Reviewed by G.L. Horton
Langstaff conceived the idea for the Revels in 1956, and the form preserves the reverence for folk traditions and the optimistic belief in universal brotherhood that characterized the kind of left liberalism that found expression in the Civil Rights Movement. Cantabridgeans dress up as Polish peasants or Lapp herdsmen and perform songs, dances, stories and skits they have been taught by performers who are skilled in the particular tradition. They do so with a high level of musicianship -- but also with warmth, wonder, and great good cheer-- confident that a melting pot community can participate in the joys and sorrows of all its constituent groups. To quote from the Revels Newsletter, "Revels answers that submerged yearning for ritual and for the markings of ancient landmarks in human life that lie deep within us all ... all cultures throughout the ages are fed by the same river of myth, story, and song."
"The Midsummer Revels" are a recent addition, celebrating the Summer Solstice. They are held outdoors, this year on the beautiful grounds of the DeCordova Museum in Lincoln, Massachusetts. The 1997 theme is Ireland and the Celtic countries, with particular reference to the Irish Gypsies, the traveling Tinkers. The weathered wooden concert stage at the DeCordova was set like an encampment, with a Tinker caravan at one side and the Band of Tinkers with their instruments on the other. Master Bodhran drummer Mance Grady, sean-nos virtuoso Bridget Fitzgerald, "Keltic Kids" Granne, Daniel and Patrick Murphy, cloggers Lynne Dichter and Lily Kruskal, storyteller Michael Punzak and Padstow 'Obby 'Oss Steve Roderick were the excellent featured performers. The adult and children's choruses and instrumentalists added up to a cast of seventy --- easily the size of a gathering of traveling Tinkers. David Coffin acted as narrator and soloist, and he is an engaging performer, with a strong supple voice and diction that preserved the lilt of dialect while making all the meanings clear for American ears.
"The Midsummer Revels" supplied folk performance at a high level -- but for some of the crowd at least it failed to be the Christmas Revels miracle, never quite fusing an audience of individuals and families into an organic, if temporary, community. Down front were fans, deeply engaged, many of them clearly connoisseurs of Irish music and dance who knew the words of the songs in Gaelic and could appreciate the finer points of step dancing -- impossible, anyway, for that portion of the crowd who couldn't see the dancers' feet. (Step dancers keep the face and upper body rigidly immobile)
I and my family were seated near the rear of the pine grove that forms the DeCordova's natural amphitheater. Among the people sitting round me on the grass, three were reading novels, several were talking quietly with friends, and most were eating picnic lunches. Two were smoking, and from time to time people who objected to smoking would come over to try to persuade them to stop. The donkeys who played walk-on parts waited for their entrance cues in the aisle, and drew an admiring subgroup of petters and gawkers. Audience members were constantly getting up to go elsewhere, and blocking the vision of those behind them as they did so. Our six year old boy found this frustrating, and managed to sneak down front where he could hang on storyteller Punzak's every word.
This -- TV influenced?--informality is very different from the reverent behavior that prevails indoors at Sanders Theatre, though it is probably a truer representation of the sort of split attention that traditional street performers have had to learn to deal with. In a setting such as the Renaissance Faires that dot the countryside, the audience is able to move freely through the environment and award different sorts of performers differing measures of attentiveness. A serious silence forms around a lute-accompanied madrigal group, while the Singing Executioners or the Mud Wrestlers serve more as a backdrop for the crowd's own business, incorporating unruly hecklers and courting couples or fractious kids into their acts. Spectators are able to shape their own experience of the Faire's entertainment, to suit their own tastes.
At the De Cordova, such individualism seems to war with the primary Revels impulse, which is to bind performers and audience together into a single community under the spell of some ancient ritual--- appealing to basic and primitive emotional need but satisfying it in a positive, enlightened, uplifting, do-gooder liberal sort of way. I admire this impulse. When it succeeds, as it usually does at Christmas, my family leaves the Revels enlightened and uplifted, and I am sincerely grateful for the experience. I don't know whether the Midsummer event should be the same experience in a different season or something quite different: But I do believe that directors Patrick Swanson and George Emlen should give serious consideration to how the form of the outdoor Revels is altering the content.
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