Academic journal article Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England

Sheepish Confessions: Notes on Directing an Irreverent Second Shepherds' Play

Academic journal article Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England

Sheepish Confessions: Notes on Directing an Irreverent Second Shepherds' Play

Article excerpt

I have to confess: my first encounter with the so-called Second Shepherds' Play was a struggle. I read it in the anthology used for my department's theater history and dramatic literature surveys. Confused by the plot, alienated by the outdated references, and utterly perplexed by the tone, I dismissed the play as irrelevant to my work as an acting teacher and director. I knew of its importance, though: I read about it in my own undergraduate theater history courses (though the only medieval play I read in class was Everyman) and heard it referenced by my mother who--second confession--is a medieval literature scholar. Recognizing that it probably should be covered in our survey courses, I was relieved to learn it was already taught in a different semester.

As a theater practitioner, my first response to the play was not unique: while the Towneley Second Shepherds' Play is frequently anthologized and generally well-regarded by literary scholars, it is scarcely produced outside of academia. (1) I know of only two professional English-language theaters that have produced the play in the last half-century--the Folger Theatre, in 2007 and 2016, and the Royal Shakespeare Company, 1966 and 1978--and both companies are devoted to classical work. (2) In my conservatory training and teaching experience to date, I have also never seen the Second Shepherds' Play or any other medieval play used in a scene study class. Given its infrequent production, I understand why the Second Shepherds' Play is omitted in pre-professional training programs. I also see the difficulty of integrating it into performance pedagogy that is rooted in Aristotle, Shakespeare, and Stanislavsky: The Second Shepherds' Play is neither completely comedic or completely serious. It predates the advent of psychological drama, and its poetry may be harder to access in translation. (3) Indeed, when I asked acting students who read the play in theater history class about their experience, they told me they couldn't follow it and didn't understand why they had to read it.

About a year after my first encounter with the Second Shepherds' Play, I read a conference paper by my mother, Rosemarie McGerr, on the songs that might have been used where music is mentioned in the play but not notated in the surviving manuscript. (4) As a director, I was interested in McGerr's argument that the Wakefield Master deliberately uses music to help dramatize the play's story, style, and social commentary: to give voice to marginalized figures through the act of singing, to make the relationships among diverse voices audible through polyphony, and to increase audience accessibility by combining liturgical and popular songs. With the music in mind, I better appreciated the play's theatricality, from the ridiculousness of the bleating swaddled "baby," to Mak's attempt at an upper-class vocal disguise, to the soundscape of voices in harmony or discord. The play's contemporary relevance--and message of hope--struck me, too, when I connected polyphony to the representation of community. Set in a society with such inequality that the poor must compete with the poorer, the play gives voice to the disenfranchised and shows acts of human mercy to have divine rewards. Most of all, I understood how the play's combination of styles and time periods may signal, rather than a flaw or stylistic pretension, its intended accessibility and even irreverence. By interweaving contemporary characters, music, and comedic styles with serious Biblical drama, the Wakefield Master allowed audiences to understand the play, enjoy it, and even see themselves in it.

I wanted to see if I could use a production of the Second Shepherds' Play to bridge the gap between its medieval context and its current reputation: to apply the valuable research of McGerr and others while translating to contemporary audiences the play's accessibility, timelessness, and irreverence towards the establishment. I also wanted to recapture for a contemporary training program the play's timely and intersectional pedagogical worth: it asks students to work on farce, verse, and non-realistic circumstances while simultaneously criticizing wealth inequality, upending gender stereotypes, and supporting inclusivity. …

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