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.