What are we but creatures to be crushed if Holy Church require it?”: experiencing medieval church reform during The Festival of Britain

What are we but creatures to be crushed if Holy Church require it?”: experiencing medieval church reform during The Festival of Britain
13 Dec 2017, 17:30 to 13 Dec 2017, 19:30
IHR Wolfson Room NB02, Basement, IHR, Senate House, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HU

Philippa Byrne, Oxford

The enduring medieval legacy of the Festival of Britain was the revival of the York Mystery Plays, staged again in 1951 after a 379-year interval, and which continue to this day. This paper examines a lesser-known work commissioned for the Festival: Kay Baxter’s two act play, Gerald of Wales. Originally performed by an amateur company in the nave of St David’s Cathedral in July 1951, it tells the story of Gerald of Wales (1146-1223): his struggles as an internally-tormented archdeacon, would-be bishop and zealous reformer at St David’s. This paper considers how the audience in St David’s cathedral in 1951 might have experienced and understood a play about twelfth-century episcopal elections and jurisdictional conflicts. Baxter’s own notes remark on the difficulty of balancing her wish to present an informative, ‘historically-accurate’ vision of twelfth-century politics, with her desire to use historical figures as allegorical representatives of a ‘timeless’ set of emotional and social conflicts. In its medievalism, it also bears comparison to a much more famous, and celebrated, drama about a conflicted twelfth-century churchman, T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral (released as motion picture in 1951). That uncertainty as to whether a medieval play should point forwards or backwards in time also mirrors the ambiguous status of religious drama within the Festival of Britain. The revival of religious drama was an integral part of the Festival, though contemporaries were in doubt as to how that sat in relation to the ‘progress’ embodied by other aspects of its programme. Did it represent a nostalgic commemoration of long-standing set of British religious values and practices or was intended to point the way to a new kind of spiritual life for a more ‘secular and progressive’ age? Ultimately, Baxter positions the twelfth century as time when the tensions in the human soul were writ large in politics: an era on the verge of modernity, torn between a longing for order and a tendency to turmoil; intrigued by cosmopolitanism but clinging to the insular; aiming at unity but always ending in schism. Whereas the revival of the York Mystery Plays aimed at allowing its audience to access the liveliness, pageantry, and colour of the fourteenth century, Baxter’s medievalism is much more gloomy, striking a pessimistic and subversive note about the health of both twelfth- and twentieth-century Britain.


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