But what exactly IS The Second Shepherds’ Play? Continuing with our countdown to the first performance on November 27th, here are some thoughts on the play from adaptor/director Mary Hall Surface, including why she chose to this story to adapt and what makes this medieval mystery play so intriguing to modern audiences.
From Adaptor/Director Mary Hall Surface:
Thumbing through a thick anthology of English literature as a 14-year old, I discovered The Second Shepherds’ Play. While I struggled with the language, I loved the raucous comedy in the midst of a sacred story that I held dear. I vividly imagined medieval theatre makers taking their faith into the streets, delighting their audiences with a conniving sheep-stealer then inviting them to stand as hushed witnesses to the birth in Bethlehem. To me, this was theater at its best – where great mysteries were explored and celebrated on an immediate, human scale. I imagine such a theatre still. So I joyfully return to the Folger to bring this very old play once again to new life.
What distinguishes The Second Shepherds’ Play is how a farcical tale is inserted so remarkably into a biblical episode. We see through our laughter the holy family to come in the antics of a most unholy of families (the sheep-stealing Mak, the resourceful Gill, and their unwieldy “lamb” in the cradle). The audience of the day would have expected Mak to get his just reward for what was then a capital offense. But the writer of The Second Shepherds’ Play captures in Mak’s merciful fate the kind of grace that the shepherds, as well as the faithful watching the play, believed came down at Christmas.
The anonymous writer further shows his skill in developing three distinct personalities for his shepherds (unlike the more generic shepherds in other mystery plays and, indeed, in the Bible). Each has his own perspective on the injustices of the day. They tell us clearly that the world is out of whack. Coll grumbles about the inequities of the yeoman farmers, Gib grouses about the difficulty of marriage (an opposite picture of the selfless love to come at Christmas), and the young Daw complains of the mistreatment of servants by their masters. That these biblical shepherds are chronicling the woes of contemporary rural England and are able to walk from Yorkshire to Bethlehem was not considered anachronistic. For the play’s author and his community, Christ’s birth was not a past event but an ever-unfolding mystery, present in everyday life.
At this performance, in this place that is not unlike a medieval town square or banquet hall, we too are a community. We are bound as fellow travelers on this good earth and also by our shared faith in music, theater, and the imagination. Let us celebrate the light that can pierce the darkness and find in the warm heart of this midwinter’s drama all the mystery and joy of the season.
Click here to listen to Surface and Folger Consort co-founder Robert Eisenstein talk about staging the 2007 production.
Come see The Second Shepherds’ Play, November 27- December 21 at Folger Theatre. For tickets and more information, visit us online or call the Folger Box Office at 202.544.7077.