As we enter a new year it is a time to look ahead with hope, and possibly longing. I do so having immersed myself in Jan Swafford’s biography of Beethoven, and try as I might I cannot find a way out of this enticing deep water unaided. So I will try by clutching at a straw provided by Daniel Barenboim in his remarkable television documentary on the nine symphonies of Beethoven. Like Swafford he sees them as part of a whole, each showing awareness of the road travelled thus far (by Beethoven himself as a composer, but also in the history of music including distinguished predecessors and contemporaries such as Mozart and Haydn), alongside a consciousness that they represent a personal journey reaching towards something beyond, perhaps unattainable. Beautifully apt in the light of this is the fact that the first symphony begins with a dominant seventh. This chord reaches out for, demands even, some form of development or resolution, and the ninth symphony with its Ode to Joy can be seen as the long awaited final cadence.
What has this got to do with letting children play a part? Well, as I intimated, I am clutching at straws, but it is a reminder that Beethoven always looked backwards with huge respect for those who had gone before, and yet was on a journey where the ultimate script (in the hands of fate) was his, rather than that of his predecessors or his benefactors. In this article, written on the threshold of January, I too want to look backwards to recent experiences as a basis for suggesting one or two ideas for the future.
In our extended family at Mill Grove, as in our western, British culture, December is a time of plays and drama. I want to highlight two types of performance that are uniquely popular in the season that spans Advent and Christmas. (I have made a new year’s resolution to use accurate rather than politically correct terms wherever and whenever possible: thus I do not refer to a “festive season”.) The first is the Nativity Play; the second, pantomime. Because both play a crucial part in the life and celebration of our residential community at Mill Grove, I am going to reflect on specific performances while seeking to draw more general conclusions.
The Nativity Play (to which I have referred in previous columns since 2000, including December 2014) is performed by the Mill Grove Pre-School, on a Sunday afternoon in the middle of Advent. In it the traditional Christmas story (drawn almost exclusively from an amalgam of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke) is enacted by little children. In our case the adults join in the play by singing several carols (including Silent Night, O Little Town of Bethlehem, and We Three Kings), while the children act a sequence of tableaux with occasional lines such as “Don’t Worry, Mary” (Angel Gabriel); “No room!” (Innkeeper), and sing Away in a Manger.
I do not know the roots and origins of Nativity Plays (and as I write I am in North Wales cut off from internet and the possibility of googling the question), but they have been around for at least two or three generations. And there is no obvious sign of their demise. Perhaps in an age where formal Christian belonging and belief are on the wane, and where corporate bodies and marketing machines are eager to fill the gap where meaning personal and communal is to be found, they are becoming more popular. I see no signs that they are about to be consigned to the dustbin of history.
On several occasions this Christmas I have asked children and adults if they can recall the parts that they played in nativities, and without exception people have remembered and relayed them to me with evident pride (yes, even shepherds and donkeys!). Naturally the plays are being adapted to modern contexts and technologies (I was told that the one at St Martins in the Fields in December 2014 was rather political for example), but the basic outline and content remain largely intact.
For many little children the school or pre-school nativity represents their debut on the stage, and in the public arena. But their involvement is also part of a bigger picture: they are connecting with a religious tradition and a communal event. They are in short being given an opportunity to find a role in the wider world, much to the pleasure of their nuclear and extended families (who attend such performances in large numbers). They are an active part of a process by which a valued tradition is passed on from generation to generation.
With contemporary means of filming and recording such events there is little doubt that every word and gesture will be available to future, as yet unborn generations. This is part of a person’s identity: their biography or story. And it will be treasured in a way not unlike that of the original Mary who “kept all these things and treasured them in her heart”.
Pantomimes have also become inseparable from the Christmas season despite a much less obvious connection with the Christian story. This year at Mill Grove it was Jack and the Beanstalk. The youngsters wrote, produced and performed a very gripping, witty and funny version of the story, complete with ugly sisters, and Claribelle, the beloved cow that appears in every production whatever the story-line.
It would not be Christmas at Mill Grove as we know it without a pantomime, and it is followed by a reflective time when we sing carols by candlelight, and light for the final time all the candles on our Advent Wreath. It is an unlikely pairing: two customary events connected only by place and tradition. But like Beethoven symphonies (I step into the deep water one last time) they go together because of their contrasting natures.
There is a programme available at the pantomime which contains among other things a list of the previous parts that children and young people have played over the years, and this was a subject of discussion following this year’s performance. Apparently some roles had been omitted this time, and I have promised that this will be rectified next year. Looking back I realise that some of the first performances were coterminous with nativity debuts, and that children have progressed through the ranks until they now play princes, princesses, heroes, heroines and even ugly sisters.
I realise on reflection that those who have been privileged take part in such plays have been blessed in numerous ways. Some I have tried to identify in this article, others can be deduced. They have brought pleasure even joy to significant others, and they have something behind them that they will always recall with fondness, perhaps pride. But they have been introduced to the very idea of role-playing: taking on themselves the role, character, stance of someone else, and trying to represent the world from their point of view. Andy there is a high degree of cooperation and teamwork which are the pre-requisites of creative social life.
If relationships are to develop and love is to grow, then something of this process (however it is learned) is necessary. And to do it at an early age in a nativity or pantomime when everyone is particularly receptive is an added bonus.
Just for the record, I played Joseph in my primary school nativity and I have one well-thumbed black and white photo to prove it. In the pantomimes I have played a variety of roles over the past fifty years, mostly minor roles, but rising to Ebenezer Scrooge when the person cast in the role fell sick just hours before the performance. We had to amend the character a little and he became a Times-reading miser, never separated from his newspaper (and script)!
So this article looks back to Christmas plays, recent and more historical. But how does it look forward? It does so by raising the question of how youngsters will be given opportunities in the current academic and calendar years to take part in significant performances and events. My hunch is that this element of social life is far more important for human and social development and for emotional intelligence than we recognise in academic curricula and communal planning and events.
Readers of this column over the years will know very well that I rate music, chess, sport, play and games, together with direct contact with the natural world very highly in the process of child development. What I want to make sure of is that drama, plays and the like are equally well respected and encouraged. And let’s not get out of festive, and into functional mode: it’s surely mostly about pleasure and enjoyment. Any benefits are bonuses.
Wishing you a very happy and enjoyable new year, and hoping that if you do not get a part in a play you will be able to watch offspring and friends from a good vantage point in the audience.