Friday, April 6, 2007

Learning a literary lesson for Good Friday

Yesterday I taught the York "Crucifixion" play from the York Corpus Christi play cycle, and one of my students (the one who came to office hours on Ash Wednesday with ashes on her forehead) asked me if I purposely assigned it during Holy Week. Nope, I didn't. In fact, two weeks ago I was looking up when Easter was this year, and until I saw a guy dressed as Jesus (and wearing an iPod!) walking across campus when I was on my way to class, I'd completely forgotten it was Easter week at all. And another student, in the midst of writing her paper for another of my clases, asked if I'd realized I'd appropriately assigned King Lear during Lent, given its bleak, penetential mood. No, again, I was unaware of the liturgical orientation of my syllabus. Apparently 12 years of Catholic school and over a decade of being a medievalist have not drilled the liturgical calendar into my head.

Part of my lack of awareness has to do with the simple fact that I'm not a practicing or believing Catholic (or Christian of any kind) anymore, and that the rhythms of my year are attuned to the academic calendar more than the liturgical one. (Though the historical correspondence between those two calendars has something to do with the coincidence of my fitting syllabus design.) But it also has to do with the rather narrowly focused, workaholic life I've had for the last month and a half. Today is the first day, including weekends, since late February that I didn't have to be up and working at 7:30 a.m., and that I got to sleep more than six hours. (That's a very good thing since I'm trying to fight off the cold that Bullock has so that I won't have it when I run the Boston Marathon a week from Monday.) In fact, I think last night's bedtime -- 11:30 -- was the earliest I'd had since late February as well. All I've been doing in that time is work, work, work, in that barely-keeping-on-top-of-things kind of way, where everything is getting done just in time, and some things that aren't absolutely necessary or deadline-oriented are slipping through the cracks (especially any of my research work not related to finishing the book production stuff). My only breaks from work have been my runs, and they've taken on the aspect of work, as well. (This is a subject for another post -- how to find running fun again.) It's not a lifestyle I want or recommend or receive my joy from. Though there is a kind of adrenaline rush from it, so much that's important and that matters -- or that's simply desirable -- gets sacraficed: a healthy diet, a social life, a clean house, even attention to my beloved Bullock and our dear Wiley. (Indeed I worry that I missed signs of his ear infection, though Bullock swears he also saw no scratching or shaking of his head or anything like that.)

So it's incredibly ironic that I taught the York "Crucifixion" the way I did yesterday. Because I know medieval drama so well I often go in to classes on any play without a detailed plan, just some ideas and activities rattling around my brain. With the "Crucifixion" there are two things that I always do, and I did them yesterday: 1) have students perform the section where the soldiers "struggle" to do their job nailing Jesus to the cross, lifting the cross up calvary (i.e., onto the pageant wagon stage), and raising and setting the cross into the mortice; and 2) draw students attention to the diction of "work" throughout the play (which also occurs throughout the cycle as a whole). In both cases, we discuss the meaning of what is seen and heard, as well as what is not seen and not heard. In the performance part I make the rest of the class get up and gather tightly around the performing space, as if on a narrow York street, and ask them to think about why it matters -- how it might be meaningful -- that most of the crowd can't see Jesus until the cross is raised, and that the soldiers describe their actions and assume what pain Jesus must feel, as opposed to having "Jesus" enact that pain and suffering visibly. And I usually draw a connection from this discussion of the visual elements to the discussion of the vocabulary of work by asking students to think of the people playing and producing this play and the rest of the cycle -- i.e., occupational guilds.

Almost always, through our discussion, students point out that the soldiers -- who speak and behave like craftsmen themselves -- are so focused on their "work" that they don't realize the consequences of their work. And they point out that the audience, because they can hear and see only the soldiers, and not Jesus, are in a similar position. And usually I move from there to the traditional V. A. Kolve reading of the dark humor of the play and its conjunction with the visual effects, how it potentially lulls the audience into identifying with the solider-craftsmen because they are men like them and their neighbors, and laugh with them as well as at them, only to be shocked into realization of their complicity in the Crucifixion at the moment of the raising of the cross. And then usually I talk about the meaning of that moment in theological terms, especially the idea that every sin atemporally participates in Christ's crucifixion, that although he is risen, he is also always being crucified, suffering for the sinners he redeems. Thus that complicity in the play's structure enacts a complicity in the historical crucifixion and in the theology of the necessity of penance and redemption.

But I didn't go that route this time. Instead, spontaneously, I turned away from the historically and theologically oriented reading of how a 14-16th century Christian audience might participate in this play and asked students to think about if there were any lessons here that might be more broadly applicable to someone who might not share the religious beliefs the original audience did. It took some leading -- and really, this was my reading more than theirs -- but ultimately I suggested that the play offers a lesson about work itself, one potentially as applicable to the original audiences of the play as to us. The solider-craftsmen are bumbling workers who do a terrible job in all senses of terrible: they do a poor job of things, they cause an extraordinary, almost ineffable pain that potentially provokes terror, and yet they also work part of God's plan, which is also terror-inducing in its awesomeness and ineffability. They do not know what they "wirke" in the York play's language.

But they are also intensely focused on the task at hand, at getting it done, to the extent that they can describe the pain it must cause without pausing to understand their role in that pain. (They are ironically well aware of their own "suffering" in the hard labor of lifting the cross, however.) They are blind to what the consequences -- both bad and good -- of their actions are, of what an obsessive attention to work, barring all else, might produce. And that's the meaning I thought this play might hold for readers and viewers who were themselves not Christians or not otherwise invested in the Christian penetential meaning of the play (or potentially a social meaning of the play for its original audience, in addition to its religious lessons). That's what I wrapped up class with, and I especially directed it to those students who felt otherwise alienated from such a religious play.

But it's not until later that I realized it was a lesson I still needed to consciously learn myself, that my lack of awareness of the fittingness of this play to the liturgical calendar is part of my own obsessive attention to the tasks at hand. The point is not that I should always be aware of the liturgical calendar, since, as I said, I'm not a practicing Christian, but rather that I really need to be more aware of the world around me, of major events that might be important to a lot of my students, colleagues, and neighbors (which also includes knowing when the big college football rivalry match-up is and avoiding wearing the wrong color on that day, and things like that). Heck, just remembering what day of the week it is and where we are on the academic calendar might be nice, too. And being able to deal with more than the task at hand, understanding what the consequences are of such hyper-focus, might also be nice. There are times when the work must be done and it's a little overwhelming, and March was definitely one of those times, but I can't let "when this is done..." become my mantra, or else I'll always be putting off the things that are just as or more important than work.


What Now? said...

Ooh, such an excellent post!

Do you know Bruce Dawe's 1964 poem "And a Good Friday Was Had By All"? The poem's speaker is a soldier nailing Jesus to the cross who's grumbling about his work. First stanza:

You men there, keep those women back
and God Almighty he laid down
on the crossed timber and Old Silenus
my offsider looked at me as if to say
nice work for soldiers, your mind’s not your own
once you sign that dotted line Ave Caesar
and all that malarkey Imperator Rex

Dr. Virago said...

WN -- Wow! I'm going to have to look up the rest of that poem. Thanks for bringing it to my attention; I didn't know it at all.

And Happy Easter to you and D!

meg said...

I taught the York Crucifixion Play in the fall, for the first time. Unlike you, I'm not in my comfort zone teaching medieval drama; doing the Chester Noah Play a few years ago was an utter disaster. (For some reason, this applies only to the 3-M plays -- miracle, morality, mystery; I can teach Hrotsvit easily.)

The York Crucifixion worked really well in class. They performed it a couple of times (with different casts), and they arrived at the Kolve point all by themselves.

Dr. Virago said...

Meg -- Yeah, performing the Crucifixion is not only essential (they won't "see" it otherwise), it also makes teaching it a breeze, even if you know jack about medieval drama.

But you know what really works when teaching the Chester Noah Play? Starting with a recording of Bill Cosby's 3-part Noah routine from his first album (Bill Cosby is a Very Funny Fellow - Right!). It's all available on iTunes. And the reason it works is it primes them for the humor in the Chester play (which they otherwise don't get) and also makes them realize the purposefulness of the anachronisms (though they serve different purposes in Cosby and the medieval drama). Using Cosby, I also got really fruitful discussion from them about how contexts matter for interpretation, why the Chester play displaces the skepticism onto Mrs. Noah, and how the skepticism in both versions (in Cosby it's Noah who's a skeptic) serve different purposes. Then once were done with Cosby, they were more ready to talk about the play on its own terms.

Horace said...

I haven't been keeping up with my blog reading lately, but what a fantastic post to return to.

Interestingly (to me at least), I thought you might have been going a different direction with your post, though. I've been spending a lot of time thinking lately about capitalist and imperialist complicity lately, and I thought perhaps you wer going to go the "what is this that we're participating in, really?" route, which I've been thinking about plenty.

Anyway, thanks for the post!

Dr. Virago said...

Horace -- Hm, yes, I think something like that might have been implicit in my thinking. But it might have been less pertinent to the text at hand -- except so far as the the soldiers are "cogs in the machine." On second thought, yes, maybe next time I *will* go that way!

meg said...

Wow, thanks for the Cosby pointer. I'll go buy it now.

Horace, my students were definitely into the cog-in-the-machine aspect too.

Dr. Virago said...

OK, Meg, your students are smarter than I am. :) Actually, I do sometimes talk about how the play is "good to think with" about work and the economic systems that produce them. And since the guildsmen are more or less marshalled into their guild identities through a oligarchic and civic structures (and by Crown statute) -- including the plays themselves -- the association of blind loyalty to the "work" at hand with the evil of the crucifixion is rather ironic from the civic authorities' perspective. (That is, it's not a realization you'd think they'd want to encourage.) Then again, that "evil" work is also God's plan (an irony my students saw on their own), which may undercut any subversive potential of the play. But one of my smart students said "Just as the audience can't see Jesus, the soldiers can't see that he's God," and we started talking about the way the moment can make you blind to the big picture -- something that I think students with 3 weeks of the semester to go were totally primed to think about!

But we did have a good time reading against the grain of the Noah play -- talking about the potential sympathy some audience members might have for Mrs. Noah and the Gossips, and how that might undercut the more conventional reading of Mrs. Noah as the sinner who must repent and enter the ark/church.

The Constructivist said...

Hmm, Tool has a song from the perspective of the crucifiers (at least in my reading of it). Some lyrics:

He had a lot to say
He had a lot of nothing to say
We'll miss him

Sorry I have nothing more than that--all my CDs are in boxes back in the States and my iTunes library became useless when I decided not to buy a Mac here in Japan. But it shouldn't be too hard to track down. Would be great music to play as the students enter the classroom....