91 – at heart

January 24, 2010

Sunday. Some rest. Some hospital visiting. Then some total immersion in the Van Gogh colour-bath at the RA, courtesy Ms K.

In one of Vincent’s late paintings – a still life which is ANYTHING BUT STILL – the roses have faded from pink to cream because he couldn’t afford decent pigments. Another was painted on a tea-towel when he ran out of canvas. And these paintings sell for millions in the modern art market.

English medieval mystery plays retold the Bible stories in the language and conventions of their own time and place, their moral purpose enlivened and sometimes subverted by broad knockabout comedy. The sacred and the profane – a nativity scene prefaced by a farcical parody: sheep-stealers disguising a stolen lamb as a babe in a manger.  Satan, naturally, has some of the best lines, frequently inviting the great and the good to kiss various parts of his infernal anatomy.

The Telegraph ran a shock horror story on our original Easter Sunday 2000 production, getting very excited about Satan’s profanities, as if they were not a time-honoured part of the English Mystery Play tradition.

Those cycles of mystery plays were originally staged by craft guilds, drama by and for the community. Guilds were not ashamed to advertise: the Carpenters would stage the crucifixion, drawing attention to the craftsmanship of the cross.

These are the dramatic models for The Southwark Mysteries. In our play Christ’s teaching of forgiveness is tested in the context of a south London borough with a riotous 2,000 year history – including more than 500 years as a Liberty, a refuge and sanctuary to:

“The actor, the whore, the outcast and outlaw…”

These outsiders, ancient and modern, are the souls to which Satan, the Accuser, lays claim on this Day of Judgement at which all the ages of Southwark are present. Specifically, Satan claims the souls of The Goose – the medieval prostitute whose bones were unearthed at Crossbones Graveyard during work on the 1990s Jubliee Line Extension – and her sha-manic street-prophet, John Crow.

The Goose and John Crow already had their story, their journey, told in the seven Vision Books – the first (of three) parts of The Southwark Mysteries – the poems received in trance from The Goose. Her  Gnostic pagan teachings are transmitted hermetically in these cryptic rhymes and riddles, the songs and secret tales of Bankside actors and whores, an integrated left-hand lineage tracing back to the Magdalene, the kiss in the cave and the meeting in the garden.

These were Mysteries in a hermetic tradition going back before Christ to Isis, Inanna, Ishtar, the outcast goddess, to Mary Overie, the ferryman’s daughter, a Thames river goddess, and to Kwan Yin, Goddess of Mercy.

Yet the Goose’s verses also embody a transformational intelligence, a kind of frequency that retunes the mind to itself , so that the recitation of the verses are a kind of benign incantation, producing effects that not infrequently tended to the paranormal.

So it was that the Dean, then Provost, of Southwark Cathedral, was at that very time inquiring as to whether there was an extent London Cycle of Mystery plays, to perhaps rival the York, Chester or Wakefield Cycles. And from this remarkable coincidence – or is it all Divinely ordained?  – sprang the second part of The Southwark Mysteries, the Mystery Plays. They emerged not according to any moral or literary master-plan but a genuine expression of my own inner spiritual journey.

It seemed I had to test this discipline, this dedication to the spiritual state of Liberty, in my own life.  Once or twice the boundaries dissolved with painful consequences: after composing the scene in which John Crow wrestles with Jesus, I found myself hobbling around with a cricked back for months after!

William Blake is the spiritual father of The Southwark Mysteries. In his seminal Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Mr Blake writes:

“Without Contraries is no progression.”

And so, in the unfolding of The Southwark Mysteries, these heroes of the Vision Books become the villains, the wicked souls of the mystery plays, whom Satan lays claim to.  The Goose reveals herself as Mary Magdalene returned to confront Jesus with her own Mysteries, whilst John Crow’s mental health issues are fully exploited by the Evil One.

All is as it is written, not by ‘John Constable’, who was merely the scribe, the third party to the dance of the Goose and John Crow. All is as it should be, that the Geese be received back into the protective bosom of their Bishop in an act of mutual forgiveness and healing.

So may it be:

She is come out of Egypt by Greenwich,
Upriver, the Dogs to her right,
Along the black beach
Around Limehouse Reach,
With the City of London in sight.

In Cathedral Provost may ponder
If he should unbar the Great Door,
With a wink and a nod
To the Glory of God
In the guise of an unredeemed Whore.

Let Bishop’s crook offer him Counsel,
Ways and Means for the Door to unjam.
If needs must be seen
That the Whore be washed clean
Of her Sin by the Blood of the Lamb,

Then let it be so, but then let it go
The Guilt and the Shame and the Sin.
Let go of the Law
That made her a Whore
And then, for God’s sake, let her in.

Let in, let in, let no colour of skin
Nor creed debar Other from ceremony.
Let the gong of Tibet
Bong out an octet
With the Bells of St Mary Overie.

from The Book of The Magdalene
in The Southwark Mysteries by John Constable (Oberon Books)

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