follow this Biblical conception of history unless it appealed to them.  Instead, they might consider what the crucial events that define world history are, from their local perspective.   Their answers?  Well: the Halifax Explosion.  The Holocaust. The Beatles. 9/11.  The Election of Barack Obama. Sidney Crosby bringing the Stanley Cup home to Halifax.
  2. How would your modern mysteries use the space of the city, symbolically or through processional motion, to draw everyone into relation with this grand sweep of history?  One group toyed with the idea of performing on the Harbor, each play on a different boat, so that the ships of the Halifax seafront were a sort of modern pageant wagon (the elaborate carts that we believe some of the medieval mysteries were performed in).
  3. Who would perform your pageants?  What is the contemporary equivalent of trade guilds?  Sports teams?  Rival universities or departments?  Different trades?  Neighborhoods of the city?  In other words, what smaller communities are in competition that can be drawn into the larger community that is Halifax by the structure of the mystery cycle?  This is what the original plays did: they said "Yes, compete against each other for the glory of the guild: show us who has the greatest ingenuity and resources to devote to performing their elaborate pageant.  But though your efforts at competition will contribute to the glory of your individual guild-community, they will also contribute to the glory of the town we are all apart of, and, beyond that, to all of Christendom."  For guild, for city, and for God.
What did the final group come up with?

Well, they said, our mystery cycle will be a sort of modern processional theatre, a drunken revel. What better than a pub crawl? 

The Creation (they told me) would take place in Alexander Keith's Brewery, where Halifax's history is enshrined (it is the site of the continent's oldest farmer's market) and the beer itself is born.  Various other moments in Biblical "history" (like the expulsion from Paradise) appear in appropriately named drinking establishments. The Last Judgement takes place at a pub called The Bitter End. The Hell Mouth would be the drunk tank.

Well done, I said, and laid out with tremendous expertise.  I will call you "the Artists of Dionysus."

And then they went off, to pursue what I can only assume will be further research on the project.

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