Setting the Limits
The question comes up from time to time in various forms: “Why don’t we do a (fill in the blank) Revels?” The blank-filling suggestions usually run a gamut from the arcane – Wiccan, Druidic, Pagan; through the remote –Mayan, pre-Christian, Norse; to the stylistic – steam punk, 50’s Doo-wop, Disco. Almost all of these suggestions are offered in earnest good spirits, almost all of them are unlikely to happen and, oddly, almost none of them are entirely out of the question.
The factor that makes a lot of these requests difficult to fulfill is our reliance on authentic folk material. The stuff of a Revels is music, dance, and ritual. Unless we are dealing with a time and place where these forms of performance abound and good documentation exists, we are confronted with a problem of what to put on stage.
For example, a Revels set in Roman-occupied Europe would most certainly touch the roots of a lot of modern Solstice-based customs. We know that things like Christmas trees, Yule logs, even the dates of the modern holiday season all come from that time and place. We know that there was a process of co-option that occurred when empire and religion transformed those customs, and many generations of practice gradually honed and reshaped them into their modern manifestations.
But how would we re-create the originals? What would we sing? How would the music sound? There are no records of dances or clear accounts of rituals. There was no Cecil Sharp stalking the Druidic glades, carefully transcribing tunes and lyrics for posterity’s sake. Of course scholarly studies have been done and speculation published, but all we have are the products of academic research, and you can’t hum a graduate thesis. The only option would be to stage a frankly imaginary depiction of what might have transpired.
This is not to say that Revels hasn’t done this very thing. Often our storytelling sequences cobble together bits and pieces of authentic tradition with contemporary reimaginings of text and tonality. The Kalevala sequence in our Scandinavian show, the flying canoe in the Quebecois show, and even the battle between the fools and death figures in last winter’s Celestial Fools show are good examples. Travellers’ Prayer, one of our oft-sung seemingly traditional songs is really John Renbourn’s contemporary setting of a much older Scottish poem. Shira Kammen frequently creates music for archaic lyrics whose original tunes are unknown. She uses what is understood of the structure and tonality of the appropriate era to lend a sense of authenticity to the composition.
While each of these examples is evocative of the host culture of the show, we do not present them as authentic folk custom. That is something different and very necessary.
It is a central Revels tenet that folk art resonates with the spirit of all the souls through whose lives it has passed. Authentic traditions have a palpable power that cannot be handily duplicated. W.B. Yeats puts it eloquently in his By The Roadside, 1901.
“Folk art is, indeed, the oldest of the aristocracies of thought, and because it refuses what is passing and trivial, the merely clever and pretty, as certainly as the vulgar and insincere, and because it has gathered into itself the simplest and most unforgettable thoughts of the generations, it is the soil where all great art is rooted. “
And so we put as much authentic material onto the Revels stage as we can find – and you can tolerate (that’s another limit: most folk customs are designed to amuse the participants rather than to delight the onlooker). But it is this matrix of authentic material that allows us to launch our little forays into the imaginative and the interpretive.
Clearly then, lack of accessible authentic material is a limiting factor in our choice of eras and locales. Another filter that applies to the Christmas Revels is whether given songs and customs relate to the Solstice and its inherent themes of light and darkness. While we can cast a pretty broad net, still there is much material of demonstrable authenticity that either is more appropriate to another season or can’t be used to form the thematic core of the winter show. Also, there are traditions that either don’t lend themselves to Revels iconography or eschew iconography entirely. Occasionally we do bring in such things as lullabies or ballads to amplify the tone or add to the texture of a culture but only once the base is established.
If too much distance in time can be a problem in terms of availability of material, then too little temporal distance can also be an issue in terms of the authority of tradition. A lot of folk material began life as what we think of as “pop” culture – broadside ballads, composed songs or jingles. With the passage of time, the immediate context of the song or dance abrades away and the piece gradually passes out of the realm of contemporary entertainment and into traditional culture. Of course a lot of stuff simply disappears, too.
The winnowing process that Yeats refers to can take considerable time and that can be a factor in weighing the suitability of material. That’s why simple stylistic riffs like musical or clothing trends are unlikely to find their way into the Revels core. But time passes with surprising alacrity and what seems simply nostalgic today can seem traditional very shortly. As of now, the most recent time set for an Oakland Christmas Revels was the 1906 date of the Irish Emigrant show, but we are on the verge of pushing that line forward a bit with the 1920’s footprint for the framing action of this year’s Haddon Hall production.
So, a complicated answer to a simple question: the standards are rigorous and unyielding, but constantly evolving. Sometimes it seems as if we are bound to disappoint. We include material that points to a whole new trove of tradition, and yet we don’t go there. Still, in time we may. That’s why there is no simple answer. And that’s what makes the Revels journey exciting.
- David Parr, Artistic Director