Christmas Revels – Looking Back and Looking Forward
You know how it is with family memories: along with the wonders and the warm fuzzies, there are the disasters. It was 1987; I was up in the Sanders gallery with two other members of the Revels team, checking out an evening performance. The set glowed, the chorus was singing beautifully, the audience was rapt – when suddenly a large white screen began to descend slowly above the stage. It stopped a few feet above everyone’s head, and hung there, a big white blank. The chorus hadn’t noticed, but the audience couldn’t have failed to.
“What the hell is that?”
We tore backstage. Nobody knew. The Thing hung over the stage for the rest of the act, with the cast trying to pretend it wasn’t there. Frantic phone calls to Harvard finally revealed that somewhere on the balcony, for the benefit of lecturers in pre-computer days, there was a remote switch to summon down the screen for showing slides or film. And the finger of some very small member of the audience, temporarily bored and unnoticed, must have found it. “Hmmmm…what’s this?”
Act Two went just fine. And maybe the audience thought the Thing had been part of the somewhat bemusing whole, because that year Jack Langstaff had enlisted Christopher Janney, David Moss and me to devise an experimental Revels on the theme of The Dark and the Light, and it wasn’t always, well, Revelsy.
But Jack had never liked to do the same thing twice, and his amazing successor Paddy Swanson is certainly of the same persuasion, and these days our audiences seem to be as well – though once, way back, they weren’t. For its first few years in the 1970s, Revels was decidedly medieval, full of early music, spiced with the Morris, The Lord of the Dance and the Mummers Play. Indeed it was always billed as such: A Masque of Traditional and Ritual Dances, Processionals, Carols and Drama. Then in 1977, Jack decided to do a Victorian/Edwardian Revels.
It was wonderful, and it was sure different. To the sound of haunting street cries, the Sanders stage gradually became a glowing Victorian London street, as a lamplighter strolled by lighting the lamps. There were familiar carols and rounds, Maggi Peirce and David Jones sang rollicking music-hall songs, and half of the beautifully gowned and tailored chorus danced the stately “Lancers ” to a medley of Sullivan tunes and then kicked up their heels in the once-scandalizing Bunny Hug and the Turkey Trot – led by Ronald Smedley, whom Jack had imported from Britain to co-direct. I contributed a ghost story/play about Jacob Marley (I wish we’d known then about that descending screen – we could have used it to fly the ghost) and a poem called The Shortest Day, which at first included two Victorian lines that have popped back only in the four similar Revels done since.
The feedback afterwards from the devoted Revels audience members showed that half of them loved it, and the other half hated the change. “That’s a healthy mix,” said Jack cheerfully, and next year he sort-of compromised with the first of the Haddon Hall Revels, set in a Derbyshire stately home. But the next year, Revels was French, and the year after that, Appalachian……..
I wrote words for Jack’s Revels for some 20 years until he retired in 1995. Once he even had me write the show as a kind of play; we called it The Storybook Revels and Hume Cronyn taped the narration. Years later I turned this into a little children’s book called The Magician’s Boy; it was dedicated “to Jack and his Revels, with love” and was published in 2005, the year he died. Working for Revels illuminated my life (though who knows what my devout forbears would have thought about the number of lyrics that I’ve rewritten to make them sound celebratory instead of specifically Christian.) And once you’re part of the Revels community, you never leave, of course. But I can’t tell you how grateful I am to Paddy for inviting me back into the production family for this Welsh Revels; it’s been wonderful, and I’ve loved it.
Home for me used to be the Welsh village of Aberdyfi ; this year my two children Jon and Kate (both in the children’s chorus of that first Victorian Revels) and I took their own children there for their first look. I think my favorite moment was calling at the little Tyn y Cornel hotel beside the mountain lake of Tal y Llyn, where when small I was taken for tea on very special occasions, and saying, “I’ve come to collect the cap and sweater that my American friend George Emlen left here last month.”
And although I find it very hard to imagine Revels without George, after he retires next year I plan on whispering to him at intervals. Please could we maybe write some songs together, or a choral piece……it wouldn’t even have to be about Wales……maybe it might fit into a Revels sometime……
Susan Cooper co-authored this year’s Christmas Revels script with Revels Artistic director Patrick Swanson.