The Simplest Moments are the Best

By Robert W. Bethune
ART TIMES Jan/ Feb 2010

As I write, I’m looking forward to the first performance of a Boars-head Festival pageant I’m managing for a local Christian college. It’s a grand celebration of Christmas, with a wonderful mish-mosh of Biblical, medieval, Renaissance, fairytale, and even sneaky bits of paganism, with Good King Wenceslas from the Christmas carol showing up at the Nativity and all sorts of music, singing, dancing, miming—or maybe mumming would really the be the word—all to help send the cold winter away.

This pageant has been going on as part of the holiday tradition at this college for over thirty years. It was based on similar celebrations at other colleges and universities, part of a tradition of such celebrations going back into the 1300’s in the world of Oxford and Cambridge.

Of course, the central spirit of Christmas (Black Friday and Cyber Monday notwithstanding) has to do with the birth of Jesus. From a Christian point of view, that means the celebration of the spirit of Christ coming into the world. Now, how would we perform that?

A long, long time ago, somewhere in the dim past of the Boars-head tradition, someone came up with an answer for that which is really a stroke of theatrical genius.

At the beginning of the performance, the lights go dim in the church. The pastor goes and stands by the altar. From the back, a little girl comes in, only about four or five years old. She’s dressed in white and gold and carries a lighted candle. She walks slowly up the aisle while soft chimes play. She goes to the pastor and gives him the candle. He uses her candle to light a candle on the altar, blows out her candle, and gives it back to her. She carries it slowly back down the aisle and out of sight at the back of the church.

At the end of the performance, the process is repeated with variations. She comes in from the back of the church, carrying the unlit candle. She gives it to the pastor, who lights it from the candle on the altar. He carries it back to the little girl. He bends down and picks her up. Together, they carry the lit candle down the aisle and out of sight at the back of the church. The symbolism is complete. The spiritual light has come into the church and then gone out again into the world.

This is a wonderful example of communication by pure theatricality. There are no words. There is almost no sound. There is an understood body of visual symbolism drawn on and set into physical action that communicates a highly abstract idea in highly physical, particularly visual, fashion. The performance is so simple that anyone, even a tiny child, can do it. It is rivetingly effective, even for people who aren’t particularly attached to the religious idea conveyed. The silence, the beauty of the little girl waling earnestly with her candle, the golden color of the flame, the white and gold of the costume, the simple ritual action of the candle passing back and forth and the lighting of candles—it all adds up to a moment of theater that is a conception of pure genius.

This is the ancient role of theater, the role that goes back to the dim prehistoric time of the shamans, that was the backbone of Greek and medieval performance. This is the art that comes out of the simplest means, the purest esthetic. In a world where complication, elaboration, the highest development of technologically supported spectacle is the rule, it is particularly satisfying to work with a performance so utterly simple, so devoid of pretentiousness. Perhaps this theatrical moment shows us what theater can be in the modern world. Can it not be the last refuge of simplicity?

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