Our family has finally called it quits. We’ve folded our tents and abandoned the strip mall and peep show known as American television. We still have the machine in the living room, whereon we can watch Going My Way, with Bing Crosby as the “progressive” Father O’Malley, back when progressive meant that he took the street boys to the ballgame and then made a choir out of them. He could do that, because all the boys’ families knew one another and knew the priests. And the Irish policeman could bring the runaway lass to the church, because he knew, though he’d not been to Mass in ten years, that a priest rather than a social worker or a jail cell or a shrug was what the young lady needed.
The culture of that movie was Catholic, true enough. More remarkable than that: It was a culture. It was a way of life, cherished, inculcated in the young. People ate together, snooping neighbors patrolled the streets, and when the church needed to be rebuilt the parishioners came out to hoist the planks. Boys played stickball and dodged traffic; old ladies gave presents, even unwanted ones, to the pastor; the people sinned, but knew they were sinning; they came together to praise God, to marry, to christen children, to bury the dead, and to beg for mercy. They tilled the fields of the soul.
Shut your doors upon the tele-god, and you may find yourself accused of retreating from “the world” and of despairing that our popular culture can be redeemed. But show me where there is a popular culture to reject. Mass entertainment we do have, aplenty. Mass entertainment grinds our land flat, leaving bandstands and ball fields and public squares empty while people watch in isolation the games they do not play and listen to the music they do not sing. Mass entertainment dampens the heart; it keeps us content and offhandedly contemptuous of our forebears, for it likes to serve us new vices because they are new—or if not new, then packaged as new. It is crowd control for prisons. It is music at the mall to relieve us of our money. It does not arise from the people; it is dosed out to them. It cultivates no land, sows no seed. One cannot predict what it will be like after a single generation. It is culture’s solvent.
In 1215, to celebrate the resolution of a controversy regarding Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist, Pope Innocent III declared a new holiday: Corpus Christi. What happened then should astonish us. People across Europe greeted the feast not just with joy but with an outburst of grateful creativity so powerful it revived the drama, a form of art that had lain dormant since the days of Terence 1,400 years before. From Portugal to Poland, from England to the Alps, arose the tradition of staging town-wide dramas to celebrate Corpus Christi. Not single plays, put on by a few literate people on the holiday itself and attended by the town. That would be a bolder work of culture than we now know. Yet it was more.
Imagine that for weeks in advance, all the trade guilds and altar societies—carpenters, tanners, wheelwrights, blacksmiths, clerks—build floats and props and fashion costumes and prepare a sweeping pageant of plays (57 at York!) to be performed before all the people, proceeding from one end of the town to the other, from the Thursday of Corpus Christi to the eve of Pentecost Sunday. Imagine that these plays form a cycle to lead the players and the audience in a pilgrimage over the whole terrain of the Christian life, from creation and Adam’s fall to the last judgment.
Such an expression of Catholic culture you would remember till the day you died. And people did remember: Roles were passed down like heirlooms, so that as late as Shakespeare’s day everybody knew that Herod was a roaring bully and that devils are fundamentally stupid. But could only the rich towns afford it, or cosmopolitan places like London and Paris? Not so. A village called Wakefield staged a cycle of 32 plays, a tradition its residents maintained for more than three centuries. In 1377 the adult population of Wakefield numbered 567. That is what ordinary people of faith can do.
How good were the plays? They are not for people who read the New York Times. Their theology is too profound for such. They evince a deep belief in Providence, an abiding awareness that everything in place and time plays its role in God’s salvific order. Let us look at the most famous of them, the so-called Second Shepherds’ Play of Wakefield.
If you’ve ever seen a children’s Christmas pageant you have beheld an ember of that old bonfire. At Wakefield—imagine it outdoors, in the spring, on a float, with your noisier neighbors on stage, or sometimes the men of a traveling minstrelsy, strutting and bellowing—the play begins with a shepherd, alone, freezing, and complaining about more than the winter:
Lord, but this weather is cold, and I am ill wrapped,
My hands in frost’s hold, so long have I napped;
My legs they fold, my fingers are chapped,
It is not as of old, for I am lapped
But we simple shepherds that walk on the moor,
Are soon by richer hands thrust out of door;
No wonder as it stands, if we be poor,
For the tilth of our lands lies as fallow as the floor,
as you know.
We are so lamed,
overtaxed and maimed,
and cruelly tamed
by our gentleman foe.
Why begin a story about the birth of Christ with a British shepherd complaining about how British gentlemen beat down poor fellows like himself and the plowmen? Aren’t we 1,300 years too late? Well, no: The birth of Christ is an event in time, for all time. The people knew that. They knew, too, that Christ is the One whose birth Isaiah foretold, the shoot from the stump of Jesse, who shall “not judge by what His eyes see, or decide by what His ears hear; but with righteousness He shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.” That longed-for justice is one of the promises heralded by Christmas. For man’s sin sharpens the bite of the sleet; nor is the spring we await simply a change of seasons.
Now a second shepherd enters, to complain of one of the bitterer consequences of original sin:
But young men a-wooing, on God be your thought,
Be well warned of wedding, and think ere you’re taught!
“Had I known” is a thing too lately you’re taught;
Much bitter mourning has wedding home brought:
with many a sharp shower
what you may catch in an hour,
which shall savor full sour,
a lifetime to grieve.
That’s honest. I imagine that among those shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night there were one or two complaining about their helpmeets, as there were probably one or two of their helpmeets at home complaining about them. Is such strife fit for a Christmas play? The wise dramatist of Wakefield thought so. As the rift between rich and poor rends the body of Christ, so does the rift between man and wife; and maybe nothing is more divisive than that. But the play offers hope. We will meet two married couples: one, man and wife in sin; the other, those simple models for the Christian husband and Christian wife, into whose keeping the Father entrusted the infant Son.
The last shepherd to stagger on stage reads in the weather the dreadful signs of an apocalyptic sky:
Christ’s cross me speed, and Saint Nicholas!
Thereof I have need; it is worse than it was.
Who knows should take heed, and let the world pass:
It is doomed and decreed as brittle as glass,
This world fared never so;
as great marvels grow,
move us from wealth to woe,
the whole world withers.
The man is in the midst of a winter storm—it will remind him of Noah’s flood—and he thinks, justly so, about the end times. The world is dying, cries a Christmas shepherd to an audience living 1,300 years later. But he knows whereof he speaks. For those in his audience, as for us, the end is near; if it is not the day of the Lord that comes like a thief in the night, it is that day that will dawn for each of us, after which we will not see another dawn on this earth. He speaks truly in another sense too, one he does not suspect. The former things are even now passing away. At the birth of Christ, the world he knows has come to an end, and a new time has begun.
We might suppose that pious people in the Middle Ages would have portrayed pious shepherds holding hands and singing Dies est laetitiae on the hillside. Hardly. The Word is made flesh to dwell among sinners. That means shepherds, too. The third shepherd asks his fellows for a kind of Eucharist, a drink and a little bit to eat, and the first shepherd—who probably doesn’t have much to eat—responds, “Christ’s curse, you slave, you are a sluggish swine!” And maybe he is. Nevertheless, the shepherds make it up, and instead of brawling they while away the night with a song. It’s not perfect charity, and they’re not singing “Glory to God in the Highest,” but their song does suggest that glorious anthem they and the audience will soon hear.
The singing attracts a vagabond named Mak. He’s a clever (and probably Irish) devil walking the night: a swaggerer, a boaster, a hypocrite, and a thief, a thief in the night, a thief who steals sheep. The shepherds know him and are suspicious. One threatens to knock his teeth out. But Mak wins their sympathy by complaining about hunger and a wife at home who guzzles booze and “eats as fast as she can.” Apparently these are troubles the shepherds know something about, and their own suffering instructs them in mercy. Mak sums up his woes by wishing that he could pray for the repose of his wife’s soul—tomorrow.
Well, these are good shepherds, but not the Good Shepherd. They are middlingly innocent, but not wise, so they let Mak huddle at their fire, and they fall asleep. When they do, Mak rises to his work:
It is time now to strike ere the iron grows cold,
And craftily creep then into the fold.
He casts a sleeping spell about his friends, then steals a nice young ram, presumably one without blemish, and takes it home to his wife, Gill, who is as loudmouthed and conniving and hungry as he is.
A stolen sheep, a gluttonous husband and wife? Have the good people of Wakefield forgotten they were staging a Christmas play? But let us continue. Mak and Gill know that the shepherds will wake up and come looking for the lost ram. So Gill, daughter of Eve, conceives a clever plan:
A fine jest have I spied, since you think of none;
Here shall we hide him until they are gone,
In my cradle to abide, but let me be alone,
And I shall lie beside in childbed, and groan!
And Mak says:
I shall warn them that in the night
Was born a boy for our delight.
To which Gill replies:
Now I bless that morning bright
that ever I was born!
This is a cunning play and well cast;
What a woman may say can help at the last.
The audience should see how all of this fits, scripturally and theologically. Mak and Gill don’t know it, even the shepherds don’t know yet, but the Lamb of God will be born this night, born for our joy, to be sacrificed for our sins. He is the Lamb without spot who will prepare and even be the wedding feast to which He will invite His people, themselves His Church and bride; and He Himself will be not the hireling, but the Good Shepherd, the One who finds us, the lost sheep, and who will drive the wolf from the fold. And what a woman may say can help at the last—if the woman is Mary, saying, “Ecce ancilla Dei.”
Mak now tiptoes back to the shepherds and lies down, pretending to sleep, as if he’d never moved. When they wake, two of the shepherds cry that they have dreamed about Mak: one, that Mak has stolen a sheep; the other, that Mak was dressed as a wolf. The third shepherd, careless of anachronism, wakes up crying about Judas. All three dreams reveal the truth, but to deflect attention from himself Mak starts up with a nightmare of his own. Nor does he know how prophetic his lie is:
A dream sent from heaven
struck fear in my soul.
I dreamt Gill in her smock cried out full sad,
Gave birth at the first cockcrow to a young lad,
To add to our flock; then be I never glad.
Ah, my head!
These moans of hunger pains,
the devil knock out their brains!
Woe to him whose brood complains
of too little bread.
Mak runs home, where he and his wife—no doubt she is played in drag by a boozy miller—swaddle the ram in the crib, while the shepherds look about and discover that one of their rams is missing. One fellow thinks Mak must have done it; another thinks Mak’s innocent; but they all decide to pound on his door anyway, and when Mak opens, he begs them to be quiet on account of his poor, sick wife and his hungry family:
If ye knew her harsh lot, your hearts would be sore.
Your behavior’s a blot, here to rant and to roar:
Gill’s plight ye have forgot. But I say no more.
Ah, my middle!
I pray to God so mild, if ever I you beguiled,
that I should eat this child
that lies in the cradle.
No Eucharist, that. The shepherds have a look, then give up. They are not such bad sorts, and after they ask about the baby they take their leave, apologizing to Mak for their mistake. We see in them the beginning of charity; they are taking the specks out of their own eyes, and that enables them to take the log out of their brother’s eye. For they are even now being redeemed, though they know it not: Their very fellowship and their love, not their cunning, not their suspicion, thwart Mak’s plan. No sooner have the shepherds left the house than it occurs to them that they haven’t given the little boy a present!
So they go back in. One shepherd is about to offer sixpence, and boxed-in Mak is desperate for some excuse to decline the generosity and hustle the men out of the house:
Third shepherd: Mak, by your leave, thy son never
bar from sixpence.
Mak: Nay, go away, he sleeps.
Shepherd: I think he peeps.
Mak: When he wakes he weeps; I pray you go hence.
Shepherd: Give me leave him to kiss, and once lift
him out. What the devil is this? He has a long snout!
It doesn’t take the shepherds too long now to conclude that that is a sheep in there—this, despite Gill’s saying that he’s really a pretty little boy if you look close, and Mak’s saying that the lad’s nose was broken in delivery. What the shepherds do to punish this trespass shows that ours is a comic world, a world not of grimness but of merriment and mercy. Mak entreats them, and they relent; instead of beating him up, they tackle him and toss him in a canvas—a bumptious image of purgative penance. Once Mak has been knocked around enough, not permanently hurt, they make for their hills. In exhaustion they fall asleep, and are again awakened, not by a nightmare, but by a song:
Rise, shepherds, attend! For now is he born
Who shall fetch from the fiend what from Adam was torn.
That warlock to end, this night is he born.
God is made your friend; now at this morn
leave your flocks.
To Bethlehem go see
where he lies so free,
a child in crib poorly,
between ass and ox.
The “warlock” is Mak—or Satan—or all the sufferings that sinful man must endure because he has listened to Satan’s glamorous charms. All the evil that the shepherds have done or suffered has been conquered by the birth of a little boy who lies in a poor crib. As the shepherds set forth they proclaim the prophecies concerning the Messiah: that He would appear not to the rich, the powerful, the elite—or not to them first—but to “so poor as we are,” even perhaps to people as poor as the poorest of Wakefield. This they hear confirmed by the testimony of the very heralds of God.
The shepherds enter the stable at last. They see the true family, the true Lamb. Their response is humble and human. They give of themselves, little things from the life they know. No dissertations on theology; we have enough of those. No plans for reforming Jerusalem; we have enough of those. Their quaint and popular gifts—popular, for they come from the people—foreshadow the grand gifts of the three kings: a bob of cherries, a little bird, and a tennis ball.
How small, how whimsical! Yet the bob of cherries, red and green in the heart of winter, suggests the miracle of Christ’s resurrection, as do the holly and the ivy in the jaunty carol; the little bird suggests the dove, the Holy Spirit, and thus the deity of Jesus; and the ball for that royal game called tennis suggests this round globe, or the globe of the scepter the King shall wield. Cherries, bird, and ball; myrrh, frankincense, and gold; Christ who will die and rise again; Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God; Christ the King, yesterday, today, and tomorrow.
The shepherds give Mary a hearty greeting and leave, singing for joy. And this play, so lowly—as lowly as Scripture—but so unexpectedly profound—for its source, in letter and spirit, is Scripture—was, again, one play of 32 put on by the parishioners of Wakefield, every Corpus Christi, for three centuries.
Those people fostered a culture that would give rise to the most splendid flowering in the history of literature. For when movable type made books more common than ever, and when the crumbling of the Roman empire in the East flooded the West with Greek learning and Greek thought, the soil of poor backwater England was ready to yield a hundredfold. It was in England that the Corpus Christi plays enjoyed their greatest popularity and longest-kept tradition (they were finally suppressed during the reign of Elizabeth); so England had in place a vibrant popular drama, full of extravagant stage action—a sheep in a cradle, a con-artist tossed in a blanket, angels descending from heaven—and steeped in the timeless truths of the Christian Faith. When that popular drama merged with the new learning, England saw plays whose greatness has never been matched. Some of them were written by a fellow named Shakespeare.
Critics have shown that Shakespeare was indebted to the popular drama of the old Catholic culture: There’s a strong family resemblance between Mak and Falstaff. But his true indebtedness lay deeper than the rough-and-tumble stage business, or the burly and blustery man of vice. For Shakespeare learned the paradox of the message of Christ: that God has chosen the weak things of this world to vanquish the powerful, the things that are nought to bring to nought the things that are. It is not a message that has penetrated the New York Times. Listen to it in a scene near the end of King Lear. The proud king has been betrayed by the two elder daughters to whom he gave his kingdom, has been cruelly humbled, and is old and not sure of his wits. The youngest daughter, Cordelia, whom Lear had banished in a fit of vanity, has returned with an army to assist her father, whom his few loyal men find wandering the fields, bedraggled, ill, half-mad. They bring the old man, unconscious, to her tent; he is treated by a kindly physician, and amid gentle strains of music, he wakes:
Lear: Where have I been? Where am I? Fair daylight?
I am mightily abused. I should ev’n die with pity,
To see another thus. I know not what to say.
I will not swear these are my hands: let’s see;
I feel this pin prick. Would I were assured
Of my condition.
Cordelia: O look upon me, sir,
And hold your hand in benediction o’er me.
You must not kneel.
Lear: Pray, do not mock me;
I am a very foolish fond old man,
Fourscore and upward, not an hour more or less;
And, to deal plainly,
I fear I am not in my perfect mind.
Methinks I should know you and know this man,
Yet I am doubtful; for I am mainly ignorant
What this place is, and all the skill I have
Remembers not these garments, nor I know not
Where I did lodge last night. Do not laugh at me,
For, as I am a man, I think this lady
To be my child Cordelia.
Cordelia: And so I am, I am.
Lear: Be your tears wet? Yes, faith. I pray, weep not.
If you have poison for me, I will drink it.
I know you do not love me; for your sisters
Have, as I do remember, done me wrong.
You have some cause, they have not.
Cordelia: No cause, no cause.
The language is a thousand times more sophisticated than that of the shepherds’ play, but the vision is the same: the darkness of man’s heart, redeemed by what the world does not consider—a loyal young girl, a baby in Bethlehem. Has popular art been subsumed into high art? Not exactly. When Shakespeare wrote and directed and performed in King Lear, that was the popular art, the art not of university elites but of the people. And as far as Shakespeare’s art soars over that of the nameless weavers and turners of Wakefield, so far, if I can judge by our mass entertainment, soars theirs above ours. The art of the people—songs, games, stonework, poetry—is the culture’s soul. How can a Catholic who blesses himself with holy water and prays before a statue of Jesus forget that? If man is redeemed and blessed by the incarnate Christ, so must man’s art be redeemed; and I think it is with art as it is with souls, that the last shall be first.
Some Catholics may consider a truly Catholic culture, like that of Wakefield, to be beneath them. No doubt it is. But God chose the weak of this world to confound the strong. Then let us not wait for the approval of governors and their courts. The public squares are empty. Let us fill them, and celebrate.
Note: For information regarding the staging of the Wakefield plays, and for the translation above, see The Wakefield Mystery Plays, edited and with an introduction by Martial Rose (Norton, 1961).