Good for What Ails Ya
It’s been cold at twilight lately, not winter in-your-bones cold, but summer cold. It’s a subtle distinction but one that those of us who live in the Mediterranean climate of Northern California know and understand. We pay attention to it because it means that the seasons are turning. There’s no great snowmelt, and the chill winter rains still stream down from the Gulf of Alaska, but we can tell anyway.
We do get a few visual cues. The plums have been blossoming for weeks now and yellow daffodils line the roadways, but these are notorious for pushing the season and are false signals. No, it’s the tiny shift in the nature of cold that tells us with certainty that the seasons are turning once again. It’s deeply comforting, this regularity of change.
Among the things that recur with great regularity in the Revels universe are of course, feasting, singing, seasonal celebration, but also the query, “Why is Revels necessary?” It’s a question that comes up every now and then, and most predictably when senior Revels artists and administrators gather for their annual midwinter enclave. There we sit, every February, circled in a room in Scottsdale Arizona. The last Christmas Revels has just receded over the candlelit horizon behind us, and the next one is nowhere in sight. And we wonder, “Why on earth do we do this?”
It’s not quite the same question as: “Why do I go to Revels?” That question probably has as many responses as there are merry Revelers, all of whom are quite content with their own version of the answer. But this matter of necessity is something different. It raises the issue of Revels’ role in contemporary American culture. As a matter of fact, it raises the issue of whether we really have any important purpose at all. You will probably not be surprised to learn that I think we do.
Traditional communities are formed by commonality of experience, probably due to some combination of climate, occupation, spiritual beliefs, genealogy, and geography. People grow up within them, are formed by them, and culture is the means by which the community is identified and maintained. Songs, stories, and rituals all express what is special and defining about a particular people. This is the trove that Revels mines. It is our business to celebrate the depth, complexity and power of traditional culture.
This is not the business of modern corporate hegemony. In my view, much of what we accept as modern American “culture” is really a carefully manufactured narrative that has very little to do with either tradition or important values. There is an incessant effort to define us in subgroups that have all the trappings of community but none of the substance. Of course I’m talking about marketing through mass media as the most overt example, but I think it extends to entertainment and news coverage as well. Virtually anyplace where we find ourselves functioning in our public selves, we are asked to identify with a set of characteristics and opinions that confer on us a subgroup identity.
The purpose of this is clear. If you identify with a group, you are inclined to want what the group wants, or even better, you can be persuaded to behave as the group is supposed to behave. Best of all, if the group is portrayed in a sufficiently appealing light, you can be persuaded to purchase the trappings of membership. This isn’t a mystery; it’s basic marketing. But under the hegemony of modern corporate plutocracy, it masquerades as culture.
Revels functions as an antidote to this. We reassert the importance of culture as a source of connection, not isolation; as a generator of satisfaction, rather than unquenchable desire; as a pathway to deeper knowledge, not an empty pastime. The Revels community is self-defining. You are here if you want to be here, and you participate in the way you choose.
Revels is inextricably tied to the turning of the seasons and we celebrate the big milestones in the year by evoking the ways they have been celebrated for very many years. What makes our work important and useful is that we are allegiant to these rituals of celebration. We do not seek to take possession of them, to tame them or turn them to profitable gain. We offer an alternative, a satisfying and enriching way of being in community. There has to be a counterpoint to the incessant drone of consumerist cant and the cooption of culture. We are a part of that counterpoint and that’s why I think what Revels does is important.
David Parr, Artistic Director