Eight years of conversations and almost two years in the making, the RSC production(s) of The Mysteries were something of a milestone in my career , though they have often felt more like a millstone. A large amount of the work I have written since remains influenced by them, not only and most obviously The Master And Margarita, but with Katie Mitchell I evolved a whole working process which has remained central to my work in the theatre.
The whole journey is described, at some length, in the articles below, but in brief, Katie and I fulfilled a longheld ambition to stage the medieval Mystery plays at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1996, only to find that our original theatrical interest had been usurped by rather more profound concerns. Our desire to stage the story we now wanted to tell, essentially an attempt to engage intelligently, imaginatively and above all inquisitively with the central myth of Western civilisation, led to us completely revising the work into a largely new 5 hour play for the London transfer. Whereas the Stratford-Upon-Avon production had by and large met with critical approval, the London production was greeted with almost universal critical derision, some critics directly accusing me for the act of vandalism. What was more painful was the lack of support we received from many parts of the RSC, with audiences being actively encouraged to return their tickets and book for another show and the box office delivering a long list of warnings ('There's nudity, bad language, violence - oh, and there's no Resurrection') The BBC Radio version, which is based mainly on the London script, met with greater acclaim.
Buy the script of the Stratford version (almost)
Director - Katie Mitchell
Design - Vicki Mortimer
Costumes Co-Design - Johanna Coe
Lighting - Paule Constable
Music - Ben Livingstone
Movement - Emma Rice
Fights - Nick Hall
Sound - Andrea J Cox
Josette Bushell-Mingo, Declan Conlon, Paul Hamilton, Paul Hilton, Kristin Hutchinson, Johnny Lodi, Richard Lynch, Myra McFadyen, Christopher Middleton, Ruth Mitchell, Joseph Mydell, Peter Needham, David Ryall, Tristan Sturrock, Edward Woodall
The Mysteries began as a conversation between Katie Mitchell and myself in 1991. Katie through her experience of the Gardzienice theatre in Poland had begun to explore the relationship between theatre and folk culture, and from there she had developed an interest in pre-Reformation English culture. For my part, I was concerned with the notion of what it meant to be English at a time when other parts of the British Isles were asserting their identity (and non-Englishness) ever more dynamically; and as a theatre writer I was searching for a language that had the sheer rhythmic and poetic vigour of the Scots, Irish and North American writing that excited me. These two interests found a connection in the medieval English mystery cycles and we laid a plan to try to stage as fully and faithfully as possible one of these cycles in all the richness of its original language.
The plan, despite sporadic stirrings, remained unhatched until Adrian Noble invited Katie to become director of The Other Place in the winter of 1995/6. At this point we moreorless picked up the idea as we had left it five years previously, though the venue was perhaps smaller and more conventionally theatrical than the one we had envisaged.
Of the twenty to thirty English mystery cycles for which records exist, only 4 have survived anything like intact. These are York, Chester, Towneley (almost certainly from Wakefield) and a manuscript known as ‘N-Town’(previously called both the ‘Ludus Coventriae’ and the ‘Lincoln cycle’, but probably from Norfolk) Of these York is the most comprehensive and extensive in its telling of the standard mystery cycle of Creation to Passion to Doomsday. It is also linguistically very close to the Towneley cycle which features at least five plays by the so-called ‘Wakefield Master’, one of the great writers of pre-Reformation theatre. It is therefore quite possible to mix-and-match from York (which has some key passages missing) and Towneley to produce a thrilling over-view of much of the best of medieval English mystery play writing. This, very loosely, is what Tony Harrison did for the National Theatre in 1980s. At the beginning of 1996 our plans were not much different. I had seen Harrison’s version in Bill Bryden’s landmark production and I had got totally high on the language; this, a desire to present a coherent cycle, and my familial associations with York and Yorkshire, were enough to head us towards a York/Towneley confection.
I was to be employed, not as a writer or adapter but as dramaturg. I was to be the writers’ representative (and there are a great many of them, all anonymous) in the rehearsal room, trying to get the plays on to the stage in as untampered a form as was commensurate with comprehensibility and changing theatrical times: our audience might be less than fluent with Middle English (although it is more comprehensible acted than read) and our small studio space might not be able to deliver all staging devices of a medieval pageant. To fulfil this role it became essential to try and get inside the heads of the people who made these plays: for me the problem reading the plays was not what was being said (an English degree had prepared me for the linguistic problems) but why it had been written.
There is a prevalent myth that the cycles, perhaps the beginnings of secular theatre in this country, were the creation of the working classes. This is to look at the medieval period through post-industrial spectacles. If one had to render the situation in twentieth century terms it might be as accurate to describe the pageants as conceived and performed by the intelligentsia and the middle classes, with skilled manual workers employed to produce scenery and costumes; the shopfloor maybe filled in the smaller roles and were the audience. But this is itself highly speculative. The more we have worked on the project the clearer it has become that what is really known about these plays consists of tiny fragments, from which each excavator has tried to reconstruct some idea of the original, but in every case the resulting image is composed of more reconstruction than fragments.
The one aspect that does seem fairly certain is that the pageants were vast communal undertakings. Perhaps if one could begin to understand the ties that bound a medieval community together, that enabled, even encouraged a whole city to come together annually in a religio-theatrical adventure of considerable expense and effort, how the attitude of a shipwright to his work was changed by playing Noah, then maybe one could come to a wider understanding of how communities can be built and labour valued in our own age when patterns of both are changing radically. What might a pre-industrial age teach us about living in a post-industrial age?
So in the spring of 1996 we began a reading programme - not only of the 4 cycles and fragments of cycles - but also of a vast range of material, both medieval and contemporary, that might guide us through the mindset of the people who made these plays and the culture in which they lived. By the autumn, when Katie, Vicki Mortimer and I became free of other commitments, I was able to spot a passing reference to St Augustine’s interpretation of the Creation at twenty paces and Katie could enumerate all the Old Testament figurae fulfilled in the Crucifixion.
Our reading had shaken up the project in various ways. Contact with the other cycles had relieved us of a feeling of loyalty to any one cycle in particular. N-Town had become more and more attractive, initially for no better reason than that it has been so persistently overlooked or denigrated in academic literature. It had revealed itself to be highly suitable to our situation. The play seems to be made up of 3 separate elements: a two-part passion play, a play on the life of the Virgin Mary, and around them some bits and pieces assembled apparently to make the whole conform to a mystery cycle structure. Because much of it is written as coherent drama, as opposed to a series of discrete pageant scenes, it seemed much better suited to a static staging in a studio space. The language, though there are a great many passages of limpid poetry, lacks the wilder, alliterative inventiveness of the northern cycles, and so is often more accessible to a modern ear. Also, through the Mary play and a greater space afforded to the female characters in the life of Jesus, there seemed for us an opportunity to balance the otherwise rather male-heavy narrative.
We had also learnt that N-Town is not alone in being a compilation rather than an integrated whole. Records suggest that mystery plays were being performed in Britain from the late 14th century until sometime in the mid-16th century, yet in the case of York, N-Town and Towneley the manuscripts we have date from the latter part of the 15th century - that is 50-100 years before the plays ceased being performed. The York manuscript (which is possibly a prompt book or civic catalogue of the pageant) appears to record a number of changes being made to the plays; the Towneley script has several elements in common with York, as if they were in some way connected, perhaps drawing on the same lost original. So what has come down to us is less an authorised version, more a snapshot of the plays at one moment in their development, with little or no indication of their origins, or what form they took when they ceased performance. Armed with this knowledge we had become fearless in borrowing from all the cycles in order to create our own compilation. It seemed no more than what the writers of the middle ages - eminently practical artisans - would have done. It also led to us exploring the mystery cycles of other countries. N-Town is decidedly more continental in feel than the Northern cycles, perhaps because it is more passion play than pageant cycle. The Cornish Ordinalia (and its late 16th century re-working) has directly and indirectly influenced our script, especially in the story of Seth and the Oil of Mercy; there is also a certain minor influence from some of the mammoth French mystères.
Meanwhile, through the process of auditions and casting, it had become clear that to ask an actor to stand up and play ‘I’m a medieval shipbuilder pretending to be Noah’ was not a path we had any wish to pursue. Theatre rarely shows its snobbery more than when it presents ‘non-actors’ acting. To interpose a medieval personality between the actor’s own and these astonishing mythic figures, seemed not only an unnecessary ‘head-fuck’ (Katie’s term) but also in some way fraudulent: isn’t the problem of ‘I’m a man in the middle of the desert whom God has told to build a gigantic wooden box to save my family from flood’ sufficient?
This was the point we had reached when Katie, Vicki and I set aside a weekend in Yorkshire to consider the project. We read a lot; we went into York and walked the route of the pageant (though significantly we spent more time in bookshops looking at Käthe Kollwitz monographs); we met with Peter Meredith of Leeds University, one of the most cogent of commentators on N-Town, who has been involved in several academic reconstructions of medieval plays, including the mystery cycles. Somewhere in the midst of all this, we also asked ourselves ‘Why are we doing this project now?’ and found the answers we had been coasting on for five years no longer fitted the question. It seemed that we were in danger of building some quaint medieval time-capsule at the end of the millenium, inevitably compromised by lack of knowledge, indubitably coloured by twentieth century prejudice. A piece of heritage theatre, perhaps entertaining in the shallowest sense, but devoid of any attempt either fully to engage with the material or our audience: both abandoned behind an opaque barrier of medievalism.
So, two months before we began rehearsals, we started to reconstruct the project from the bottom up, determined that from now on we would work solely with the question Why? and trust that this, shaped by the already determined conditions of time and place, would lead us to How? We quite quickly arrived at a new shared starting point - which in truth had never been far away: the teaching and life of Jesus. We were interested in certain aspects of his message, as we saw it, and drew up a list of oppositions - altruism vs selfishness, responsibility vs irresponsibility, community vs individualism, spiritual vs material, nature/harmony vs technology/dissonance. These seemed to us issues that Jesus - in the sometimes lucid, sometimes riddling way that his teaching has come down to us - was trying to address: trying to draw a society away from the latter towards the former in each case; issues that were current to him and still seem pretty current now. That a man needed to say these things, that a society felt it necessary to kill him for saying them, but that other members of that society felt his message to be sufficiently important to continue to promote it, even at the cost of their own lives: this seemed like a story worth telling, independent of whether we could commit to particular beliefs about his divinity.
So that gave us enough to work on for Part Two of the two-part event we had promised to the RSC and its audience, but what about Part One? We decided that we needed to provide some kind of context for this man. A context in part local - the beliefs he (and through him, we) inherited - but also a broader one: how did we get into a situation where we seem persistently as a species to progress away from a life in balance with the rest of creation to a life based on reckless exploitation of it? Were the stories of the creation and evolution of society that have come down to us in the Bible at all useful for talking about these issues? Back on the shelf went St Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and Glynne Wickham, down came Liberation Theology, Stephen Hawking and Richard Dawkins.
It should be stressed at this point that what we are making is a piece of theatre, not a philosophical tract. The tools of theatre are very simple - an actor, an audience and a space - just as an artist’s tools might be described as simply paint, something to paint with and something to paint on, yet in each case a high degree of complexity can be achieved. The ideas behind a piece of theatre transferred into this medium of explanatory prose can seem excessively bald and simplistic, because that is as they should be. We have struggled over and over again in this project to simplify material to the point where it is actable. This is not because actors are in any way simplistic or even unintellectual people, but their work is not to explain complex ideas, but to realise complex situations. Anyone who has experience of fractals will know that the most apparently innocuous mathematical formulae can release patterns of mind-boggling complexity. In the best theatre something of the same effect can be achieved: the same actors in the same situation working with the same basic intentions can produce, night after night, a bewildering diversity of ‘results’.
With the scientists we looked back to the beginning of creation. The inconceivable moment when out of nothing came something. One recent theory runs roughly: ‘In the beginning there was nothing. Then there was a flaw in the nothing, a mistake in nothingness, and the mistake became so super-heated that it exploded, and caused the Big Bang.’ By being put into words what is an elegant mathematical proposition swiftly becomes a surreal metaphor. Then how might we stage such an event? All we have is actors and a space and the audience’s imagination. Might the right actor simply speaking the words of the Bible in the right setting bring us anywhere close? If we accept this as a metaphor (which most people in our culture do) what does that acceptance of this metaphor, as opposed to any other Creation myth, tell us about the forces which shaped our culture? Liberation theology will tell us that it is vitally important to remember that God made creation and that it was good: isn’t the essential goodness of creation, of nature, and for that matter of ourselves, something worth remembering? And physics will tell us that we and the universe are all made of the same stuff. We cannot conclusively claim the same maker, but we are all shaped from the same material as the stars.
We also at this time stumbled upon Jack Miles’ remarkable book, God - A biography. By the apparently simple device of treating the Old Testament like a work of fiction in which God is the central character, Miles subtly reveals all the shifts and tensions that lie in the relationship between that character and his mirror image, humanity: his wilful but oh so adored offspring. This gave us the ‘through line’, the backbone of Part One that we had hitherto been missing.
It also sent us back to the Bible, and we became eager to try achieve in the script something of the stripped-back nature of the Bible stories themselves. In the mystery cycles it's often hard to move without banging one's head against a bulwark of Catholic propaganda, stubbing one’s toe on some ill-informed piece of anti-Semitism. We became more and more rigorous about removing material that did not have biblical support, peeling off from the Old Testament our Christian interpretation of the stories: out went the Fall of Angels, out went Satan (who only makes two appearances in the Old Testament and neither of them in the Garden of Eden),out went any notion of hell. We also examined the apocryphal stories which, though barred from the New Testament proper, had a major influence on medieval views of the birth and life of Christ. A meeting with an Islamic scholar directed our interest towards the Koran, where we were (shamefully) astonished at the closeness of some of the stories. The appearance of Adam, Noah and Abraham we might have expected, but to find Moses and Jesus held in such esteem, the latter even the product of a virgin birth, for this our culture had left us unprepared. From the start, we had been keen to avoid alienating non-Christian members of our audience: de-Christianising (or re-Judaising) the Old Testament might build one set of bridges; consideration of the Islamic versions of the same stories might provide another.
Having been passed through all these mills and meshes the material has, at the time of writing, also undergone the rigours of five weeks in the rehearsal room. It has shed a third of its length, but is, if anything, more radical in its manipulation of the story than the script which was first presented to the cast. Katie and I, having at the eleventh hour backed down from some of our more extreme positions, been able to re-embrace them with the support of a remarkably courageous and generous company of actors.
The question could well be asked, in what sense does the place at which we have now arrived have any connection to the medieval mystery cycles which were our starting point? The majority of the text is still drawn from some medieval source or other. The choice to leave the language in a slightly simplified version of the original Middle English (with material from other sources being ‘middle englished’ to fit) is more than just a hang-over from our original starting point. I am still uncertain what kind of language one could use to tell these stories today. The King James Bible carries an immense cultural baggage of exactly the kind we found we needed to shed, and has the disadvantage of not being written for the theatre; also much of its most exquisite poetry turns out to be the result of slippery translation. In the twentieth century perhaps TS Eliot has made the most considered effort to find a language to write about spiritual issues, and it can hardly be coincidental that he leans towards exactly the kind of four-stress line that is the staple of the mystery cycle verse. Personally, I am still quite engaged by this strange hybrid in which the piece is now written, but I suspect the dialogue over the language will continue long through the run of the show.
The language issue aside, my hope (naive probably) is that the medieval writers and theologians who birthed these plays would at least understand the mindset with which we have approached the project; that, having begun as their representative in the rehearsal room, they would not feel I have travestied their work wilfully. The problem is, simply, that the answers of faith to which they could appeal five hundred years ago are perhaps not ones we can use so readily now, or if they are, we have to approach them from a new direction. I do not think we have been patronising in our attitude to their work, we would never claim to understand more about the spiritual life of humanity than those great thinkers who devoted their lives to its contemplation. We do, however, as a society, know a good deal more about the material world, and that we cannot avoid: we cannot unthink what has been thought, or undiscover what has been discovered. Our quasi-anthropological investigation into medieval society, and what it might teach us about society now is not a project we have abandoned, but if we were to tackle it we would require material that gave us more ideological room for manoeuvre. By the by, it should be pointed out that the simplicity of our staging is probably not at all medieval. The taste of that time seems to have been very much for high tech spectacle - and if the historical records are anything to go by they were quite capable of achieving scenic effects which would turn Sir Cameron Macintosh green with envy (and appal any Health and Safety officer)
The relationship of a script to a stage production is complex, not least because theatre has never evolved an intricate method of record-keeping, unlike choreography or composition. I have not attempted here to describe what is happening on stage in the production. This is largely because at this point in rehearsals I simply do not know, and in any case the staging is likely to change in the long run of performances ahead, which will take it to four different theatres. Any precise documentation of the production as finished product will need to wait until it is finished (currently May 1998),and cannot be within the remit of this publication. The ‘stage directions’ are usually those which were originally presented to the company and are based largely on scriptural sources. They are often deliberately provocative, and should be considered to reflect the mood or ideas behind what is happening on stage rather than being a precise description of the action - the why rather than the how. Yet such is the transient nature of theatre work, that this script, only one small part of the overall undertaking, will, more than likely, outlast the production which gives it its relevance. I would like therefore to take the space here to pay credit to all those listed below whose work on the production has been at least as influential as my own, but whose efforts may not be immediately evident in the text that follows. Above all, I owe an enormous debt to Katie Mitchell. Her intelligence and imagination have shaped this script as much as anyone’s; without her vision none of us would have gathered in the first place, and without her tireless questing we would have long ago foundered.
Stratford-upon-Avon, December 1996
In the Introduction to The Creation I outlined how Katie Mitchell and I, having originally been drawn to The Mysteries project by a quasi-anthropological interest in medieval culture, became increasingly involved in the issues of what it meant to be telling these stories now and thus began a process of stripping away layers of medieval Catholicism in search of what lay beneath. It had become clear to us also that the intellectual heart of the project (if one can imagine such an organ) would be the life and teaching of Jesus. Therefore, as we headed into the New Testament we felt we knew where we were going.
There was, however, one significant obstacle, of which we had been aware ever since first discussing the project with the RSC. The medieval theological tradition on which the mystery cycles are based is essentially a contemplative one. The significance of Jesus’ incarnation is brought home to the spectator by contemplation of his suffering: in this way we are to understand better the sacrifice he makes for all of us. In a culture where the church kept a tight hold upon the actual teaching of Jesus - the first translators of the Bible into the vernacular were denounced, and in the case of Tyndale burnt at the stake - the playmakers centred their attention on the fleshly suffering of Christ. The plays of scourging, flagellation and crucifixion - especially those of the ‘Wakefield Master’ and the ‘York Realist’ - are brutal in the extreme: our noses are rubbed in all the blood and sweat, and the nuts and bolts (or nails and wood) of the process. While this left us with an ocean of fine writing for the Passion sequence itself, we were in shallower waters when it came to Jesus’ teaching, which for us was at least as important as his death. There are some medieval plays that cover scenes from the ministry, but they tend to be only the scenes most fully dramatised in the gospels (especially John, which is the most ‘theatrical’ of the canonical four),and don’t collectively strike to the heart of the teaching as we saw it. We simply could not rely on our audience having the same knowledge of Jesus’ ministry as that probably shared by the plays’ original audience, and if we were to present the significance of his death we had to show the significance of his life. In short, from very early on it had been clear that there was going to be a substantial chunk of the ministry that we would want to stage and for which we had no medieval sources.
Our initial approach to the material we had intended to be very like the process we had developed for The Creation: stripping away to the skeleton of the biblical source and building up from there. We instantly hit another obstacle. Whereas in, say, the story of Abraham’s sacrifice there is only one authorised rendition, that in the Hebrew bible (though we in fact also took account of the Koranic version) in the case of the life of Jesus one is initially faced by four separate accounts, which are often contradictory - even in the case of the so-called Synoptic Gospels, whose ‘one-eyed’ view is decidedly astigmatic. Of course any historian will point out that in the classical era a biography is intended to meet very different expectations to those we would impose today, but it is still frustrating to find that, even when the gospels seem to be most in agreement - on the trial and crucifixion - it is impossible from these sources alone to gain a precise picture of what actually happened. Here we were, all ready to restore the painting, cleaning materials on hand, only to find that the canvas bears not one but at least four different overlaid versions of the picture: which one is the real one?
With the acting company we watched Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St Matthew, an exceptional piece of film-making which sticks very closely to its single source. While the film has unquestionably had a huge influence on our work in many ways, we were not convinced of our ability to sustain such an apparently artless narrative in the theatre. In addition if we were to restrict ourselves to a single gospel we would be left with the problem of which one. If we were to be guided by the medieval material we would have had to choose John, which is often overly discursive, and very diffuse in its topography. Whether Jesus in fact restricted his teaching to the Galilee until the final climactic week in Jerusalem one can only speculate, but from a narrative point of view it gives a much stronger structure than John’s comings and goings between Galilee and Judea.
We flirted briefly with attempting to tell a story that might fit with the most uptodate historical facts, but quickly ran aground. It seems we know rather fewer verifiable facts about the life of Jesus than we do about the life of Shakespeare: in either case if one were to stick strictly to the facts it would make for a very short play. Robin Lane Fox’s The Unauthorized Version is very acute on the failure of the gospels to give us even a firm date for Jesus’ birth, or his age at death: at the furthest extreme from the received view he could have been born in 12BCE (maybe in the summer),and may have been almost 50 by the time he died. Not for the first time in this project we had the sense of the ground slipping away beneath us: not only is there so much we don’t know, even the things we thought we knew turn out to be unsubstantiated.
Our historical and scriptural research did however raise some interesting issues about Jesus’ opponents. In the Introduction to The Creation I made clear our eagerness to re-Judaise the Old Testament stories, and throughout the production we have tried to be as accurate as possible about the Jewish context for the scenes. Now we had to confront the notional root of anti-Semitism: the Jews killing of Jesus. But did they in fact kill him? Crucifixion was a Roman punishment. So the Romans killed Jesus. But the gospels imply that Pilate, the Roman prefect, recognised both the scheming of the high priests and Jesus’ innocence, though he was eventually cornered into condemning him. The portrait of Pilate as the troubled man of power, able to recognise what he should do, but unable to do it, this is one of the great icons of Western civilisation, apotheosised in Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita.
The question ‘Who killed Jesus?’, to borrow the title of JD Crossan’s excellent book, is an extraordinarily knotty subject and, not being an expert, I will only attempt a cursory overview of the issues here. First, the historical Pilate was, by all accounts, not a nice piece of work. He is described by a contemporary as a man of ‘ruthless, stubborn and cruel disposition’, typical features of his administration being ‘greed, violence, robbery, assault, abusive behaviour, frequent executions without trial, and endless savage ferocity’. He was finally stripped of his commission after repeated protests from the populace and priests about his bullying and religious insensitivity. There is evidence to suggest that the gospel writers - all of whom were writing after the bloody and catastrophic rebellion of Jews against the Roman occupation of 66-70CE, which culminated in the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem - may have been keen to play down the anti-Roman aspects of Jesus’ work (crucifixion was after all the usual punishment for sedition). Since this was also a period of bitter conflict between the fledgling Christian movement and other sections of the Jewish faith, the evangelists may also have found it appropriate to exaggerate the level of priestly or Pharisaic involvement in the death of Jesus. Other isolated issues include the nature of Judas’ act. A recent study by William Klassen (Judas - Betrayer or Friend of Jesus?) suggests that the Greek word that has for so long been translated as ‘betrayal’ means nothing of the kind, and can only describe an action which had Jesus’ full support.
Why does any of this matter? Why can’t we just get on with telling the story that has been handed down to us? Simply because we do not believe that it is tolerable to live in a post-Holocaust age and allow the anti-Judaism of the gospels to pass by unquestioned. Let me be clear about this: I would not in anyway argue that twentieth century anti-Semitism is driven by a Christian yearning to avenge the death of the Saviour, but in the sixteen hundred years since the conversion of Constantine, the institutionalisation of the early Christians’ response to persecution by other Jews has surely helped to foster a climate in which such events become possible.
There is a further point. One of our key acts in The Creation had been to remove the devil. The initial impulse to do this was textual - the devil or Satan does not appear in the original Old Testament stories - but it also had a moral implication. The thrust of our story was one of human responsibility, for ourselves, each other and the rest of creation: if there was to be an incarnation of total evil that seemed to us to undermine that whole notion. It is a very small step from creating the devil to demonising one’s opponents, which is of course wholly contrary to Jesus’ one genuinely original idea: love thy enemy. We have tried in both The Creation and The Passion, so far as possible, to avoid the demonisation of any character, or set of characters. With this in mind it became important not only to try and understand why people opposed Jesus, but also why those who supported him allowed him to die. In simplistic terms Jesus’ mission was a failure, he died and the kingdom of God was not seen on earth; though he had promised that those with the faith of a mustard seed would be able to move a mountain, neither he nor his followers were able to move enough people’s hearts to prevent his murder.
It seemed in terms of our story of human responsibility that it should feel as though everyone is responsible for his death: those who allow the act to happen as much as those who actually kill him. The answer to the question ‘Who killed Jesus?’ wasn’t ‘the Jews’ or ‘the Romans’ or ‘Judas’ (whose very name has an anti-Semitic tang) but ‘People’, or even ‘Us’, all of us who were and are unable to live by the demands he made of us as human beings. And suddenly, not for the first time in this project, having strayed so far from our medieval authors, here we were standing shoulder-to-shoulder with them looking up at the bleeding effigy of the man who died for our sins.
But if the Gospels were an almost unresolvable tangle, fraught with ideologically unsavoury baggage, and the historical alternative based on such fragmentary information that there was no guarantee that it could support any kind of story which wasn’t almost entirely speculative, where could we turn to find a narrative? We decided to look back along the road we had come.
It seemed that in the beginning of The Creation we had stumbled upon a style which might almost be described as ‘anti-narrative’. In some strange marriage of Brecht and Beckett the story emerges not through any conventional unfolding of plot, but through the coincidence of a series of highly charged episodes: at times a scene’s meaning seems to come more from the scenes on either side, than from the scene itself. Of course there is a story, one of the shifting relationship between God and man, but it is revealed by coincidence, rather than being propelled by event. How could one now project this story forward into the life of Jesus?
We decided with the acting company (who by this point were fully involved in all dramaturgical decisions) that the story should be self-contained. All biblical references should be to the stories we had seen in The Creation: this, and its interpretation, would be the sum total of scripture in our New Testament world. A prescient misprint in the Introduction to The Creation had described our attempts at re-Judaising the Old Testament stories as de-Judaising them. Now we in fact began something akin to that process. This was not unproblematic. We had for many months, both prior to and during rehearsals, struggled to find a way to stage the Old Testament prophets - the original rehearsal script contained a long section called ‘In the Wilderness’ which included Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ecclesiastes - but we never found a solution and eventually decided prophets were not essential to our story of God and man. However, in a self-contained story without any prophets, we no longer had the panel of Messianic buttons to press: the people in our story weren’t expecting a Messiah, because they’d never been promised one. They had however been promised the Oil of Mercy, so the Messianic yearnings could be focused in that direction. The historical Jesus’ mission was all about the coming of the Kingdom of God: what could this possibly mean within our story? Our God didn’t have a kingdom (we couldn’t even certainly say that he lived in heaven),he had, however, through the promise of the Oil of Mercy, apparently offered Adam’s kin the hope of a return to paradise. The more we chased the connection between the two parts the more it seemed that it might be possible to tell the story of Jesus in something like the same style we had found for The Creation. Not through plot, but through a conjunction of scenes between humans and God, now in human form.
In order to test this idea, I wrote for the company the story of God-in-man (affectionately known as ‘Gim’, pronounced ‘Jim’)which is appended to this volume. Written with deliberate naivety ‘Jim’ became a surprisingly useful reference point as we struggled with the great mystery at the heart of Christianity: how could Jesus be both God and man? It is worthwhile noting here that Jesus being simply a profoundly spiritual and insightful human wasn’t really ever an option for us once we had decided to present God as a character in The Creation: it would also, for me, have been simply avoiding the core of the myth we were telling. I write this from the point of view of someone who does in fact believe that Jesus probably was just a profoundly spiritual and insightful human, but that’s not the view of the story in which our culture has invested so much energy, and part of our job, it has seemed to me, has been to investigate and present that story to the best of our abilities.
There is at least one other aspect of our work on the text of The Passion which warrants explanation. In preparing The Creation we had returned to the apocryphal sources which, despite being regarded in some quarters as heretical, exerted a significant influence on medieval narratives of Jesus’ birth. The same sources also influence the stories of his teaching and death, but the Passion material seemed in this instance to detract from the central issues and so by and large we have ignored or removed the apocryphal material that would have been familiar to the middle ages. However in the last 50 years excavations in the Middle East have unearthed two significant collections of manuscripts that impinge upon our understanding of Jesus and his teaching. The more famous of these collections is the Dead Sea Scrolls, which give us an insight into the theological culture in which Jesus was working. The less popularly known is the Nag Hammadi Library, discovered in Egypt in 1945. This appears to have been the hidden library of a Gnostic Christian community and contains, amongst a wealth of extraordinary material, a number of apocryphal gospels. While all of the actual manuscripts Nag Hammadi post-date the canonical gospels, it has been argued that in some instances they are drawing on traditions which are at least as old as those of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and perhaps even older. The apocryphal material, while often overlapping with the canonical tradition, collectively has a very different tone, and focuses much more on individual spirituality and self-knowledge. The Gnostics seemed to be much less interested in institution-building than other early Christian groups, and often led a hermetic life, though sometimes within a monastic community. The Gospel Of Thomas, which consists almost exclusively of a series of sayings of Jesus, has struck many people as seeming to have more in common with forms of Buddhism than Western Christianity. At a time when a large number of people are disillusioned with many aspects of the established churches, it has seemed to us important to explore these other strands of Christian thought. It also helped us to affirm our ideas of a return to paradise through humans taking responsibility for themselves and the planet, for in The Gospel of Thomas the kingdom is not an afterlife, but ‘within you and without you’, it is ‘spread upon the earth and men do not see it’.
Another particularly attractive facet of the Gnostic material is its attitude to gender. The significance of women in Jesus’ teaching has largely been suppressed or distorted; this, despite the fact that even the canonical gospels support the notion that Jesus had a large following amongst women, his female disciples remaining with him at his death when most of the men had fled. The most cruelly wronged has been Mary of Magdala, or Mary Magdalen, who has come down to us an archetype of the reformed harlot, a view for which not even the most bigoted reading of the gospels could find support. Recent research has begun to reveal a rather different figure, for amongst the apocryphal material she emerges as a dominant figure amongst the disciples, perhaps closer to Jesus than any other: this would explain why she is the first to meet the risen Christ, long a sore point for Catholic Church. Much of the Gnostic material attests to the high standing of women both amongst Jesus’ followers and in some parts of the early church. The Gospel of Mary in the Nag Hammadi codex (which is sadly fragmentary) records a debate between Mary and the other disciples, in particular Peter, who resent her special status with their teacher; she also rallies the disciples after Jesus’ death. In The Gospel of Philip Jesus asks the disciples why he does not love them as much as he loves Mary. In our version of events, after being cured by Jesus (of ‘seven demons’ in Luke, which we have replaced with the cure of a crippled woman from the same gospel) she joins the disciples, and we have made her the focus of a certain amount of the Gnostic material.
While on the subject of disciples, we have opted for rather fewer than the traditional number. This is partly of necessity: with a cast of 15 in a small space 13 is a crowd and leaves almost no one to play non-disciples. More importantly though, the relationship between Jesus and his disciples was one of the key-stones of our story: they are our gauge as to whether the ministry is working, the recipients of the most important teaching and finally the means by which that teaching will be disseminated; with too large a group it would be hard to tell their individual stories in any detail at all. In any case, 12 is a number of particular Jewish significance, the 12 disciples are to be the new heads of the 12 tribes of Israel; not only is this of little relevance to our story, but like so much else may well be the result of later interpolation.
Given much of the above it will perhaps sound strange if, as in The Creation, I again assert our reluctance to invent anything in the process of assembling this script; even stranger when I admit that a large proportion of what follows has been written by myself on broadly medieval principles of language and dramaturgy. The choice of gospel episodes and their fusion into scenes was based on a quasi-Stanislavskian character analysis of Jesus across all the available gospels, from which we teased out what seemed to us the central elements of his character and teaching and then looked for episodes that best epitomised these. Where these episodes were not represented among the medieval material I then constructed a scene, usually based on a pre-existing medieval structure (‘The Call of Peter and Andrew’ for example is built on a foundation of the Towneley ‘Road to Emmaus’) But a key lesson of the second half of The Creation (which has gone through two substantial re-writes since the text went to the printers) was that whenever we invented in order to substantiate an item of plot (ie how to get Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem) the resultant scene was rarely convincing, and most of this material has since been cut during previews. Otherwise our invention has involved putting a particular ‘spin’ on the material, by cutting or adjustment, in order to make it reflect more clearly what seemed to us its significance in the story. As I have tried to suggest in the Introduction to The Creation there is something oddly medieval about this process. The writers of the pageants were clearly at times adapting already extant material to their own ends, and perhaps we have simply continued that process. On the way we have learnt a huge amount from the extraordinary directness of their writing, both in language and construction. We have even aped them to the extent of publishing a text which, far from being a finished script, is a record of particular stage in the process: my apologies to all those members of The Other Place audience who (contrary to advice) have tried to follow the script in performance and have been left frantically page-turning.
In these two introductions I have tried to record the process of creating these two texts. I think for all of us who have worked on the project the process has been at least as exciting as the product: each performance has been a testament to where we are on the journey rather than an end point in itself. It has been the largest scale piece of democratic theatre-making that I have ever been involved in, every aspect of its creation having been worried out over a series of company meetings and discussions. It would be hard to say who owns what we have created: I imagine it exists by itself independent of all us somewhere in the centre of the circles we discuss in; or in the space between the actors and the audience in performance. This collaborative anonymity brings us again full circle to our medieval forebears in whose communities these plays were born. At the risk of further sentimentality I would like once again to pay tribute here to the courage and industry of our actors, who have shown superhuman levels of tolerance and stamina in a situation where it must have seemed that not only the goal-posts but the entire pitch was being moved on a daily basis. Some of them thought they were just coming to Stratford to do a couple of medieval plays and have found themselves forced to re-examine issues of faith and belief that they had last considered in adolescence. Without their tenacity, imagination and extraordinary lack of vanity we would never have got this far.
Stratford-upon-Avon, February 1997
In the sluggish water between Christmas and New Year I found myself in a small eddy of publicity. An interview in the Jewish Chronicle about my attempts to address issues of anti-Semitism in the medieval mystery plays and also to find ways of bringing the content of the plays to a new audience escalated into accusations of excessive political correctness and of stripping religion from the plays altogether. My presentation of a Jesus who lives according to the tenets of the Gospels (‘Provide yourself with no gold or silver … no spare tunic or footwear … whatever town or village you go into, seek out someone worthy and stay with him’ ‘the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head’) resulted in him being described as a ‘homeless beggar’ and a ‘scrounger’. Elsewhere I was attacked for trying to connect the reality of contemporary life to the situations found in the Bible. In this I was merely following in the steps of the medieval writers, but I began to wonder if the Wakefield Master had received as much criticism for setting his nativity plays amongst the shepherds of Yorkshire as I had for portraying St Peter as a foul-mouthed fisherman on his uppers.
On the issue of anti-Semitism I was viewed as eccentric for questioning whether it was responsible to continue to tell the events of the trial and execution of Jesus in the traditional way, given that the Gospel accounts are clearly inaccurate and their misrepresentation of the Jewish involvement has given support to some of the most appalling events in Western history. My attempts to shift the emphasis by focusing on Caiaphas’ status as a religious leader as a opposed to his Jewishness were mocked, although the medieval writers who I was supposedly travestying had begun the process by calling him ‘bishop’ and probably dressing him accordingly.
The misunderstanding was understandable. As I watched more than one journalist turn green at the prospect of assembling the intricate tangle of religion, history, politics and theatre into a story, my heart went out to them: it is precisely the same problem I have been tussling with for the best part of two years. For me the result has been not only two almost entirely different six hour pieces of theatre (which share the same title) but also a loftful of synopses, working drafts and rewrites (not to mention re-rewrites) and a bookcase stuffed with volumes ranging from Thomas Aquinas to Stephen Hawking, by way of Middle English grammar and liberation theology.
To tell the inside story of the problem I have to go back to 1996, when the director Katie Mitchell and I were preparing a script based on medieval mystery plays for the RSC. The mystery plays are themselves a whole heap of paper: five more or less complete cycles (four in Middle English, one in medieval Cornish) each covering the story of the Creation, the greatest hits of the Old Testament (well, Genesis mainly) racing on to the main issue, the life and death of Jesus. Each cycle is about seventeen hours long, and consists of up to 50 short plays, each play being the property of a different guild (the term ‘mystery play’ was adopted in the nineteenth century from the medieval French word for a craft guild, mistère). From the surviving manuscripts it is clear that the plays were written and rewritten by many different authors separated by a hundred years or more. It was a project we had been discussing for several years, drawn to the plays by their peculiar mix of theatre and spirituality, of the populist and the poetic.
The recent tradition in the professional theatre, chiefly as a result of Bill Bryden and Tony Harrison’s stunning National Theatre production of the early ‘80s, has been to use the plays to celebrate theatre as a popular movement. The audience were actively involved in the NT production, the action taking place in their midst and at the end of each part sweeping them up into a folk dance. The design, taking its cue from the medieval guilds, dressed the actors as steelworkers, charladies, miners, and the set was full of industrial machinery. The late Brian Glover played God from the top of a forklift truck with the bullish authority of a factory foreman. The production captured the political moment: as working communities across the UK were being eviscerated, we saw on stage the rituals and attitudes that had bound those communities together; while we were being told that ‘there is no such thing as society’ the theatre was delivering an eloquent rebuttal. Theatre cannot exist without society: it is dependent on groups of unrelated individuals, practitioners and audiences, being ready to gather in public to share ideas and beliefs about the ties that bind us together.
One result of this recent emphasis on the secular form of the plays has been to submerge their sacred content. As Mitchell and I struggled to cut the cycles down to a manageable length we began to understand why.
The plays are primarily propaganda: they existed to promote the ideology of medieval Catholicism. Their usual focus is the incarnation. The Old Testament episodes selected are used to herald Christ’s coming: the death of Abel and the sacrifice of Isaac both prefigure the Passion. In the New Testament there is a particular focus on the physical suffering Christ underwent for our sins: the Wakefield and York cycles have scenes that read like Amnesty International reports. Whether it was appropriate to use dramatise the Gospel in this way seems to have been a source of constant debate, with the Protestants firmly against the whole notion of a man acting God, and when the ideology of the church changed with the Reformation, the plays were banned and most of the scripts destroyed. The manuscript of the York cycle, which limped on for a few years after the Reformation, has an intriguing gap in the Last Supper: the moment Jesus initiates the Eucharist.
There is much that fascinated and engaged us about medieval Catholicism, but we were repelled by its virulent anti-Semitism, routine anti-Islamicism and endemic sexism. ‘The Jews’ are cursed (even by Jewish disciples) for killing Jesus, they rejoice in the brutality they inflict upon him and everywhere are characterised in the same language as the diabolical characters, Satan, Cain, Herod. Herod, amongst others, swears by ‘Mahoun’ as if this were an alternative name for Beelzebub, in fact it is a medieval corruption of Mohammed. Female characters are either a source of fleshly sin like Eve and Mary Magdalen or inhumanly perfect like Mary (the medievals loved the reversal of the name ‘Eva’ to the ‘Ave’ with which Gabriel hails the Virgin),the only alternative is to be a scold like Mrs Noah. How could we commit our hearts and minds to a play that espoused these views?
For the historian the answer is simple enough: one must show it all, one must testify to the fact that these attitudes existed, to do otherwise is irresponsible. After all York, home of one cycle, was in 1190 the site of the worst pogrom in British history, when 150 Jews burned themselves alive in order to escape a mob. While it is possible to show context in the theatre in this way, all too often the result can be like a museum through which the audience can pass untouched, reassured by the thought that ‘we’re not like that now’. And in any case, such faultlessly researched productions are always products of their age. Photographs of ‘period performances’ of Shakespeare from the 1950s today look more like the era of Eden and Macmillan than of Drake and Raleigh. We felt the issues of spirituality at the heart of the plays were too important to risk losing them behind an olde worlde veneer.
A search for a different solution took us to the medieval writers’ own source material: the Bible. Guided in part by Jack Miles’ Pulitzer Prizewinning God - A biography, we found a story to put in place of Catholic passion and triumphalism: the emerging relationship between God and his wilful creation, humanity. By creating one in his own likeness, his mirror image in the earth, God learns about himself: as humanity develops under his watchful eye he too changes. It is perhaps a more Jewish than Christian view of God, a God with whom one can debate, who may not always respond in the most appropriate way. The resulting story of struggle and negotiation, of conflict between the spiritual and the material, morality and immorality gave us a strong foundation on which to build our own modern medieval mystery play. Modern because it was based on contemporary attitudes to the stories, medieval, because it still used the language and structure of the original plays. In the spring of ’97 it was unveiled in Stratford-upon-Avon. There were two parts, The Creation and The Passion.
Of the two, Creation, dealing mainly with the Old Testament, was by far the more successful. With Genesis one is in the realm of myth: it tells of first things, the first people, the first sin, the first murder, the first destruction. Theatre is good at myth, it’s where its roots lie, in the resonant clash of archtypes. In the story of Abraham and Isaac one needs to tell the audience only that there is a man who seeks to obey God who has an only son. God’s demand of Isaac’s life sets the mythic machine in motion. Stripped to these archetypes the story becomes open to endless interpretation, as Kierkegaard has shown: tell the story cleanly and clearly and you will release a great many of these interpretations in the hearts of the audience. This mythic quality combined with a presentation of God that seemed to touch a contemporary chord produced a potent blend of ancient and modern. But as the story moved towards the New Testament it became less and less engaging. Our process of stripping back the stories to their essence had simply revealed that the stories themselves were not very stable and lacked any proper basis for conflict, and without conflict it is hard to generate drama.
The Gospels are a hybrid place of myth and history. What is more their reports of events are often conflicting or historically questionable. In search of a firmer foothold we had researched the period: what was the nature of Jesus’ conflict with the Jewish religious leaders? what was the relationship between these leaders and the Roman occupying forces? who were the people who sought Jesus’ death and why? None of the answers are as simple as one might hope, leaving plenty of room for imaginative speculation. In a novel, where the writer has the time and space to lay out a large part of the culture of an age, it might be possible to set the reader inside the world of Judea 46CE. But theatre is a compressed medium, it must show not tell. The most frustrating part of any play for a playwright is the exposition, all the backstory he or she has to tell before the action proper can start. Alan Bennett wrote of The Madness of George III “it would have been simpler to call the audience in a quarter of an hour early and give them a short curtain lecture on the nature of eighteenth-century politics”. Our problem was even more intricate, and the more we had researched the less I felt that we could do justice to the complexity of what we were discovering.
We decided to remove the Jewish leaders as Jesus’ opponents on grounds of both bad history and bad drama. Those who seek explanation of the former I would refer to JD Crossan’s Who killed Jesus? in which he persuasively argues that the Gospel accounts of the trial and execution are 80% ‘prophecy historicized’ and only 20% ‘history remembered’: in other words, in the Passion as elsewhere the Evangelists are adjusting events in order to fulfil messianic prophecies. He also shows how the canonical Gospels are in significant disagreement with each other about the timing and order of events and that none of their accounts square with what is known of Jewish legal procedure under Roman occupation.
As to bad drama: it is the dramatist’s task to show conflict. To do this one must strive to put the audience equally in the position of both antagonists. Shaw advised giving the strongest arguments to the characters whose views are opposed to the playwright’s own; in other words, ensure that the devil has the best tunes. In the case of the Gospel story, unless one can make the audience empathise with the Jewish leaders, which is a monumental task, the wish to kill Jesus will seem gratuitous and sympathy will be absurdly weighted in Jesus’ favour.
Without the priests and the Pharisees (who were, incidentally, ferocious opponents of each other) who could we set against Jesus? If we were to remain faithful to our story of the developing relationship between God and humanity, we wanted to show the new kinds of conflicts that arise when God becomes human himself, as he explores this new perspective on his creation. But where could we source this from? Neither the Gospels nor the medievals were much help, apart from ‘the Jews’ (meaning all those Jews who disagree with Jesus) almost everyone acquiesces to him all too easily - until ‘the crowd’ who welcomed him into Jerusalem performs one of the most unexplained turnarounds in history. The problem defeated us in Stratford and the result was a desiccated telling, a little like an oratorio without music.
What was particularly frustrating was that it had been intellectually the most vibrant rehearsal period I have experienced, all the major issues of religious belief had been worried at over and over again, but that vigorous debate was not present on stage. It was clear that if we were to get to the heart of the issues that had attracted us in the first place, if we were to take these issues as seriously as had the medievals, we needed to do it in the voice of our age.
Within Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, there is an encounter between Jesus and Pilate which offered exactly the kind of scene we were after. With this we could show the conflict that arises as God tries to change the life of a human who declares himself to be a ‘vicious monster’. It also gave us a basis on which to create similar encounters with other characters from the Gospels: episodes in which we could speculate how Jesus might set about changing the lives of people recognisable to our age, a mugger, a prostitute, a capitalist. ‘The Grand Inquisitor’ chapter from Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov offered another kind of showdown with Jesus, less personal, more ideological. Patching this material together, alongside the influence of writers from Rilke to Jim Crace, we found a way of putting Jesus to the test, of showing his philosophy in action and so giving the rehearsal room debates a life on stage.
These changes precipitated many more. For London whole look of the production has changed. Whereas in Stratford it took place in a neutral place somewhere between the middle ages and the middle east, now the setting is our era, the mythic places of our time - hotel foyers, torture chambers, abandoned buildings - and on occasion literally our doorstep.
Yet in many ways it is still as medieval as it is modern. If we had never come in through the door marked ‘Mystery Plays’ we could not have arrived here. The ideas and most of the words are contemporary, but the form is inherited, as is the passionate desire to engage the audience in questions of salvation and redemption. The medievals would perhaps not have allowed themselves the level of debate, the questioning of God’s work both in word and action, but the need for answers they would surely recognise.
‘Religion’ means what binds us together, and like theatre and journalism it communicates through stories. The stories of ethical monotheism have been the most significant gift of the Semitic peoples to the world. Before they are despatched forever to the junkyard of outmoded beliefs we have found it worthwhile to look at what was being thrown away, to put them to the test, and to spare some thought for what will bind us in their place.