The N-Town Passion.
This Video records a stage production mounted at the University of California at Irvine in 1985 and 1987. It is a dramatization of Passion Play II (Pageants 29-31) in the N Town cycle of Miracle Plays and follows Block's edition for the Early English Text Society. This has been modernized, adapted, and (on occasions) cut without losing the overall structure. Professor Schell has intelligently chosen an episode where tragic intensity mingles with prophetic hope. Both have been expertly dramatized through a variety of aural and visual techniques by the medieval playwright and are now re-created for us by a cast of talented and well-directed actors. The resultant product will prove a welcome pedagogical aid to those of us who strive to explain dramatic power from the confines of a lecture hall.
It will be convenient to look in turn at the aural and then the visual aspects of presentation before offering a few words of warning on what can and cannot be expected from the Video.
Passion Play II in the N Town Cycle makes particularly subtle use of the different rhetorical styles of its major protagonists. Christ's silence or brief, pertinent questioning is set (sometimes comically, sometimes tragically) against the lengthy speeches of the other characters. Morally, these rise by stages from Satan.'s frustrated bitterness through Herod's bombast and Pilate's vacillating protectionism to Mary's lamentation. The tonal contrasts are well caught by the cast but with the subtle differentiations of psychological naturalism rather than the more exaggerated counterpointing warranted by their roles as types of vice and virtue.
This is a defensible choice especially as settings of liturgical music punctuate the piece and remind us of its theological context. This music can also literally harmonize the contrasting conclusions of temporal and spiritual logic within the unity of stage time. So, for example, the difficult transition between the actual horror of Christ's physical death and John's reception of it in spiritual merriness is eased by the tones of the ~Conditor alme siderum'.
Visually, the piece alternates cameos of almost unbearable cruelty against episodes redolent with comic irony. Jesus is, in turn, smitten, whipped, bound, scourged, and mocked as he carries his cross and becomes the centre of a growing abusive crowd. Breaking these scenes up are Peter's betrayal and Judas's suicide--acts of human viciousness, which also prove Christ an accurate prophet. The California production uses lighting contrasts and high camera angles for the latter scene with great effectiveness. These heighten the immediate drama but also underline the comparison/contrast between Judas's death and the Saviour's.
An even more imaginatively effective treatment makes Satan's tempting of Pilate's wife one of the highlights of the piece. This is theologically as well as theatrically proper, for the idea of Satan rerunning his earlier methods in the Garden of Eden in order to prevent complete overthrow rather than achieve ~complete' victory is comic in every sense. Moreover, while he then lied successfully to introduce death, he now tells the truth unsuccessfully in a bid to maintain death in power. The Californian production with its serpentine, whispering Satan emerging as a black hand out of orange-red smoke and disappearing as the same hand like an adder's head visually confirms the necessary parallel.
What the Video consciously does not offer is translation of the openness of Medieval Cycle drama--either in setting or audience involvement. Although the platea conventions are carefully followed, the audience sit and observe while televisual methods turn spectacle into intimate drama, complete with close-ups and a narrow camera focus.
While Professor Schell in his accompanying booklet defends his textual alterations with honesty and clarity, there is one cumulative outcome, which I find troublesome. The justification of medieval spiritual drama lies in its power to strengthen faith by encouraging a penitentially directed sense of guilt. We are intended to live through the Crucifixion's horror in order to seek our Priest and begin service on the field of life. While Professor Schell's decision to excise much of the invective against Jews may be defensible on these grounds, there is nothing to replace them as an immediate focus for our own viciousness. The camera, too, cuts away (presumably in deference to modern sensibilities) from the most nauscous attacks on Christ. Mary's lamentation--the verbal vessel for our tears is cut by thirty-six lines. If we are attacked for our participation, it is with a rather blunt lance.
The very act of modal transference is, however, an act of compromise. Professor Schell is himself aware of that and his contribution should be welcomed for the infrequency with which it falls away from an ideal he does not claim rather than mercilessly measured against it.
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|Publication:||The Review of English Studies|
|Article Type:||Video Recording Review|
|Date:||Nov 1, 1993|
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