Sunday, December 12, 2010

Burying the Second Shepherds' Play

I wanted to take a moment to thank everyone who came out to see The Second Shepherds' Play this weekend, and especially those of you who contributed to the Virginia Haiti Collaborative! I don't like to toot my own horn, so I'll only say that the audience has made it clear they enjoyed this show, and I'm glad we can lend a helping hand to a great cause.

Stay tuned for updates about more Bad Quarto shows after the new year; in the mean time, I hope you all have a happy holiday, a happy new year, and safe travels to your destinations.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Opening Night!

In case you forgot to mark your calendars, The Second Shepherds' Play will open tonight (Saturday, Dec. 11) at 7 PM at Stuart Hall's King Theatre in Staunton, VA. If you can't see it tonight, please come by tomorrow (Sunday, Dec. 12) at 2 PM for our second and final performance this season.

The house opens a half hour before each show, and there will be plenty of Christmas music to help get you in the spirit for the show. It runs just over an hour, too, so you'll be able to go caroling after wards. We hope to see you there!

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Second Shepherds' Play in Poetic Context

The Second Shepherds' Play is quasi-anonymous. We don't know the name of the writer, but we can make a few educated guesses about him. First of all, it was probably a him. While there were some female writers in the medieval period (you've probably heard of Hildegard of Bingen), the monasteries tended to be the primary centers of learning, with the first universities being established to train clergymen. Sorry, no women allowed in those days. Something else we know about the Wakefield Master: his five original works were not his only contribution to the Wakefield Cycle.

The Wakefield Master wrote verse in a signature form aaaabcccb, with an internal line about halfway through each a-rhyme line, the c-rhyme lines being roughly half the length of an a-rhyme line, and a b-rhyme line being half the length of a c-rhyme line. Confused? Let's take a look at some of his text. Through the miracle of the internet, I will color code the rhyming words for you:

Lord what these weders are cold : and I am yll happyd
I am nere hand dold : so long haue I nappyd
My legys thay fold : my fyngers ar chappyd 
It is not as I wold : for I am al lappyd
----------In sorow In stormes and tempest
Now in the eest now in the west
Wo is hym has neuer rest
----------Myd day nor morow

Red text is the a-rhyme, green the b-rhyme, purple the c-rhyme, and orange the internal rhyme. Make sense? The plays of the Wakefield Master was written exclusively in this verse pattern, which is how we are able to identify these plays as being the work of a different dramatist than other plays in the cycle. That said, the Wakefield Master's plays are not the only one's that demonstrate this signature. Here's a link to the full text of The Second Shepherds' Play in middle English, for your reading pleasure.

The last play of the cycle, The Last Judgment, plods along a fairly regular and comparatively unimaginative rhythm for several stanzas before the First Demon speaks (sorry, can't find an e-text of this one, so we'll have to go with Martial Rose's translation):

Out, harrow, out, out! Hearken to this lord,
I was never in doubt ere now at this morn;
So sturdy a shout, since that I was born
Heard I never hereabout in earnest nor scorn;
  A wonder!
I was bound full fast
In irons for to last,
My bonds broke with that blast
  And shook all in sunder.
Look familiar. I take some issue with Rose's translation of the text, but he does fairly faithfully re-create the Wakefield Master's verse pattern. The demons continue to talk in this signature verse for several stanzas before the verse of the play changes back to it's previous pattern. Care to take a guess when it does?

If you said "when the demons stop speaking," you're right! Care to guess what happens when the demons start speaking again?

1st Demon
Do now forth go, bustle and rush again!
Unto endless woe, everlasting pain;
Nay tarry not so, not here is our domain

2nd Demon
Hie hitherward, ho, hurry this mob amain!
  Look out!
Nibble the alto shall ye,
Then the treble falls to me,
Now to the devil go we,
  With this whole rout.
Speech prefixes (here in bold) don't count as lines of verse, for the uninitiated among you. That's right! When the demons start talking, we see the Wakefield Master's verse pattern again. They'll continue on through the close of the play. Traces of the Wakefield Master's work permeate the whole cycle, and scholars will note that they seem especially likely to appear when comic villains enter the scene. From this, it might be fair to postulate that, in the 1400s, the good citizens of Wakefield started finding their old cycle plays a little too preachy, and so they turned to the most logical person possible to spice them up a bit: the Wakefield Master.

Anything else about this master playwright would be mere supposition, but his distinctive verse pattern alone adds spice to an otherwise extremely regular rhythmic structure. He may not have authored as many plays as Shakespeare, but he certainly knew how to make an existing play more interesting in much the same way that the later playwright did.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Podcast - The Music of the Second Shepherds' Play

I talk a little bit about the Wakefield Master's use of music in The Second Shepherds Play, and offer some samples from productions past and present in this podcast episode.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Second Shepherds' Play in Historical Context

No one really knows when The Second Shepherds' Play was written, but popular estimates place it somewhere between 1400 and 1450. For those keeping score, that means anywhere between the reign of Henry IV through Henry VI, and possibly as early as the reign of Richard II. This was a particularly tumultuous period in English history, and it closely follows one of the most devastating times Europe has ever known.

In the mid 1300s, the Black Death ravaged Europe, killing roughly 1/3 of the population. The bulk of these were from the peasant classes, which created a severe labor shortage. Appalled by the sudden power of the peasantry to demand higher wages, Parliament passed the "Ordinance of Labourers"in 1349, and then the "Statute of Labourers" two years later. These laws set a maximum wage at pre-plague levels, and required able body individuals under the age of 60 to work. Hugely unpopular, these laws helped fuel Wat Tyler's Peasant Revolt of 1381, and possibly Jack Cade's Kentish rebellion in 1450 (Shakespeare conflates the two in 2 Henry VI, and there was a significant amount of literature from the 1380s on both sides of the Peasant Revolt.

The complaints of the shepherds are grounded in the sorts of complaints the peasants revolted over, in both 1381 and 1450. The laws of England provided severe restrictions on their daily lives, and minimal social protections. Those with even a little bit of land or money held enormous sway over those who had little or none.

One of the reasons why I really like The Second Shepherds' Play is that the birth of Christ doesn't make things better. They are still cold and hungry, but now also have hope of something better in the life to come. The shepherds begin to see the pains of this world as transient things in the face of a promise of greater equity than they could ever hope for in this world, and a life in a land of plenty governed by a greater king than this world has known.

Peace, stability, and prosperity were meaningful promises for men who lived at the subsistence level in medieval Yorkshire. Even if the world isn't perfect, faith and right religion at least gives the shepherds a glimmer of hope for something better. In a world thick with disease, hunger, rebellion, and poverty, a little bit of hope can go a long way.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Second Shepherds' Play Underway

Welcome to the new Bad Quarto Productions blog everyone. Those of you tuning in from our old merryfringe blog know that we'll be presenting that masterwork of medieval comedy, The Second Shepherds' Play this December 11th at 7 PM and December 12th at 2 PM at Staunton, Virginia's Stuart Hall School. This is a pay what you will performance, with proceeds benefitting the Virginia Haiti Collaborative, an organization trying to fund the construction and operation of a school in Haiti. If anything could make The Second Shepherds' Play better, it's a great cause to present it for. I hope to see you there!