Archive for December 20th, 2013

Medieval plays in modern times: Dickens, Dante, and La Pastorela

Friday, December 20th, 2013
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El Teatro Campesino’s “La Pastorela” (Photo: Lora Schraft/Morgan Hill Times)

Once a year our family, or various subsets of it, makes the trek to the town of San Juan Bautista to see El Teatro Campesino’s annual Christmas play. This year it was La Pastorela. Here’s the cool part:  it’s part of an ancient tradition of pastorelas, or shepherds’ plays, introduced into Mexico by Spanish monks centuries ago.  The program notes described its relationship vis-à-vis the medieval morality plays: “there are vague similarities betwen the Mexican and old English traditions, the Wakefield master’s version is more decidedly irreverant.”

The ghost of Christmas forever.

The first production took place in 1966, when the company, which was born in Cesar Chavez‘s historic grape strike, improvised before a live audience in a Christmas Eve performance with farm-workers as performers. Then, in 1976, after artistic director Luis Valedez relocated the group to the mission town south of San Jose, the company received an old dog-eared typed manuscript of La Pastorela from the mother of one of the young performers. Longina Montoya offered the company the script she had performed as a girl in her hometown of San Luis Potosi, Mexico, and she sang all the songs a cappella into a portable tape recorder. A tradition was reborn (see photos here). So now in Silicon Valley we have an opportunity to taste the medieval, via these old morality plays, often bawdy and funny, where good meets evil and good inevitably triumphs. Could there be more?  Yes!

I’ve never seen anyone link Dante and Charles Dickens  before, but over at the blog “Through a Glass Brightly,” blogger Kathryn (she doesn’t seem to have a last name)  finds a few parallels. Did Dickens, in fact, write a medieval morality play?  And was he inspired by Dante?  The evidence is intriguing.  Dickens may have written A Christmas Carol while he was touring Italy, where the Florentine poet is inescapable. She pulls together a few parallels:

First of all, both main characters begin in a dark wood—vividly illustrated as such in the Comedy and similarly rendered in chimney tops, alleyways, and dense fog in the Carol. The Pilgrim and the Miser have lost their way. Hence, they are taken on a mystical journey for the sake of their reclamation: Dante through Hell, Purgatory, & Heaven; Scrooge through the Past, Present, and Future. The three beasts that Dante meets before his journey begins (leopard, lion, and wolf) function similarly to the omens that Scrooge encounters on Christmas Eve: the hearse, the transformed door-knocker, the ringing bell. And when Dante first meets Virgil, the lines run,

dickensAnd when I saw him standing in this wasteland, “Have pity on my soul,” I cried to him, “whichever you are, shade or living man!” “No longer living man, though once I was,” […]

Virgil explains to Dante:

“But you must journey down another road,” he answered, when he saw me lost in tears, “if ever you hope to leave this wilderness; […]”

Likewise (though in the third person), Marley’s visit to Scrooge goes,

“How now!” said Scrooge, caustic and cold as ever. “What do you want with me?” “Much!” — Marley’s voice, no doubt about it. “Who are you?” “Ask me who I was.” “Who were you then?”  said Scrooge, raising his voice.  “You’re particular, for a shade.”

Her conclusion finds inevitable differences in the spirit of medieval Italy and the spirit of Victorian England: “The Comedy is headed for brightness, aiming at ecstasy—much like the natural world does as it blossoms into spring at Easter. But the Carol turns in from the cold, burrows into warm hearth and good wine and loud laughter.”  Read the rest here. Meanwhile, the BBC offers another possibility for the origins of A Christmas Carol in one of Dickens’s least-read books, The Uncommercial Traveller:

marley“There was a man who, though not more than thirty, had seen the world in divers irreconcilable capacities – had been an officer in a South American regiment among other odd things – but had not achieved much in any way of life, and was in debt, and in hiding. He occupied chambers of the dreariest nature in Lyons Inn; his name, however, was not up on the door, or door-post, but in lieu of it stood the name of a friend who had died in the chambers, and had given him the furniture. The story arose out of the furniture… “

The story Dickens goes on to tell recounts how the failed adventurer finds a heap of old furniture in the cellar of his lodgings. Finding his rooms bare and cheerless, he borrows a writing-table, then a bookcase, then a couch and a rug, and soon has all of the furniture in his chambers. Some years later there is a knock on his door. A tall, red-nosed shabby-genteel man in a threadbare black coat enters the room and, pointing to each item of furniture, mutters: “Mine”.

Read the rest here.

christmas-carolPostscript:  And here’s yet another unusual take on A Christmas Carol, by the remarkable Morgan Meis, writing in The Smart Set a few years back.  He contends “A Christmas Carol isn’t great because it’s a great story. In fact, A Christmas Carol is a flimsy story. The characters are mostly clichés.” He argues for a different assessment of its greatness: “Later in the story, at the appearance of the first spirit, Dickens describes what happens as the ghost approaches Scrooge in his bed. ‘The curtains of his bed were drawn aside; and Scrooge, starting up into a half-recumbent attitude, found himself face to face with the unearthly visitor who drew them: as close to it as I am now to you, and I am standing in the spirit at your elbow.’ The remarkable thing here is not so much that a ghost appeared to Scrooge but that Dickens himself is a ghost appearing to us. Dickens’ authorial voice does come directly into our heads at that moment. In this, the joy of writing becomes the very substance and content of the story. Almost no writer gets away with this kind of playfulness very often. Dickens gets away with it all the time. And A Christmas Carol is utterly charmless without that extra element, without Dickens constantly nipping at the heels of his own story. It makes me think that we ought to reconsider Dickens, to see him more in the light of a Lawrence Sterne than in the light of the straight shooters of 19th-century novel writing.” Read the whole thing here.