The Moral of the Story

Last night I saw a performance of Castle of Perseverance, a medieval morality play that had been infused with pop songs and contemporary stylings. I left with a lot more questions about theatre than I did about the sake of Mankind’s Soul.

Castle of Perseverance is the earliest full length play we have in record. Morality plays became popular in the 15th century, and are fully allegorical plays that look at redemption through a religious catholic lens. We usually follow a symbol of man as he comes against forces of good and evil and has to struggle with his morality. Characters like Penance and Sloth and the Devil attempt to guide or sway our troubled man.

We no longer live in a puritanical society, so why, the question begs to be asked, do a medieval morality play? The ensemble was not devoutly religious. They do not believe all humanity is at risk of condemnation. Perhaps an opportunity to explore the earliest form of theatrical tradition? That seems like a strong starting point for me. So if someone wanted to take a look at the morality play as a touchstone in theatrical history, that seems like a viable route to explore.

This production went the next step further. They took this play and decided to translate the themes into their modern day counterparts, rife with pop songs to accompany it.

Which is where I became quite lost. The reach to appeal to my modern sensibilities left me thinking, okay what exactIy am supposed to take away? Man might not make it to heaven if he does bad things?

Society has always found ways to tell stories of morality. When we moved away from religious based plays about being condemned, the entertainment industry began to tell our morals in other forms. An article written in 1987 talks about how the Cosby Show and Family Ties have become our own contemporary form of a Morality play. Each week these characters come into conflict over how to make good decisions and lead your life as a good person, giving home audiences a vehicle to explore these moral stories.

There is definitely a place for exploring stories of morality in present day, however I feel we’ve reached a time when I desire a level of depth or complexity to the characters faced with these struggles. We know we are not all one note, and seeing real people who are flawed just as we all are, come out the other side of a bad situation a-okay is a far more rewarding way of dealing with decisions about right or wrong. Everyone looks back on after school specials and laughs at how in your face the morals were. The stories that we keep in our hearts, that guide our decisions throughout life, usually come from subtle and unexpected places. Places that challenge us to think beyond our current worldview.

So I’m watching these characters, dressed in corsets and high, high heels wondering why we need to see such blatant over exposure to these symbols. Sexy women are bad, long skirted women are good. Rock music is bad, rose petals are good. Surely we have moved past that. Right?

The audience is smart. We are smart and don’t need to have right and wrong spelled out. The words, the form of the morality play is there and needs no help to clarify. There was a missed opportunity here: to explore an old tradition for what it was, or to take an old tradition and find a new way to reach an audience. This play did neither and what was left was the explicit, nail of the head story telling methods of the 15th century under a veneer of “this story relates to you!” leaving a soggy taste of bad after school special in my mouth.

Morality plays were meant to reach the audience of their time. We are a different audience. I have left this show understanding that for me, I don’t think the morality is serving the people of today. I think we have to work harder and explode our notions of both theatrical conventionality and story telling form to express today’s high concepts of what is right and wrong.


4 comments on “The Moral of the Story

  1. Hi Laura! I totally hear your take away. I see how it could seem very on the nose and preachy. The on the nose quality was intended not to preach but to present the end result of following a choice to its most extreme possible conclusion. Do pop songs get us to violence and cocaine? Do books get us to long skirts and marshmallows? What are the qualitative differences of each way of being when brought to their absurd, unambiguous extremes? And at these extremes we can feel how they each feel differently good and how they each feel not good. When is vice a problem? When is a virtue a problem? Is it a problem to be devoid of sensual sexiness and stomping, laughing, sweating dancing (as is absent on the virtue side)? Apparently yes, because mankind keeps getting pulled away from there. Does Mankind calling himself a “nitty gritty little freak” for fun in Raise Your Glass start the ball rolling for him to sing and believe Creep later? Can a pop song (or gossiping or rough sex) do that to us by planting seeds of a way of thinking? Or that silly? What has weight in our culture to guide our choices and create our norms (morals) and are we aware of what they are? What is the trajectory of a stimuli or action taken to its most extreme possible conclusion/expression and is that trajectory definite or not? ie rush from dancing to a pop song->rush from doing heroin? What interrupts that trajectory: Free will, pain, love, catching a glimpse of an alternative way of being? Does the culture we swim in create norms that we are not aware of and does that compromise free will? How does that culture appeal to us in a way that is maybe necessary also, is the freedom to be angry and sexy and wild like a kind of necessary nourishment as much as kindness and patience are? Mankind doesn’t choose the virtue side ultimately, for a reason. What is it? Can any of us wholly eschew what might be a “vice” or a “virtue” and still feel fully alive and connected to all parts of ourself and to other people? Can we do a little on each side? Or is each way a way of being? Is it silly to blame addiction on pop songs? Or are we products of our environment? What guides our mass behavioral norms now except culture? Are we aware of what it is guiding us to do be and think like or are we just dancing along and by just dancing along and saying yes to it all are we necessarily being hurt or hurting others, or not? What makes destruction happen and what makes creation happen? What makes mankind choose one or the other? What do we see when the little choices we make each day are presented in their most extreme and blatant forms? Do those extreme forms reflect a choice’s actual possible import in a life and in a culture? Or not? Does placing these two extreme ways of being next to each other reveal anything about the helpfulness or lack of helpfulness an either/or, good/evil model? These were some questions we were asking by going to on the nose extremes.

  2. Two more thoughts. We are also asking “are these actually vices and virtues”? Through rehearsal what we seemed to agree we traditionally think of as “vices” and “virtues” is what we presented, and those images are what we are also looking to investigate. If the majority of our pop music celebrates what we understand to be in the “vice” category, and if our vice clothes, make-up, and a lot of the behavior do not feel so vicey to us, but feel kind of more familiar than the virtue side in a lot of ways, do we have outdated concepts of what “vice” is for us? Are our current images of virtue and vice unhelpful in that they can’t really guide our behavior because they are too outdated? I find it offensive that in the play we say that men wearing lipstick and women choosing to luxuriate in their sexiness are vices. Those things just aren’t vices today. In fact, they are often displays of liberty and choice. So what is a real vice or crime today? What behaviors would make someone worthy of being damned to being punished in today? What behaviors send someone to our secular equivalent: prison? What behavior send people (their Soul in our case) to a metaphorical hell or prison in life? Are those all different sets behaviors? What does that mean? The audience is asked, directly, to decide at the end.

    Also, what is a “vice”, given what we think we know about the brain? Can we call heroin use (and all the rest) a vice when we know that addiction is a mental illness? Is it offensive that we call heroin, and cocaine, and drinking, and sex, and shopping vices, when we know that neurologically they hijack choice in many people? Especially at the end when Mankind had no seeming free will left at his disposal? What does mental illness (Monster by Eminem. SAIL by AWOLNation) mean for our understand of the concept of “vice” and of free will?

    I think those are most of our guiding questions. I’m not writing at all to change your opinion about the show itself, only to share the questions and thought fueling the show’s choices and behavior. Thanks again for your thoughts too!

    • Hi Eliza! Thanks so much for your thoughts, I loved getting the opportunity to hear about the driving questions that fueled the work. Castle was such an interesting production that is really allowing me to think critically about this specific type of theatre.

      I have been thinking so much this semester about form and content in theatre and how they are intrinsically linked. It’s something I have become quite passionate about. As a director I can’t help watching shows and diving in to critically engage and this time, rather than a directorial standpoint, I was very much engaged by the play text (text including both written and physical scores). Some of the thematic questions you ask are so pertinent to our culture today and I agree, they certainly should be explored. What I think the production sparked in my mind was the interest to look into what theatrical form is most effective for today’s audience in discussing issues of morality.

      In my eyes, there were two strong ideas at play: the idea to work with the text of Castle of Perseverance, a unique theatrical experience, and the desire to explore and explode our modern day ideas of Vice and Virtue. Are they still relevant? How have they changed? What is their connection to our popular music?

      So much of what made the themes pop were the devised portions and musical additions. Sometimes I felt the structure of Castle of Perseverance itself was holding the production back from fully realizing some of their powerful ideology. In my quite basic understanding of the medieval era, in those days, there was a right and wrong. There was a correct answer at the end of the day. What I get from your comments is that the company discussed how this was really no longer true. I love your sentiment “I find it offensive that in the play we say that men wearing lipstick and women choosing to luxuriate in their sexiness are vices. Those things just aren’t vices today. In fact, they are often displays of liberty and choice.” Because it’s true! They most definitely can be displays of liberty and choice!

      I sat down and was entered into a form that seems to me to want the audience to come to an answer, but was met with content that left me with so many good questions. You ask, “Mankind doesn’t choose the virtue side ultimately, for a reason. What is it?” I don’t know! And I love that I don’t quite know and that I have to go home and think about it. I felt that the Morality play wanted us to know the answer, wanted for us to be able to go, well sin is bad and lecherous, let us find salvation in virtues. But the production ideology went so much further than that.

      Thinking now, I would be intrigued to see Castle of Perseverance used as a jumping off point to go in the direction of a more devised work. Something inspired by the concept of a morality play, something that loosely follows the plot of Mankind’s struggle with World, and allowed for these ideas that maybe our culture is compromising our free will. That the form would break out of the Morality play form and mold itself to fit this dynamic content.

      Thanks for an opportunity to explore form and content. I respect all the thought that has gone into this production and am excited about the possibilities.

      • I agree Laura! Working on it brought me to similar question about the fruitfulness of fully devising in order to investigate our moment vs the fruitfulness of the tension created by a “morality” text with a “morality?” lens. What does each do? Maybe to be explored in the future? Thank you! This is such a good discussion.

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