On Thursday evening of last week I attended a production of the Second Shepherd's Play, a music-heavy interpretation mounted by the Folger Consort and enacted within the beautiful and intimate Folger Theater. Next came a day-long workshop on the play, mounted by the Folger Library and featuring a cast of fifty scholars -- everyone from Alexandra Johnston (founding director of Records of Early English Drama) to graduate students just beginning thesis work. I moderated the closing panel, so felt like I had to sit up front for everything to prevent accidental conferencis snoozidosis and thereby potentially miss something we should speak about in my session (a panel that in addition to Johnston featured Sarah Beckwith).
I am, I must admit, not a big fan of medieval music. This production used it for transitions, interludes, and at spontaneous moments. Though I felt the beginning of a migraine as "Sumer is ycomen in, Loude sing cuckou!" erupted (can't there ever be an "authentic" medievalpalooza without that one?), for the most part the sheer variety of instruments and the technical proficiency of the musicians kept me well entertained. There was only one moment when the music seemed out of place. The play's literally amazing moment occurs when this drama that seems to have nothing to do with Christmas -- featuring as it does a story about sheep stealing, a ram impersonating a baby in a cradle, and course humor about husbands and wives -- is suddenly interrupted by an angel who comes out of nowhere and announces that Christ has been born. The shepherds find themselves wrenched from a story in which they believe themselves protagonists and reduced to mere side characters in something far more important. All the action which preceded the angelic revelation is retroactively transformed into a scandalous parody of the Nativity, with the Lamb of God being played by a stinky ram swaddled and placed in a crib, watched over by a woman who is no virgin and man who only hopes to eat it (and not because this Lamb is the Eucharist ... but you see the layers). In the Folger production, a long musical interlude transitions the audience from the secular to the reverent sections, changing the aural landscape enough so that the angel's appearance is not a startling eruption but an expected culmination.
One other problem I had with the play (a play I would highly recommend all the same to all ITM's DC area readers): my point of identification throughout the drama was the sheep, played by a puppet so ugly and ungainly he was cute. The puppeteer (who at the nativity plays Mary) was good at making the sheep's animal interjections comment upon the human conversations. The sheep's refusal to be a proper baby when placed in the crib is hilarious. Given all this challenge, it made me groan when the manger scene was staged and the lamb came over and -- just like all the human actors -- bowed to the plastic doll that was supposed to be a Christ child. How out of character! I felt ripped off.
I left the workshop on Friday thinking what an underappreciated play the Second Shepherd's is. Almost everything we thought we knew about it has been proven false over the past decade or two. The time is ripe for a critical re-evaluation. Expect to read much new scholarship on it (and on medieval drama more generally) in the years ahead. The Folger workshop made clear how much work remains to be done.
Here's another participant's take on the workshop. Here is a roundup of fun facts. Here are three relevant podcasts. The one featuring Theresa Coletti (also at the workshop) is especially good.