And we’re still here, still clearing up after the Apocalypse, but hey…
Apart from our rave review in The Times (see yesterNoDayUpDayte) and today (30 April 2010)’s even more effusive praise for our “staggering achievement” in the South London Press, we have the following review from Steve Ash dated 26 April 2010: “…
On April 22-24 John Constable’s Southwark Mysteries were resurrected in Southwark’s great Cathedral for the first time in ten years, their first performance being on Easter Sunday, 23rd April 2000. Having seen the original back then I was keen to experience the play in its revived form, keen in fact to the point of hobbling there on an aggravated, torn knee cartilage, which at least heightened my empathy for the sick and crippled, who feature strongly in the play as the Southwark’s suffering populus.
The Mysteries in their revived form were enhanced by the addition of core of professional actors, who greatly heightened the drama of the play, giving it a very different feel to the playful bawdiness I remembered from the talented amateur cast of the original. The prize for best actor in this must surely go to Daniel Copeland’s clown faced Satan, whose arrogance and cynical presence was the perfect antipole to that other powerful performance from Merryn Owen, as a manic yet deeply compassionate Jesus Christ. The interplay between these two was one of the most impressive theatrical exchanges I’ve seen in a long while. Copeland was the perfect Satan, an actor used to playing horned trouble makers, following his memorable role as the very different Pan, in the Bubble Theatre’s Crock of Gold a few years back. While Owen made a convincing grass-roots Jesus, whose passion often transgressed the script prepared for him by his frequent companion a suited St Peter. A special mention must also go to the charismatic acting of Charlie Folorunsho, who took the role of the Shaman John Crow back to its Caribbean roots, as well as Michelle Watson’s now classic portrayal of the Goose. These four comprised the central dynamic forces of the play, with the crucial support of the other core actors, particular its narrators, waterman John Taylor and Moll Cutpurse, played by Kai Simmons and Caroline Garland. The rest of the cast, all community players, were in no way put into the shade by the professionals however, and added their own natural charm to the play, as did in their own way the child extras recruited from local schools to play the hosts of angels and solders .
The play seemed more condensed ten years on but still followed the basic story line I remembered from the previous performance and book. A story of reconciliation and reunification on multiple levels, including the central theme of the re-inclusion of the divine feminine and the reconciliation of spirit and the flesh, manifest in the local form of the Magdalene Whore, known as the Goose (a bird once sacred to Aphrodite, whose was central to Roman Southwark in Isian form). Her pious persecutor and flawed defender being the archetypal puritan Oliver Cromwell and the Bishop of Winchester respectively, who also featured strongly in the reconciliation. The latter, along with St Thomas a Beckett, being the original licenser of the legalised prostitutes in the Medieval Liberty of Southwark (who despite claiming the Churches cut from their earnings refused them burial on anything but unhallowed ground. Later disturbed by the digging of the Jubilee line extension, and allegedly releasing the spirit of the Goose to become Shaman John Crow’s muse, in a modern replay of the Legend of Simon Magus and Helena). Cromwell, played by the talented professional Oliver Langdon, was the perfect manifestation of fundamentalist Xtianity, and along with a conservative St Peter aptly represented the failings of the Church (with even the benign Bishop himself admitting the culpability of clerics in more recently highlighted but traditionally abusive ‘sins of the flesh’). All of whom, including the Goose and Crow, and some surprise walk on characters, such as Judas Iscariot and that notorious heretic William Shakespeare (or Will Shagspur as he was refered to), were variously confronted by a fiery Jesus, but eventually forgiven, or exalted by him as wronged outcasts, like the Goose herself. In the grand finale of the play, the Harrowing of Hell, the rebel Jesus with his angels forgives and liberates them all from the clutches of Satan, and his horde of demons, in traditional fashion, thus further revealing the central message of the play, of an all encompassing reconciliation, healing and reunification. The profoundest form of which was the ending of ‘debt of sin’, and consequent human suffering and sickness, through the self sacrifice of Jesus and subsequent reconciliation of the entirety of Mankind and God and the World.
The theology behind the Southwark Mysteries still puzzles some people, but the key to it all is clearly healing and unification. John is quite subtle in his approach here too, I’ve always thought it strange that he makes redemption through the suffering of Christ such an important aspect of the play. As myself as many others find this belief archaic, in any interpretation, and if anything proof of the imperfection, if not sheer monstrousness, of the Christian God (a role John takes himself in the play). But we must not forget the centrality of this myth to Christians and John’s all inclusive audience. There is ample evidence of Gnosticism in the play too, and here Jehovah and Satan are considered as names of the same evil World Ruler, with Christ an emanation of a higher Godhead, sent to anull the ‘Curse of Jehovah’. However the Mysteries, while not the ‘York Cycle’, as John makes very clear, still contain much orthodox material, not least the presence of both an very orthodox God and Satan in opposition, even if Satan is referred to as ‘God’s shadow’ and ‘not as black as he is painted’. I think the solution to this riddle is that John, like his alter ego John Crow, is a shaman – artist not a preacher, he cleverly weaves a variety of mythologies together (even Osiris and Isis make an appearance), allowing an ambiguity in which the audience can create their own meaning, thus unifying the audience as well. This stance is doubly emphasised by the centrality of John Crow, the ambiguous Shaman, who seems to occupy the ‘third way’ between Satan and Christ, indicating an issue in their relationship. Though here lay my only misgivings with the story, that Satan is finally cast into the pit in the final Apocalyptic scene and never enters the reunification, presumably leaving ‘God’ unhealed. But perhaps there is room for a sequel here! On the whole the work is a masterpiece relativised mythology allowing each person to find their current truth and perhaps even hold them up to scrutiny.
As a sheer spectacle the play was stunning and used the full space of the Cathedral to great effect, with a variety of dramatic scenes and surreal characters emerging from all directions. The make up and costumes selected were perfect, particularly of the denizens of Hell who looked extremely convincing, and great credit to the designer Annie Kelley who created many of them (and her industrious seamstress and seamstress Sarah Weightman). A great triumph all round I’d say.”
Thanks, Steve, great to read a review from someone who knows something about the inside hermetic back-story! Satan is cast into his own pit as ‘The Accuser’ – not to be confused with the horned god of fertility! 😉
My considered response to your issues with the crucifixion follows:
St John of the Crow’s letter to the Pagans 😉
On the redemptive suffering of Christ.
The sacrifice of a GodMan to effect changes in the fabric of reality is prefigured in pagan mythology from Odin to Osiris. This perilous journey – through death to rebirth – reflects, embodies, transcends and transfigures the existential human condition of suffering, loss and death. It is the journey of the shaman in quest of creative transformation – returning with songs and stories which act as a medium for healing and renewal of individuals and the tribe.
To these animist hunter-gatherers, all of the worlds are alive with spirit(s). Such cultures use time-honoured techniques, including work with power plant teachers, to access distinct realms and manifestations of consciousness. This direct experience of the Divine Spirit – or, if you prefer a more secular definition, “that what is so manifestly incomparably greater than anything we can possibly comprehend that all we can do is fall down in fucking awe and wonder!” – is not easily assimilated into the categories of everyday language – which is why, when it comes to the Spirit World, poetry and song rule.
An urban shaman like John Crow – or a Dionysian adept like Steve Ash – might set themselves in this loosely “pagan” tradition, although I imagine they would both recognise that they also embody transgressive hermetic magical practices which have co-existed for centuries with the mechanistic world-view of the dominant Western “tribe”.
The establishment of the city state inevitably created tensions between the desire for order, safety and security and the increasingly subversive quest for self-annihilation in the ecstatic dance. Euripides The Bacchae (written c. 400 BCE) is a powerful testament to how problematic the cult of Dionysos had become to pagan Greece.
All across the pagan world, throughout the two millennia BCE we find evidence of a similar malaise, the sense of a rift between these transpersonal intimations of immortality – of experiential access to the Divine World, the dreamtime of the gods, goddesses, elementals, heroes and heraes – and the everyday world in which mere mortals struggle and suffer and die. In late classical Greek mythology, the Gods have taken on human characteristics and foibles yet remain essentially aloof and indifferent to humankind’s fate. True, many mortals continue to have intimate relations with the Gods – but note that consensual sex is NOT a feature of Zeus’ relations with mortal women*.
* mid-note: I once read a convincing argument (though I can’t recall the author, Elaine Pagels perhaps) that Christianity’s obsession with sexual “sin”, and its subsequent elevation of chastity, hints at a brutal historical footnote. Many early converts to Christianity were Roman slaves who had been sexually abused, often as children, by their pagan masters. Imperial, institutional paganism had a lot in common with the imperial, institutional Christianity that superseded it.
This dualistic sense of a profound alienation – a forced rupture and separation between the Divine and the Human – features in many spiritual traditions in this time of social and cultural ferment. Buddhism served to ground the teeming Hindu pantheon in the human mind that houses them (“All Deities reside in the Human breast” – Blake). Yet even the Buddha’s supreme act of self-transcendence and liberation is itself self-ish when compared to the vow of the Bodhisattva, who refuses to enter Nirvana, promising to return again and again, aeon after aeon, performing compassionate works until every sentient being, even the merest ant, is set free from suffering.
It seems to me that something new is happening here – in these last four thousand odd years of Humankind’s spiritual awakening. What’s happening is nothing less than the direct intervention of “God” – here posited, though unconfined by any definition I could offer, unconfigured as any God that’s more than just another entity in the Field must surely be, as the highest manifestation of consciousness, the All in the One, the Everything in the No Thing – in the affairs of its own all-too-HuMan confined, divided, disease and death-riddled, scattered sparks.
The Mysteries of Isis and Osiris are revealed relatively late in the development of the Egyptian world view and seem to embody a radical departure from a static and hierarchical religious establishment. Their myth embodies all the elements of the death and rebirth of the GodMan, giving due regard to the healing, transforming powers of the shape-shifting female “sakti” energies*.
* The same motif recurs in Mary Magdalene’s receiving the body of Christ and then witnessing his resurrection (even Paul recognises her as the ‘Apostle of the Apostles”). Like Christ, Osiris makes the perilous journey through death to rebirth, as an EXEMPLAR. He goes before to open and clear the pathways for us to walk the walk.
The appearance of the obscure healer Jeshua, aka Jesus aka The Nazarene, has to be seen in the context of the crises in late Judeo-paganism. For centuries Yahweh had not only been asserting His right, as a Jealous God, to demand absolute allegiance and renunciation of all other manifestations of Divinity – He was also threatening, in the voices of his zealous Prophets, to make an impending uh… definitive intervention.
As so often happens at a time when a culture is undergoing a radical paradigm shift, there is a contrary fundamentalist backlash, a desire for certainty and belief in some absolute truth. The true battle, within – to open our minds to comprehend and respond to the challenge – is projected without, on the short-comings of others, the neighbour’s sin. In the febrile imaginations of these recently urbanised desert tribes, an apocalypse was at hand in which God would descend to judge Israel, aka HuManIty, for being gay or eating shellfish, for consorting with prostitutes or maybe allowing so much as the shadow of a leper to ritually pollute you.
We don’t know where Our Man stood on the King Prawns issue. I believe one of the more obscure Gnostic Gospels has him appearing to swing both ways. His friendship with Daughters of the Light is pretty much orthodox, our friend of the publican and sinner. O yes, and he washes lepers – and probably learns a thing or two from talking to them.
Then, the great scandal and shock to the psyche of the early Christian social revolutionary, their charismatic leader gets crucified like a common criminal. It’s easy to explain how the cult of the resurrection quickly gained purchase in such grief-stricken disorientated souls. Yet to simply dismiss it as that, in some smug Dawkwinian reductionist synopsis, is to miss to power and the glory – not to mention the poetry and the ultimate liberation revealed at the heart of the myth.
Because it’s precisely in this senseless, stupid act – by which the quote Son of God unquote comes not to judge his puny brother and sister but to take Judgement on himself.
* The sacrifice of the Son to appease the wrath of the Father IS of course an appalling business. In The Southwark Mysteries ‘God the Father’ is portrayed gnostically, as the monstrous – self-limited and limiting – usurper of Divine Humanity… * in the 2010 Southwark Cathedral production, the part of God was brazenly played by the author 😉
Moré than that, Jesus, at least as revealed to the Goose and John Crow in The Southwark Mysteries as “the outcast god”, allows Them (Us) to sacrifice Him, precisely because he has crossed into the transpersonal realm of the Divine, beyond Him, Them (Us) – though retaining his intimate, visceral identification with the Human Drama right through to his final despairing: “My God! Why have you forsaken me!”
The tendency of Christians since Roman times to fixate on the agony of the crucifixion and a literal misinterpretation of the resurrection of the physical body has deformed and distorted Christ’s teaching beyond recognition, underpinning the abuses practiced in his name by the Roman Catholic and other nominally ‘Christian’ churches.
If a religious discipline is intended to free us from our own small selves and allow us even a glimpse of the infinite, then Buddhism, with its implicit sense of the relativity and transience of all names and forms, Human and Divine, offers a more compassionate, psychologically nuanced approach. Yet it’s surely no accident that Shakespeare, who charts the heights and depths of warts-and-all Divine Humanity, found the finest expression for his native English paganism within a Christian tradition, in which “God” is moved to participate fully in the Human Drama, to live our lives and die our deaths.
The beauty of a Play is just that – it’s only a Play. In The Southwark Mysteries, Jesus affirms the need for the GodMan to journey through Death to Rebirth. However, the other characters don’t necessarily agree. In the course of the drama, Satan, St Peter, Judas, John Crow and The Goose Magdalene all try to persuade him to find another way. The Southwark Mysteries was written in three parts: The Vision Books revealed in verse by The Goose to John Crow; The New Southwark Cycle of Mystery Plays; and The Glossolalaia of local magical lore. It’s medium is its message – and its message is…
Well, let’s let it speak – a bit of it – for itself. Here’s Jesus re-enacting the crucifixion in St Thomas and Guy’s Hospitals, London SE1:
JESUS She is anointing me for Death.
JUDAS What? You want to die again?
JESUS Two thousand years my wounds have been bleeding.
Mary here’s the only one who knows where this is leading.
God must become Man to conquer his mortality…
Into the very jaws of Death, a God must journey…
JUDAS For Christ’s sake, Brother Man! This is insanity.
Haven’t you been crucified enough already?
CROW Far be it from me to side with Brother Judas, Boss.
But don’t you think it’s time you came down from your Cross
How many times must the Son of Man die
To appease his God Father of Guilt and Shame?
JESUS For My Sake, John Crow! You think I don’t know
How many are crucified – and in my name?
You think I don’t hear the hate and the fear,
That howls for the end of the world and its doubt?
You think I don’t feel all the wounds I must heal?
You think I don’t clock that Time’s running out?
You think I don’t taste all your Toxic Waste?
You think I don’t feel your pain?
You don’t think, God knows, God must die for Man
That Man may rise again.
from The Southwark Mysteries by John Constable (Oberon Books)