Biblical Pageants Set to Life

At the end of this semester, Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow Boyda Johnstone's Interdisciplinary Capstone course 'Medieval English Drama in Performance' (a course originally designed by Andrew Albin for his Lincoln Center students) will be staging a student-led production of a medieval play on the Rose Hill campus. Practice for this is already well under way: in class on Friday, Feb. 17, her ENGL 4148 students performed renditions of cycle pageants, which are medieval versions of biblical stories from the creation of the world to the last judgment. The groups each chose their favorite pageant and produced original adaptations of The Fall of Lucifer (city of Chester), Adam and Eve (city of Chester), Joseph's Trouble About Mary (city of York), and The Second Shepherd's Play.

The first sketch re-imagined God as Bernie Sanders with "Dolan Trumpeh" and Steve Bannon as the rebellious angels Lucifer and Lighteborne; the second split God into male and female counterparts as Adam and Eve struggle to decipher the mating rituals of animals; the third offered audience prompts to "boo" or "applaud" while Joseph wonders which man helped Mary cuckold him; and the fourth highlighted the harsh labor conditions under which the poor shepherds work.

One of the distinctive features of medieval cycle drama is the way in which it humanizes and personalizes biblical stories, transporting ancient tales into the streets of fourteenth- and fifteenth-century England. So transporting the stories yet further into our modern context of the twenty-first century makes a lot of sense. After engaging in the difficult work of adapting the texts into a more modernized English, the students could more directly confront the bawdy and slapstick humor of the cycle, reinvigorating tales whose themes of betrayal, hubris, and human suffering remain equally relevant today. Medieval drama was performed by amateur actors drawn from the communities gathered around them, so any lack of talent or mastery over the material can actually enhance modern engagement with how the pageants originally worked. Even the inevitable flub or mistake, for ENGL 4148, could represent a meaningful part of the entertainment.

After the class, students requested that they do more of these performance workshops, since it brought these somewhat esoteric pageants to life. So stay tuned for more performances from ENGL 4148!